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Musings on Elephant Insemination and Theft

Some writers look to the classics or to history for inspiration. Poet Lucia Perillo looks to nature — and sometimes, the innards of an elephant — for her muse.

Perillo, a poet with a background in wildlife management and the National Park Service, received the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry, which honors the best book of poetry published by an American in the previous two years. She received the award and did a reading Monday at the Library of Congress for her 2009 book, “Inseminating the Elephant.”

Perillo, who lives with her husband in Olympia, Wash., studied wildlife management at McGill University in Montreal and worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service and the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge before making a career out of poetry. Her work often reflects those experiences. Referencing the natural world in her poetry comes easily to her now, but that wasn’t always the case, she said in an e-mail.

“It’s like Hemingway’s saying that he needed to go to Paris to write about Michigan, and Michigan to write about Paris,” Perillo said. “At the time [that I worked with wildlife], I was not interested in ‘nature poetry,’ but I didn’t really see the intertidal zone between the natural world and the human one.”

The poem “Inseminating the Elephant,” which lends the book its title, attempts to bridge that gap between nature and humanity. It does, in fact, describe the procedure of inseminating a large mammal: an elephant at the Seattle Zoo named Chai.

In the poem, Perillo draws parallels between the zoological procedure and her work as a creative writer.

“The peculiarities of female elephant anatomy make the job quite complex, and I was thinking of this in connection to the complex processes of art,” she said.

The poem’s graphic subject might make some readers uncomfortable, but Perillo says it shouldn’t.

“If people are squeamish about the word ‘inseminating,’ they’re not approaching it with enough scientific rigor,” she says.

Philip Bobbitt, a law professor at the University of Texas-Austin and son of the prize’s namesake, Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt, described Perillo’s style as “very powerful and very direct.”

Before her reading Monday night, Librarian of Congress James Billington also sang her praises.

“She has a commitment to confront experience,” he said. “Her witty pop culture references allude to human frailty. Her unique idiom is very deserving of this prize.”

Following Billington’s comments, Perillo took the stage to share some personal stories and read selections from the book. Perillo, who uses a wheelchair, was helped to the stage by her husband, James Rudy.

“I went through a shoplifting phase,” she said, drawing laughter from the audience. She then read “A Romance,” a poem about those experiences.

“I saw a child set down her binder like a wall through the candy bin at the corner luncheonette so she could scoop out gum while she spoke to the clerk, and from that moment was in love,” she read. “Oh, theft.”

Perillo’s works bring out a variety of emotions in readers. Her poems are often funny,  deep and reflective all at once, and it is that combination of feelings that garnered her attention for the Bobbitt Prize.

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