“As a writer in the rust belt, I’m quite aware that being a writer is a strange and privileged way to spend time.”

By Jake Maynard 

As an undergrad at Hiram College in Ohio, I was lucky enough to take my first creative writing class with poet and essayist Mary Quade. I remember visiting her office in the quaint century house that served as the writing department—creaky old chairs, books to the rafters, an empty La Croix can abandoned on a stack of ungraded essays—and telling Quade with embarrassing sincerity about all the brilliant art I planned to make as soon as I got this whole college thing over with.

She said something like, “the thing about you, Jake, is that you want everything right now.”

Thirteen years later, I remembered that small moment while reading her new essay collection Zoo World, published in September by Ohio State University Press/Mad Creek Books. For Quade, the author of two previous books of poetry, this book is a long time coming, containing essays written between 2010 and 2021. But more than that, Quade’s essays unfold with a Sunday morning sort of ease. Whether she’s writing about the rural Midwest or Mexico, the threads of meaning emerge at their own pace, warming the reader to her central point before casually offering an observation so astute that you have to put down the book and go look out the window for a minute. The art of looking is central to Mary Quade’s work. So is the art of patience.

In Zoo World, Mary Quade acts as a “girl-guide transcendentalist,” taking us from her farm in Ohio to a snake farm in Vietnam to the Galapagos Islands, exploring the troubling ways that we as people take domain of the world around us. Its well-tread territory, but Quade’s observational humor and humility set Zoo World apart. “I put out a small roasting pan for them to swim in,” she writes of the ducklings on her farm. “Ducks are insensitive to irony.”

The moments of insight strike the same disarming tone. In “Cage,” a meditation on captivity, she writes: “The burden of being caged is on the caged. The burden of the cage is on you.”

Over Email, Mary Quade and I discussed teaching, writing, living in the rust belt, and the enduring power of travel. A condensed transcript of our discussion is below.

JM: I want to start where Zoo World starts: the dedication. It reads, “For my students—whose words mean hope.” As a former student of yours, I’d like to ask what you mean by that, and why you decided to dedicate this collection to your students. How do your students’ words, or anybody’s for that matter, signify hope? And hope in what?

MQ: For me, teaching is about hope, because if I didn’t believe my students could effect change in the world, then why would I bother. I’m a skeptic about many things but working with people younger than I am saves me from unrelenting despair about the future of the planet. A number of essays in the book discuss language, translation, and what it means to communicate—or fail to communicate. I intended the dedication as a nod towards that way of meaning. But through their writing and through our conversations my students have also taught me much about empathy, diversity, flexibility, compassion, vulnerability, resilience, and humility, and those qualities seem to me to be what will save us from our worse selves, from continuing the violence we’ve already committed against one another and the earth. They give me hope that humanity is in fact learning to be better and intends, means, to be more careful in order to survive.

JM: Broadly, the book is an examination of the way that we, as people, have turned the world into a zoo, claiming dominion of the land and everything that inhabits it. But Zoo World isn’t just a useful metaphor; you’re also looking literally at animals in captivity. With that in mind, tell us a little about how the book came together, and whether the idea for this project preceded your visits to the zoos, animal sanctuaries, and farms that appear in the book. Said differently: did you always see these essays as connected, or did the book come together less consciously?

MQ: I didn’t set out to write a book. I was just writing essays about things that interested me, and somewhere along the line I realized it was a book. I think every writer has a pile of preoccupations they sift through again and again to build things, kind of like Lego blocks, and apparently this is my pile. I’ve always been fascinated with zoos in the “drawn to/repelled by” way. Not surprisingly, I’m also someone who is a little obsessive about collecting, not things, but types of experiences that I can compare to one another. For instance, since January 2018, I’ve taken photos of Lake Erie from the same exact spot several times a week, year round, except when I’m traveling out of town. In the photos, I can see how the lake changes over time, from water level to ice coverage to shoreline shape. Zoo visits are one thing I collect, which I guess means I collect visits to collections. Another thing I collect are sandwiches; I like to try a place’s local sandwiches when I travel, though I haven’t written that essay. Both zoos and sandwiches, in some ways, mirror the values, resources, and culture of a community and also reflect how people feel about the role of nonhuman animals in their lives.

