Maggie Wang was co-editor-in-chief of the school literary magazine in Washington, D.C. where she grew up and now studies at the University of Oxford where she leads the Oxford University Poetry Society. She was a festival poet at this year’s Kendal Poetry Festival and is a Ledbury Poetry Critic.
April Egan was a commended Foyle Young Poet and first-prize winner of Gboyega Odubanjo’s People Need Nature challenge on Young Poets Network in 2020. April is also commended in the Poetry and Political Language Challenge, in partnership with the Orwell Youth Prize.
Matt Sowerby is a spoken word poet and activist, a member of Dove Cottage Young Poets, and a SLAMbassador. He has performed at The Poetry Society, the Houses of Parliament and TedxDoncaster. His one-man show Kidz Theez Dayz premiered at Greenbelt Festival in 2019.
Jayant Kashyap is a Pushcart Prize nominee and author of the poetry pamphlets Survival(Clare Songbirds 2019) and Unaccomplished Cities (Ghost City Press 2020). Recently, he was shortlisted for the 2021 New Poets Prize.
Fiyinfoluwa Timothy Oladipo (Fiy) is a young British-Nigerian poet who has featured in several Young Poets Network events at The Poetry Society, wrote and judged a Young Poets Network writing challenge on How-To Poetry in 2019, and was a commended Foyle Young Poet 2018. He is currently a medical student studying in London.
Zaphael Lee (Zaph) is a 13-year-old spoken word poet, writer and artist based in Bournemouth. They started writing poetry from the age of 6 and have already been published in anthologies, taken part in, and won, several adult poetry slams, performed at The Poetry Café and been a guest poet at many UK festivals. Their work on climate change is featured on Young Poets Network.
With the guidance of Helen Bowell, Education Coordinator at The Poetry Society, I approached six young poets from around the world (Nigeria, India, Australia, the US, and the UK) to find out their perspective on the Anthropocene. The result was a fascinating roundtable discussion, full of passion and insight on what it means to be a young person writing today and what role poetry might have in re-imagining the Earth’s future. I am so grateful to the poets for taking part and deeply indebted to Helen and the Young Poets Network* for helping to shine a light on these important voices. – Cheryl Moskowitz
What does the Anthropocene mean to you?
Fiy: Admittedly, the word ‘Anthropocene’ has always been one that I’ve been acutely aware of without ever truly grasping. In many ways the concept of the Anthropocene feels like applying hindsight to what is essentially the present.
Maggie: The Anthropocene is, above all, terrifying. When has the Earth ever been so tightly controlled by such a small group of organisms? When has the Earth ever been subjected to such rapid and drastic change at all levels? The Anthropocene is a warning and more importantly a chance for us – humans – to put ourselves into perspective. What humanity has achieved is extraordinary and awe-inspiring, but also alarming. We have, more than any other species, acquired the ability to reshape the planet to our will. But, in doing so, we’ve unleashed forces beyond our control, and we’re increasingly helpless before our own ambitions. The Anthropocene is the manifestation of our urges, visions and ideals and also a reminder that most species are ephemeral on the scale of geologic time.
Jayant: Anthropocene is our time – the period in which we can quite simply destroy our Earth, as we are doing already; or we can decide to do otherwise. We have become the ones to shape how the Earth fares now, and in the future.
April: The Anthropocene is where the human impact on the environment has become non-reciprocal, and the ways in which this has changed humans’ interactions with the natural world and with each other.
Matt: To me, the Anthropocene represents a role reversal. As humans we have stopped moulding ourselves to our environment and started moulding our environment to ourselves. The etymology of ‘Anthropocene’ (anthrop – cene, ‘age of man’) suggests humans are now in control of everything, including the climate, but also misleadingly or ironically implies that we can control what the climate does to us in response. The contradictory nature of the concept is reflective of the unsustainability of our situation. The Anthropocene is self-destructive – a timebomb shaped like a planet. My generation are natives of the Anthropocene – we have never known a world that wasn’t ending. I use the word ‘world’ because it also, funnily enough, means “age of man”. Either the world will end with the destruction of the anthrop or with the anthrop giving up its reign and renegotiating a new relationship with our environment.
