[This post is part III in a cross-talk blogging experience between myself and Corey Spaley. The first entry (offering definitions) can be found below, Corey's reply can be found over at Pax Americana].
In Corey’s response he offers what he feels to be the “major limitation” of an ecopoetics:
[Ecopoetics] doesn’t help us think about the environmental problems currently facing us.
My immediate reaction is, it doesn’t? In my mind, that is exactly what ecopoetics does, or what ecopoetics should do. Help us think. Maybe this was simply slippage, but for me the act of writing poetry and the act of reading poetry is an act of thinking. I’d agree, generally, that “much of the discussion surrounding ecopoetics seems to offer up questions without attempts to work through problems or offer potential solutions” but I’d say this is true of the discussion but not the poems themselves.
Ecopoets who are “attend to the walk as much as the talk” (as per Skinner’s charge in the Introduction of the 2006-2009 Ecopoetics) are not only investigating our use of language and its connection to the environment, or offering “critical scrutiny” of environmental concerns broadly, but are often taking on specific, timely, and sensitive topics on as the subject(s) of their poems. In other words, they are offering evidence. Take Jennifer Atkinson’s Drift Ice, which revisits Prince William Sound in Alaska 15 years after the Exxon-Valdez oil spill (which, in light of the BP disaster, strikes an even greater resonance), or Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary, which addresses through collage of actual testimony and news articles, the plight of the coal miners both in the US and China, as two contemporary examples.
But, can such poetry help change policy for the better? At the very least it seems that (perhaps) if the eco-poem is a site for presenting the evidence, the eco-poet is the agent of change. For the eco-poet it seems futile to divorce the self from self where there is political agency is in question, as with many other political poets of our time and of history. Mark Nowak’s blog continues to chronicle the tragedy associated with coal mining deaths and dangers, Jennifer Atkinson educates her students through an ecopoetics class asking many of these questions we are posing in this dialogue, Jonathan Skinner encouraged contributors to and readers of Ecopoetics to join the www.350.org project, poets are collaborating to generate a poem to span the length of the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline over at http://enpipeline.org, and environmental groups, associations, and societies are bringing in poets to offer their voices in conversation and engagements with the public.
That said, is there something about ecopoetics that requires or is capable of a different answer? Do we expect something more, or different, than other artists united under other political charges? I’ll submit, eco-poems and eco-poets do resist offering solutions to the problems we face, and perhaps this is because such proposals have the potential to become heavy-handed, prescriptive, and didactic (modes all cringe-worthy, as far as I’m concerned).
One potential answer lies in the ecopoetic methods employed themselves. The zeal behind the fight might be best embodied in a poetics that is ambitious and risky in the best sense of those words. We might make use of the language of existing ineffective policy itself, manipulating what currently prevents change, and repurpose it through erasure, collage, visual poetics, and poetics of constraint. Such methods are often a form of “recycling,” after all, which allows the ecopoet to “[put] pressure on the language that is a manifestation of [the relationship with our ecology/environment],” as Tamiko Beyer puts it, so much pressure that the language is altered. The tension between the architectural elements of the poem (the poem as a built thing), and the poem as parallel to natural systems, is often at play in the ecopoetic poem either through its meditation or its methods. When lyric meditation is not enough, pushing the boundaries of form offers a place within which that tension can best resonate. Such forms might be ripe ground for appropriating the language that stands in the way of policy change, building up the language, or letting the language grow (or erode), into a form that is more effective for our means (and our ends).
I offer, as always, an entry title from the Oxford English Dictionary — one which will help launch a discussion with friend and fellow thinker, Corey Spaley, over at PAX AMERICANA. We’re trying to discover/come to/complicate some of the ideas surrounding ecopoetics and the implications for an ecopoetics in our current state of environmental crisis. Our respective interests span a pretty wide distance, so the outcome (at the moment) is unforeseeable… we’ll just roll with it and see what happens.
In so many ways (I think) any poem or poetic project is an ecopoiesis–an artificially assembled, self-sustaining system on the otherwise inert page (or more recently, the screen). We build the poem with language, punctuation, syntax, and any number of lexical materials. The poem’s elements interact with themselves and their environment in the way the components of an ecosystem do. The language of the poem requires room, and white space and the reader (the environment) take up as much responsibility for meaning as the words themselves.
To me, this is not a metaphorical proposition. Poem and/or poetic projects simply seem to function this way.
In one sense this description of the poem seems to indicate that poets/poems are particularly well-positioned to respond to the eco-issues our world is facing at this current moment. In another sense, that description is complicated by the urgency (or lack of urgency) to open up that self-sustaining system, to give the poem/project agency that is not self-contained, to a thing that is capable of resonating beyond and outside of itself and the intimate moment that is shared between poem, poet, and reader. In other words, what can a poem do? What should a poem do?
