U-M Writer-in-Residence Caroline Harper New's poetry book “A History of Half-Birds" unfolds time and explores human-animal interplay


Caroline Harper New and her book A History of Half-Birds.

Author photo by Steven Kardel.

“Control is a delicate science,” writes Caroline Harper New in her poetry collection, A History of Half-Birds. This book won the 2023 Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry as selected by Maggie Smith.

New is a Writer-in-Residence at the University of Michigan and a U-M alumna with an MFA in Writing. She will read and be in conversation with poets Abigail McFee and Maia Elsner on Thursday, February 15, at 6:30 p.m. at Literati Bookstore.

A History of Half-Birds examines destruction from both natural events and human actions. The consequence is that a person’s life—or an animal’s life—is no longer the same. Since “We study the past to know the future,” there is no forward movement in these poems without probing what happened previously, whether that is Amelia Earhart’s disappearance or a reimagined Wizard of Oz in which Dorothy repeats “there’s no place like home anymore” amidst alligators. 

This poetic investigation finds that pain and love are intertwined during these trials. A songbird that appears dead awaits its burial, but when the poet is ready to place it in a newly dug grave, the bird has vanished. This different type of loss brings new emotions. The poet implores that “I need you / to know I would have kept you, and loved you / most, had you never escaped my hands.” The past, present, and future are tinged with wondering what could have been if details had been altered. 

The Gulf Coast storms raging throughout this collection are out of control, but they do not only consist of fury because “our lemon trees bloomed most brilliantly post-hurricane.” Specks of light also emerge. All people can do is name what they see, as the poem “Garden of Eve” suggests:

When Adam pointed
at the storms, he saved their names
for women, knowing women split 
the sky before he even sprouted legs.
Eve first broke the soil, but Alice
was the first one named, the very first
to stake her claim, despite
Adam’s intent. He must have
been real nice to Alice, who kept her head
down and hardly hit. …

We don’t enter this story
‘til Florence—born
with a maternal urge
to eat. She pulled us by our hair
from muddy womb and planted
us back in Eve’s overgrown bed
face first, feet pointing sky. She watered us
back into the Gulf…

The poems ask and answer how we got here, and yet they also cannot look away from looming catastrophes either. “Time / means nothing against efforts of love,” so “My mother abandons the mountains. Moves back to the coast in the / middle of a hurricane. Marks the wall where the water will rise.” Chaos and change are not a matter of if but when for these poems. 

I interviewed New prior to her author event for A History of Half-Birds

Q: What brought you to the University of Michigan MFA program? 
A: I was working in Madagascar in 2020, and when the pandemic hit, I had to return to the States. I had also applied to MFAs that year, expecting it to be a several-year process, so my acceptance to Michigan and my sudden evacuation were two surprises that happened to align.

I was stepping into poetry from an anthropology background, and Michigan’s program offered a lot of interdisciplinary freedom. When I started, I didn’t know much about the faculty or alum, but I’ve been really fortunate to learn from poets like Linda Gregerson, Tung-Hui Hu, and Khaled Mattawa. I feel really lucky that this is where I ended up because there was a lot of chance involved.

Q: What has been your experience living in Ann Arbor as a poet?
A: Ann Arbor is very far away from my home and most of my loved ones. Although this lifestyle risks loneliness, I think Ann Arbor is a great
place to relish quietness. Sometimes it feels like a place made for poetry—I walk through the woods or by the river every day. I write my poems in the little greenhouse at Argus. I walk to the farmers market for groceries. I make ceramics at the Art Center. I buy fish from Monahan’s, flowers from my florist friend, pies from my baker friend. I social dance on the weekends. I think that daily richness is what makes you feel connected to a place, and to people, and that makes a creative life feel sustainable.

Q: What does your work as a Writer-in-Residence at U-M cover? 
A: Right now, I’m working on a poetry collection that deals with folklore local to Georgia/Florida. The stories are tied together by concepts of extinction—of species, of stories, of love. I love working with magical realism, which is even stronger in this manuscript: A grieving mother adopts a severed shark head. Two swamp monsters exchange love letters. A grandmother in the Ice Age survives the floods.

I’m also experimenting with how to make poetry experiential, and my project has expanded into sculpture and film. I hope to do some type of installation or performance that combines these mediums.

Q: Your new collection, A History of Half-Birds, was selected by Maggie Smith for the Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry. What did submitting to and winning this award involve? 
A: Winning was quite a shock because Milkweed doesn’t notify finalists along the way. I didn’t think I read the acceptance email correctly, so I had to call a friend to verify. 

The submission process was also full of surprises. I was rejected by presses I thought would love my work, and accepted by presses I thought were out of reach. I thought it would take many years to get picked up somewhere. I ended up submitting this manuscript for five months, and Milkweed was the lucky 13th press I submitted to.