Fiy: For me, especially during current times, I think the Anthropocene is encapsulated by the square view of my term-time bedroom window; it is the understanding that each glance taken is not only unique (exemplified by the fleeting cars and high-rise buildings under construction), but also, very much limited (the horizon).
Zaph: The Anthropocene term was not something I was immediately familiar with. However I did some further research and I do understand the significance of the current debate around definitions. I feel the time to be involved on debate and conversation about climate has run out. I think the real urgency now is for action on climate to be implemented. It is incredibly worrying to me that our limited time to act is vanishing fast and very little is being done.
The Anthropocene has been criticised for grouping people together as a ‘species,’ but different groups have different impacts on the environment. What are your thoughts about this?
Jayant: The Encyclopaedia Britannica states that the Anthropocene is “characterised as the time in which the collective activities of human beings (Homo sapiens) began to substantially alter Earth’s surface, atmosphere, oceans, and systems of nutrient cycling”. Different groups do affect the environment differently, but it’s the collective impact on the planet that changes the climate as a whole over time. Considering the efforts that the varieties of groups need to put together for the Earth’s better future, perhaps the Anthropocene is more right than wrong in counting us as one species.
Maggie: Different groups do have different impacts on the environment. Developing countries experience 99% of all deaths and 90% of all economic losses from weather-related disasters, but the world’s 50 least-developed countries account for only 1% of global carbon emissions. This is why we have the concept of climate justice. But it’s undeniable that the Anthropocene is a unique event in Earth’s history, and it would be irresponsible of us to claim that humans as a whole aren’t causing unprecedented and unsustainable damage to the planet. The Anthropocene and climate justice are perfectly compatible terms: only when we acknowledge that humans have done immense harm to our environment will we be able to see – and rectify – the accompanying inequality and injustice.
April: As someone who grew up in Australia, I am particularly concerned that Australia’s indigenous population is not listened to. When the especially devastating bushfires occurred in 2020, there was an atmosphere amongst my British classmates of this being the inevitability of some foreign place. Their severity was a direct result of colonialism and desperation to westernise Australia, a careless government and a land shared unequally. One of my earliest memories is watching fire-resistant gumtrees being demolished and replaced with two-storey houses, which stand no chance against bushfire. Nobody locally asked for it – it was someone rich and far away, who didn’t even try to understand the land or the people who cultivated it. There must be transparency and accountability; there has to be, and we have to listen to each other if we want to stand any chance at all.
Zaph: I agree that different people have different impact on the environment based on the area they live in. Quality of life can wildly differ from country to country, some having less industry and manufacturing, and people can have a much smaller carbon footprint than others, or much less mass farming or more cars. For me, the term species is reductive and doesn’t fully encompass the complex and varied factors that contribute to the climate crisis. To speak generally, there is so little change that each individual person can make that would affect the whole planet, even if we all made changes, when it is the big corporations, industries and governments that create and contribute to the majority of the damage.
Fiy: I very much agree with this sentiment as so much of history becomes lost in any approximations of humanity’s lasting impact on this planet. The Anthropocene brings different ideas, milestones, and accomplishments in mind to different people, and I think it’s important to aspire towards a global perspective for what is a global concept and reckoning of time.
Matt: The Anthropocene is an incredibly ambitious term because it tries to encapsulate the global ‘now’ in contrast to a global ‘then’ with no consensus on when ‘then’ ended and ‘now’ began. Inevitably, it fails to offer a nuanced understanding of the vast and complicated challenges it describes. However, I don’t think any of the alternative terms that have been suggested for our new geological epoch (capitalocene, homogenocene, noösphere, cthulucene, etc.) have overcome this issue. While the vagueness of the word ‘Anthropocene’ is problematic, I think it is useful in the context of climate politics. Although not limited to describing climate change, ‘Anthropocene’ frames it as a global problem to which everyone has (some level of) responsibility, and as such is a step towards the type of global cooperation necessary for overcoming the climate crisis.
