by G.C. Waldrep on September 1st, 2012
IF YOU GO INTO THE WOODS YOU WILL FIND IT HAS A TECHNOLOGY
This tree has a small LED display
It is glowing and it can show you words
and it can show you pictures and it can melt
from one choice to another and you are looking at it
and it wants you to share the message
but it can’t see that you are the only one around
and that everyone else is hibernating
which you love You are so happy and alone
with the red and yellow lights It’s a nice day
to be in nature and to read up on the very bland ideas
this tree has about how to live This tree says
grow stronger and this tree says fireworks effect
This tree is the saddest prophet in history
but you don’t tell it that You are trying to show it respect
which gets tiresome but then it flashes
a snake at you It’s a kind of LED tree hybrid joke
and you could just kiss it for trying For failing
But it can’t see you and it starts to cry
(from What Is Amazing [Wesleyan University Press, 2012])
My involvement in The Arcadia Project began in the immediate wake of Josh’s AWP panel on ecopoetics in 2007. Why, I wondered, wasn’t there an anthology that simultaneously explored our ecological predicament and formal innovation in verse? Why did those of us who cared, and wrote, into and about the environment in innovative forms have to keep explaining our practice to those who insisted that “nature poetry” honor its Romantic inheritances? What indeed is “nature poetry,” or could it be, or should it be, in our collective moment?
You all know the joke. “Three poets walk into a forest….”
The thing is, the forest does have a technology, in the sense of naturally evolving structure, pattern, form: even in the sense of a human intentionality, a shaping hand, given that what most North Americans know as “forest” is a more or less remarkable patch of treegrowth left behind by human calculation or allowed to grow again in the wake of our species’ prior decimation and harvest of old-growth wood. The forest becomes intentional when we prompt it, when we frame it. In this, it is not unlike the poem. How and what do we read, when we are inside the forest?
(Of course we are always, to some degree, inside the forest.)
Dear Keats, dear Shelley, avian life is imitating our cell phones and our car alarms. When we walk into the forest, we hear our own toys signaling madly back to us.
And it is beautiful, we tell ourselves, and one another. Isn’t it beautiful?
The problem with the forest, in Heather Christle’s formulation, is that while it can think, and want, and feel, it cannot see. The problem with the human is that it can think, and want, and feel, and see, but it cannot choose, or not effectively.
And so we are alone together, in our discrete alonenesses, trying to read one another, to show one another something, to—as Christle slyly puts it (since it is such an exquisitely human notion)—“show [some] respect.”
One could say the joke about the snake has been around a long, long time.
Between 2008 and 2011 Josh and I sifted through hundreds of books—published since 1995 by North American writers, generously defined—as well as hundreds of submissions that came in over our electronic transom, looking for work that would guide us into the forest and try to show us something: work that would leave us alone together (in or in spite of our discrete alonenesses); work that challenged us and terrified us and moved us, that spoke to or around or from within our ecological predicament as 21st-century human creatures.
The resulting anthology is not meant to be definitive, rather provocative and generative, an early draft version of an ongoing conversation between a wide array of poets and the world we live in.
As C. D. Wright reminds us, “It is poetry that remarks on the barely perceptible disappearances from our world….And poetry that notes the barely perceptible appearances.” When I think of Christle’s cyborg-tree as “the saddest prophet in history,” I can’t help but re-imagine the poet’s role, the poem’s 21st-century office. One hopes that new structures, new forms (which poetry can provide) will enable new ways of thinking and doing, new ways of conceptualizing self-in-landscape. To the extent that a 21st-century Western poet has any prophetic office at all, it may lie precisely in anticipating such structures and forms.
Wright adds, “Poetry is the language of intensity. Because we are going to die, an expression of intensity is justified.”
When a friend of mine asked me, two years ago, why I was lavishing so much time on this project—“it’s just an editing project,” he kept insisting, or complaining—I responded, “Because there is the forest—there it is!—and because I am going to die.”
It is perhaps just a little bit beautiful. Isn’t it? For a little while.
Josh and I, together with our incredible publisher, Janet Holmes, hope that the conversation represented by the print anthology can continue and expand here, in these virtual pages. We’re happy to receive feedback about the anthology, as well as news (of publications, panels, insurrections) relating to the complex intersection of ecology, the pastoral, and poetic form. (You may also reach us, back-channel, at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
In addition, we’ll be posting short interviews with poets from the anthology in the weeks and months ahead. One of the most distinct pleasures of having undertaken this project—a pleasure otherwise hidden from readers of the print anthology—was the wide array of exchanges we had with our contributors concerning the intellectual, ethical, and aesthetic engagements these poems represent. We hope, through the brief interviews we present here, to bring that element of our experience to a wider audience: that is, you, reading this, now.