There is stuff every zoo-like place has in common, like cages and paths and signs, and then things diverge in interesting ways. Museums are also a collection I collect. I’m interested in how we memorialize what we’ve lost to wars and atrocities, but also what we’ve destroyed, like species or cultures or elements of the landscape. To come back to your question, at some point I saw that the book was a collection of collections I’ve collected.

JM: The Kirkus Review of Zoo World says, “Quade acts like a teacher, leaving some of the work to her audience.” I thought that was true enough, at least because your writing resists giving the reader easy answers about pressing environmental questions. But I was also left wondering if this a conscious decision on your part. Are your essays intended to teach? Is your writing an extension of—and maybe the inverse is truer here—your work as a teacher?

MQ: To be honest, I’m still trying to figure out what the reviewer meant by this, but I like your take on it. As teachers, we’re told it’s best in a discussion not to ask leading questions, questions you as teacher already know the answer to, and I try not to because it makes discussion dull for me, and probably the rest of the class. So if acting like a teacher means bringing up questions I don’t already know the answer to, then yes, that is the intention of the essays.

My teaching and writing are, at least while I’m still teaching, inextricable from one another, because they’re both about language and problems and the stuff around us. That’s what I want to discuss in class and that’s what I explore in writing, and they feed each other.

JM: One of the joys of this book is the juxtaposition of seemingly dissimilar things and places. Many of the essays braid multiple narratives, like “Hatch,” which is about raising ducks in Ohio and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Why is the braided approach to essays your go-to?

MQ: Some were products of circumstance, such as the one you mention. I was following the oil spill on the news as I was handling this one persistent duckling who was clearly injured and ailing but wouldn’t die. The two struggles felt related. But for others, the threads just emerged as I wrote the essays. Writing about my high school bug collection, for instance, I read the name “true bug” and heard an echo in my head of the Nicene Creed, “true god from true god,” from confirmation classes I had taken around the same time. Walking through the classrooms of the former Tuol Svay Prey High School, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum memorializing the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, in Cambodia, I couldn’t help but think of my own classrooms and other kinds of violence we have in the United States. When I was writing and researching “Steel: Products of Cleveland,” I kept coming across odd overlaps between the threads; one of my favorites is the inverted number 5 on the Thunderbird’s F-16 fighter plane and uniform for the lead solo pilot, who flies upside down in formation, which looks rather like our hero’s insignia.

Maybe it comes from being a poet, but I like to see where these synchronicities or moments of intuitive connection take themselves, how they inform one another.

JM: Between the discourse about cultural appropriation, reckoning with colonization, awareness of carbon footprints, etc., travel writing seems to have gotten a bad rap. What makes travel writing still worth pursuing as a writer? As a reader? And how can travel writers do better by the places they visit?

MQ: I’m not sure if I’m a travel writer, but I’m a writer who occasionally leaves where I live and in those places I visit find things I want to think about and write about. Putting together these essays, I worried about all the things you mention and my own participation in them, and I hope that comes through in the writing, that awareness that travel can be damaging and invasive and acquisitional. I remember once listening to some other guests at my friends’ inn in Mexico talking about places they’d visited, and this one guy was saying, “I’ve done Turkey. I’ve done Laos. I’ve done Argentina,” and so on. Yuck. That language suggests a crude type of consuming, a list to check off mindlessly, with creepy hints of domination. The essay “Paradise, Earth,” is partly meant to expose my own consumption and the kind of travel writing one might find, say, in an airline magazine, when those still existed: “Ten Things You Must Eat in Hà Nội!”

