Selections from Sun Cat: 5 Poems & An Interview w/ Zams
The Sun looks good and ripe.
Today I am stretching out my legs,
front and back,
to appreciate this body.
When all is said and done
I hope you will remember me
as someone who lived without shame.
When my body lays like a big bag of dried beans
I hope you will remember me
as someone who found playgrounds everywhere.
When I no longer respond to your call or to your touch
I hope that you will remember me
as constant and peculiar.
I hope that you will think of me as your friend,
because that is what I am.
When I am gone
look for me in the Sun.
That is where I am now
as I breathe in this air,
and return it,
with whatever purpose I am good for.
WITH MOONLIGHT SEEPING DOWN
On the floor of a bamboo forest
with moonlight seeping down
mice darting in the periphery
I give you my gifts, life,
I give you what is clear and unclear
I give you what cannot be fixed
I give you what is noticed and unnoticed
Restore me, Life, bring me back to the hunt
Help me to walk like the agile bundle of bones I am
Help me to crawl and smile my smile, prized by my soul
And if you manage to tempt me,
help me to lose concern
for whether I am right or wrong
and only trust
that whatever comes through this gate
I give you my response
Who wouldn't be shocked
yet not hitting me
not telling me
what it is
A NEW LONELINESS
This litter box reminds me
a little bit of the desert.
I admit I've never been—
I've heard there are stars
Maybe long ago
a human fell apart
and crawled away from the campfire
and found the first cat
sitting on a dune
with moon wrapped behind their head
and a willingness to negotiate
a new loneliness
to our next vital steps
Rub my stomach—
It's the closest you'll get
to letting go
of your priceless fear
PN’s poetry editor Patricia Killelea recently had the chance to sit down with Zams the cat: poet, philosopher, enigma.
Patricia Killelea: Could you talk a little bit about your writing process, and how you approach your different writing topics? There is a clear link between your spare, nature-infused aesthetics and Japanese haiku. I also detect a Zen-like now-ness at the heart of your work, and I was also hoping you could speak to that. Finally, how do you know when it's time to write a poem or simply time to let a moment "be," without words, without form?
Zams: My writing process is simple: I imagine (or perceive) a powerful light in the center of my stomach, and I speak out from this light. Sometimes I will imagine another light, somewhere in the sky, which represents the sun. I will try to connect these two lights. That is why the book I am working on is called Sun Cat.
Before connecting with this light (which hurts), I have to let go (which is sad) of my illusion of control over what might happen next in my life. Of course we all have some control over what happens in our lives, but let's not get carried away with this: some things are simply not up to us. Often, before writing, I will think of the fact that I will die, or the fact that, whether I want there to be a God or not, it's not up to me. All of my wishing and willing one way or another doesn't change anything. So if I can let go of this fearful, gripping energy, my paws are more free, and I can enter into a space of uncertainty that gives rise to creative expression. Then it becomes simpler: I can focus on doing the best I can do in a life that offers no guarantees, because I don't have the option of doing anything else.
Maybe it is like this: we are all always going down the stream, always changing, but sometimes it is scary and we try to swim upstream, even though it does no good. My poems stem from the desire to nudge myself, and whoever else will listen, to let go, to keep going, and move along with the flow of change, wherever it might lead.
These poems take place in the split second between letting go of the illusion of control and embracing the reality of uncertainty. So in a way I am speaking in the present moment, but in another way it is a time out of time—a place to gather courage before pressing onward—somewhere between a post-past and a pre-present.
PK: What is it like living and writing poems around humans? They seem to make up a portion of your intended audience; some of your poems even directly address humankind. Can you discuss what you hope to achieve through these poems that engage the human world?
Z: My job is to be truthful and helpful. I am writing for humans, and not only because they tend to read more than non-human animals. Cats and humans have a special relationship, which I describe briefly in "A new loneliness." The humans I live with are good companions, but sometimes they misunderstand the nature of our relationship (my translator once even foolishly referred to me as "retired"). And sometimes the food's not great, and for reasons I cannot begin to fathom they are upset when I pee on the floor—but I digress.
I don't know what the point of life, or poetry, is if not to free us and to learn to love. Humans and cats can help one another in this regard. We can marvel at our differences, and see how these differences do nothing but highlight the unshakable bonds of our interconnection, and the interconnection of all things. If we forget this fact, we are in deep trouble. So my poems are friendly reminders that we are all in this together.
PK: Although I don't want to focus on identity politics too much, it is clear that your feline identity shares some relationship with your poetics. Works like T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, Rae Armantrout's "Thing" and others certainly talk about cats, but never from a first-person perspective. Why do you think the time has come for feline voices to be explored in American letters?
Z: This is a great question that makes me feel somewhat embarrassed. I do not know much about American letters. I do not even know that much about cats. I only know one cat, in fact—the cat, of course, across the hallway... and we've never met face-to-face. (Something tells me she's trouble, though.) So I don't think a primary goal for me is to represent the voice of cats in American letters. However, I do think it is important for humans to realize that their thoughts are not the only or the best thoughts out there. I spend a lot of time looking out the window, and am somewhat of an amateur cosmologist. Imagine how many beings of enormous intelligence must be out there, beings that look at human activity the way humans look at a fly banging itself against the window, trying to get out. "Silly fly," humans might say, "the exit is right there! Why can't you see it!" Yeah, well, news flash humans: I bet a lot of beings are looking at you just like this. Humans would be wise to humbly parochialize themselves so they stop acting like they can calculate the cosmos into their compliance.
Relatedly, non-human animals have long been the object of human observation (and also slaughter and anthropogenic mass extinction), in a way that many non-human animals take issue with. I have read the Rae Armantrout poem "Thing" that you referenced, in which she likens "her" ("our") "bland" cat (as if she owned the cat!) to "the very same thing" as "balanced reporting." As a cat and a poet, I have no idea what this means! I will leave it up to others to decide whether my confusion is a limitation to be dismissed or a noteworthy fact worth taking into consideration when evaluating a poem such as this.
As far as TS Eliot goes, I have never heard of this poet, although this is a great name for a writer, and I wish them well in their life and their career. With a name like that I imagine it will be quite promising.
Zams lives in The Space with her human companions. She has traveled widely in the apartment and is always looking for new adventures and new respites. Ryan Croken lives by Lake Michigan in Chicago with his wife, son, and Zams. His poetry has appeared in La Petite Zine, Word Riot, Entropy, nthposition, and Philadelphia Inquirer. Ryan teaches writing at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and serves as Zams's assistant.