2013 Conference on Ecopoetics: The Ever-Extending Net

Every surface pervious!

—Charles Legere

The organizers of the first Conference on Ecopoetics (February 2013, UC Berkeley) made the striking choice to formulate the welcome as a problem-solution proposal, with CO2 levels and climate change as the central crises and ecopoetics as a potential “vehicle for mobilizing collective advocacy and action.” After my initial kneejerk response of skepticism, I was thrilled the organizers offered up this argument as a possibility, because it blew open the floodgates of inquiry.

Right away, the question arose as to whether activism runs parallel to poetic praxis or is synonymous with poetic praxis. These questions bled into further debate about ecopoetry’s ability to spark activism, and whether, should this ability exist, ecopoetry must fulfill its potential to activate. For those working from the belief that ecopoetics could inspire action, a question arose about the apparatus of influence: Are readers moved most by emotional or ethical material? What is the distinction between affect and ethics if a primary route to morality is the empathetic imagination? And should poets employ the rhetoric of crisis to instigate response to ecological precariousness?

In her panel reading, Myung Mi Kim counterbalanced this call to a call to action by noting that language as influencer is cousin to language as oppressor: colonizers (from every era and part of the world) cut the mother tongue from the mouths of the colonized to rule out resistance. After this caution, Kim did go on to speak hopefully of the “emancipatory potential of language,” but she avoided pronouncements as to a linguistics of manumission, modeling instead a free-flowing, inquisitive, semi-improvisatory essay form.

Another presenter named Rachel Smith argued, through a close reading of a Billy Collins poem, that an aesthetic experience of affect can diffuse the experiencer’s feelings of empathy and investment—simulacrum becomes an idol at the feet of which readers can disavow authentic emotions. In the place of affective aesthetics, she proposed a writing that would literally change the reader’s mind by rewiring neurological connections through the continual upheaval of definitions.

The seminar on Ecopoetics and Affect complicated the idea of affect in poetry as an activating (activist) force even more. Rather than posing affect as the entry point to empathetic imagination, ethics, and activism, the panelists presented ecopoetic modes of affect that were paralyzing (neoliberal “informational grief” about environmental crisis), ambient (the miasmal, defused affect engendered by an ecology of textual information—packaging, signs, print news, billboards), or literal (as in seasonal affective disorder—a kind of depression caused by insufficient exposure to natural light).

One of the presenters on this panel, Cate Lycurgus, was more hopeful for the instructive potential of affect in poetry. Her paper, “Attention to Intention: Defining the Inpastoral Poem,” discussed animism in Brenda Hillman’s work as a successful affective-spiritual model for human reconnection to an ecological context. As much as I might agree with Cate, I felt the hum and haw of aversion to the twinned concepts of animism and empathetic imagination for two reasons: First, animism in many writers’ hands might slip toward pathetic fallacy and anthropomorphism—the same fetishism of the nonhuman as found in the traditional pastoral, the sublime, and nature writing. Second, though Hillman emphasized the nonhuman in her construction of the empathetic imagination in ecopoetics, an empathetic imagination must also extend to humans, advancing a pro-social (pro-human survival) ethic. And in the age of Late Capitalism, it’s hard to imagine pro-social ethics completely extricated from a capitalist framework. So, as Marxist theorist Nathan Brown put it, “What is sustained through sustainability is capitalism.”

Acknowledging that this line of reasoning easily tailspins into murky nihilistic territory, I’ll tamp it back with Miriam Nichols’s aphoristic summary of her reading of Little Otik: you can either be a greedy guts or not.

Nathan Brown also tidily argued that ecopoets should disburden themselves of the idea that they could stoke a significant political movement with their aesthetic practices; as an art form without much value in the market, he said, poetry will never reach the kind of social relevance required for political change. But many, including the Brown, defended poetry’s fringe position as its main worth in the context of capitalism’s erosion of the environment. Its irrelevance to capitalism—its financial failure—was proposed as the source and substance of its subversive power. Some viewed poetry’s marginality as actively opposing the capitalist hegemony, while others saw its marginality as intrinsically valuable—vital evidence of diversity within the hegemony.

