It can be hard to keep going when the environmental crisis is ongoing, and worsening as the years go by. It’s easy to turn away. Of course, sometimes we need to watch a funny movie, go for a walk in nature, or have a nice meal. Self-care and resilience are part of the work.
As a writer, it’s easy to get jaded or paralysed by constant threat and fear. Humans aren’t really hardwired for slow continual emergency. But as creatives, how do we keep writing, questioning, keep talking, reflecting, exploring creatively when it can feel so painful and relentless? How do we keep finding fresh ideas when we often feel sad and bleak about the crisis?
Writing about loss, worry and anger definitely has its place, but we need the whole palette of emotion and colour. Anger can too often lead to the polemic, the one-dimensional which is limited, particularly in poetry. We need to also embrace humour, wit, irony, play, and even joy.
Margaret Atwood famously said: ‘I think calling it climate change is rather limiting. I would rather call it everything change’. So, potentially that gives us a lot to write about – the opportunity to see everything afresh through an environmental lens and put our planet’s ecology first.
Rather than simply a bleak topic, perhaps climate change can also be creatively enthralling, multi-dimensional and even exhilarating? Though, of course, bearing witness to the losses, horrors and disasters in the world is also important, I’m suggesting we could take inspiration from this wide brief.
Perhaps expressing or being ‘environmental’ is broader than we thought, broader than we have written about so far. With this wide brief from Margaret Atwood, how do we view ideas and concepts of nature, money, progress, land ownership, city planning, colonialism etc? How do we travel, holiday, eat, work, spend our leisure time etc? Margaret Atwood said ‘everything’ and she means it. There is nothing untouched by change. Embracing nature, simplicity and shunning consumerism has got to be part of the vision to create new meaning, values and experience. Equally, exploring what happens when we don’t prioritise our earth, our home, is also important. There’s plenty that hasn’t yet been written about.
Sometimes I think we still have so much to explore, that we’re still skirting around the edges. Would we always recognise radical ‘earth first’ perspectives? Do we have the knowledge and awareness? Are we blinkered by our familiar frames of understanding or accepted norms by the culture we grew up in and live in every day? Of course, but it’s the poet’s job to look beyond this.
What if we wrote as if we relied on the earth for our very survival and sustenance? That could change how we see and write about everything. I’d suggest that to do this, we need to constantly research and learn. We are all on a necessary steep learning curve, so where we focus our energy, time and pen, and how we use language and signal value and worth all matter. Writers are expected to explore ideas and visions, and expose hypocrisy. But in this time of huge necessary and inevitable change, the good, the bad and the ugly all seem to sit side by side and can seem almost indecipherable.
This is why coming together – to validate each other to find new meanings and visions, and to help each other persist and adapt to the change that’s coming – is vital. Poets, I think, are particularly good at joining workshops and sharing ideas and writing. It can be easy (and painful) to accept ‘normal’ behaviour or views that brought us to this point, but if we think about writing about the crisis by pushing into the unknown that at least in itself, is exhilarating, mind-expanding and necessary.
Call to action: Join the Climate of Change Poetry Workshops, starting 14th September.
Cath Drake is an Australian writer and the author of The Shaking City (longlisted for the Laurel Prize and highly commended in the UK Forward Prize) and Sleeping with Rivers, a Poetry Book Society Choice & winner of the Seren/Mslexia poetry pamphlet prize. An environmental science graduate, Cath has worked as an environmental scientist, writer and journalist in Australia, and won awards for her environmental nonfiction writing and broadcasting. Cath runs The Verandah, quality online poetry events which include workshops focused on the climate crisis.