Howls of the past are echoing again thanks to Joanna Lilley

The England-born, Yukon-based writer has just released her third poetry collection, Endlings, in which each poem is inspired by a different extinct animal species. The passenger pigeon is there, as is the Labrador duck, the Chinese river dolphin and the great auk.
For Lilley the project is an extension of themes that have percolated for years.

“Animals often crop up in my poems,” she says. “I worry about how humans treat animals and I get very upset about animal welfare.”

So, is Endlings a condemnation of human greed and its consequential damage? Certainly that’s present, but it’s not the whole kit-and-kaboodle.

“About half the animal extinctions (I wrote about) were caused by humans, but the other half occurred due to natural causes.”

This may muddy the waters if you’re hoping for a polemic, but for Lilley it is also a pushback against anthropocentric impulses.

“It was about connecting with the animals,” she says. “I didn’t want it to be all about humans.”

It turns out connecting with extinct animals takes some doing.

“I went to a lot of museums. I went to the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. and the Natural History Museum in New York,” says Lilley. “I also looked at how other artists dealt with the subject.”

Extinction-themed art is a vibrant sub-genre, she explains. But along with the nitty-gritty of research Lilley also revelled in some flights of fancy.

“I got to imagine what an extinct bird’s call would sound like,” she offers as an example.

Though united by concept, the works themselves employ a variety of techniques.

“Some (poems) are from the point of view of the animal. Some are someone observing the animal. Some are little stories about how it went extinct.”

It is unfortunate that these poems have been released in an age when literary events are an endangered species. And Lilley is not immune to frustration.

“It’s very sad. I had a lot of events planned and of course I had to cancel them all,” she says, while noting that others are facing worse problems.

Still, all is not lost. The Pandemic Response Reading Series is the brainchild of Manitoba-based writer Lauren Carter, giving displaced authors the chance to present their  books online. Lilley was invited to participate and on April 22 she read from Endlings, and followed that with a Q & A. It is available on YouTube.

“It was fantastic to see people engage,” she says.

For Lilley it’s just another stanza in a poetic journey not near its end.

“I’ve found more and more solace in poetry,” she says. “It helps me process life.”

Given that, it is a smidge ironic that she has chosen deceased animals as her subject. Yet one suspects the xerces blue butterfly would approve. As would the lesser koa finch.

Endlings, published by Turnstone Press, is available at Mac’s Fireweed and a flock of online retail sites. Lilley’s critically acclaimed first novel, Worry Stones, is also available.

Joanna Lilley feels most herself when she’s writing

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