Many agreed that one of the goals of ecopoetics is to preserve disappearing languages and vocabulary relating to nonhuman biota, ecological processes, and earth materials—to disallow extirpation of species and cultures in language as a talisman against or memorial to their actual extinction. There was also a mood of consensus around ecopoetic’s promise of diversifying language (through neologism, onomatopoeia, cross-pollination, and nontraditional techniques such as nonlinearity, parasyntax, and asyntax). Here again, diversity was valued as standing against the ablating forces of mainstream consumerism. Ecopoetics would preserve and innovate to keep product names from dominating the dictionary (akin to Charles Bernstein’s appropriation of Clayton Christiansen’s theory of disruptive innovation in the essay “The Task of Poetics, the Fate of Innovation, and the Aesthetics of Criticism”).

Some suggested that marginalized groups—people of color, GLBT, indigenous peoples, populations in developing nations, people living in poverty—could offer insight into diversifying language and understanding the otherness of the nonhuman. This train of thought follows from the reality that marginalized groups often depend more directly on the land for sustenance, live in the areas most affected by industrial pollution, compose the cheap labor force exploited by industry, experience the brunt of environmental crises (food shortages, floods, drought), and know firsthand the position of otherness. (There was little mention of women in this discussion, but I think this omission stemmed from a tacit appreciation of women’s importance.)

I noticed a few supporters of this idea—the connection between human marginality and nonhuman alterity—venting on their way out of sessions where straight, white males from the academy dominated the discussion; and this irritation made me very glad, because it was a sign that generative debate and a genuine investment were in play.

The tenet of diversity in ecopoetics was proven in the public readings held as part of the conference. The first reading showcased a fantastic range of aesthetic tastes and themes. Among the mix, cross-genre pieces; poems concerned with gender-queer and homosexual experiences of ecology; a personal essay on the intersections of color, class, and environment; eco-erotica; and a manifesto on ecopoetics. The reading (and the conference as a whole) not only mingled critics, artists, and activists, both of the academy and not, but it also blurred the usual dividing lines of experimentalism and traditionalism. Most encouraging was the sense that these divergent practitioners interacted not out of careerism, but from shared interest.

Various presenters made an effort to redefine nature toward ecological realism—stressing that no portion of the natural world is untouched by human influence, situating urban spaces inside ecology, attending to microfauna and inanimate earth materials as well as better-publicized megafauna, trading the word nature for nonhuman, honoring alterity, and trying to think beyond a human timeframe to have a more expansive understanding of futurity. In short, “Nature has no antonym” in ecopoetry.

A consensus also formed around the idea that nature writing, rooted in the writing of romantic poets, works counter to ecopoetics. Unlike nature writing, ecopoetics refuses to fetishize the nonhuman and decenters the primacy of humans, working from the premise of complete interconnectivity among nonhuman and human systems. This shift from nature writing to ecological writing doesn’t, however, seem to find its way out of the Edenic narrative; in the ecopoetic model, humans are no longer rightful subduers, but are often characterized as a looming antagonistic presence or implicitly urged to be more holistically minded stewards of the nonhuman. Either way, humans top the org chart (trophic web) and are tasked with shepherding “resources”—a penitential, conservationist pastoral. So one of the premises of ecopoetics­—to decenter human primacy—begins to fold in on itself.

The choice of Michael Ziser, director of UC Davis’s Environmental Humanities Supercluster, as an advisory board member signaled an interest in interdisciplinarity as an ecopoetic practice. I thought I sensed that some of the advisory board members prized a link between literature and the sciences—suggesting that science needs a mouthpiece and recasting poetry as a communication art? But Ziser almost apologetically admitted in the opening roundtable that his attempts to introduce non-literature ecocriticism students to ecologically concerned poetry had met resistance. In Q & A afterward, an attendee asked Ziser to give an example of the poetry these students had resisted. The joyously awkward moment that followed cracked the mood of seriousness, making room for difficult work to take place: Ziser named Styrofoam, without knowing that the questioner was Styrofoam’s author, Evelyn Reilly.

