So I was revising my About page this evening and I realized how much this blog has evolved since I started it. At first it was a place to post my field notes from the Olmsted research I was doing for my thesis/manuscript, my publication news as poems started making it out into the world, and the great work my friends were doing through their own publications or events around the DC area. My job and my teaching inform my writerly identity as much as my work as a poet, though. So in the two years since I moved to the Eastern Shore I’ve felt torn with how I want to represent this identity virtually. Do I continue to represent only one angle of my life as a post-MFA poet trying to get her work out into the world and leave this occupation as a line on the bio? Or, do I let in the thinking that fuels my daily (salaried) work? In many ways this post is very overdue, but it truly took looking at my ”About” page today to realize I should articulate (at least one) of the ways in which these roles in my life are not at all disparate; they are, in fact, informed by each other.
Before I jump right into the reason for this entry’s title, I’ll need some set-up first. I write this entry a day after returning from the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCCs, or 4Cs). As always after a conference I am finding myself energized and exhausted at the same time. The dominant themes at work during this CCCCs (or, at least the things I sought out, and found valuable for my current thinking and work as a composition instructor and Writing Center administrator) seemed to be genre, transfer, and meta-cognition (awareness and understanding of one’s own thought process), and (of course) the relationships between these concepts.
There were two panels I found most powerful on these subjects, in part because they served to validate the work we’ve been doing in our Writing Theory and Pedagogy (peer tutor preparation) course, and in part because it has helped me to think more fully about my intentions in my own Composition and Literature (English 101) course (that’s where the “nonce” idea comes into play… but more on that later). [Specifics and my eventual point/observations after the jump]
[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.
Slate‘s Creative Pair series features some Chestertown locals from Idiots’ Books. The article puts two creative partners through a series of questions/studies to mark their relationship to each other and their relationship to their collaborative work. The pair, both married and professional couplings, express difficulty in separating oneself from other, the rate at which couplings proceed to “we” from “I” and how this factors into the creative process.
If there’s one thing that defines Robbi and Matthew’s work, it’s the collaborative method itself—the long, creative tumble that they take together, like kids going downhill in a tire. Matthew says that his work doesn’t even exist until he and Robbi talk about it and make it into something together. The collaboration extends well beyond their work, to encompass their very identities. “I know it sounds totally lame,” Robbi says, “but Matthew really is the other half. He’s half of what makes me.”
[Robbi] didn’t just appreciate Matthew’s writing. She also felt drawn to work with it herself. Illustrators usually represent in image what’s already articulated in words. But with the huge spaces in Matthew’s work, Robbi felt an opening to both follow and lead—to punctuate the text and to carry it along like a schoolmarm bending a little boy’s ear. The two found themselves hashing out the ideas in Matthew’s pieces—and how to compound, contradict, and enrich them. “It was the most thrilling artistic thing that had ever happened to me,” Matthew says. “It was like the first time I took a drink. It was this visceral gut-wrenching thrill of being in a new time and place. It was, ‘Oh my god, this is something I can do.’ “
[These notes are post-climb of Mt. Ascutney in Windsor, Vermont, reflective -- some field note type things, some poetry-related musings toward the end... a little all over the place, but that's what my mind is like... welcome!]
My parents now live in the mountains of New Hampshire, just across the border from VT. Any hill you can find will inevitably offer some spectacular views of Vermont’s Green Mountains. When I visited earlier this summer there was one day that was cooler than the others (yes, is it incredibly hot nearly everywhere this summer) so I drove the fifteen minutes across state borders to Mt. Ascutney (which rises roughly 3100 feet above sea level) for a hike. I’d been anxious for some New England trails for a while, so this was the day to do it.
When I checked in with the park ranger’s station at entrance to the park he gave me (for a mere $3) my pass to hang in my car and a quick nod. “You’re the only one to check in today.” The thought that I’d have the mountain to myself for the day was both exciting and a little terrifying (if something should happen, thank god I checked in and didn’t go for any of the other routes that don’t require it!). I didn’t have all day so I drove two miles up the mountain road to start my ascent 2.5 miles from the summit. I was at once reminded of the beauty of New England forests and trails… granite rocks with bright green moss creeping upwards… sheets of birch bark shed from their trees, curled up and discarded like a failed draft or consumed by the landscape, taken in… and evergreens. Once you reach a certain elevation not much can grow except the stubborn short evergreen shrubs (I wish I knew the names of things)… I had forgotten this sense of summit from other New England peaks. All else is stripped away. The bouldering you have to do toward the end can be slick as the granite has been rubbed to near sheen by weathering and foot traffic.
I learned that day that Ascutney is what is called a “monadnock” – an elevated portion of land that exists due to the resilience of its rock foundation. The rest of the landmass (peneplain) around it has eroded away over time. As the Ascutney guide says:
I’ve since taken up a new obsession… all summer I’ve been reading and investigating geomorphology and the conditions under which mountains are created from resistance instead of plate tectonics or living volcano. There is no connection to the range. What is our attraction to the singular? Is it our independence, our own need to stand out against a crowd? To take the path of most resistance and prevail? My attraction to the idea of a monadnock literally and metaphorically is troublesome… in general I find comfort with poets who take issue with individual genius and respond instead with collage and quotation and collaboration. The singular is dissolved, the reader engaged, the “Poet” just an agent of the action, an architect for some future experience. But then I think the poet is temporal, the language is the granite. Is every great poem in some sense a monadnock? We can’t see to that point — it takes time for other work to erode. Ok, I feel a bit better now. Onward…
What about erasure? It has been offered as a poet’s highlighter of the ways in which they read (DBQ), as problematic when determined from other well-known literary sources (RS), as a product of the “demands of re-contextualization” (TMcD), as poem “world-making and unmaking” (BMcH)… McHale in his chapter on erasure in Theory Into Poetry poses the question “how does one go about building a world using materials under erasure?” Well, what if the process could be more like the process of an emerging Monadnock? That instead of being built, the erosion-resistant language (to the poet maker, the language that persists) is what persists? That the new poem is not a reduction, but a heightening?
I think I might have found my next project.