I’ve felt incredibly lucky to be a Milkweed author. Winning has involved a back-and-forth with their team through the phases of publication—copyedits, layout, cover, and now publicity—and they’ve been so kind. From the get-go, I feel like there’s a lot of trust on both sides, which has made the process feel really human.

Q: Tell us about the title of A History of Half-Birds. How did you decide on this name? 
I went through a dozen names, and submitted it for publication under a dozen names before I found one that felt right. I loved the idea of involving water and animality, and I considered whales, alligators, fish. I liked birds for how they can navigate separate worlds—land, water, and air—but also felt very adamant that the book was not about birds.

“Half-Birds” comes from the last poem of the book, in a moment where the speaker is trying to make sense of sirens—sometimes half-bird, sometimes half-fish, always half-woman. Violent, in pursuit of love. Everything for survival. So much of the book is about trying to make sense of love and its incurred violence, and I realized this moment of grappling best captured how I feel about the speaker, as well as the matrilineage that she comes from. 

I also wanted to find a genre that would instruct the reader on how to read the book—I considered “Field Notes,” I considered “A Study.” But I felt like these options implied that there was a definitive conclusion that the book arrived at and that wasn’t true. It was more important to me to capture how the book unfolds time, how it reaches into the past and future through the present, and vice versa. And that’s where the “History” came from. So there it was: “A History of Half-Birds.”

Q: Not just birds but also elephants, alligators, horses, dogs, elk, seahorses, and other animals roam these poems. How do you see these creatures relating to the humans in these poems?
A: Animals were very present in my childhood—farm animals, forest creatures, sea creatures. They were literal and imaginative companions, and I find that animals still naturally occupy the worlds I create.

That said, I’m also fascinated with how love can contain conflicting capacities—caretaking and control, devotion and dependency, tenderness and violence. I think we often see these as contradictions in our human relationships, but I find them easier to grapple with as dualities through animal interactions. In this collection, human-animal interplay is how I come to terms with complicated exchanges of power in my own relationships.

Q: Is A History of Half-Birds ecopoetry? 
A: Great question. Difficult question. I’ve been trying to understand the definition of ecopoetry for myself, and my only conclusion is that it’s constantly being redefined.

To me, ecopoetry means acknowledging that the human world is not distinct from the natural—that we are no more significant or organized than any other being, nor are we less vulnerable or expendable. For me, writing ecopoetry is less about covering certain topics than it is about possessing a worldview that dismantles an anthropocentric hierarchy.

Using this definition, I think ecopoetry has been around across cultures and centuries, and we’re just now beginning to respect these perspectives in our current, American moment—a shift we owe significantly to indigenous writers.

So, if I’m setting the definition, I guess my book is ecopoetry, but I think these qualifiers are pretty subjective.

Q: How does your background as an anthropologist intersect with your poetry and this book in particular? 
A: The desire to turn the magnifying glass back on ourselves—to examine intensely, to inspect every angle and consider every possibility—drives my poetry and anthropology interests.

In this book, my poems are often trying to understand humans in ways that we don’t usually—as storms, as superstitions, as descendants of fish, and maybe ancestors of fish, too. And the humans I know best are myself and those I love, who end up as the characters in my poems.

Q: How do you describe each of the three sections of the book to fellow poets?  
A: I think they differ in the actions they take, the landscapes they inhabit, and how they handle the past. 

“Widdershins” is about looking. Noticing. Being curious. The past is a place to explore. The world is made of gardens, beaches, trees.

“Parlor Tricks” turns inward. It makes decisions. Has agency. Looks the dark things in the mouth. The past is consequential. The world is made of caves, bathtubs, enclosure. 

“Hypothetical Moons” is a reckoning. An acceptance. It doesn’t demand answers. The past is ancestral. The world is both celestial and underwater.

Q: Poems with titles that start with “Fieldnotes on…” are interspersed throughout the book. For example, “Fieldnotes on Hypothetical Moons” discusses a moon of Saturn named Chrysalis, and the last lines read, “Millions / of monarchs crossed our beaches / each October. Our fingertips / shone orange from grasping.” Do you think of these “Fieldnotes” poems as refrains of sorts or something else? Why or why not? 
A: I like the word “refrain.” The “Fieldnotes” form began as a way to write about the things that fascinate me without a destination. I got peer feedback that some poems were too scientific, and I realized I was unwilling to cut the science, so I cut the poetry. I started thinking of these quite literally like anthropology field notes—nothing conclusive, just little moments to remember—but they inevitably found their way back into poems. Because many of my poems are longer, in the book they served as little breaths, which I felt was needed. 

Q: What is on the horizon next for you?
A: I’m always figuring out this question. More poetry. More anthropology. Hopefully more learning and more teaching. More sun. 

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.

Caroline Harper New will read and be in conversation with poets Abigail McFee and Maia Elsner on Thursday, February 15, at 6:30 pm at Literati Bookstore, 124 East Washington Street, Ann Arbor.