(Rethinking Poetics, Columbia University, 12 June, 2010)

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ecopoetics is dedicating to exploring creative-critical edges between writing (with an emphasis on poetry) and ecology (the theory and praxis of deliberate earthlings). That’s the original masthead, launched almost ten years ago.

ecopoetics was conceived as a site, not a genre. In the sense of site-specificity as developed out of the 1960’s art world, but also in the sense of theories of distributed consciousness, as explored by philosophers such as Bruno Latour, Edwin Hutchins, Richard Taylor, N. Katherine Hayles, or Donna Haraway. Theories exploring the idea that consciousness, and maybe agency, are distributed “out there,” amongst the “objects” of the world, rather than “in here” (tapping skull). So I don’t aspire to publish “ecopoems” or to identify “ecopoets,” but to offer an overtly-dedicated site, to which different kinds of practices can contribute.

A principal organization for ecopoetics has been edge effect: the enriched life along an edge between biomes or habitats.

One edge is the invisible slash or hyphen in eco/poetics. Do eco and poetics interrogate and rethink one another? See the just-out Ecolanguage Reader, ed. Brenda Iijima (Portable Press at Yo-yo labs and Nighboat Editions) for some current, edgy examples of writing that in different ways rubs the eco against poetics, and vice versa.

Another one of the edges is determined by the ambiguous status of “eco” itself (here and everywhere). Ecologies are nestled inside of ecologies. “Ecology” also speaks the language of capital by which it aims to extend systems of command, communication, control into bodies and their visible relations. If ecopoetics is tasked with making visible the invisible relations, then it faces a challenge — in naming them can language withhold our relations from biopower? How is ecopoetics more than (yet more) browning the world in the name of green? How is it more than business as usual?

Consider President Obama’s remarks on expanded offshore drilling, delivered at Andrews Airforce Base, March 31st, where he praised a biofuel-powered F-18, “appropriately called the Green Hornet,” to be launched on Earth Day: is this the greening of the military industrial complex? What is ecopoetics the greening of?

I like what Jennifer Scappetone had to say: “not to make the invisible visible but to peruse and multiply the channels of its invisibility.”

ecopoetics is not an activist journal—though it often is considered such (mostly by people who may not have read it). Yet, more than with other labels, the question of use value looms large. What can poetry do here? This question emerges sharply in a recent debate on the UB Poetics listserv around Amy King’s and Heidi Lynn Staples’s online Poets for Living Waters anthology. One member of that list questioned the value of writing, publishing and reading poetry in the face of the magnitude of the BP/Deep Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Staples published an eloquent defense of poetry to the same listserv that I encourage you all to read. I’m not sure I buy her argument—that poetry makes nothing happen therefore subtracting from the damage of production—but it’s definitely one I’ve considered. (I at one point identified “entropology” as a fourth writing dimension, alongside the topology, tropology and anthropology [ethnopoetics] that the site of ecopoetics opens.) I don’t think entropology or Stevensian negativity—which after all might include the school of quietude—adequately addresses the plight of the pelicans, who just want the oil removed from their beach. Or of the bats who are dying from some mysterious fungal pathogen called White-Nose Syndrome. (They don’t give a damn if I can write beautiful, smart or whatever poems about their plight.) In any case, however we pin it, the “eco” today remains both totally generic and persistently marginalized.

Taking on faith that “eco,” which ultimately just signals the big house we’re all learning to keep together, does offer a useful site for specially focused attention—one of the revisions poetry offers in responding to inadequacies, as Charles Bernstein (in his “pata queero normative way”) notes—then the term “eco” itself presents the ambiguity that these special markers always do: does an “eco” poetics need an eco index? Is it primarily a thematic interest? The dominance of nonfiction prose in the area of environmental literature seems to confirm the thematic emphasis. This is an emphasis that the journal ecopoetics indeed set out to challenge.