Climate change, plastic in the sea, resource wars, artificial hearts, gasoline, Vaseline, nail varnish – oil plays a part in all these things. Does your writing engage with oil?
Fiy: In particular, oil is something that I have always wanted to engage with as a writer, especially given the extent to which it has shaped not only technological advancements, but the histories of nations.
April: I think my writing engages with oil unconsciously. All our lives are dependent on plastic and oil, even if this is smoothed away in the suburbs. This is especially true for young girls, whose consumption of plastic and oil often goes in hand in hand with the expectations placed upon them: nail varnish, plastic dolls, makeup, all use oil. Even if we try to ignore its presence, for me there’s always a lingering sense of guilt which informs my writing.
Maggie: Oil is such an ironic concept: to power our homes and cars and airplanes. We’ve tapped into the remains of marine organisms from thousands of years ago and, in this extraction process, we’ve destroyed many of today’s most interesting and scientifically valuable ecosystems. I probably wouldn’t be able to write if oil weren’t part of my life. Because of that, I feel compelled to engage with oil and all its histories, from nineteenth-century whaling expeditions to Deepwater Horizon and beyond.
Jayant: Yes! I remember being very affected by a poem in Shara Lessley’s Two-Headed Nightingale which describes a whale rotting on the ocean floor with its “five tons of oil, sustaining / creatures by the hundreds”. I’ve often thought of this.
Matt: Oil is a constant, if often unseen, presence in my writing. My pen is polystyrene – the ink possibly contains 2-Phenoxyethanol. As I write, I am aware that the plastic of this pen will probably outlast these words or any memory of me. The time when poets had to worry about not leaving a legacy has passed. I am aware that in writing, like in so much of what I do, I am using up natural resources, and commissioning the continuation of the kinds of capitalist processes which are collectively threatening human civilisation. As such I am committing a micro-violence against future generations. I promise myself again that the next poem will be worth it.
In the future, what kind of energy will people be writing about?
Jayant: Oil might not be the thing people will be writing about in the future – apart from its historical significance, of course – as we’re already becoming more inclined towards sustainable energy. Perhaps we’ll be writing about nuclear energy, or perhaps about one that’s totally unheard of at present.
April: I think nuclear energy will provoke different conversations than it has before as the threat of apocalyptic nuclear war is replaced by the active threat of climate change.
Maggie: I imagine future writers might explore the human and environmental costs of renewable energy – wind farms, solar farms, hydroelectric dams – and I’ve begun to touch on some of these topics in my writing too.
Matt: A couple of attempts to build wind turbines on the fells in my area have been prevented by campaigners hoping to preserve the natural beauty of the Lake District. This is the same landscape Daniel Defoe described almost 300 years ago as the most “barren and frightful” he had come across in England. It has taken successive artistic and literary movements (most notably the Romantics) to bring about this polar shift in popular perception. I hope poets will have a similar hand in making people more receptive to the aesthetics of green energy in the future.
Zaph: It entirely depends on what future we have. If we, as the human race, do not take action or take action too late, will there be any energy to write about? Will there be any writers? Maybe people will write about the sun that is too hot or maybe new types of sustainable energy will be discovered that would seem like magic to us now.
What role can poetry play in reimagining the Earth’s future?
Zaph: While reimagining the future through words can be inspiring and entertaining, there would not be much point without following through with direct action. Not that words can’t be powerful enough to bring about change, but it largely depends on who is listening or reading the poems. Giving the right people the right words at the right time can have an effect on a whole generation. There is a vital connection that is made through our words and the stories we share, that sparks the imagination and intellect as well as the heart of both the poet and the audience.
Maggie: Poetry offers us an opportunity to connect with ourselves and the world around us and to try to bridge the gap between those two. By reading, writing, teaching, and sharing poetry, we can reach a better understanding of our impact on the world.
Fiy: Poetry offers this much-needed contemplative space for people to reflect on humanity, its past, and its direction, that often headlines and social media might not be able to provide. It seems that poems and poets can be on a wavelength that taps into a shared fear, anxiety, and intrigue that we all have about ‘the human footprint’. And because of this, I think poetry is key in foretelling the joys and woes that future living might bring.
