Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: “The Antlers” uses gentle and beautiful language to describe a bloody and, for some, a gross process. Can you talk more about the mingling of the gentle and grotesque?

Meg Muthupandiyan: I would say my work generally exhibits gentle restraint rather than the grotesque. I think this reveals more about what I perceive than what I see—I write a world where natural decay and natural growth are harmonized—co-determinate and co-existent.

The poem actually emerged in the wake of my own meditation one morning. Reflecting on patterns in my own consciousness, I wondered at how softly the bud of each thought formed, becoming the scaffold for another thought, and another. So many patterns emerged—fractal repetitions of old pleasures, and fears, and wounds—each seemingly calcified, but with attention and compassion, let go. The stag’s antlers gave me a structural framework to think about my own mind.

RR: Seeing a hart shedding and regenerating its antlers is something not many have the opportunity to witness. How do you decide on including images like this into your poems?

MM: I live in Wisconsin. Over forty percent of this wonderful state is forested. While deer have found suburban areas quite hospitable, most Wisconsinites will not witness a buck shed its antlers. I am one of them. I have found racks littered on the forest floor during my walks in late spring. They are parchment-colored and worn at the edges. When my children were young we would gather them and set them on the mantel or in the rock bed where the Hosta grow, letting them weather slow and casually treasuring them, as if they were old postcards written by mysterious others.

While I have never seen a buck shed its antlers, the process is quite natural to me, for we share a habitus. That is perhaps why it emerged as an associative image as I reflected on the structure of my own consciousness.

RR: On your website, you mention you are “passionate about creating space for people to contemplate art, poetry, and the natural world, both in and beyond the classroom.” Could you tell us more about your passion for the natural world and how it influences your writing?

MM: Oh. This may be a long one. “The Antlers” is largely a poem of interiority, but most of my poems spring directly from encounters with the natural world. I’m a walker, a pilgrim, actually, and on my often four-to-five-mile daily walks, I attend those small details in the land community that speak to me. Rain drops on goldenrod, the otherworldly call of a sandhill crane over the ridge, a fresh racoon print in a dusting of snow. 

Mary Oliver once said that attention is a form of devotion, but I think attention plays a much more fundamental role in our lives. All of our pro-social behaviors depend on our ability to be attentive. Loving. Defending. Celebrating. Nurturing. Teaching. Protecting. Grieving. We cannot exist in relationship with other people without attending them, seeing ourselves as relational to them, honoring their mystery. It is no different with the Earth; to exist in relationship with other lives in the land communities we belong to we need to learn the joy, pain, and long, sometimes boring or bewildering labor of simply being present, of paying attention.

As a teacher my goal is to draw others’ attention back into the center of the writing practice. As a writer it is to draw attention back to the land communities that we belong to and will, in the end, reclaim us for their own. It’s no small task. With the rise of digital culture, attention has become a commodity. In the age of artificial intelligence, I fear the existential value and meaning of human attention will become all but obsolete.

RR: We are interested in your public humanities project “Poetry in the Parks” and its collaborative films. Could you tell us more about these poetry films and how they might change people’s perspectives of our land?

MM: Ah, yes, thank you. Poetry in the Parks is a public humanities project which is evolving. Since 2019 the project has strove to bring nature-themed poems into the digital sphere through the creation of short poetry films. Each project is filmed in a specific park or communally held land. Each project is collaborative, bringing film makers, dramatists, poets, photographers together with people who just want to read and record a poem.

Each place has its own locus poetica, as the Romans called it—a poetics at work. Parks are a critical environment for building ecological awareness; both they, and poems, can help creators and audiences alike establish meaningful relationships with the land communities they belong to.

RR: When you’re not teaching, what other projects or forms of writing are you working on?

MM: It’s interesting—during the academic year I have very little time to write at all, but near the winter solstice, the pull begins. It is happening right now, in fact. As the days grow shorter and jewel toned, my interior life beckons, and I know it’s time to listen. That’s what writing is for me—a deep form of listening.

For the past several years I have been writing a manuscript exploring how pilgrims, through the course of their travel, can develop an ecological consciousness. It is a phenomenological study. While several essays have been published from the collection this year, it remains unfinished. I have received a George Greenia Fellowship from the Institute of Pilgrimage Studies, so I will be traveling to Spain next summer to continue my research. I anticipate the full manuscript will be done by the end of 2024.

I am also an illustrator and am currently illustrating the cover for my second volume of poems, Of the Earth and Other Desires. It was awarded the John Resmerski Manuscript Prize by the League of Minnesota Poets this past November and will be published in April 2024.


Read “The Antlers” by Meg Muthupandiyan in Issue 11.1.