Ecojustice & Poetry

Photo by World Resources Institute

This post is packed with all the stuff I have been writing, reading, and learning about poetry and eco justice.

Thinking about urgent issues like mass extinction, it has become clear to me in the last few years that social and ecological issues are inextricably linked. For example, dodgy building practices in urban spaces go alongside the gentrification of neighborhoods which pushes low-income communities out. The building of pipelines through protected nature reserves and Native reservations happens alongside high rates of violence against Native women. There are so many examples that reveal this connectedness.

I was especially inspired to keep thinking on this by a visit at the Ohio State University from Camille T. Dungy, who writes urgently about nature, community, and motherhood too.

Camille T. Dungy reading poetry

I also started talking to Welsh writer and environmentalist Kristian Evans, whose beautifully written series A Kenfig Journal, you can read here. Our conversations resulted in an epistolary essay in Planet, ‘Dwelling: A Conversation in Letters,’ and with Planet, we also made this video about “dwelling”:

Video for Planet magazine on “Dwelling”.

Since then, we also wrote a conversational essay for Wales Arts Review on the possibilities for environmental and social change after COVID-19, ‘In Wales and America: Life After COVID’, and we are working on an essay on nature and mental health with poet Robert Minhinnick for Poetry Wales. I also wrote up an article on what I have learned about natural and social worlds during lockdown for Wales Arts Review: ‘Otherworlds’.

I have also been working recently with Poets for the Planet, a coalition of writers all seeking to promote environmental change, and I made this video for their #BeginAfresh campaign which encourages us to use lockdown as an opportunity to make positive change in our communities. 

Video for #BeginAfresh campaign for Poets for the Planet: ‘Greenwood’.

The next thing I am thinking about is how to change perceptions about what nature writing is, and to lift up the voices of BAME and LGBTQ+ poets who are writing about nature and the environment. Too often nature writing has been thought of as a preserve for straight, cisgender white writers, but the journal The Willowherb Review for example displays the variety and excellence of BAME writers focussing on nature. Implicit bias about what nature writing should be often influences editorial decisions about which nature writers get published.

With Kristian Evans and Rob Mackenzie, I’m editing right now a special issue of Magma Poetry on the subject of “Dwelling. ” Everyone is welcome to submit, including BAME writers, LGBTQ+ writers, writers with disabilities, and neurodivergent writers. In fact, I would be really intrigued to have the perspectives of less privileged writers, because I think that they have unique things to say about the world and how we dwell in it. Marvin Thompson for example is a poet I have been privileged to work with on some projects recently, and this is a stunning poem about rural Wales and legacies of slavery.

I was looking back today on the first scribbled notes by Kristian Evans and I on the idea for the Magma Poetry journal issue, and it’s fascinating to look back on origins of an idea now coming into being.

Post-Enlightenment, the prevailing intellectual attitude in the West has positioned “Man” as separate to nature. Whereas “Man” has been supposed to be gifted with reason, nature has been seen as a crude and mechanical and practically limitless resource to be exploited. It is no coincidence that this mindset also often aligns women and minorities with nature, figuring them as a chaos to mastered and tamed, or as something wild which must be forced to reveal its secrets. Might poetry, however, offer different, more ethical ways of encountering the natural world and other human beings? 

The subjectivity of “Man” privileges being white, straight, cisgender, native, financially solvent, and able-bodied, and the narrowness of this viewpoint has not only encouraged violence against women and minorities, but has alo created disastrous, unintended consequences for the earth. Mass extinction, global ecosystem collapse, and the climate emergency, make it unclear whether life on earth can continue, and the supposed universality of “Man” masks violence against women, minorities, and less privileged groups.

The time has come to  explore new perspectives, to tell ourselves new stories about our place in the world, about how we can dwell in it ethically. If, for the last few hundred years western culture has privileged the eye, what might it mean to turn to the ear? What if instead of seeing of things as trajectories from a to b  (the march of progress, evolution, the infinite distance), we shifted to listening to the whole surroundings (the environs, the circum-stances), to meandering and turning and returning, and listening again?This is what dwelling might mean.