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  • Ella Charman

'Planet in Peril' Winning Poet Interview: Joanna Lilley

In the run-up to the launch of the Planet in Peril anthology, we have a further introduction to one of the poets in this unique collection. This week we would like to introduce you to our winning poet, Joanna Lilley, and congratulate her on her successful entry, 'Specimen'. We absolutely loved this poem: it's packed with vivid and somewhat uncomfortable images which we hope will motivate our readers to rise to the challenge to prevent the extinction of our planet.

Joanna Lilley, is the author of the poetry collections, 'If There Were Roads' and 'The Fleece Era,' which was nominated for the Fred Cogswell Award for Excellence in Poetry. She is also the author of a short story collection, 'The Birthday Books,' and a novel, 'Worry Stones,' which was longlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award. Her third poetry book, which is all about extinct animals, will be published by Turnstone Press in spring 2020. Originally from the UK, Joanna moved to Whitehorse in Yukon, Canada, in 2006. She is grateful to reside on the Traditional Territories of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation and the Ta'an Kwäch'än Council. Joanna stopped eating animals a great many years ago on her thirteenth birthday and still regrets not stopping sooner. Find Joanna online at

How long have you been writing and what inspires you to write?

I can’t really remember when I started to write as I was always making little notebooks out of pieces of paper as a child and always had a diary even if I wasn’t actually very good at writing in it every day! As an adolescent, I wrote terrible poems that were usually about how upsetting it was to see a tree cut down or to encounter a dead squirrel. While it took me a long time to come out of the closet, as it were, as a creative writer, I managed to make writing part of my working life by training in journalism and then getting into communications and editing. I’m grateful that I’m able to spend so much of my time working with words. 

The urge to write has always been with me and it seems to be the very experience of life that inspires me to write. Putting things down in words has always been my way of dealing with existing in this world which is at once so beautiful and so heartbreaking. I write fiction as well as poetry and tend to write about everyday life and its struggles from family conflicts to the fact that every decision we make has ethical implications. Animals feature in my writing rather a lot, particularly in my poetry, and I hope to write more fiction about animals too.

What drew you to submitting to the Planet in Peril anthology?

I saw the call for submissions in the National Poetry Library’s email newsletter and knew immediately that I had to submit something. I felt so connected to the anthology as a response to the devastation humans are causing to this planet that we and our fellow species call home. I wanted to be part of that response if I possibly could. I made a note of the deadline and kept it very much in mind as I worked on edits to poems I was writing about extinct animals. I admit I was also drawn to the anthology because of the support it’s receiving from the World Wide Fund for Nature – WWF. I was a member of the WWF’s Panda Club as a child and every time I see the panda symbol I become that little child again wanting to save every creature on the planet. So when the deadline came, I submitted some of my extinction poems to the anthology and kept my fingers tightly crossed. I couldn’t believe it when I heard from the editor, Isabelle Kenyon, that not only would I have a poem in the anthology but that I had won the competition. I still can’t really believe it. 

What are your feelings on the climate crisis and the purpose of our campaign?

I imagine that like many people all over the world I’m in a state of sadness and grief and probably shock. I also worry a great deal that I’m part of the problem because I carry on living my comfortable life. It’s easy to refuse plastic straws and buy Beyond Meat burgers but as someone who chose to emigrate to another country I regularly get on an aeroplane so I can visit my family which is one of the worst things you can do environmentally. I’m in awe of everyone who is upturning their lives to protest on the streets through movements such as Extinction Rebellion and also so grateful to Fly on the Wall Press for creating opportunities for writers and photographers to articulate our response to the climate crisis. While I so often feel despair I do believe that it’s through connecting emotionally and spiritually through storytelling and other arts that we might actually be able to change our collective behaviour as a species and stop the devastation we're causing. The facts and data don’t seem to be enough to persuade the private and public sector structures that hold the power to take effective action. We have to find a way to show each other instead and that’s where art comes in.

What inspired your poem ‘Specimen’ and the narrative you depict?

This poem started off as being simply about the spotted green pigeon which it’s thought became extinct due to over-hunting and by becoming the prey of introduced species in the 1800s or so. There’s only one specimen in existence and that’s in the World Museum in Liverpool, which is presumably why it’s also sometimes called the Liverpool pigeon. Very little is known about it. There’s no written record of where it was killed and collected or of any sightings. It’s generally thought to be from French Polynesia and is, apparently, a relative of the dodo which gives it even more poignancy as an extinct species. As I was writing the poem I started to drift to a sort of interplanetary point of view and it felt as if the pigeon had become a metaphor for the human race and our inevitable extinction. What if one day we are treated in the same way that humanity has treated this pigeon? In my less charitable moments I’m thinking, wouldn’t that just serve us right?

Are you working on any other projects at present or in the near future?

I’m currently working on the final edits to a collection of poems all about extinct animals coming out in spring 2020 with Turnstone Press in Canada. I’m incredibly grateful to them for supporting this project that means so much to me. I’ll then get back to a novel I’ve been trying to write off and on for a long time which has themes of finding your place in the world, socially and geographically. However, I keep wanting to write about animals and the fragility of the natural world so I suspect I’ll carry on doing that as well, hopefully in fiction as well as poetry.

Planet in Peril is available for pre-order here. It will be released on the 7th of September, 2019.

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