The Next Chapter

How the Great Auk inspired Joanna Lilley to write poetic odes to extinct animals

The Whitehorse poet is the author of Endlings, a collection of poems about animals now extinct.
Joanna Lilley is a poet from Whitehorse. (Turnstone Press, Michael Edwards)

This interview originally aired on April 18, 2020.

Originally from the U.K., Joanna Lilley now calls Whitehorse home. Her first collection of poetry was 2014's The Fleece Era. In her latest book, Endlings, she writes poetry about extinct animals — including the zebra-horse quagga, chiding dodo and the Great Auk — with the aim of providing a tribute to their lives and existence. 

Lilley stopped by The Next Chapter to talk about Endlings.

The right thing to do

"I was actually on a writing retreat, working on another project, and I suddenly had the idea to write poems about extinct animals. I've loved animals all my life and always worried about them and cared about them. With more and more species becoming extinct in this age of ours, it felt like the right thing to do. 

With more and more species becoming extinct in this age of ours, it just felt like the right thing to do.

"I did an awful lot of research and tried to be as accurate as I could in the poems I was writing.

"But then I had to find the story in each poem and find the emotional connection — and make it not just a report or a paper on a species. It had to be a poem. I had to use my imagination." 

Two preserved specimens of Great Auk birds mounted in display cases with eggs at a museum, March 31, 1971. (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Not forgotten

"I have a poem in the book about the Great Auk. I was lucky enough to get some funding, thanks to the government of Yukon, to go and visit some natural history museums.

"I went to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., and met a Great Auk in a glass cabinet. It's such a stunning, beautiful, strange creature. I felt I connected with that particular animal. 

It's such a stunning, beautiful, strange creature.

"I tried to think of how it would be from the animal's point of view. I was, in my mind, creating this Great Auk culture and language. It was lovely and a privilege to have that time to spend with these species who don't exist anymore."

Joanna Lilley's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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