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No rhyme, just reason: Poets taking on climate change (Includes interview)

A recent report in the Guardian suggests that artistic voices for climate change are getting louder. Poets have become an important extension of this movement, and while some are involved in quiet, peripheral projects, the rhythm of these endeavours could have intense impact on how we understand the fragile state of our planet.

“There are a number of poets that are responding to the environmental crisis that inspire me,” says Damian Rogers, poetry editor at House of Anansi and The Walrus. “CAConrad’s ECODEVIANCE: Soma(tics) for the Future Wilderness demands that the reader participate in actions that confront the state of our environment. Hoa Nguyen‘s As Long as Trees Last reflects again and again what it is to live in a compromised landscape, as she explores her daily individual experience within the larger system of drought-stricken Texas. Brenda Hillman‘s work often incorporates documentation of her own environmental activism, especially in her book Seasonal Works With Letters on Fire. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson writes essays, stories, and poems that address climate change from an indigenous Canadian perspective. Karen Solie’s poems track change to the environment as well, and they also often focus on the plants and animals sometimes ignored or even – like pigeons and bedbugs – reviled within urban centres.”

Canadian poet Claire Caldwell, whose award winning collection Invasive Species was heavily influenced by her early childhood living in Whitehorse, says poetry offers a visual learning experience for those of us who think we might not be politically active.

“My goal is really to connect in a way that someone might not connect, for example, to a statistics chart or a news report,” says Caldwell, who will return to the Yukon this summer to work on her novel. “We learnt a lot about the stories of the Native Canadian community. That was the base for a lot of my living. I don’t want to overstate it, because it’s not my story to tell, but I really want to investigate that more. These are stories that really informed how I interacted with nature.”

Connecting to what she learned from First Nations history and storytelling, Caldwell’s impulse has always been to look at blurred relationships between humans and animals.

“I [am] interested in where we draw lines between ourselves and others, what’s intimate and private, what’s public, and how those lines break down. As I started writing more and more about animals and nature, thinking about what makes us different from animals, what relationships we have with the natural world, where we keep certain things out and let certain things in, I set down the path of incorporating climate change. One book that was really helpful, inspirational, meaningful, was The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. She wrote about the theory that we’re in a newly defined geological era because of the changes that humans have inflicted on our planet. Reading her book is where everything came together for [my writing]. Also there’s a suite in Invasive Species based on the documentary Grizzly Man by Werner Herzog. That suite, at a deeper level, is about the impact humans can have on the natural world, even at such an individual level. Whose voice gets heard in those situations, and what narrative comes out of that?”

Rogers says these are the more intriguing questions coming from poets today.

“I think the poets are engaging deeply with their environment in a way that is challenging, alive, present, difficult, and far from comforting. Their work rises out of direct experience — for me, this is what gives their work life. My sense is that Hoa Nguyen did not sit down with the explicit intention to write a poem about climate change when she wrote ‘Another Drought Almost-Sonnet’. She starts with an exchange she has with a pig farmer, and the poem travels quickly from that conversation to a trip to Home Depot and finally to a clear declaration of fear and hope: ‘Dry permanent /climate change? / I would like to see it rain again’. I’m most interested in art that is able not only to describe but enact the interconnection among the human and non-human worlds.”

Anglo-Breton poet Claire Trévien – whose latest collection Astéronymes (Penned in the Margins) includes poems about human-made sink holes, damage to natural landscape, and a glorious central sequence about the Scottish island of Arran – says poets offer a more digestible form of political communication.

“With art you have the opportunity to reach out to people in a way that you wouldn’t be able to on different, more clearly political, platforms” says Trévien. “I know that many of my readers don’t share my beliefs, but because it’s poetry they are going to hopefully be more receptive to what I’m saying, because I’m not trying to score political points. They are listening to me in a different context, with different expectations. I do believe that all poetry is political to some extent, because politics are part of, not separate from, the fabric of life. If I’m frank, I don’t think my poetry is political enough. I admire poets who are able to both be overtly political and still create art. Warsan Shire springs to mind for instance.”

