Thanks to Southview Animal Hospital for their support.
West St. Paul author Jackie Polzin has written a literary fiction novel about chickens. Given West St. Paul’s seeming obsession with chickens, it could be the perfect joke. And while Polzin’s Brood is funny, it’s also sad and poignant and beautifully written.
Polzin explores grief and miscarriage through a brood of backyard chickens, which sounds ridiculous but is completely delightful.
“Tending to chickens was a kind of sanctuary at times.”Jackie Polzin
About Jackie Polzin
Polzin has lived in West St. Paul for three years with her partner Travis Olson, and their children, 4-year-old Lucy and 2-year-old Charlie. They also have a Boston Terrier named Mimo who is older and wiser than the kids combined.
Writing and parenting consume Polzin’s days. She also used to teach and would love to do it again. “These jobs—writing, parenting, teaching—are similar in a lot of ways: joyful; humbling (humiliating, even); can quickly shift from thankless to rewarding and back again,” she says.
Polzin enjoys visiting the goats at Dodge Nature Center, cooking, gardening, and jogging along Charlton.
Conversation With Jackie Polzin
Here’s our interview with Polzin:
The book gives a wonderful glimpse into the world of backyard chickens. What’s your experience with chickens?
Travis and I raised chickens for six years while living in North Minneapolis. My mom planted the idea in my head. She said, “I always thought you’d have chickens someday.” Raising chickens had never crossed my mind before that. Then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. When I told Travis, his immediate response was to grab a pen and draw the coop he would build. And he built it very quickly.
I’ve never been completely at ease with city living and I hoped raising chickens might counter the hurry of urban life. And it did, I think. Tending to chickens was a kind of sanctuary at times. But there’s stress, too. Chickens need things and have a lot of predators. As soon as you acquire chickens, it’s your job to keep them alive.
You don’t currently have chickens here in West St. Paul, but will that change soon?
Because we have young kids we’ve kept deferring the decision until the kids were older, by which I think we meant when the kids were more hygiene-savvy. Now, suddenly, they know how to wash their hands. And West St. Paul relaxed the city chicken ordinance last August, so all the obstacles have fallen away. Travis said recently, “We could build a coop in the garage where the workbench is now with a door cut to a pen in the wood chips alongside the playhouse.” So probably soon.
What advice do you have for West St. Paul neighbors who want to raise chickens?
Chickens are most entertaining when you let them out of the coop to follow their whims. They’re gawky and curious and easily distracted. Even their destructive tendencies are fun to watch.
I wish I had known more about chickens starting out. I learned so much by error. Take a class somewhere, if you can. There’s one called Backyard Chicken Basics through Egg|Plant Urban Farm Supply in St. Paul.
You’re exploring grief and miscarriage and infertility through chickens. How did that come together?
We had a chicken named Miranda July that was broody for weeks. There was no chance the egg she sat on was going to hatch; we didn’t have a rooster. When we took the egg away, she continued to sit there. Broodiness is pretty common with some breeds of chickens but it was our first experience with it. And because I was struggling with infertility, I couldn’t help but notice the similarity of circumstance. I thought, “She reminds me of me.” That was the idea being born, I guess. I had always watched the chickens but I watched more deliberately after that. I sat in the yard with a notebook. The exploration of grief and caretaking through chickens happened naturally, almost out of necessity. I was very much trying to figure something out for myself.
Miscarriage can be an intensely personal and painful topic, so if you’re willing to share, was this based on personal experience?
I had a miscarriage in the midst of many years of struggling to get pregnant. The experience was isolating and emotionally overwhelming, though being pregnant for even a short time was also a source of great hope to me. My impulse to write a novel dealing with miscarriage and infertility was, in part, to defy the silence surrounding the subject in our culture. I understand the silence, but I felt trapped in it.
Do you have advice for anyone struggling with this?
Confiding in others is helpful, I think.
I’ve kept a journal for a long time. I try to maintain the practice no matter what’s happening in my life. When I read my old journals—not often, it’s a downward spiral—I notice there’s more difficulty than joy in them. That probably suggests the function of the journal in my life.
Who are some of your favorite authors that you look to for inspiration?
Sheila Heti, Claire Louise-Bennett, Kevin Barry, Kazuo Ishiguro, Joy Williams, George Saunders, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Ottessa Moshfegh. All of these writers surprise me greatly and achieve spell-binding voices. Ishiguro is probably the quietest of them. I love his work.
Any other chicken-raising novels you can recommend?
I haven’t read other chicken-centric novels. I suppose I was wary of seeking out chicken lit while working on the subject. Barn 8 is a novel full of chickens that was published last year by Graywolf Press, a legendary local publishing house. I would read any book from Graywolf. My favorite resource for raising chickens is The Chicken Encyclopedia by Gail Damerow.
What’s next? Are you working on another novel now?
I’m working on a new project set in a place like West St. Paul. Recently I heard the writer Kevin Barry talk about how the decision to move somewhere is usually pragmatic—where the mortgage is cheap—but the decision turns out to be a key creative decision. The world creeps into your work.
What’s your favorite thing about West St. Paul?
The big old trees. And Zebra Cat Zebra (a zine by the local artist Carolyn Swiszcz). Both are evidence, to me, of stewardship. I find that compelling.
Thanks to Jackie Polzin for talking with us. Brood released on March 9, 2021.
More Coverage of Brood:
Local conversations like this happen thanks to your support.