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Climate Activism as Poetry

Sometimes readers react to ‘subject matter’ over the activity of the poem. They feel anything remotely ‘political’ to be polemical and thus didactic. They feel they “know this information already, so why do they need it in a poem”. That is precisely the point. They ‘know’ it. They are not ‘feeling it.’ That is what activists in the environmental movement are asking of us: help it be felt, help it be imagined.

Jorie Graham, from an interview with Earthlines

KMcCW, CT, LS, PA, JG. Photo: Leo Boix

“Hope is an Embrace of the Unknown”

“We may be living through times of unprecedented change, but in uncertainty lies the power to influence the future. Now is not the time to despair, but to act.” These are the words of Rebecca Solnit, writing about her book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. On the 21st of January a group of poets, researchers and scientists were brought together by Cambridge Conservation Initiative and Magma poetry magazine to discuss eco-activism, followed by an evening reading with Polly Atkin, Joanna Guthrie, Kathleen Jamie, John Kinsella, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Laura Scott, Anna Selby, Jos Smith and Claudine Toutoungi.

Both poets and scientists in the seminar focused on creating  more common ground, more platforms, more spaces for conversations and questioned how we can think about this more creatively to have more resonance. Humphrey Crick, one of the scientists present, suggested that many people feel disempowered by the vastness of Climate Change, but “Poetry can help take the enormity, help make that connection and build empathy around difficult and big issues of biodiversity loss.” Another scientist added that now is the time to “allow the new reality to come into it. Allow emotion into it.”

Isabel Galleymore is a poet doing just this. In her poems she deals with climate change through the difficult emotions bought about by it, the sense of vulnerability, connection, loss, anger. Dom Bury (who took part in the Conversation featured in Magma’s recent Climate Change Issue) also has a focus on the felt, bodily experience of Ecological Grief. Biologist and poet Jemma Borg is also in the latest issue, who said, when she won The Gingko Prize for Ecopoetry last autumn: “I had to listen to what the poem wanted to say. It said: hope.”

We Deserve to Thrive

Some of the world’s most affected and at risk areas, the Niger delta, atolls and small island nations, the countries where the ice buckles beneath people’s feet or where sacred trees are waxed out, also have some of the world’s keenest observers. Over the last few years Marshallese, Samoan, Filipino and Guamanian poets have been invited to perform and speak at the United Nations Climate Change Summit. As John Kinsella said of poet Charmaine Papertalk Green, from the Yamaji Nation of Western Australia, “She is an activist because she has no choice.”  This is true of many poets, including Craig Santos Perez, a native Chamoru from the island of Guam, where deep sea mining companies are currently aiming to alter one of the richest habitats (and the deepest) on our planet.

Ennuebing Island, Kwajalein Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands. Photo from US Geological Survey blog

Activist-poets living, witnessing, watching the sea pour into their houses or the edges of their land thaw or the wetlands shrivel, include Terisa Siagatonu, John Meta Sarmiento, Isabella Avila Borgeson, Eunice Andrada, Aka Niviana, Kathy Jetnil Kijiner, Gabriel Okara, Christian Otobotekere, Homero Aridjis, Tanure Ojaide, Ogaga Ifowodo, Nnimmo Bassey and Ebi Yeibo. The importance of their writing cannot be underestimated, this is what Mike Toms (British Trust for Ornothology) referred to as “the honesty of the voice” and “integrity” of poets whose experience is first-hand.

If you open up any atlas
and take a look at a map of the world,
almost every single one of them
slices the Pacific Ocean in half…

The audacity one must have to create a visual so
violent as to assume that no one comes
from water

Terisa Siagatonu, from Atlas  

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things

In the evening event, John Fanshawe introduced Kathleen Jamie by describing how conservationists hold her writing, as “The poems you give us as gifts.” The lines he had in mind were from her poem, ‘The Dipper’, “that knows the depth of the river/ yet sings of it on land”. During the afternoon there had been much talk of the loss of at-risk minority languages and before her reading, Kathleen commented on this eradication, “When you lose a language you lose a way of being in the world”.

Kathleen Jamie & John Kinsella. Photo:Leo Boix

Earlier in the day, John Kinsella had shared a question he’s been asked a lot: What is the most activist thing you can do as a poet? John is a lifelong environmental activist, protester, campaigner, vegan for over 30 years, he’s been imprisoned, stopped bulldozers in their tracks, had death threats… But his answer to the question is always this, “I just write the world around me”. John has been doing this his whole life, and now what he looks for is what’s not there anymore, and why it’s not.

The act of writing about the natural world is an act of recording and preserving. John talked about this as, “The making of the poem and the use of the poem, which lifts you out of your own understanding through the act of writing… using language that is not only illumination, but brings hesitation.” Polly Atkin, Joanna Guthrie, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Laura Scott, Jos Smith and Claudine Toutoungi all do this in vastly imaginative ways.

The words we choose to tell the story of Climate Change are crucial, they can either wake or anesthetize us. It is important that scientists present their research with neutrality, in unambiguous language, but poets can respond creatively and are doing so, especially with so many researchers’ abstracts and papers being free and openly accessible via websites like Nature Climate Change.

The week prior to the seminar George Monbiot had given a talk in which he focused some of his attention on the words of conservation, giving an example of how Sites of Special Scientific Interest, as a name, “is terrible” and should be called Sites of Scientific Wonder. Perhaps, unlike other regions, languages and countries, we’ve got a little scared of ‘whimsy’ and ‘flowery’ language, or of approaching writing poems with intention; our words have gone cold, just when when we need them to stir and empower us.

Jos Smith reading. Photo: Leo Boix

Discussion also focused on individual everyday acts, the small and random acts of conservation we can all do. Not random as in sporadic, but original, innovative and built from a spontaneous, personal desire to do them. John Fanshawe commented, “We’re often ground down by the enormity of Edmund Burke’s quote*. We have to create the space for more collaboration and fertilisation. Small acts of repair are important.”

During a discussion about residencies and working in more unexpected sectors, it was suggested that (collectively) we don’t ask the right questions. That we should go and ask, go and place ourselves in non-artistic and non-scientific projects with the workers and companies that are impacting the environment. More and more opportunities are beginning to appear for ‘Embedded Artists’ to work alongside planners, but we can also be initiating these conversations. Often we ask, what can we do? I wonder if we ask enough, what do I want to do? One of the best things about the arts is that if something doesn’t exist, we make it, or we make it up.

“This Doesn’t Have to be a Requiem

John Kinsella

Anna Selby reading. Photo: Leo Boix

Activism and direct action are ways of saying no, not anymore, and are a celebration, are hopeful. As Steve Porter put it, “you offer courage to people by an intervention”. Movements like Extinction Rebellion and books like Mark Cocker’s Our Place allow us to be braver and to question our sense of what is right and needed.

There is a restrictive expectation of national organisations like the RSPB, (which has 1.2 million supporters) to be apolitical, to adhere to public acceptability. One of the questions posed in the seminar was, “How do people who have nothing to lose by being political speak for those organisations?” Perhaps we need to delegate Climate Change – the wordsmiths take on the words, conservationists conservation, psychologists the psychology, we need to make up our teams and share this task. As Kathleen Jamie put it, “I have faith in poetry. It teases time. Infiltrate another creature. Advocate for the creatures as their voice. I do still believe poetry can do that.”

* “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Many thanks to Anna – from CCI and the Magma team – for writing these two blog posts. And to Leo for the photos.

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