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On poetry and the environmental crisis.

A Correspondence.



SC: IN RECENT COLLECTIONS, you have been writing a fair bit about climate change, and the ecological crisis more generally. Was this prompted by the prominence of stories about these topics in general news media, or have you been reading specific authors whose work has stimulated you? Itself, published in 2015, has an epigraph from Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. I’m wondering if there are other similar books which have captured your attention? 

RA: Yes. The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells is an important book as is Falter by Bill McKibben. Both are terrifying but excellent. My awareness of the climate crisis doesn’t come only from books though. I live in the western United States where summer-fall are now known as fire season, or smoke season, depending on where you live. I live in western Washington state now, which hasn’t actually had wildfires in, well, a long, long time. Every summer, though, the sky is blanketed and the sun dimmed by the fires in Oregon, California, and eastern Washington. Children are forced to stay inside. I lived in California almost all my life—eight years in the Bay Area and the rest in San Diego, at the southern tip of the state. What’s happening in California is tragic. Every summer there are scores of large wildfires burning thousands of square miles of forest. Two years ago, the August Complex Fire was the largest fire ever in California history. It looks like the Dixie fire, burning now, could rival it. These fires aren’t new, but they are getting much hotter, larger, and more dangerous. I’ve personally experienced this. During the Cedar Fire in San Diego county in 2003 (when I still lived there) I was standing on a city street, in front of my house, with ash falling all around me like snow. The fire had burned into a nearby canyon. We were warned that we might have to evacuate—to the stadium. We planned instead to go to the boat Chuck owned at that time. Fortunately, we didn’t have to go, but we had started to pack up. Of course, such experiences don’t replace the system-wide understanding of what’s happening that we can get from books.

SC: You’ve had a long-standing interest in science, especially particle physics and cosmology, but biology also features in your poetry. In the title poem of Versed (2009), for example, you talk about the ‘self-monitoring function’ of a cell as analogous to ‘a person’ if ‘”writ large”‘. So do your recent attentions to the climate, species loss, etc., to some extent grow out of previous work?

I’ll read any good book at the edge where research science brushes up against ontology. And, yes, I have gotten ideas…from this reading to use in poems.

RA: I’ve always been fascinated by the famous, big questions that science tries to answer: What is matter? How did the universe begin? How did life begin? What is consciousness? etc. If science had been more open and welcoming to girls when I was coming up, I might have become a scientist. My son, Aaron Korkegian, is a cell biologist. There has been a long string of excellent books about developments in modern physics written for lay audiences by physicists like Brian Green, Brian Cox, Carlo Rovelli, Frank Wilzcek, etc. Karen Barad.  I got started on those and just kept going. I’ve also read a number of books on the ‘problem’ of consciousness. For a while, there just weren’t as many books on biology aimed at general audiences. There have been some good ones recently though: Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake and Life’s Edge by Carl Zimmer, to name a couple. I’ll read any good book at the edge where research science brushes up against ontology. And, yes, I have gotten ideas, facts, quotes from this reading to use in poems.

SC: In some of your poems you include a section which describes an animal or a plant, but in ways which always, to me, seem to want to avoid any suggestion of ‘pastoral’. For example, a plant growing in the garden outside your window, ivy climbing the pillars supporting a flyover, or flowers growing wild by a roadside. In ‘Sponsor’ in Itself, the narrator in the first part of the poem describes a visit to some kind of wetland area supposedly rich in rare plants, though these turn out to include ‘pickle weed’ and ‘duck weed’. The second part of the poem riffs on Wallace Stevens: ‘Among twenty brown hills/the only moving thing/was the Coca-Cola truck.’ How do you see your work in relation to the pastoral tradition?

RA: The ‘wetland’ in ‘Sponsor’ was an estuary. To be fair, I was depressed at the time we visited—and that visit didn’t do much to help. I almost always write about what I find right around me. San Diego is a strange patchwork of the urban and the ‘natural’. The native plants are species of usually brown brush known as ‘chaparral’. You see that in steep canyons and on hillsides. San Diego is quite hilly. Where people live, the plants are clearly from all over the world—palm trees from Central America or the Middle East, eucalyptus from Australia, bougainvillea from Spain (?), elephant-ears and other broad-leaf tropical plants, nasturtiums, and pampas grass growing wild as it does everywhere now—even here in Washington state. San Diego is an eclectic, quirky environment. I still miss it sometimes. It’s hard to imagine that you have any direct, originary relation to nature if you grew up there. When I think of the pastoral tradition, I think of Marie Antoinette—nature turned into a park in which you can frolic, figuratively or literally, dressed as a shepherdess and pretend to be innocent. That’s not anything I’d want to be involved with.

SC: Another feature of your poetry is the way it challenges ideas of ‘connecting’ to nature. One way you do this is by questioning the whole concept of selfhood. In ‘Explanation’ in Conjure you liken consciousness to the way a bug walks on water: ‘we live on the surface/tension//where past/and future meet.’ If there is no stable self in what sense might there be a ‘connection’ to nature? Is the distinction between self and nature an unhelpful way of thinking?