April: I don’t think poetry is activism, but it is connection. Poetry does not exist simply between its writer and its reader. Everyone who reads it envisions something different. It’s the connective tissue that keeps us new and excited and human. Earth’s future depends on the goodness in people, but also our ability to demand things as a group and to hold each other accountable in order to improve. Poetry brings us together, we’re all human, and we all deserve a better future.
Matt: For completely understandable reasons I think ecopoetic imaginings of the Earth’s future often lean towards dystopianism. While such poems are important, I believe that unless people are able to imagine utopian futures as well, climate reform will be stifled by eco-anxiety and burnout. I think poetry can hold utopias better than narrative fiction because poems don’t have to centre themselves around conflict in the same ways narratives do. The danger with such poems is that they might detract from the sense of urgency the reader should feel about the current crisis, or simply come across as idealistic or overly sentimental. For this reason, I think the best way to write utopian futures is to begin by asking what moments or images in our present lives we would like to see preserved.
Maggie: Poetry gives us the space to explore new ways of seeing and to consider perspectives beyond the human, which is critical to acknowledging our responsibility to the natural world as a species. Because poetry is so open-ended and versatile, it offers us a chance to confront our blind spots and failings and consider how we might take advantage of the few remaining opportunities we have to restore the ecosystems we’re destroying.
Jayant: Poetry has played an essential role throughout the ages, and numerous plagues have been weathered and overcome with its music… from Thomas Nashe’s A Litany in Time of Plague in 1593 to all the poems that are being written today. Poetry can help many of us win our personal wars too. This is because poetry, in the way that it can be used for spreading awareness, might serve as the purest form of activism.
Can you name a particular poet/poem that has impacted on your thinking / understanding in terms of the Anthropocene?
April: What first came to mind for me is WH Auden’s If I Could Tell You. It’s the most wonderful and sad exploration of how our inner worlds grow tighter as the world outside becomes increasingly frightening and unexplainable. It was written right on the verge of the Second World War and I feel the line “I love you more than I can say – if I could tell you I would let you know” encapsulates perfectly that pained and terrified feeling. We become closer to our lives on Earth when we feel them shaking beneath us.
Fiy: The first poem that comes to mind is The Lake Isle of Innisfree by WB Yeats for its combination of nature and modernity in so relatively few lines. While it doesn’t explicitly tackle all of humanity in one go, I think it emphasises the need for an appreciation of the Earth we inhabit wherever our advancements and activities might take us.
Maggie: Mary Oliver has been hugely influential on me. Her work has shown me how to be more mindful as a person and a poet. I admire her grace and humility, and I find her imagery to be singularly beautiful. My style is quite different from hers, but I’ve always enjoyed reading her work. Her language is so careful and yet so natural, and she has the most amazing way of making the reader pause and think and imagine.
Jayant: Nadia Lines’ Woodland for Sale; Katy Didden’s Ghazal of the Elegant Skull… it’s always difficult to choose just one. Although, of course, I’ve observed that all such poems are perfectly sad love letters to our environment discussing all that it could have been once we’ve lost it. There is a longing there and all of it, entirely true!
Matt: This is maybe cheating but I really like Bill McKibben’s concept ‘Eaarth,’ which the critic Joshua Schuster describes as a one-word concrete poem. McKibben has argued that the Earth is now fundamentally different from the Earth as it existed for most of human history, and as such should be spelt differently. The effect is to denaturalise everything we recognise as ‘nature’ today. However, by another interpretation ‘Eaarth’ might represent any global future; utopian, dystopian or anywhere in between. As such it feels like an invitation to reimagine what Earths might be possible.
*Young Poets Network is The Poetry Society’s free, online platform for young poets up to the age of 25. It publishes features about poets and poetry, regular writing challenges and competitions to inspire new work, prize-winning poems by young writers, and advice and guidance from the rising and established stars of the poetry scene. Young Poets Network also keeps an up-to-date list of competitions, magazines and writing groups for young poets. It aims to be a welcoming space for young poets worldwide, no matter where they are on their poetry journey.