Berkeley Ecopoetics 2013: A Fan’s Notes

What follows are excerpts from my notes on the Conference on Ecopoetics recently conducted at the University of California–Berkeley. All errors are my own. –JC


Friday, Feb. 22

Otherworldly slightly sinister gray greenery of Northern California. Open windows of the Maud Fife Room in Wheeler Hall on the Berkeley campus. Opening statements by Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Forrest Gander, Lynn Keller, Jonathan Skinner, Michael Ziser.


Gander: Ecopoetry, unlike other literary movements, has not originated in a single major city and is not dominated by men.


Robert Hass invokes the DMZ between North and South Korea as the last refuge of two crane species. Unification of the two nations–peace–will inevitably lead to development of this political wilderness and the cranes’ extinction. A figure for the complex intersection of “ecology, social justice, and the literary imagination.”


Brenda Hillman’s “Six Little Points” for an ecopoetic practice:

  1. Modernism: forms investigating boundaries
  2. Diverse discourses and disciplines
  3. Shuttling across boundaries
  4. Exploring symbolic rhythms between dream and myth
  5. The practical miracles of language roots, the social world…
  6. The poet can supplement poetry by doing activism on behalf of her bioregion and developing greater familiarity with it

Lynn Keller identifies normative nature poetry, as contemplative and as an inheritor of Romantic ideology, as having “trouble with wilderness,” referencing William Cronon’s well-known article of that title. The formal innovations of ecopoetics are directly linked to an attempt to develop alternatives to the Romantic standing-reserve conception of nature.


Michael Ziser: Poetry resists simplification: that may be its value, as well as the source of resistance in others. Cites Gary Snyder, who has called ecopoetry a “fungus” that breaks down disciplinary boundaries. Ziser: “a powerful discourse of intellectual destruction and re-integration.”


Jonathan Skinner: Ecopoetics not as a kind of writing but as a nonsite. “There is no eco tone; there is an edge.” Ecopoetics as, among other things, a site of recovery from “the poetry wars.” An ecopoetic practice distinguished from modernism partly by its emphasis on “the irreducible site of the body.”


Skinner: “Any ecopoetics is always already an ethnopoetics.” “It remains politically important to name the eco.” Eight (non)sites for ecopoetics:

  1. sound
  2. conceptual/ procedural work
  3. research/ documentary
  4. situationist
  5. boundary/ systems
  6. relation/ mestizo
  7. big picture
  8. disrupted/ “third landscapes”

More detail available here.

Hass cites Aldo Leopold’s claim (1948) that the cycle of ethical sympathies has grown continuously [on what time scale? Since the Enlightenment?]. Too much environmental literature is advocacy literature, which speaks from an assumption of knowledge [privilege?] and is not devoted to the work of imaginative exploration of what we do not know. This includes what we “know” but have not yet internalized, like the real age of the Earth, or quantum physics, or Darwin. A Galilean poetic.


activism versus the task of de-centering


Hillman: “Permission to be unbalanced.” Poetry’s “healthy destructiveness.”


4:30 PM: “Editing the Book of Nature” with myself, Camille Dungy, Ann Fisher-Wirth, and Laura-Gray Street.

Three anthologies: The Arcadia Project, eds. Corey and Waldrep; Dungy’s Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry; Fisher-Wirth and Street’s The Ecopoetry Anthology. Brief presentations on the genesis of each. [I simply talked rather then present a paper; but I will soon make available my contribution to the AWP panel that took place two weeks later in Boston titled The Arcadia Project: Writing the Postmodern Pastoral, with myself, Brenda Iijima, Jennifer Moxley, and Jonathan Skinner.]


The Ecopoetry anthology takes a historical Americanist approach, beginning with Whitman and Dickinson. They have three major categories or divisions in their book: “environmental poetry” (associated with advocacy and activism), “nature poetry” (Romanticism), and “ecological poetry” (experimental and de-centered). This, obviously is the category that comes closest to Arcadia. The risks of this category, according to the editors, are “hyper-intellectualism” and “emotional distance,” compared with the others, whose risks are presumably self-evident.


The ecotext as “compound eye.”


During Q&A John Shoptaw objects to Fisher-Wirth’s and Street’s characterization of John Ashbery’s poem, “River of the Canoefish,” as “ecopoetic.” There’s no such species as canoefish and the line “Shall we gather at the river? On second thought, let’s not” does not take rivers seriously. I intervene, claiming a space for the playfulness and irreverence of the poem as at least a form of pastoral, though it’s true it may not meet a standard for ecopoetics that demands reference to actual natural phemonena.