Trévien says it’s a testament to how skilled an artist is if they can pique a dormant political instinct in their reader.

“I think that if you write ‘pollution is bad’, no one is going to care. People have heard it enough, they agree already, and it’s not an interesting set of three words. If a poet gets up and says something like that, I instantly switch off. It’s preachy, it’s moralising, and worst of all, boring. Successful environmental poetry, comes out of left field – you’re just out enjoying a poem and BAM! You get hit by a phrase, an image that makes you look at the world from a different tilt. It’s a surprise. To go back to Warsan Shire, there is also something about the way she phrases truths that not only connects with you, but feels like it should have existed in that form before.”

English poet Rachael Allen is researching new ways of achieving that “tilt” Trévien so delightfully describes. Her first pamphlet of poetry was published by Faber & Faber, and she is looking at climate change from a refreshing angle.

“I will be doing a paper at a poetry conference in May about an idea I’m examining about a link between a kind of financial insolvency and poetic insolvency, and how this might help us to communicate climate change and threat to ecological systems better to each other through poems,” says Allen, who is also poetry editor at Granta, and co-editor of online journal, Tender. “I’m currently funded by the Marine Institute at the University of Hull for my PhD, and the crux of my thesis is communicating human impact on the environment through poems.”

Within the need to make it all more palatable, those facts and statistics remain.

“It’s the biggest threat humanity faces by far,” says Mari McMillan, co-founder of Canada’s The Great Climate Race. “It affects human health, global trade, local economies, food security, tourism, and jobs. There’s nothing that climate change doesn’t touch because it affects our very survival. All the diseases, economic collapse are too scary for the average Canadian to [examine]. They do need to understand that it’s here now, to make the connection between the crazy, unpredictable weather patterns to climate change and see that it’s here to stay. Canada has a sad record on climate change, we have some of the biggest oil reserves on the planet, and up until recently, largely because of the drop in oil prices, we were one of the biggest GHG emitters. First Nations are at the forefront of the fight against climate change – a lot of infrastructure projects like pipelines are expanding in their territory. On the solutions side, green jobs are a job creator especially in solar energy. Investment in renewables is now in the hundreds of billions and set to reach 13.5 trillion by 2030. Justin Trudeau is making a major push into the climate fight, investing hundreds of millions in tech investment, and introducing carbon pricing across Canada.”

Allen suggests that poets who shift their focus from merely surface notions about trees and birds will communicate the message more truthfully.

“I am working to reject an idea that we should be focusing on the natural world in poetry,” says Allen, “and instead bringing forward an idea that we need to start writing more urgently about the things being done to nature, specifically thinking about corporate influence and the language of corporations, as opposed to the idea of nature we might take solace in – nice countryside walks, sunsets, etc. – as this tends to undermine the actual horrors that humanity is exercising on the environment. I am interested in the concept of financially auditing ecosystems – something the poet Katy Lederer writes about brilliantly – and how we can write about a natural environment that is now akin to a business, through poems.”

Rogers adds that part of achieving this includes looking at the pavement beneath our feet on the way to work.

“Many writers live in cities for the professional opportunities and diversity of human experiences cities provide. Retreating into nature is attractive and valuable, but the city is also an environment affected by climate change. The city is also an ecosystem. I love to get away from the density of human activity, but I also believe it’s necessary to be able to see that we are in the middle of nature no matter what the view is out our window.”

So, connecting to what Rogers and Allen say about the business of poetry, how can artistry have an impact in the way that, say, Leo DiCaprio has?

“I love any and all discussion surrounding climate change,” says McMillan. “Poets, visual artists, comedians, etc., are in an incredible position to speak out about it. Leo DiCaprio is just one voice among many. He really does know his shit, but we need millions of people from every corner of the planet speaking about climate change – business leaders, artists, everyone. There is room for everyone. Who better to hold a mirror up to the destruction than a poet?”

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