RA: Actually, I wish we could get past that way of thinking. It assumes a distance from which you reach out and connect. Your conscious self makes a conscious decision to ‘connect to nature’. See how artificial that is? The British author and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips wrote, ‘What does celebration add to enjoyment?’ The celebration is the conscious decision to enjoy your enjoyment—and maybe we’re stuck with that by virtue of being human. But, really, the conscious mind rides a body of millions of distinct selves—cells, both human and bacterial, with their own purposes and experiences. Our brains interface with our guts and our muscles without our knowledge most of the time. Not to mention the prosthesis of our technology. We are all chimera and cyborgs already. And, on another level, the life-histories we narrate to ourselves are full of holes. So I’d say, ‘self’ is complicated and a bit shaky. I think each person does have some characteristics—tastes, talents, and tendencies—that persist over a lifetime. So in that sense, there is a self. But that self is ultimately rooted in biology, and biology is, needless to say, nature.

SC: The impossibility of words fully representing the otherness of the non-human is another thread which runs through your work. In ‘Foresight’ in Conjure you contrast the experience of people pointing ‘with funereal awe’ at a doe in a garden ‘nibbling the lawn’, with a description of a clichéd painting of reflections in water in a hotel room. In ‘The Rest’, also in Conjure, having used the simile of a Spanish dancer to describe a bougainvillea you undercut the use of figurative speech with the reflection: ‘But why should I go/and spoil everything?’ Timothy Clark in his book The Value of Ecocriticism says: ‘From the viewpoint of environmental ethics, a sense of artifice is more responsible than a poetry that imagines itself to be offering direct unmediated access to things.’ Would you agree?

RA: Yes! I’ve been saying something like that a long time. Our senses don’t give us unmediated access to anything, how could our language do it?

SC: ‘Wardrobe’ from Conjure is also interesting in this context. We move in this poem from galaxies fringing the void of space, to foxgloves growing by a freeway, to the statement; ‘Nature, you gorgeous/old queen//your posture/is still perfect.’ The final section takes us back to ‘galactic/”‘filaments”/left hanging.’ Could you say something about this poem?

RA: My poems are amalgamations of (and riffs off of) things I’ve heard, read, or seen over some period of time, usually a few days. Before writing ‘Wardrobe’, I read an article, maybe in Scientific American, about ‘galactic filaments’. Those are (I just looked the term up) ‘the walls of gravitationally bound galaxy superclusters’. So they’re huge, but also thread-like. So that was in my mind. And at that time, I was new to the Pacific Northwest and amazed by the lushness, for instance, by all the foxgloves growing along the sides of the highways. In describing them to myself, I hit on the image of empty sleeves in a closet. That just came to mind. So the idea of the universe being tied together with filmy threads and the picture of empty sleeves in a closet joined somehow and formed the odd personification of nature as an elderly drag queen—still gorgeous. Why a drag queen? I’m not certain. I guess I had the idea of a queen as a brave, flamboyant being, fighting against the odds. That seemed to fit. 

SC: Last question. In an interview with Emilia Mirazchivska in Inkroci, published earlier this year, you said that writing poetry was for you a way of ‘asking questions’. You also said that you use poems to take apart and examine the language around us, ‘especially the language that does us harm.’ The French philosopher Isabelle Stengers argues, in her book In Catastrophic Times, that the unprecedented ecological crisis we face calls for a radical questioning of the way politicians and business use arguments about inevitability, ‘natural order’, and ‘human nature’ to try to suppress opposition to the status quo. Do you see your poetry as engaged in that kind of radical questioning?

RA: I do, absolutely. First of all, I feel that good art, like good science, begins with asking interesting questions, with not taking things as they appear to be or as they are presented. One relevant example now is how we’re often told that brutal competition is the natural way. There are winners and losers. It’s inevitable. That’s what the powerful would like us to believe. They can point to Darwin as proof. All respect to Darwin, but it’s not that simple. There have been a lot of studies on the prevalence and importance of symbiosis lately. In the ’70s and ’80s, Lynn Margulis demonstrated how symbiosis played a crucial role in cellular evolution. More recently, there has been a lot of excitement about the way fungal mycelia connect to tree roots and can carry chemical messages between trees in a forest. It’s been said that there would be no trees without the contribution of these fungi. And we humans are an especially peculiar species. We’re biological weaklings who would have died out long ago if we hadn’t developed sophisticated forms of communication and cooperation. The story we’re told about the triumph of the ‘meritocracy’ leaves out the cooperation part of life’s story.

I should also say that I came out of the Language Poetry movement of some 40-odd years ago. The central premise of that poetics was that language wasn’t neutral; that it was, among other things, a means of control and manipulation which needed to be questioned closely. That was true then at the tail-end of the Vietnam war and it’s doubly true now.

This interview was conducted by email, August 2021.

Rae Armantrout is one of the founding members of the West Coast group of Language poets. She was born in Vallejo, California, and earned her BA at the University of California, Berkeley—where she studied with Denise Levertov. She completed her MA at San Francisco State University. Armantrout has received fellowships and awards from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, the California Arts Council, and the Rockefeller Center. Her collection Versed (2009) won a 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Her most recent collection is Conjure (2020).

Simon Collings is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Why Are You Here?, a collection of ‘very brief fictions’, was published in 2020 by Odd Volumes, our imprint. His most recent work is the chapbook Sanchez Ventura, published by Leafe Press in early 2021. An archive of his work for The Fortnightly Review is here.

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