In terms of minimizing impact, I’ve heard people advocate for exploring our close proximities rather than pushing ourselves into other people’s countries and lives, and I agree that it’s important to study what’s local, where you come from. I never left North America until I was almost four decades old, as I mention in the book. But travel, if you’re lucky enough to find ways to make it happen, is also a way to study your home. I’ve learned so much about my own country and its priorities by seeing what people value in other places. My favorite moments while traveling are when I happen on something we don’t have in the U.S. that feels so right—soup for breakfast, vegetable gardens instead of lawns, respect for the elderly, public spaces that embrace public needs—and I become aware of what we neglect back home, what weird and often wrong choices we make as a country that we all accept as normal or better or just the way things are or what it means to be American. I think travel and travel writing that makes us reconsider our lives at home and our role in the global situation will always be useful.

JM: How does living in the rust belt shape your work as a writer? How does it affect the way that you see your own—and our, as people—relationship with the other parts of nature?

MQ: As a writer in the rust belt, I’m quite aware that being a writer is a strange and privileged way to spend time. I mean, essays and poems are good things, but you can’t eat them or wear them or use them to dig a hole, so I try to remember that and not take myself too seriously. In terms of nature, I grew up in Wisconsin, not too far from Milwaukee, and spent my last two years of high school in Janesville, which was dominated by the now-closed GM plant, then attended college in Chicago in the early 90s, lived in Portland, Oregon when it was still more port than artisanal whatever, and have been outside of Cleveland for now over twenty years. These are places shaped by industrial production and consumption of resources that also then suffered from their reliance on these industries. (Isn’t industry an interesting word?)

They’re also places surrounded by natural and agricultural landscapes. Drive an hour outside of Cleveland, and you can be on the bank of a designated Wild and Scenic River or in an old growth beech forest. Or you can be staring at thousands of acres of soy or corn. Sometimes I imagine the land outside of rust belt cites as haunted in a way, the ghosts being the trees or ore or livestock that were fed to the city to build the factories and houses and churches and government institutions. I live a few miles from what was once a huge shipyard and iron works, which I’ve read was at one time the largest industry in Ohio. The surrounding trees fueled the foundry. It’s all gone. There’s no evidence of the town that was there or the iron works or shipyard. Now it’s a park with a small beach and wetlands and some historical signs about the town and also about the indigenous people who were here before all of that. This use and abuse of resources, its mark on the land as evidence of consumption and human efforts to control nature and the consequences of those efforts, these all shape how I think of our relationship with nature.

JM: You joked to me that it always takes you thirteen years to write a book. What are you working on next, and will we get it by 2036?

MQ: Hoping I can pick up the pace. I have a poetry manuscript that, while long enough, doesn’t seem quite complete to me. A bunch of the poems in that collection play around with the idea of measurement and trying to measure things that maybe are unmeasurable. I’m working on some essays now about landscapes, how we use the land we have in our care.  I live in an area of NE Ohio where there are a lot of farms growing plants for landscaping. Think rows and rows of arbor vitae and peegee hydrangeas and gold juniper. I’m interested in our choices about aesthetics and purpose in the United States, informed by observations I’ve made while visiting other places. When you really think about the way America looks in terms of spaces, we make some bizarre decisions. We do a lot of terrible things to our land because we fail to see that our default ideas of landscape are impractical and fairly absurd. The fun of this topic is that now I can’t look at a grocery store parking lot or housing development without seeing something uncanny or puzzling. I’m just getting started on the project, so it might be 2036.

Mary Quade is the author of two poetry collections: Guide to Native Beasts (Cleveland State University Poetry Center) and Local Extinctions (Gold Wake). Her essay collection Zoo World won the 2022 The Journal Non/Fiction Prize and was published in fall 2023 by The Ohio State University Press / Mad Creek Books imprint. The recipient of an Oregon Literary Fellowship and four Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Awards for both poetry and creative nonfiction, she is a professor of English at Hiram College, where she teaches creative writing, and lives in NE Ohio.

Jake Maynard is the author of the novel Slime Line, available for preorder from WVU Press. His stories and essays appear in Guernica, Gulf Coast, Slate, The New Republic, The New York Times, and others. He lives in Pittsburgh.