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Life on the Deckle Edge

Poetry Friday - Robert Epstein Discusses Animal Rights Haiku

Greetings, Poetry Month Celebrants!

I’m happy to share space here today with Robert Epstein, a California haiku poet and anthologist who is also a licensed psychotherapist. I mentioned his new anthology, Every Chicken, Cow, Fish and Frog (Middle Island Press), compiled with clinical psychologist and animal rights activist Miriam Wald, Ph.D., back in December, when I shared the poems of mine that appear in it. I promised more with Robert soon, and here we are!

Before the anthology, Robert also released a personal collection from Middle Island Press, Turkey Heaven: Animal Rights Haiku. I was delighted about the appearance of both of these books, as I’ve been an “ethical vegetarian” for nearly 30 years.

Next weekend is "HONORING THE EARTH" - the Earth Day weekend Haiku Society of America meeting and conference I’m coordinating in St. Simons Island, Georgia. Though Robert can’t join us in person for that, I look forward to introducing these two books to our attendees. And I’m happy to share a Q&A with Robert here today.

--First, a little background. How and when did you find your way into compassionate living - considering the plights and lives of nonhuman animals as well as your own?

I can explicitly pinpoint the moment: In the Summer of 1975, my former girlfriend, Sherry, and I attended SUNY at Albany, NY. We shared an apartment with a young woman who described herself as a vegetarian, although I later found a jar of dried anchovies she kept in the pantry. One evening, I was preparing Hamburger Helper in the kitchen, when she sidled up to me and asked in a provocative tone of voice: “What are you having for dinner tonight, cow?” Even though I knew very well where hamburger came from, the question struck me like a thunderbolt. Without doubt, this moment led to the birth of my spiritual and ethical consciousness as well as a life-changing turn or transformation. Sherry and I spent the next month engaged in earnest soul-searching and self-questioning. By the end of the summer session, both of us had resolved to give up meat, chicken and fowl. Sherry and I diverged when it came to animal by-products: I felt that, in order to be fully congruent, I also needed to give up all animal by-products of any kind. In other words, I decided to become vegan. That was nearly forty-two years ago.

After Sherry and I graduated college, we moved to Washington, D.C. and worked every day for the next six months at the Library of Congress, collecting original writings on vegetarianism throughout history. We collected these writings into an anthology, which we hoped to publish but, alas, the publisher ultimate canceled the contract we had signed, contending that he didn’t care for the brief introductions we provided for each selection. I have no regrets whatsoever about working on this project, because all the reading I did during this time intensified my commitment on behalf of animal rights to the level of conviction, which has remained steadfast and unwavering since 1975.

I should add that, even though the radical dietary change I described above didn’t happen until July, 1975, I learned early on about compassion through the puppy my parents allowed my sister and I to bring home in August, 1961, after dutifully making our beds for several months. It was Corky who, along with my dear maternal Grandmother, taught me the true meaning of love. A month before he died, I had a short dream: Corky and I were jogging toward the freeway entrance near my parents’ house. As we were about to enter the freeway, Corky veered off to the right and, as he leaped effortlessly over a chain link fence, he turned to me and said: “We must continue on, lovingly.” The dream required no interpretation. Much later in life I described Corky as the first buddha I ever met, and I meant that.

Except when he was inside and had free rein of the house, Corky was throughout his life always on a leash or chain outside our home. One day, when Corky was getting on in age, I wanted to see what he would do if I inconspicuously unhooked the end of the chain that was attached to the house. Corky wandered in the front yard only so far as the chain would ordinarily allow him to go and no further. I was deeply disturbed by this: In addition to seeing just how much we had limited Corky’s life, it dawned on me that we likewise tend to live out our lives constrained by invisible chains of our own making. When Corky died a few years later at the age of 17 1/2, I vowed never to “own” a pet again, regarding it as a form of slavery (however benevolent) and
inhumane. That said, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should acknowledge I did accept from a dear friend the gift of Perfect Polly––a plastic parakeet that needs no cleaning whatsoever and who tweets and shakes her head whenever anyone walks by her. In addition, this same friend thought I would do well with a furry companion animal, inspiring the following Frogpond haiku back in 2013:

