Can you tell us a little more about the anthology ‘Out of Time: Poetry From the Climate Emergency’ why and how did it come about? Was there any particular ‘trigger’ that compelled you to edit this collection?
2021 has been such a pivotal year for the planet, and it brought together many key events and dates in the UK – Cop26, 50 years of the environmental charity Friends of the Earth (who receive 50p from each sale of Out of Time), the list goes on. Timing was certainly a consideration as I began planning the book in summer 2020, as was the concept of time in itself, which was inevitably embedded into the anthology’s title. There’s a real sense of division between our inability to zoom out and view the deep, geological time-scales in which we don’t appear, and hyper-accelerated human-time, in which most of the Earth’s damage can be chalked up to just a handful of generations. This division is reflected in the forking paths of our future – based on our willingness to either take action or not take action, and this, again, is reflected in our binary reactions to the crisis. We often lack nuance, teetering between panic and complacency (or else optimism and nihilism) quite easily, due to the sheer size and complexity of the problem, and the vastly opposing ideas that surround it.
Really, though, this anthology is the culmination of a few years’ reading and research. As an editor by trade, I consider the mechanisms of language on a daily basis: the way it shapes our understanding of a topic and our relation to it, as well as the ethics of publishing – both in the ideas texts share with the world and how they physically reaches readers. As I’ve watched the planet be completely decimated, and increasingly so over the last few years, I’ve been constantly thinking and writing about humanity’s perception of emergency, and how language plays a key role within this.
I’ve been focused on the limitations of grammatical systems and unary descriptions, or indeed the ways that we can abandon these systems, playing with their construction, and expanding vocabularies to develop our understanding of Earth’s systems and our relation to them. Language evolves like we do – as our surroundings change, though much more quickly. Words can literally disappear alongside the species they describe – but words, unlike extinct specimens, can be brought back, preserved and considered. If we can do this, and place value on the restorative properties of linguistics, I believe we can expand our modes of navigation and awareness of this crisis. At the moment, we don’t have a broad enough vocabulary to speak to the emergency (of course, I’m speaking to many of the languages in the global north, and English here specifically). I was keen that this book be a contribution of some kind, being part of my wider research into how language and creativity offers a huge, antidotal piece of the puzzle, published at a crucial moment.
In the introduction you ask “will there be a point in which ecowriting is no longer recognised as a literary sub-genre or category, but rather an assumed genre and context attributed to all writing regardless of its subject and form.” This chimes very much with our view that the climate and ecological emergency is the last ‘metanarrative’ – the story that defines all stories. Could you tell us a bit more about this insight?
It’s interesting to look at the ways in which writers, or indeed other artists and practitioners are classified, whether intentionally or unintentionally, especially in this particular moment in history. Writers can very quickly be defined as being ‘ecologically charged’ in 2021, even if they have no pronounced anti-anthropocentric stance, perhaps simply by taking nature, or natural forms, as their subject matter. It bodes the question: in 2021, is choosing to write about organic matter, fungi, for example, an inherently political act? Are fungi becoming political symbols inherently due to their affiliations with dwindling biodiversity?
In other words: it’s all about perception. The climate crisis is so large, and such a momentous presence (both geographically and psychologically), that it’s difficult to write about any form of nature, and for the piece to not be linked to the emergency automatically. (Though, I would argue that depictions of technology, transport, food, etc. are equally as related, if not more so, to the issue.) Definitions and titles do carry weight, of course, and the label of ‘eco-writing’ is, for all intents and purposes, explicitly connected to the synthesis of specific environmental and social concerns. Terms such as these emerged around the 1970s, alongside growing climate concerns, to denote literature that seeks justice for both humans and non-humans which have long been oppressed by the violent hierarchies, patriarchies and plutocracies that govern our world. Perhaps eco-writing needs further classification because it is working against systems that seek to quash and quell it. These damaging systems cannot continue to exist, and in the anthology I consider whether there will no longer be a place for writing, or thinking, that isn’t inherently grounded in saving and maintaining a balanced, thriving environment.
