I am Otter

I met an otter near the public boat launch. He was eating the remnants of a Wendy’s hamburger. As I approached, he shuffled around, giving me his back. I knew he wanted privacy but couldn’t help staring.

“Excuse me,” he said. “May I help you?”

“I’m sorry. It’s just…”

“It’s just that you’ve never seen an otter eating a cheeseburger. Is that right?”

“Yes,” I replied. I probably blushed, or the ungulate equivalent, at least.

“Everybody appears to have an opinion on my diet,” he said. “It’s comical. I happen to like the square patties. What’s the big deal?”

I felt like I should drop it. It was one thing to have a conversation with an otter. I did not want to have an argument with one.

He resumed his lunch and I studied the boreal view.

“The opinionated son-of-a-bitch across the lake objects to what I eat, you know,” he added.

“He—his name is Cornelius—insists that because I do not eat shellfish, I cannot be a true otter. He has expelled me from the Otterites.”

It was quiet. The water lapped on the shore and birds flew among the green reeds. I ruminated on what I should say next. I was curious but did not want to pry.

“Does that seem reasonable to you?” he asked, pinning me against the fish-cleaning station with an unblinking stare. I felt like it was my turn to say, Do you mind? But he was upset and I knew it was a serious issue with him. I cut him some slack.

He resumed his meal. Without warning, the otter flung the burger towards the dock with a cricketer’s stiff-armed flail. 

“Stupid Cornelius!” he shouted to the sky. Then he scampered to the half-eaten meat patty and threw it like a Frisbee. Mayonnaise spun off in a circular spray as it whizzed through the air.

“I’m sorry about your troubles,” I said. “It can’t be any fun to be kicked out like that.”

“That’s only half of it, buddy,” he replied. “My friends and family are not allowed to speak to me, fish with me, or anything. I can’t slide down the same rocks with them or they will get the boot too.”

“What will you do?” I asked him, after thinking about it for a few minutes.

“Hell if I know! What would you do? What am I supposed to do — grow wood-gnawing teeth and become a freaking BEAVER?” 

He hissed at a mallard and it flew off, leaving two parallel rows of progressively widening concentric circles on the water where its wing tips had touched.

“Why don’t you talk to Cornelius? I don’t know him, but surely he will listen to what you have to say,” I said. 

“Ha! That’s not likely. Cornelius runs the Otterites on this lake and the surrounding rivers and swamps. What he says goes. Either you play along like a good little otter or, splash! You are dismissed. If I put up a fight, I am subject to further discipline and since I am already banished, what do you suppose that means?”

He hit me with another forceful glare. These little guys are intense! 

I considered his question a bit and then understood.

“Cornelius will go after your family.”

“Go to the head of the class, Moose,” he replied. He pulled out a bunch of succulent cattail roots and offered them to me. I lowered my head and sniffed. Prime stuff — loaded with starch and protein; a wet, woody aroma. I slurped them out of the tiny paw at the end of his pinball flipper foreleg. 

I stood chewing while the otter cleaned his paws. He was obsessive — the claws were perfectly clean and still, he licked. Then he preened his facial fur.

“You know,” he said, his gaze focused on an eagle in a nearby pine tree. “It’s not that I feel compelled to be recognized as an otter. I am not ‘claiming’ my otteracy on a whim. I did not, in fact, choose to be an otter. But the Ottersphere is all I know. I was raised in an otter family, my mate is an otter and thirty-two of my thirty-two otter progeny eat shellfish. I have thick fur. I can swim like a Soviet Papa class sub, bro! I am cute as shit—I am cuter than kitties and puppies—plus I can kick a fisher’s ass, man! I am otter, through and through. What am I supposed to do, disavow my whole life experience?”

Just then, a car rounded the distant corner of the road and we both looked up.

“I gotta go,” I said.

“I know, I know,” he agreed. “Say, Moose, thanks for listening, eh?”

“No problem, Brother Otter. Also, I was thinking — maybe I should speak to this Cornelius character? Some antler justice, if you know what I mean?”

“No, thanks. I am a pacifist, like all otters. No need to employ that nasty rack of yours. Ironic, right? They say I am no longer an otter and that makes me react like… like what? Like an otter, that’s what! He shook his little bullet head. 

“Besides,” he continued. “Cornelius says I can still identify myself as a ‘cultural otter’. That’s something, I guess.”

But the car was getting closer and because rut season was coming up, I was afraid that I would have an uncontrollable urge to charge as it roared by with its provocative shining headlights. So I just waded out further among the gently waving cattails and thought about how hard it would be if someone decided I wasn’t a moose anymore.


I am Otter is written by Mitchell Toews. Mitchell lives and writes lakeside in Manitoba. Visit to learn more about this awesome writer.


Sara Moore Wagner

Sara, you’re a mother. Has motherhood had any influence on your attitude and your poems?

It certainly has! I was not a very serious poet before I became a mother. Being a parent has given me more motivation to work towards my dreams, to set a better example for my children.

In my poems, I do talk about my kids a lot. Both of my chapbooks are centered around my oldest son and my experience of being a single mother with him. I think parenthood makes me see how fragile life is, and that’s something I am compelled to speak about in my writing.