basset hound her gift to me imaginary

Ironically enough, as compassionately committed as I was to alleviating animal suffering from 1975 on, it took me many more years to extend loving kindness and compassion to myself. The many reasons for putting myself out of my own heart for so long is beyond the scope of our exchange, but I did eventually arrive at a place of self-healing where I felt (for the most part) no less deserving of compassion than the nonhuman beings I care so much about. Though I am not a Buddhist, Buddha’s teachings most certainly helped a lot to bring me to a place of greater self-caring.

--What makes poetry a good vehicle for exploring animal rights, and haiku in particular?

I regard poetry in general, and haiku poetry in particular, as a vehicle for truth. While I certainly value the prose that many animal lovers and advocates have published since Pythagoras and Buddha spoke out on behalf of nonhuman beings, there is a quality of emotional truth which haiku gives voice to that confronts readers in a penetrating way. Haiku is brief, spare, unadorned; as such, the reader has nowhere to hide. He or she is drawn into the poem and the reality depicted in the poem. Insofar as the reader is at all sensitive––and I contend that we are all sensitive beings by nature––haiku affects the heart as well as the psyche. An excellent example is Allan Burns’s poem, which is to me unbearably poignant:

a caged chimpanzee
injected with hepatitis
signs hello

--As you wrote and put together the poems for your collection of original haiku, Turkey Heaven: Animal Rights Haiku, what did you learn about your own journey?

You are asking a great question. I honestly don’t know. Many years ago, I had done a fair amount of prose writing on behalf of nonhuman beings, but for a long time I had become a more quiet vegan and animal rights advocate. I resonated with Gandhi, who said: “My life is my message.” In other words, embodying the vegan way of life is the essential message I wish to convey. Despite what one reviewer of Turkey Heaven contended, I am not in the least interested in proselytizing. Truth needs no preachers or missionaries. However, as Zen teacher, Katirigi Roshi, observed: “You have to say something.” I’ve written animal rights haiku forty years (mostly for myself), but collaborating with my dear friend, Miriam Wald, on the animal rights
haiku anthology inspired me to turn my attention in a more focused way on the theme. I found that I wanted to communicate through the medium of haiku my love for nonhumans and my distress for their unspeakable suffering. Miriam encouraged me to collect my own animal rights haiku into a book, and so I did. I guess I reconfirmed that, despite nearly 42 years as a vegan for spiritual and ethical reasons, I am no less passionate today about it than I was when my consciousness first awakened to the suffering and mistreatment of countless numbers of nonhuman beings in the Summer of 1975. Finally, to state the obvious: Turkey Heaven also reflected the integration of two great passions––the vegan way of life and haiku. This creative process in itself was very gratifying and fulfilling.

--For Every Chicken, Cow, Fish and Frog – Animal Rights Haiku, you collaborated with Miriam Wald to present poems from 170-plus poets from around the world. (That sounds daunting!) From my perspective, these diverse perspectives blend beautifully inviting readers to ponder human/non-human relationships. Did you and Miriam each have a particular sensibility you brought to the table?

Miriam and I love each other very much; our friendship goes back more than thirty years. Both of us clearly recall an afternoon we spent getting to know one another at a vegetarian restaurant in Berkeley near our graduate school that is long gone. I was thrilled to see Miriam come to an awareness of animal suffering in her own time without any prompting from me whatsoever. She has become a deeply committed animal rights advocate and ardent activist over the past several years; in her own backyard in Sonoma County, she has built a mini-sanctuary where she lovingly cares for rescued animals, and this has become her central calling in the second half of her life.

