Gretchen Primack’s Poems Honor the Voiceless | Books & Authors | Hudson Valley | Hudson Valley; Chronogram
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Gretchen Primack’s Poems Honor the Voiceless 

Kind Words

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And vegan? Barbara became vegetarian while living with Primack. Gus is vegan. "Gus was still eating Kentucky Fried Chicken when we met, but he's a thoughtful, compassionate person. People influence each other. The kind of person I'd fall in love with would be open to how we can be kinder."

In Brooklyn, Primack worked at a sexual harassment prevention and education center. Throughout, she wrote poems. "I took workshops in California, in Milwaukee, at NYU," she reports. Poet Ruth Danon encouraged her to go to grad school; she started an MFA program at Brooklyn College, then transferred to Sarah Lawrence.

After graduating in 2001, she and Mueller visited friends in Saugerties and "totally fell in love with the area." On impulse, they bought the house in Hurley. "We didn't even have jobs," Primack says with a laugh. "We just moved."

Mueller's work as a database developer was portable, and Primack started teaching at SUNY Ulster and Bard, first on campus and then with the Bard Prison Initiative at Eastern Correctional. "Those were the most motivated students I've ever taught," she says. "Education mattered to them in a way I have never experienced."

"Most of my work life has been spent doing social justice work," she observes. "I was also interested in social justice for other species. But I didn't begin to combine those interests with writing till Kind."

She started this cycle of poems at a writers residency in Vermont, when her colleagues killed a mouse in the house they shared. "The thought that they felt entitled to end a life for their own reasons made me heartbroken," says Primack, whose poem "God's Glory" examines "that feeling of having dominion. What we don't see is that we're also very small. As an atheist, I yearned for a god that could show us that we are mice."

  • Deborah DeGraffenreid

"I don't have a line between our species and other sentient beings," she explains. "I don't think children have that line; somewhere along the line we're taught it. I find that separation very artificial, and I don't think it leads us to healthy lives. It leads to profound problems in our world. It contributes to environmental disaster, to world hunger, to public health nightmares, to a breakdown of morality."

She started learning about vegan issues when she met Jenny Brown in 2005. "I was shocked by what I found out about dairy and eggs, both for the animals, and for the changes I knew I was going to have to make. I thought dairy cows were just full of milk all the time, and were happy when humans milked them. A cow becomes full of milk when ready to give birth. We have to make her pregnant and carry the baby to term, and then we kill that baby so we can have that breast milk. I find that horrifying, and I haven't given birth." Her poem "Love This" bears witness to this brutal cycle.

Primack's empathy extends from farm animals to slaughterhouse workers stuck in nightmarish jobs. The opening lines of "The Workers" sound like the setup for a Borscht Belt comic: "An undocumented immigrant, / an illiterate mother, / a hungry thirteen-year-old, / and a sadist / walk into a slaughterhouse." But what transpires is no joke: injuries, trauma, abuse. "Workers' rights are a significant issue in animal agriculture," Primack says. "I boycotted grapes in the '80s; I'm definitely going to boycott meat now. Not participating at all gives me a real peace and joy. It feels good. And it's easy."

Well, now it is—she admits there's a learning curve. "What's my favorite veggie sausage, can I make brownies without eggs, what do I put in my coffee? I mentor a lot of people who are thinking vegan thoughts."

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