How many pieces or poems have you written (and published) so far? And which one of them are you very proud of?

I have been publishing a lot in the past few years in particular, over 100 poems in literary journals in that time. I also have published two chapbooks (one is forthcoming from Red Bird Chapbooks), and I have two full lengths I am shopping around. I really do write a lot, I think because I am a mom in Ohio who feels separated from community and art. I make my own.

Recently, I had four poems come out in Waxwing, which was a dream publication for me. I’d have to say that is something I feel very proud of right now! You can read those poems here:

Passing it On:

Protective Services:

Narcan Metamorphosis:

In the End, We Are All Daughters:

Who is your audience, Sara? Do you constantly keep in touch with your readers? Have their comments helped you enhance your poems?

I think for most poets, our audience is other poets. I find I have been connecting with people more and more on Twitter. I have gotten the occasional note from someone who reads a poem in a journal and connects with it, then reaches out. That always makes my day!

The comments that most enhance my poems come from my close friends, Caroline Plasket, Christen Noel Kauffman, and Rae Hoffman Jager, who are all moms, all poets, and who all live within an hour of me. We offer each other constant attention and support, which has been invaluable to me.

Somewhere I read that you’re an Indian (Native American) woman. Is that true? Who are some famous native American poets? Do their works have some unique characteristics that (might) distinguish them from other American poets?

No, I do not consider myself to be a Native American poet. My grandfather (who is the subject of my chapbook Hooked Through) was, though. His parents had tribal Cherokee and Seminole connections in Appalachia, but he left to become a Pentacostal preacher in the city. He carried a lot of his parents’ traditions with him and told me those stories as a child, but as someone who grew up with no tribal affiliation, I would never claim that space.

There are so many AMAZING Native American poets out there, though. Of course, our poet laureate Joy Harjo is the first Native American appointed poet laureate and is someone everyone should study, read, and know. Other indigenous poets are Tommy Pico (Kumeyaay Nation), Jake Skeets (Black Street Wood), Layli Long Soldier (Lakota), Kenzie Allen (Oneda) and so many more. I think once a reader looks into indigenous poetics, they will see they are vastly different from each other, so I’d hate to say there is a distinguishing characteristic. I encourage every reader to read as many indigenous writers as possible, to hear their stories and celebrate those voices.

What is life like in your neighborhood? Do your surroundings aid you to have a better vision? Or does it distract you?

I live in the suburbs! It’s very uninspiring. We have a home owner’s association, and my neighbor has a perfect lawn he fusses over daily. It can be distracting because there’s not a lot of art and beauty in the suburbs, but I find ways to not blend into my surroundings. There’s a creek nearby where I take my children, and my backyard is full of trees, so I can go there and imagine I’m somewhere less generic.

Let’s talk about your most favorite poet. Who’s s/he? Why do you like her/his works? And would you please share one of her/his finest poems with us?

My original first love was Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), and I have always been drawn to the way she uses image (she’s an Imagist) and holds back from over explaining or confession. I also love her musicality and short lines. I was originally drawn to the way she uses myth, something I also do often in my own work, to recreate the male idea of a woman, to reclaim that. One poem that I memorized when I was younger, which is a great example of the image of Helen and how much meaning can come from that visual experience, is “Helen,” which you can read here:

It’s very hard to pick a favorite poet, though. My favorite book I read this year so far is Tiana Clark’s I Can’t Talk About the Trees without the Blood. Her writing floored me and made me want to be a better writer, as all good writing should.

Besides poetry, what else do you read and write? And apart from reading/writing, what other activities are you very fond of?

I really only write poetry, though one day I think I might like to branch out (maybe when the kids are older). I like to read a lot of things, though. I read fiction, grown-up books for myself when I have some time, and my eleven year old son and I read so many things together, we are getting through Watership Down right now.

I love learning about history and art, so in non-COVID times, we visit a lot of museums and cultural sites. I’m a big planner, so I love to plan holidays and parties and fun activities. I also just recently learned to ride a bike, so I am enjoying long bike rides with my husband when we get the chance.

Are your children also interested in poetry? Do you encourage them to read and write new poems?

My middle daughter (5) says she is a poet all the time. She loves to listen to me read poems (Emily Dickinson is her favorite!), and she will dictate poems to me often. She is amazing at it! My eleven year old tolerates poetry, but I do very much encourage him. I also go into his school every year to do a poetry lesson for the kids, and they all always love it. I hope the baby will be into it, too. I do share it with them as much as I can. As I said before, I write for them!

And my last question is about you. Put your hand on your heart please and listen to your heartbeat for a few seconds. What does Sara Wagner want from her life? What is she most concerned about? And where does she want to be ten years from now?

Right now, I am most concerned with getting through this year. It has been a very hard year, and I will be keeping my kids home with me this Fall. I want all of us to be happy, healthy, for there to be peace and fairness in my country, there’s a lot that needs to turn over and be uprooted for all that to happen, and I’m ready for it.

In ten years, I hope to be at peace with my own choices, and to be a source of pride to my kids and myself.