I was struck that Jena Osman, for the Social Location/ Ethics panel, as re-echoed by Juliana Spahr, chose to ask about echolocation as a possible trope for poetry coming into contact with an unknown environment—also echoing Joan Retallack’s ideas about experimental writing (“What is Experimental Poetry & Why Do We Need It?” in Jacket 32). I myself asked the same question not too long ago. I was looking for examples of experimental poetry that engages echolocation as a form. In my talk on Poetry and Biodiversity, for Poets House, for which I was preparing the example of echolocation, I resorted to two instances that might seem to establish limit cases—for a poetry engaging the sensorium of other species (in this case, those of the chiroptera order, which as mammals and “vampires” are like us, but in every other way seem so different, even repellant). We discussed Mary Oliver’s “Wings” (where the speaker of the poem removes a dying bat from the road, as an occasion for reflections on mortality) and Bruce Andrews’s “Dizzyistics” (a collaborative-improv “language” piece, echolocating within the syntagmatic slippage of [English] language itself). In between I had presented Alvin Lucier’s “I am sitting in a room” (where the musician records a recording of a recording of a recording of a recording, etc. of his own voice explaining the piece, until nothing is left but a standing wave, the resonance of the room itself). Between Mary Oliver and Bruce Andrews, where is the ecopoetics? This is the edge that interests me—not a third way or a hybridity, but an editorial intervention. And then there’s the question of what this does for the bats. Let the synthesis, if we want to think that way, happen elsewhere, probably not in poetry.

The edge is thick, and situated differently in relation to those different points of the classic compositional triangle: theme; form (or author, if you wish); and, perhaps most importantly for questions of ecology, audience. In regards to the latter, it could be argued (and some skeptical, hard-nosed scientists do) that “ecology” is primarily a mode of rhetoric.

Specific themes are important because “eco” really is too general, just as “ethnicity” is general or “gender” is general. (Can you imagine proposing a panel today called Ethnicities of Poetry, or Genders of Poetry? Not long ago, yes, but today the preliminary questions have been asked and more specific investigations are underway. Even so, ecology still seems to offer a space for the most unexamined kinds of generalization.)

Overall the range of themes seems to be governed by an edge between what one might call Thoreauvian and Emersonian tendencies. Do we sound the pond or do we vision our will, examine the entangled bank or the locomotive? As Spahr has asked, is it more ecopoetic to write of the bird or to write of the bulldozer about to destroy the bird’s habitat? I envisage some tension between those who would write rainforest or coral reef poems in face of the BP oil disaster and those who would write oil platform or petroleum poems. A third main thematic category, not necessarily a synthesis of the first two, involves poems of place, including the urban but also including sustained attention to the non-urban.

Not to stop at three, some other themes, that I have identified in reading through ecopoetics or in my own practice, include:

abandoned landscapes and the poetics of weeds (you can find examples in “Thoughts on Things,” my essay for the Ecolanguage Reader);

immunity or boundaries between organism and environment (Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, “Pollen”);

oil (Marcella Durand, Anatomy of Oil);

the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (Evelyn Reilly, Styrofoam, “Key to the Families of Thermoplastics”);

urban planning (Ed Roberson, City Eclogues, “The Open”);

urban green open space (Allison Cobb, Greenwood);

agriculture and migrant labor (Yedda Morrison, Crop);

extraction industry labor (Mark Nowak’s recent books);

the presence of animals in media environments, including that of human languages (Brenda Iijima’s recent books, also something I have been working on).

Before I thought I had enough to say at this forum, I was planning to read from my essay “Poetry Animal” (published in the recent boundary2). I’ll just read from the beginning and end of it here:

“Animals—as form, as function, as affect, as intensity—are saturating our media-machine environment. They are images, they are sounds, they are rhythms and textures, they are tastes and odors, models and products.

Observe Moore’s glacier ‘picking periwinkles, spider fashion,’ an octopus harvesting textual ice.

They are structures of feeling, structuring our feeling, or lack thereof, for other humans, not to speak of the animals themselves—structures that distort or subvert our uses of them. . . .

The cultural work our age of extinction calls for is not to promote habitat preservation, but—as Ellen Crist forcefully puts it—to ourselves become island preserves of animality.

To attend to ‘language’s animalady. . . . when the performance of language moves from human speech to animate, but transhuman, sound’ (Bernstein).

Poetry animals allow foreign organizations into the sphere of our nervous system. Whether as Artaud’s parasites, as William Burroughs’s virus, as Maria Sabina’s mushrooms, or as other forms of possession or ‘becoming.’

