Michael: I have been waiting to ask you and talk to you about the tension that is at the core of “Kill or Be Killed” pretty much since I read it. I’ve thought a lot about what constitutes civilization, how the way we negotiate killing in order to live has changed as what it means to be human has changed. I’ve been thinking about it for most of my life–this satirical bit by the comedian Bill Hicks sticks in my head, I heard it first as part of a Tool song in high school–where he mocks militant vegetarians, asking why nobody is lamenting the pain we cause to carrots. The point being (at least, so I have interpreted) that we have to eat to live, that what we eat is something that was once alive, death is universal, pain is universal, and it’s forgetting to acknowledge it that’s the problem.
I love “Kill or Be Killed” for the intense, personal clarity with which it renders that moment, killing these little alien things that would otherwise be taking your food. I couldn’t help but be riveted by it. You’re writing about something you’ve actually experienced, I think? In other words, for you and your family, keeping pests from eating the food in your garden was a matter of livelihood–not such a common experience anymore for human beings. Too many people I know no longer need to think about where food comes from, so they don’t.
The poem, I think, invites us to contemplate those questions without feeding us an answer. Maybe it’s taking unfair advantage of my editorial position, but I’d love to know what your answers are, if you have any. How do we decide what lives and what doesn’t so we can eat? Is it okay to kill an ant, but not a chicken? How does empathy play into that decision? Do you ever look at it from the ants’ point of view, or the potato’s? Has your experience working with the land, growing food, taught you anything about how to negotiate those complexities?
Aozora: Thank you so much for these wonderful questions, Michael! To be clear, I do not—at all—have the answers to what/who we should kill to eat and what/who we should not kill. But I do think that you are right that the point is not to make a list of living things we can kill and those we shouldn’t, but to always question, empathize, and think deeply about the lives you are taking into your body when you eat.
In Japanese, there is a phrase you say before you eat a meal, “itadakimasu,” which literally translates to “I am receiving your life”. My Japanese mother loves this phrase, and she explains it as a way to thank the living things that gave up their lives and became your food. I love it, too, because “itadaku” is a highly polite form of the verb “to receive,” and signals the deep respect the speaker feels for the living beings (now dead) before them. The phrase has Shinto origins and has been a part of Japanese culture for centuries, but the real meaning behind the words are mostly lost to Japanese people today.
Which brings me to my point: we live in a society today in which we are wholly unfamiliar not only with who grows our food and how it is produced, but with the very fact that what we eat was once alive, and that the boundary between us and the animals and plants we eat is not as rigid as we’d like to believe.
People often assume I’m a vegetarian, but, like most of my family, I am not. But my parents always made it a point to make me and my brothers think deeply about the food—especially the meat—we were eating. All of the meat we eat is from our farm, and when we eat meat (which is not that often), I feel in my heart an immense appreciation and love for the animal who gave up their life. I’ve taken part in many chicken butcherings on our farm, and I think it takes great courage on the part of my dad to raise his ax to the neck of a hen. There is a holiness to that moment, of making sure death is quick and as painless as possible, and with the enormity of the deed washing over us all.
I believe that when I eat an animal or plant or insect, I am taking in their precious life and rebirthing them into my blood and bones. And when death comes for me, all of those lives consumed into my body will be returned into the earth to feed new life. The most important thing, for me, is to always recognize that I am not apart or above the cycle of life, and that I must try my hardest to give back all that I’ve taken.
Michael: What’s in the cocoon at the end of the poem? I don’t know enough about the life cycle of the tomato cutworm to be sure.
Aozora: I still have no idea what was in the cocoon! It was definitely not a tomato worm, though—based on my research, a tomato hornworm’s cocoon is red in color and smaller than the white cocoon I discovered in the poem. I actually found (and smashed) some tomato hornworm cocoons while I was digging in the soil to plant artichokes a couple days ago. I haven’t seen that white cocoon in a long while, and odds are that they are from a worm that doesn’t do much damage on our farm. (So I still feel guilty for murdering it.)
This goes back to your previous question, but as farmers, and especially as farmers who use no pesticides or herbicides to grow our vegetables, we are trained to find and kill certain insects when they are damaging a crop. We squish small, fat red potato worms, smash squash bugs, stomp on tomato worms, squeeze Japanese beetles and cabbage worms…the list goes on. In bad years, we have to look through row after row of plants and fill cups of soap water with potato worms or Japanese beetles until the water is fizzing with drowning bugs. The experience always gives my stomach a lurch, but I think it is an important one to have, because it makes you aware of what it means to consume food, and how much destruction you must wage against certain insects in order to eat. On industrial farms, all of the killing is left to chemicals, and the killing is not targeted: instead of bucket-fulls of Japanese beetles painstakingly drowned after hours of work, whole insect and microbiome ecosystems are wiped out with one sweeping spray of poison. That means that they are not only killing the pests, but are murdering the spiders, earthworms, ladybugs and bacteria that help make a healthy and nutrient-rich soil. All of this (unnecessary) murder is heartbreaking, and it’s all the more enraging that we all conveniently forget about all of this killing because we aren’t the ones doing it with our own hands.
What farming teaches me is that it is necessary to kill certain insects because they are eating up our beautiful broccoli or burrowing in our green tomatoes, but that it is not necessary to kill them all, or to kill insects that are doing no harm. We must only kill when it is truly necessary, and when we kill, we must feel in our hearts a deep gratitude and humility.
Michael: I’d like to ask a process question–about how you write. How true is this this poem? Another way of putting which might be, “Did you in fact squash a big gross cocoon with sticky white insides and get inspired to write poetry about it?”
Aozora: Yes, I did! One summer I was digging potatoes out in our bottomland field and had this exact experience. It was during a period of drought, so the soil was extremely dry and painful to kneel on and work with, and I was exhausted from running out irrigation drip-tapes day after day, night after night. In this kind of haze and daze, I was harvesting potatoes and killing ants and then all of the sudden, staring at this cocoon I’d squeezed, its insides all over my fingers.
I didn’t know, at the time, why that moment felt significant and strange, and I probably forgot all about it for a while. But when I was back at school and tasked with writing a poem (in the style of Robert Frost) for my poetry class, the experience came flooding back. What was beautiful about writing this poem (and writing most of my poems) was that I had no plan of what I was going to write about while I was writing it, and all of these emotions and thoughts and questions emerged naturally while I was exploring the memory through language.
Some of the questions that emerged in the poem probably weren’t concretely in my head when I was digging the potatoes that summer, but came to me later, through the classes I was taking then. For example, the biggest question I see now in the poem is one not just about the literal killing of insects, but the philosophical and moral questions of war and violence. The ants, in this case, are easier to kill because they are attacking me, and they are warrior ants—they know they are putting their lives on the line. But the sleeping cocoon, all of the sudden exposed to the sun—a mere baby, curled and innocent, in the dirt—killing it, that feels very wrong. And I think those feelings of guilt and non-guilt raise important questions: why is it easier to kill someone or something that is attacking you, versus someone or something that seems innocent and passive? Why do some feel so justified in killing our “enemies” abroad and yet rail against abortions? To me, those are the central questions of the poem.
But I love that each reader brings their own perspective to the poem, and it can spark different questions for different readers. When I shared the poem in my class, I remember that one student told me she thought the poem was about losing sexual innocence, and her reading surprised me because I did not think of that at all while writing the poem. But I can definitely see that theme in the poem, and I love that poetry can open up spaces and possibilities in this way. My memory becomes your memory, my experience yours, and we are all pondering on the same plane of thought.
Michael: Thank you very much!