Goats, Bees, and Poetry: A Conversation with Nickole Brown

A brown deer with white spots stands in the middle of a forest clearing. There are green trees around the deer that are illuminated by sunlight.

In October of 2023, I was given the chance to interview Nickole Brown, Black Earth Institute Fellow and author of several books of poetry including Donkey Elegies: An Essay in Poems. We discussed her ideas about speaking for the more-than-human world, her relationship with animals and poetry, and her upcoming Hellbender poetry conference.

Stream or download our conversation here.

Interview Highlights

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Heather Swan: One of the things that I want to say, for anyone that isn’t familiar with your work, is that you’ve been writing for a very long time. But for your last several books, you’ve been really focused on what you call the more-than-human being. Tell us a little bit about your relationship with animals.

Nickole Brown, author and Black Earth Institute Fellow.

Nickole Brown: Most of my career as a writer I was sorting through the detritus of my life. I grew up in Kentucky. And like a lot of people, my first poems were really sorting through my earliest years. What happened in 2016 was that I had this change in heart, and in different ways a lot of that had to do with a move to Asheville, North Carolina, which is a lushly green and welcoming place. I took a look at where I was in my life, assessed how much time I had left, and decided I would consign myself to joy. And nothing brings me more joy than to be among animals. And so I started volunteering at a farm sanctuary. I lent a hand at an equine therapy place when I could, I also started to help out when I could at a wildlife rehabilitation center.

I wanted to find a way to write about the more-than-human world and non-human world because I was tired of us, I was tired of my story, I was tired of the human story. And I also feel like every time I would step foot in the woods, and I would see a creature that I loved that I didn’t know before, I realized that they were in peril, as is most of animal life right now, insect life to plant life, all of it. And I wanted to try to find a way to turn my gaze that way, and not just speak about them, but speak for them.

HS: It’s a complicated challenge to write about this, more-than-human being. I think it would be neat for people to hear about the call that you just had for a journal because I think that one of the things that happened in that call is you are asking writers to attempt to do something that they hadn’t necessarily done before.

NB: The reason that I’m in Madison right now is I’m making my way to Black Earth. I’m a part of the Black Earth Institute. And as part of that three-year fellowship, one of the responsibilities is to edit an issue of their journal, About Place. And I partnered up with a wonderful poet named Erin Hollowell, who’s an Alaskan poet and she feels about animals the same way I do.

I wanted to find a way to write about the more-than-human world and non-human world because I was tired of us, I was tired of my story, I was tired of the human story.

One of the things that Erin and I were talking about was that there were things that bothered us about the way that a lot of people write about animals. And I think it reflects much of Western colonial history in that the representation of non-human life and literature parallels the treatment of those beings in real life. Meaning that we’ve used these beings just as we’ve seen fit, which is generally for profit, and for consumption. And in literature, this means that they’re generally parceled out in like-minded ways. They’re used as metaphors for how we feel, they’re simplified into symbols. They’re anthropomorphized into these cartoon-like replicas of ourselves, or else, they’re just props, they’re two dimensional, they’re background figures, they’re denied their own sentience and emotion.

What Erin and I wanted was a call for a collection of voices that attempted to remedy that. There are a lot of different approaches, but essentially, what we were looking for was work that decentered the human story. So, you abandon that typical point of view where we come first and our story is first, to say: Who are you? What are you trying to say to me? Are you trying to say anything to me, but what are you trying to say? Can I pay deep attention to you? And what can I learn? And the response we got was phenomenal. We got in about 930 submissions, which just filled me up and I was exhausted. But I was filled up in this beautiful way to see how many people wanted to try that and did so in a successful way.

HS: I think that what’s incredible is that you are a dedicated writer, you’re a dedicated teacher, but now you’re going to be running a conference an eco-poetry conference, and the title of it is the “Hellbender Gathering of Poets.” Tell us about Hellbender.

NB: First of all, Hellbender is the reiteration of what was the Palm Beach Poetry Festival that was founded by an incredible man named Miles Kuhn. And Miles has passed on. But before he did, he reached out to me and asked me to run the Palm Beach poetry. And he had just this deep and abiding love for poetry. We had a lot of talks before he passed, and he invited me to re-envision his festival that he had run for twenty years—and re-envision in a way in which I could take it on and make it into something that filled me.