More importantly, however, I think about the idea of subtitling, and the prefix, ‘eco’ here. There’s an inference that the stem, ‘writing’ can exist on its own, or perhaps be unrelated to the ecological at all. Grammatically, this may be true, certainly in the English language we use in the here and now, but all writing – and other modes of expression, politics, languages – have been marked by our own acts of destruction, whether loudly or quietly. There are many poets in Out of Time that would resist the definition of being called an ‘eco-poet’, purely for the fact that the modes of mass-consumption and industrialisation are so embedded within our world, and in the societies we belong to, that this distinction isn’t necessary. And, whilst a piece of writing may not explicitly speak to, or of, an ecological emergency, its shadows can be found everywhere – in the very context of the countries we have built and their vast, wasteful contents list.
Furthermore, does the labelling of ‘eco-writing’ say something about our level of disconnect? That those using such a definition need to be reminded of something quintessential? And is ‘eco-writing’ a restrictive term that speaks to a limited, and inherently westernised view, that we have simply not been reading the developing crisis into all other works because they don’t have a large green label? This is a meta-narrative, and all writing contributes to a social record – a bigger picture that many of us have been unable to see forming. Similarly, could ‘eco-writing’ exist as a retrospective label, as we look back on a devastating time in history in which we allowed the planet to become so damaged: a kind of BCE and AD for this all-encompassing crisis?
You also talk about the role poetry can play in helping us realise totalising but frustratingly abstract and elusive concepts such as Morton’s ‘hyperobject’ – can you say a little more about how poetry can help people comprehend and engage with the climate emergency?
The data has been laid out for us, and similar versions of these paragraphs exist everywhere, warning us of what’s to come. Notions of our impending future have been thought, spoken, recorded, printed, uploaded, signed and performed. They have scared, provoked, angered and triggered. They have caused skepticism and awakening, unity and dissent. And yet, this hyper-visibility has amounted to a median response: complacency. Are facts and data enough? Up to this point, they haven’t inspired as much action as they require.
Poetry allows us to break the world open, conceptually speaking. It is, as Roger Robinson notes, an ‘empathy machine.’ Anne Carson states that ‘if prose is a house, poetry is a man on fire running quite fast through it.’ It’s an eloquent definition. Poetry shines brightly, distilling ideas – whether material or experiential – into their most refined and impacting state. Where a house is static and passive (though filled with context, detail and memories) a human being (on the precipice of either death or survival) is alight with adrenalin, cortisol and a profound objective. Poetry is, in this way, galvanising; the speaker – whether a physical orator or a silent narrator – is capable of pulling readers into an imagined space and rallying a cardinal, immediate response.
Poetry is also synaesthetic, with the freedom to join the senses and activate our understanding of a given subject in innate, unsettling and inexplicable ways. Imagine the slow acidification of oceans through jarring sounds and noxious, heavy imagery, or the persistent felling of rainforests through persistent sharp tastes on the tongue – lacerations that linger in the mind.
Adjacent to this is the fact that poetry is economical. In the context of the climate emergency, Carson’s flaming man is an apt metaphor. Poems can condense hundreds of pages of research and statistics – renditions of Morton’s ‘hyperobjects’ – into a single vignette: a compressed world ready to be opened up and expanded by the reader. It is for these reasons (amongst many more) that poetry is perhaps the most ideal – verging on the most logical – means to visualise, understand and appreciate the full extent of the climate crisis.
In the end, isn’t this just preaching to the converted. Is writing poetry action or an antidote to action? Can poetry make a difference or is that unfair on both poets and what we might call ‘the political?’