Philosophical differences emerged during the course of working on the animal rights anthology together. Because of our mutual love and respect for one another, we talked through these differences with care and affection; that in itself was remarkable to me. In particular, I am not inclined toward activism like marching or boycotting, leafletting, etc. I respect such means, as long as they remain peaceful, but these forms of activism are not my way. For Miriam, actively educating the general public and engaging in nonviolent protests that include the aforementioned are urgent and essential. She asked, and I agreed, to include a disclaimer in the Introduction I wrote for the anthology, that clearly distinguished my views and hers on this matter. I
understood Miriam’s perspective and was happy to accommodate her request. I too needed to make clear it is a strong conviction of mine that one’s relationship to nonhuman suffering is a matter of individual conscience. Even though I would love nothing more than to see meat-eating and pet ownership abolished forever (to take only two examples), I strongly object to applying any kind of pressure on anyone with regards to giving up meat-eating, animal research, or hunting for sport or pleasure.

--What did you two want to accomplish with this book?

I think one of the main aims in publishing the book was to gather under one big tent the poetry and art of contributors from around the globe. We wanted readers to see that people everywhere care about animal rights and animal suffering. Miriam and I were both moved and inspired by the depth of passion and commitment on the part of poets from every corner of the globe. It was Miriam’s idea to identify the country of residence for each contributor. While I don’t personally place much stock in national identities, believing that nationalism is a major source of prejudice and violence, I fully appreciated that Miriam wanted fellow contributors and readers to see how the heartfelt desire to alleviate nonhuman suffering is universal in scope. The other main aim in publishing the book was to utilize the medium of haiku poetry as an additional vehicle for calling attention to the plight of nonhuman beings in addition to prose writing, documentaries, legal action (law suits, legislation), and so on. Miriam especially wanted the book to galvanize readers into making concrete changes in their lives to improve the lives of nonhuman beings.

--You share abundant resources for more information about animal rights and veganism in both books, and several lists in Every Chicken, Cow, Fish and Frog. What advice do you have for folks wishing to explore these issues, who might feel overwhelmed? Where should they start?

Miriam and I included the Resources sections because we recognize that readers who may be interested in making personal changes in their lives might be unsure where to start. When Sherry and I decided to make a radical change in our way of living, there were few supports at that time. We somehow found out about the American Vegan Society, and made arrangements (as nearby New Yorkers) to visit the co-founders, Jay and Freya Dinshah, in Malaga, NJ. They were gracious enough to meet with us and that meeting was critical at the early stage of our vegetarianism: Freya had published a vegan cookbook, which became Sherry’s go-to source for experimenting with vegan dishes. Jay was a prolific writer who provided a bibliography and a newsletter on various topics related to animal rights and veganism, which we devoured (no pun intended). I am happy to report that the American Vegan Society (AVS) is very much alive and well; they have a website as well as a periodical with lots of helpful information for those starting out on the vegan path. But, there are literally dozens of additional local and national organizations who provide guidance, moral support, education as well as forums for activism. A partial list, as you mentioned, is included in the back of our anthology. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is another prominent organization that caters to people who want to help alleviate animal suffering. It’s easier than ever to embark on a more compassionate way of living in relation to nonhuman beings with whom we share this world.


Here are a few of Robert’s poems:

a walk in the rain
returning worms
to earth

eating veal
what a small space she allows
for thinking

dead bumblebee
a neighbor boy empties
a matchbox for it

Poems from Turkey Heaven ©Robert Epstein. All rights reserved.

tusk tusk
can you hear
the reproach

From Every Chicken, Cow, Fish and Frog ©Robert Epstein. All rights reserved.

MANY thanks to Robert for joining us today and offering such thoughtful ideas and poems.

Can you believe we’re almost half-way through National Poetry Month? Perhaps like me, you already have some catching up to do! By all means “come as you are” and enjoy all the offerings rounded up for us this week by our beautiful Doraine at Dori Reads.
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