For me, nothing was more important than speaking about what is happening to our planet. And I wanted to hold true to the idea of it being a poetry festival, a top-notch poetry festival in the way that Miles always ran the Palm Beach Poetry Festival. But I would turn it into an environmental poetry festival. And I also am moving it. It’s going from South Florida to Black Mountain, North Carolina, which is right outside of Asheville.

The Hellbender, for those of you who don’t know, is a giant salamander. There is no salamander that rivals in size except for one in Japan. And it’s an Appalachian salamander that lives in the waterways of the mountains. And they’re amazing, very bendy. They are our last dragons in some ways. They’re extraordinary-looking, if you can look up photos of them. They’re also an indicator species. When you have water that has agricultural runoff, when you have water that is the wrong temperature, all of the things that could happen when you have tourists, bless their hearts, when they get in the waters in North Carolina and they move the rocks around and make their cairns—they don’t mean any harm, but they’re killing the salamanders. So, they die very easily, and they indicate to you if you have a healthy ecosystem, like so many other creatures that are dwindling. And yes, I wanted it to sound a little bit like a motorcycle rally, but I also wanted something that spoke to the place, to the mountains, to western North Carolina, but also that turns an eye to what’s happening.

a salamander caught in two hands
Hellbender in hand. Photo by Gary Peeples/USFWS, 2013.

HS: I feel like I’d love to end on something that is actually a controversial topic. And that is, we’re in this dire moment and many people will feel that we’re in an apocalyptic moment. But where do you find hope? What is hope to you?

NB: One of the things I’ve found the most helpful during this time is to think about hope in the same way that you might think about courage, meaning that I am terrified, I am afraid, I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I move forward with courage. So, it’s something that you do, but not necessarily something that you feel. If you think of hope as something that propels you forward in a time of despair, in a time of hopelessness, then it changes.

One of the best examples I have had of hope is from Animal Haven of Asheville because I have seen time after time after time where an animal will show up. And we know for a fact that that animal is not going to make it. We just know. They’re riddled with worms. They’re weak. They haven’t gotten the proper nutrition. They’ve been neglected, abused. We bring in the animal, we make sure they’re comfortable. We give them food, we give them water, shelter, medicine, everything we possibly can up until the moment when either they die on their own or unfortunately, the vet will come in and euthanize them, which is not something that we like to do at all, but it … it’s a lot like love. It’s making hope into a verb.

There’s this fantastic book by Rebecca Solnit called Hope in the Dark. And the subtitle is Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. It came out in 2004, which seems quite a long time ago now. But Rebecca makes the case for hope as a verb. I’ll share with you this quote here from Rebecca and she says, “Hope is not a lottery ticket. You can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future, away from endless war, from the annihilation of the Earth’s treasures in the grinding down of the poor and marginal. To hope is to give yourself to the future. To hope is to give yourself to the future. And that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.” And I love that quote. It’s kind of long to tattoo on my body. Oftentimes we think of hope as this passive emotion. Oh, I kind of hope. No, I hope. And I will step forward with love and with action even when I’m exhausted.

HS: And you do over and over again, Nickole Brown. It’s been really fantastic talking to you today. Thank you so much for being here and for sharing your ideas with the Edge Effects audience.

NB: Thank you. Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

Featured image: Deer in woods. Photo by Siska Vrijburg, 2017.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Nickole Brown is the author of Sister, first published in 2007 with a new edition reissued in 2018. Her second book, Fanny Says (BOA Editions), won the Weatherford Award for Appalachian Poetry in 2015. Currently, she teaches at the Sewanee School of Letters MFA Program and lives in Asheville, NC, where she volunteers at several different animal sanctuaries. Since 2016, she’s been writing about these animals. To Those Who Were Our First Gods, a chapbook of these first nine poems, won the 2018 Rattle Prize, and her essay-in-poems, The Donkey Elegies, was published by Sibling Rivalry Press in 2020. In 2021, Spruce Books of Penguin Random House published Write It! 100 Poetry Prompts to Inspire, a book she co-authored with Jessica Jacobs, with whom she co-founded the SunJune Literary Collaborative. She’s also the President of the Hellbender Gathering of Poets, an annual environmental literary festival set to launch in Black Mountain, NC, in October of 2025. Contact.

Heather Swan is the author of the poetry collections A Kinship with Ash and Dandelion (Terrapin Books) and the nonfiction books Where Honeybees Thrive and the forthcoming Where the Grass Still Sings (Penn State Press). She teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Contact.