Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Anna Kelley
The Poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: In “Processing” you write “not all deaths get to be good deaths.” In your opinion, what separates “good” deaths from “bad” deaths?
Anna Kelley: There’s a phrase I learned from books about funerary rites in Thailand, tai hong, that loosely translates to “bad death.” A bad death under this definition is premature, violent, painful. By contrast, a good death is marked by minimal suffering and takes place among family and loved ones. This makes sense to me.
We want all deaths to be good deaths. It’s why we trot out aphorisms like “everything happens for a reason” or “at least they had a happy life” when someone dies unexpectedly. In reality, they aren’t all good. No matter what views you have on fate or the afterlife, I think we can agree that there are pretty awful ways to die. Which is not to say that there’s always a clear-cut distinction. Farm animals present an interesting puzzle. If you take an intelligent animal like a pig, give it a few years of open-air roaming, then put a bullet between its eyes with the intention of using every scrap for a useful cause—is that a good death? It’s a better death than most pigs get, at least.
RR: In “Processing,” there’s a good amount of grotesque yet interesting imagery. How did you find that fine line for making horrific imagery seem poetic, instead of plainly graphic?
AK: It was important to me to be as accurate as possible when describing the routine of a home slaughter, especially since I don’t eat meat or any other animal products. (I’m probably the least qualified person to ever write a poem about pork processing.) I took time to read farmers’ blogs and watch butchery videos so that I could portray it with the nuance it merited. And while I was careful not to veer into out-and-out graphic imagery, I also didn’t want to glam it up too much. There’s only so poetic you can go when you’re talking about pulling the guts out of a dead pig.
That said, my predilection for anatomy may have snuck into “Processing.” Blood and gore doesn’t make me too squeamish. When we dissected frogs in my high school biology class, I was enthralled. I thought the way all the organs fit together was so beautiful—the heart, the little slivers of lungs, the intestines. Our insides are messy, but they’re also marvelously designed. They’re part of the natural world.
RR: How did the character Kate come about when you were developing this poem?
AK: Kate is a real person. She’s the head coach for my roller derby team, Assault City. There was this one practice where she told us about how she and her girlfriend helped their friend slaughter a pig in exchange for meat, and that’s what “Processing” is based on.
It’s difficult for me to write about people I know. It’s especially hard to write about someone like Kate, whom I love and respect immensely. I had to discern how much of the poem’s emotional impact depends on particular knowledge about Kate. Then I had to distill some of her most important qualities—her toughness and kindness and humor—into a few short lines. I wanted to establish a feeling of trust in “Processing,” a trust in Kate as both the storyteller and the butcher to carry the reader through an intense scene. A lot of literature uses scenes of butchery to reflect the violent interiority of whoever is holding the knife. That’s not what happens in “Processing.”
RR: We’re very fascinated with the idea of an “insistent history” that you bring up in this piece. What compelled you to link the subject of animal butchering with human processing and trauma?
AK: I went to grade school in small-town North Carolina, surrounded by people whose families had raised livestock and hunted for generations. As a younger person, I thought there was something gruesome about killing the animals you eat. But now I get it. Small-scale animal slaughter is more humane. And it follows to me that if you’re profiting from this sprawling history of animal breeding and birth and slaughter, you’d engage with it fully instead of buying your pork in a pearly-pink brick from the grocery store. We can’t keep on denying that we have emotional ties to the creatures with whom we share this planet.
There’s an exposé every other week about the horrible things that are done to animals in slaughterhouses. You read about workers who are caught in violation of a system that is inhumane to begin with—hurling live chickens at a wall, tearing out the throats of cows without sedating them, torturing sheep in front of the other members of their flock. I have to believe that these people hurt animals because they have an unexpressed hurt inside of them, and the animals are easy conduits for their pain. “Processing” explores the inverse of this dynamic. It’s about taking part in the butchery of an animal out of a sense of responsibility as a consumer of its meat. It’s about having the nerve to look our shared history with animals right in the eye. Literally.
RR: Given the themes discussed in “Processing,” we wondered if you might comment on the way meat is commercially packaged for the public, detaching the consumer from the actual process of obtaining meat from farm to supermarket?
AK: Sometimes I wonder if I spend too much time worrying about what the meat industry does to its animals. There are so many businesses that rely upon the exploitation or systematic violence done to humans, and it feels like my outrage would be better served elsewhere. But then I read about pigs being abused, or I watch a video of a Smithfield processing plant, and I think—nah. There’s enough outrage to go around.
One of the most damaging things done by the American meat industry has been to shroud the butchering process in secrecy. It’s totally removed from the average citizen’s daily life. We are not encouraged to connect the dots between the idyllic farms that appear in our media and the five-dollar hamburgers we can order at our local diner or fast food chain. As a result, there’s a perception that home slaughter is dirty work, or that there’s something uncivilized about it. People are likely to recoil or say, “Ew, that’s gross,” when someone talks about cutting their own meat. It’s disheartening because people who make that decision—like people who choose to adopt a plant-based diet—are helping all of us, both economically and environmentally.
There are plenty of folks who don’t have much of a choice at all. They live in food deserts, or they have allergies, or they simply don’t have the time and energy and money to plan meals that utilize locally sourced meat while adhering to their nutritional needs. I think that the true responsibility lies with corporations, and with those of us who have the power to make our lifestyles reflect a greater care for the wellbeing of our fellow terrestrials. We have more power than we know.
Anna Kelley’s work in Issue 4.2: