23rd October, 2012
Here we are, living alongside the bleak reality of fish farms, badger culls, shark-tagging, shale oil extraction, and the ultimate threat of a six degree warmer world by 2035 (according to the International Energy Agency’s November 2011 report). These are dark times. But what does it really mean ‘to live alongside’ in this way? What does it mean to be human in a world where birdsong is disappearing? And what kind of poetic response is possible?
I’ve spent the last four years thinking about these questions and have found no definitive answers. How silly of me to expect to find certainty in a world of startlingly rapid, unpredictable change; in a world of global economic collapse and ecological crisis. But I’ve kept on thinking and writing, trying to find a way to move beyond the things I’ve grown up believing in (environmentalism, the ethical politician, table manners), not because I want to get somewhere in particular, but because I want to be OK about being somewhere unidentifiable, somewhere strange and mutable and very uncertain indeed.
Yesterday I watched this great little clip by Ira Glass on creativity. It reminded me that writing is a journey, a very long journey that begins when you decide to commit your life to it and ends when none of your books are in print any more and nobody can remember a word you said. It’s a life’s work and if you’re a writer now, living in this era of collapse and crisis, you’re likely to find the job even more depressing than usual. Being honest about what’s going on in the world today means shaking hands with despair.
I can hear the cries of resistance already, the ‘Oh, but there has to be joy, too!’ and all the ‘light in the darkness’ arguments that follow! Which are, of course, true. But I’m with Derrick Jensen here: despair seems to me to be the most appropriate emotion right now. Sure, you can’t inhabit it for long because it numbs you, it slowly starves you of oxygen, but it has to be squared up to; it has to be eyeballed whether we like it or not.
This eyeballing process has been recorded in my poetry. I’ve moved through a period of writing quite polemical stuff, to elegy, to where I am now: somewhere else altogether. Somewhere uncivilised. My poetry has entered a strange, part-mythic, wholly imaginary world, and yet my days are still spent in the library, at university or in my office at home. It’s a weird dichotomy. I sense that at some point soon, I’m going to have to redress the balance.
I’m in the final year of a PhD in Creative Writing. I’ve been studying ecopoetry and working my way towards a first collection of poems. I don’t think of my current work as ecopoetic, inasmuch as my poems are neither overtly political nor do they think they can save the Earth. They have left polemic and elegy behind and entered new territory – strange, mutable, uncertain territory. If I dig down deep enough, I find that the shift has come about because I’ve let go of hope.
Well, that’s not altogether true – letting go of hope is a long-drawn-out process and I’m only just at the beginning - but I’m moving in that direction. No more false hopes for saving the Earth; no more fervent belief that poetry, and in particular ecopoetry, can affect global consciousness enough to turn the 21st century machine around. What this means for my writing is that it’s suddenly free to go wherever it needs to. It is unbarred. It doesn’t have an agenda. It is truly free to roam. In 2006, Adrienne Rich wrote this in the Guardian:
poetry has the capacity to remind us of something we are forbidden to see. A forgotten future: a still uncreated site whose moral architecture is founded not on ownership and dispossession, the subjection of women, outcast and tribe, but on the continuous redefining of freedom – that word now held under house arrest by the rhetoric of the ‘free’ market.
I couldn’t agree more.
I’ve arrived at this idea of potential – the idea that the home of the ecological poem (as opposed to the ecopoem) is on the threshold of something unknown, something unfolding; the ecological poem as a kind of holding vessel for uncertainty, where uncertainty, instead of being noisy with hope, is latent with potential: when we detach ourselves from the prevailing cultural narratives, we can go anywhere. We can think and write towards myriad, unexplored possibilities. And then, even if the curtain does finally go down, we can at least go out with panache.
Susan Richardson and I will be exploring these possibilities at our workshop in April next year. It will be a weekend of and about writing. We’ll be reading from the work of writers who have inspired us (John Clare, Jorie Graham, John Burnside, Alice Oswald, Kathleen Jamie, Les Murray, Robin Robertson, Pascale Petit, to name but a few), and we’ll look closely at one or two poems to pick over their bones. We’ll talk about the marked turn towards mythic narratives in contemporary poetry, our own included, and wonder about the power of story to transform us. But central to the weekend will be focused periods of writing and feedback sessions. In other words, the weekend will be about the writing experience – where we’re all at as writers, where we’re going and how to extend our practice. Some of the sessions will be held outside, either in the Wiston woods or halfway up Tinto Hill, so you’ll want to bring wellies/walking boots and waterproofs.
Come and join us for a weekend of poetry, bonfires and the wonderful hospitality of Wiston Lodge in the Scottish Borders. Cost for the weekend includes two nights full-board. Accommodation is in shared wooden cabins at the foot of Tinto Hill, and the total cost of the weekend is £200. All meals are vegetarian. For transport arrangements contact Em Strang (we’ll be coordinating lifts from Lockerbie mainline station to Wiston Lodge at a small extra cost – to cover fuel – for those coming up from down South).
On booking, we ask for payment in full. If you cancel before January 31st 2013, your payment is refundable, minus a £25 admin fee. After that refunds are not possible unless we can find someone to take your place. You might also want to consider travel insurance (how civilised!).
There are 6 places left on this course (from an initial total of 10), so please book soon if you want to reserve a place.
Posted by Em Strang on 23 October, 12
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