Gretchen Primack on Poetry, Veganism, and Her New Book

Poet, educator, and indie book seller Gretchen Primack has spent years advocating for the rights and welfare of non-human animals. Primack’s latest release, Kind, is a beautiful, absolutely necessary collection of poetry exploring the relationship between humans, the environment, and animals.

You currently teach poetry workshops to incarcerated persons. Do you find that there is any connection between our food system and our prison system? 

Gretchen Primack: Absolutely. I think both systems are very much about power and hubris–and how dangerous the two are when combined. As soon as we see some as lesser and some as greater, some as more worthy and some as less worthy, we’re in dangerous territory. Our prison system is the result of people thinking black, brown, and poor people are lesser; our food system is the result of people thinking (other) animals are lesser. The justice system and food system we would create without these huge power differentials would be completely different. If we have inherent respect, we don’t exploit the same way. 

The new release of Kind is a reprint, including several new poems and added artwork. What was it like to return to this book after several years?  

GP: An utter pleasure! I’ve been doing readings from Kind all along, so the poems were still alive for me, but the opportunity to transform the collection through new poems and new art gave me real joy. Lantern Publishing did a gorgeous job with it, and gave me freedom to create work and welcome artists that would add so much. 

There are so many wonderful poems in this collection. One of my personal favorites is “God’s Glory”, which emphasizes the need to recognize the value of all creatures – regardless of size. Where do you find inspiration? 

GP: I’m so glad you love “God’s Glory”! It’s actually the cornerstone of the collection, the first one I wrote for this book! I found inspiration for it in a sad true story. I was doing a month-long residency at an artists’ colony, tucked away in Vermont with several other artists and writers, when I overheard a fellow resident talking about the fact that he’d killed a mouse in “his” room the night before. I thought, your room? This was much more that mouse’s house than yours, seeing as you’ll be packing to go soon from this temporary residency; the other mice will be here after, down a family member because of your hubris and domination. (There’s the power I was talking about above.) I sat down to write and ended up with “God’s Glory.”

When I write, I’m trying to explore a situation’s dynamics through art.  In that case, I was moved by frustration and anger. Sometimes I’m propelled by other feelings: love, loneliness, grief, impotence, awe. Really looking at a leaf or a bird, thinking about the death of a beloved pet, brimming over with love for my beloved: all can lead to poems. 

The artwork throughout the book is beautiful. How did you select these art pieces to accompany your poetry? 

GP: Because I’m drawn to other genres as much as poetry, I’ve had the honor of knowing several vegan artists and having their art on my walls. I knew Dana Ellyn’s and Jane O’hara’s visions would make sense in conversation with these poems. The third artist, Gus Mueller, is…well…my husband! So in his case I commissioned pieces for specific poems (for the other artists, I chose existing pieces that harmonized). 

Kind by Gretchen Primack

What do you hope for readers to take away from Kind, particularly those that may be completely new to animal rights and veganism?

GP: I very much want people to think about what their choices around animals mean—where they come from, who they serve, how well they do or don’t reflect their values. We’re taught over and over, directly and indirectly, that other species are below us, that we deserve to dominate. That’s not true, it’s just what we’re fed, and for very good reason if we’re lazy thinkers or if we’re part of the power structures that rely on that premise (circuses, clothing companies, food companies, restaurants, grocery stores, pharmaceutical companies, I could go on). 

Imagine a world where we’re kind. Where we care about what our choices mean for other species. Where we put our energy into finding alternatives for the cruelty and environmental destruction that we consider normal. The world would be utterly and beautifully changed.

These poems yearn for that world. They undermine hubris and reach for humility and kindness. They envision that world, they illuminate it, they challenge the reader to imagine it, too, and be part of a transformation. 

Do you find catharsis in using your writing to promote animal rights? 

GP: Caring about animals can feel so overwhelming. I feel most at peace when I’m working toward a different world. Being vegan helps me in this regard, but so does writing and getting the poems into the world where they can be a small part of change, of an arc bent toward justice.

Any other books currently in the works?

GP: I’m so busy concentrating on this one, I haven’t turned my attention to new projects! But hopefully soon….

Any advice for fellow vegan poets? 

GP: Write vegan poems! All of us in the animal activism world need to use our skills, tools, and talents. If you’re a filmmaker, make vegan films. If you’re a plumber, give free plumbing to animal organizations. If you’re a PR person, do PR around animal issues. If you’re a poet, write vegan poems! Humans are complicated, so we don’t know what’s going to move a particular person and spur change. A documentary? A speech? A cooking class? A poem? We need all options readily available so that we can reach as many people as possible. 

Gretchen Primack is a poet, educator, and indie bookseller living in New York’s Hudson Valley. She has taught and/or administrated with prison education programs (mostly college) since 2006. 

She’s the author of three poetry collections: Kind (Lantern Publishing), which explores the dynamic between humans and other animals in our time and place; Visiting Days (Willow Books), which imagines a maximum-security men’s NYS prison like the ones where she’s taught; and Doris’ Red Spaces (Mayapple Press), a more personal collection; along with a chapbook, The Slow Creaking of Planets (Finishing Line). She co-wrote The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animalswith Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary co-founder Jenny Brown (Penguin Avery).