I struggle with these questions a lot: the ethics surrounding the crisis, the metrics of injustice that are being placed on our planet, and the role that literature can play within this. Furthermore: what level of contribution is ‘enough’? Ultimately, global systemic change needs to be brought about by policymakers, governments and leaders, and the COP26 conference has let us down in this respect, with current NDCs placing warming at around 2.5°C by the end of the century. I believe in the power of the individual wholeheartedly – as well as in grass-roots activism, in the arts and literature, and other spheres of creative, cultural work – though I also believe that, in some cases, too much responsibility is placed on the individual and their personal decisions as a means of diverting eyes from institutional, governmental and commercial powers. In the UK, we are urged to buy less single-use plastic in a system which continues to produce and promote single-use plastic, for example.
However, language is manifest: it is manifold. I believe that action and communication go hand-in-hand, and poetry exists to challenge the ways we speak to, and of, our world. Language shapes our perception and can reconfigure the building blocks of our reality. I don’t think it’s unfair to consider if poetry can, or should, be called upon to provide aid in such a large crisis, or indeed question the scale of its contribution, as I think that poetry is, in itself, a form of activism. This type of activism might not be as overt as a mass march or a global social media campaign, but it is a form of demonstration, and a powerful one nonetheless.
Beyond the innate memorability of music and lyric – and centuries of oral tradition – in the reading and writing of poetry, we are asked to focus in on the minutiae: to consider the role that each and every word, comma and line break mean – singularly, as part of the line, structurally within the stanza, and collectively as part of the poem as a whole. We are considering, through language, the ways we exist – how we fit into, influence and speak to each other in a community, on a planet, in a universe. There are multiple mechanisms at play in poetry, similar to the physical and psychological laws that govern us, and we use to govern others, and by reading and considering these mechanisms, we become more attune to the microcosmic – how one small idea or act can set something more larger in motion.
Do you have a vision of a regenerative future?
The future will, undoubtedly, be regenerative. It’s just about how many of us are left within this vision – human, or non-human, and what this regeneration looks like. After the formation of the Earth 4.6 billion years ago, and the initial darkness of the Hadean period, there existed a billion years on the Earth in which slime ruled, forming the basis for slow evolution, though to us it would seem as though nothing very much was happening. We’ve existed for just 200,000 years, 0.005% of Earth’s total lifespan, and there’s a lot of evidence that suggests that the planet and its ecosystems will continue without us, though of course in a very different capacity, and on a very different time-scale.
Ultimately, this is a crisis of the imagination as much as it is a tangible, geological emergency. To ensure our continuation as a species, we need to start taking much more selfish steps, in a much more radical notion of what it means to be ‘selfish’. By this, I don’t mean that we have should become more self-involved, consumerist or materialistic, rather that we have everything we need already, and it’s undeniably in our best interests to protect this. To be radically selfish, we’re looking at long-term self-hood – which might, again, belong within Morton’s conceptual categorisation as a near-inconceivable Hyperobject. To preserve our place on the planet, as our genes will us to do on a molecular level, we must abandon the individualistic rhetoric that’s – ironically – part of an increasingly homogenised world, and find a new idea of what the ‘self’ can be, and mean.
I have to believe in a regenerative future, and I think on some level all writers do, or else to whom are we setting the record? I also believe in our potential to bring about truly sustainable modes of living, but it will require acts and thinking much larger than what we’ve seen thus far, and a complete revision of our values, against many of our short-term, insular instincts. This is where reformational modes of language are important.
Apart from your wonderful new anthology, what should we be reading and why?
Seán Hewitt’s Tongues of Fire (recently awarded the 2021 Laurel Prize), Timothy Morton’s All Art is Ecological (part of Penguin Classics’ new Green Ideas series), Alice Oswald & Paul Keegan’s Gigantic Cinema: A Weather Anthology, Mark A. Maslin’s How to Save Our Planet, Jason Allen-Paisant’s Thinking With Trees, Susanne Wedlich’s Slime (translated by Ayça Türkoglu).
Kate Simpson is an editor, author, poet and journalist from York, UK. She is an associate editor for Aesthetica magazine and editor at large for Valley Press.