As Hillman noted, the frequent charge against poetry of elitism and obscurity does present a barrier to poetry’s interdisciplinary potential and relevance to a larger environmental movement. Though Hillman was clear that she viewed poetry as a necessary corollary to activism, those who yearn for an activating poetry will have to negotiate this perception, which isn’t the result of mass culture and institutional control alone.

In the panels I attended, the presenters who did engage in interdisciplinarity tended to combine poetry with other art practices (dance, performance art, film) and/or bring poetry into outdoor spaces and public arenas, usually as a kind of art action.

Bodies most often appeared in the ecopoetic field in the context of interdisciplinarity: Angela Hume’s investigation of slow death in the mixed-media works of Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge and Claudia Rankine, David Buuck’s site-specific readings and performance art, Nicky Tiso’s human microphone readings and Poetry Activist Community Extension actions, Jennifer Scappettone and co.’s “trash talk” poem-dance performance at former New York City landfill, Fresh Kills.

Embodiment typically fell into one of two categories: activist bodies (bodies politicized by their placement in an environment) and risk bodies (vulnerable bodies, bodies made ill by pollution). In the latter case, the language of crisis was made even more imminent and personal by attaching it to the site of a body. Often, activist artists’ political action avowed solidarity with risk bodies by recognizing a universal physical violability: David Buuck ate polluted soil on Treasure Island and risked arrest by trespassing on private property, and Nicky Tiso risked arrest by participating in Occupy Oakland and other public guerrilla actions. These embodied art practices seemed to hit nearest the mark of an activating poetry, as actions and activism ask for embodied and localized engagement that might transform viewers into participants.

The organizers did an amazing job of offering attendees consciously embodied experiences of ecology. The first official day began with excursions, or site-centered poetry experiences—there were seven options throughout the Bay Area, including one designed for attendees with limited mobility. On another day, Bob Hass, advisory board member to the conference, led a tour of UC Berkeley’s landscape architecture as an example of ecopoetic pedagogy. And the conference concluded with a service project, which involved planting native species near a section of Strawberry Creek on campus. The project director also gave a tour of the campus which, like Hass’s tour, revealed how changing ideas about land management leave their layered/layering trace on the landscape.

 

Associations against Conclusion, after Myung Mi Kim

Bhuddism kept coming to mind as another spiritual ecopoetic model: interconnectivity; no-self; embodiment (posture, breath, sensation); the universality of suffering; impermanence; non-harm; beneficial view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, concentration; and instead of using affect to incite, leaning into equanimity.

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How does the developed world define viability? How do I, an inhabitant of the developed world, define viability?

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Is there such a thing as a loner activist? Or does a loner’s efforts have to be discovered to achieve the impact of activism?

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My partner is working on a project that aims to make species interaction data readily available to anyone who’s interested in it. He’s amassing datasets from institutional and citizen scientists that show how species depend on each other for life (predator-prey, parasite-host, scavenger-carrion, and habitat-inhabitant relationships, to name a few interactions). The more data contributors, the better the collection can articulate global biotic interconnectivity. Also, the better it can show how biotic interactions change over time (and space). The dataset he most recently acquired has to do with a parasite that eats the tongue of its host, and then functions as its host’s tongue. Calling all interdisciplinary artists!

 

Note

The generalizations I make about the conference only reflect the sessions I attended. To clarify the limitations of my observations, I list the parts of the program I attended here:

Thursday, February 21

Book Launch for The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral

 

Friday, February 22

The Aeolian Marsh: An Embodied Poem

Welcome

Conference Advisory Board Roundtable on Ecopoetics

Precarity, Neoliberalism, Late Capitalism

Evening Reading

 

Saturday, February 23

Emergency, Ethics, Ecopoetics: 21st Century Ecopoetry’s Efficacies

Bob Hass’s Tour of the UC Berkeley Campus

Environmental Dreamscapes and the Heedless Sublime

The Ecopoetics of Film

 

Sunday, February 24

Ground Scores: Unburying Ecologies through Embodied Practice

Ecopoetics and Affect

Closing Remarks

Strawberry Creek Preservation Service Project

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