When they speak, let us listen as animals; when animals enter our writing, they do so humanly, when we become machines for reading and writing.

Deconstruct the singular ‘animal’—that criminal ‘confounding of all non-human beings under the common and general category of the animal.’ As a protest, Derrida’s Ecce animot lodges the humanist’s cogito acoustically, between animals (‘animaux’) and word (‘mot’).
Even on this virtual horizon, which might be the very fabric of their extinction, animals trace the affect that cannot be subsumed to human purpose.”

With form, the emphasis is determined at least partly by audience — as Ben Friedlander wrote, in response to Barrett Watten’s pronouncement that “genre trumps form”: “form *is* genre.”

The dominantly thematic orientation of environmental literature—or of “ecolit” as Jack Collom likes to call it—has dictated certain counter-emphases (that are not exclusive) in my editing of the journal: non-“I”-centered poems; significant attention to language, what it frames, connects, separates, occludes, how it has a body; attention to *languages*, the translation zone that explores an intertwining of linguistic and bio-diversity (see contributions to ecopoetics by Ak’abal, Ochoa, Tornero, Zemborain, amongst others).

Recently, I thought to catalog these as different instances of procedural writing (for more on “procedures,” see the noulipian Analects, ed. Wertheim and Viegener):

listing (Tim Atkins, “Emulsion Defect”);

translation (Mayan poet Humberto Ak’abal, “Xirixitem chikop”);

transcription (Jonathan Stalling, “Wolf howls”);

frame shift (Kenny Goldsmith, The Weather);

concrete/ page-based (Alec Finlay, Mesostic Herbarium);

machine-based (Juliana Spahr, things of each possible relation hashing against one another);

situationist (Joan Maloof, “September 11th Memorial Forest”; Patrick Jones, Slow Dragging Manifesto);

site-specific (Jennifer Scappetone, in collaboration with Kathy Westwater, PARK!; Brenda Coultas, The Bowery Project; Peter Culley, Hammertown; Slow Poetry [Dale Smith and Hoa Nguyen]);

“species saturation job” (Jonathan Skinner, Warblers);

and collaborative procedures (Marcella Durand and Tina Darragh, Deep eco pré; BARGE, Bay Area Research Group [D. Buuck et al]; PILLS, Pacific Institute for Language and Literacy Studies [Aaron Vidaver, Roger Farr and Steve Ward]; Philly Sound Poets [CA Conrad, Frank Sherlock, et al]; Movement Research [Robert Kocik and Daria Fain]).

Finally, the audience-based, or rhetorical, dimension of ecopoetics:

Up front, one is dealing with the “environmental”/ nature writing crowd, the avant-po crowd, and, perhaps most importantly, with one’s immediate community — the community one engages on an everyday basis, not just one’s elected virtual community. In regards to immediate community, we might want to reconsider the value of “occasional” work, the work of the poet in response to community occasions.

When we consider ecopoetics rhetorically, we rethink venue. These gatherings of poets are a joy but also part of the problem. As Robert Kocik likes to put it, we need more “poetry outsource.”

A practice that brings together the thematic, formal and rhetorical dimensions would be something like Joan Retallack’s “enactments of reciprocal alterity,” as she has articulated them—where the edge or boundary becomes a generative site rather than an objective in itself.

I’d like to end with two quotations from a poet whose collected works were published this year, in an act of heroic editing by Robert Grenier and Curtis Faville. The poet is Larry Eigner, who reminds us that writing for writing’s sake is kind of “over,” and that professionalization may be doing us in, as a species:

“Enough it seems has been produced. Enough writings, enough cars, enough music, enough of a lot else. Production or creation is a human quality or whatever, anthropoid, mammalian, vertebrate, proceeding through time. Contact outwards or something, besides bringing in and familiarizing.”

(“Arrowhead of Meaning,” Areas / Lights / Heights)

“And then too there’s the matter of Overexcitement. Every hour or two is a new day around the world, but by now I opine you can have overkill in anything, for example there’s no shortage of any kind of writing that l can see. Nor is Work any longer a very great good – life or living is its purpose. Career or Profession seem obsolete in enough ways by now and now I think of a return to amateurism.”

(“not / forever / serious,” Areas / Lights / Heights)

–Jonathan Skinner

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