As James Engelhart describes in his “The Language Habitat: an Ecopoetry Manifesto” over at Octopus Magazine, “The ecopoem is connected to the world, and this implies responsibility” and as Christopher Arigo states in his “Notes Toward an Ecopoetics” over at How2 “…ecopoetics is in tension with the numerous disciplines that surround it—by necessity, the ecopoet is an interdisciplinary creature, whose purview includes science and the arts, though neither are mutually exclusive,” and as Jonathan Skinner states in the introduction to the 2006-2009 Ecopoetics “Let [the term] ecopoetics not serve as yet another form of branding… [w]e would hope that the term continue to be used with uncertainty and circumspection. That it ask and be asked the hard questions about language, representation, efficacy, ethics, community and identity that smart readers and makers ask of all poetics… [t]hat it attend to the walk as much as the talk,” the call to action, it seems, is one indication of its usefulness.
The definition of ecopoetry is thus, necessarily, elusive. We can sense that it both mimics and challenges natural systems, that it reaches beyond nature poetry, that it attaches itself to an ethics and an ethos of environmental concern, and that it crosses the boundaries of discipline and makes use of knowledge from outside the poet observer to inform and provide momentum for the work (not, I’ll say, for the individual poet, necessarily)… but what does it look like? What does it do? How does it engage with or interact with technological advances in the poetry world and beyond? How do we recognize an ecopoem? Maybe this dialogue will help us (begin to) find out.
Nelson’s meditation takes place through 240 poetic prose pieces (some feel like prose poems, most feel like a mixed essay/journal/response), what she calls “propositions”. The range of blue swells out from a general obsession with the color to the figurative feeling of the same name, to historical and philosophical implications for color and our experience of it. As with her poetic non-fiction project about an aunt who had been killed before she was born, Jane: A Murder, Nelson reaches out to other texts and contexts to increase her understanding, to work through the thing at the center of her focus, inserting herself in the conversation (as any good academic does).
In the first instance, she tells us how to read the project: ”Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession… It began slowly. An appreciation, an affinity. Then, one day, it became more serious. Then (looking into an empty teacup, its bottom stained with thin brown excrement coiled into the shape of a sea horse) it became somehow personal.)”
The project is indeed quite personal — as always there is no distinguishing between Nelson and the “I” in her work. It is born from her and despite the literary turn of the text the self remains contained, and, in fact, the text depends on it. I feel her working through emotions deliberately, as if bouncing them off of all of this other material will help define or describe the indescribable, what feels inaccessible. There is plenty about the pursuit that is acknowledged as futile — that the color (or this meditation) does not necessarily increase wisdom or offer change, it accumulates clarity, a sense of things… and Nelson’s gone to every corner for that sense.
Here are some moments that resonated for me:
You might want to reach out and disturb the pile of pigment, for example, first staining your fingers with it, then staining the world…. But you still wouldn’t be accessing the blue of it. Not exactly.
17. But what goes on in you when you talk about color as if it were a cure, when you have not yet stated your disease.
54. Long before either wave or particle, some (Pythagoras, Euclid, Hipparchus) thought that our eyes emitted some kind of substance that illuminated, or “felt,” what we saw.
Loneliness is solitude with a problem.
75. Mostly I have felt myself becoming a servant of sadness. I am still looking for the beauty in that.
It often happens that we count our days, as if the act of measurement made us some kind of promise.
It is tempting to derive some kind of maturity narrative here: eventually we sober up and grow out of our rash love of intensity…. But my love for blue had never felt to me like a maturing, or a refinement, or a settling. For the fact is that one can maintain a chromophilic recklessness well into adulthood. Joan Mitchell, for one, customarily chose her pigments for their intensity rather than their durability–a choice that, as many painters know, can in time bring one’s painting into a sorry state of decay. (Is writing spared this phenomenon?)
I feel confident enough of the specificity and strength of my relation to it to share. Besides, it must be admitted that if blue is anything on this earth, it is abundant.
For blue has no mind. It is not wise, nor does it promise any wisdom. It is beautiful, and despite what the poets and philosophers and theologians have said, I think beauty neither obscures truth nor reveals it.
Writing is, in fact, an astonishing equalizer. I could have written half of these propositions drunk or high, for instance, and half sober… But now that they have been shuffled around countles times–now that they have been made to appear, at long last, running forward as one river–how could either of us tell the difference?
Often [writing all day] feels more like balancing two sides of an equation–occasionally satisfying, but essentially a hard and passing rain. It, too, kills the time.
229. I am writing all this down in blue ink, so as to remember that all words, not just some, are written in water.