At the end of the day find myself thinking of “Nature” as akin to Ireland circa the Easter Rising: a colonized and exploited subjectivity forcing its way into the field of the political through multilateral action that includes violence and art.


Saturday, February 23

8 AM: “The Book as Ecopoetic Instrument” with Richard Greenfield, Brenda Iijima, Jared Stanley, and Tyrone Williams. Panelists go in reverse alphabetical order.


Williams: “The book is vacuous.” [Root of codex in Latin caudex, “book of laws,” literally “tree trunk.”] “The tree of knowledge.”


“For the medievalist, the Book of Nature is primarily a concordance to the Book of God.”


“Anthropocentrism is a necessary projection of ecosystems onto the temporal plane.”


The book as a trap for ecopoetics. The “outside” born of subjectivity. Books as a kingdom of subjectivity, still reigning in Williams’ view over virtual networks of distribution of subjectivity. “The book as element in an intratextual ecosystem.”


Iijima: The book as storage, like fat cells. Cites Eve Kosofky Sedgwick: Shame happens in the face of an expected pleasure. “What you mistake for pure abstraction is really material consequence.”


Greenfield: The word “thence” in the language of the property deed: an extension of capital that tends to stabilize language. A violent word. Exploring the history of a parcel of land in Tennessee that was once in his family. Anecdote of a memorial marker regarding the founding of the Ku Klux Klan in this small town: some wanted to remove it, some wanted to keep it. The compromise: the stone is still there, but upside down.


Jared Stanley gives a talk on rock-writing in the Nevada desert. Rocks that talk as unevenly distributed grains of subjectivity.


2 PM: “Environmental Dreamscapes and the Heedless Sublime” with Nathan Brown, Jed Rasula, Evelyn Reilly, and Brian Teare

Brown offers a Marxian correction of Heidegger. Ecopoetics as a specimen of the language it’s intended to displace–commodified in advance. [He intends this as a critique; I think of our anthology’s invocation of Benjamin’s phantasmagoria of commodities as a possible advantage of the term postmodern pastoral over ecopoetics, in that the commodification of nature is built-in to the genre. Emerson’s “Nature” and the chapter on “Commodity”: “all those advantages which our senses own to nature.”]


Heidegger’s “saving power” depends in part on poetry’s social inconsequence. In answer to Dana Gioia’s question, “Can poetry matter?”, Brown’s response is “Who cares?”


For Brown the cultural form appropriate to late capitalism is late modernism; postmodernism properly speaking does not yet exist and will not until we enter post-capitalism, which he describes, not without relish, in semi-apocalyptic terms. Postmodernism as a “not yet” [but I’m not hearing the expected Blochian utopianism of that phrase]. Seems to be making a quasi-Hegelian argument that poetry’s ambiguous “special” status will wither away along with capitalism and the state.


Jed Rasula begins with a comparison between Vladimir Tatlin’s never-built Monument to the Third International and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. [Different modes of utopianism?] Smithson: “It’s a matter of setting in contact age upon age upon age.” [Smithson the secret angel of this conference?]


The aerial view: distance converts a roadway into “primarily an artist’s mark on the landscape.” The “artistic” versus the “heedless” sublime, the latter “reducing the world to the immediately recognizable.” [Shades of Viktor Shklovsky here and the artist’s task of ostranenie, enstrangement, “mak[ing] the stone stony.”]


Constant repetition of the old under the banner of the new.


Rasula links the Romantic resurrection of Longinus’ category of the sublime with the Lisbon earthquake (1755). The sublime discloses the gap between nature and us–for as Kant said, the sublime is not “out there” in the objects, but an affect that occurs in human beings.


Evelyn Reilly: catastrophe is another word for history. “The humor of the bereft.” Ecopoetics describes an ethical shift from “‘no poetry after Auschwitz’ to all poetry after Katrina.”


Ecopoetics is simply “a fact of writing now,” not a poetics at all. A movement on the scale of Romanticism. Cites Alan Gilbert’s critical book, Another Future: Poetry and Art in a Postmodern Twilight.


Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” as an ecopoetic poem. Its strange ending: though all of the speaker’s companions are lost and there is no one to hear him, the poem concludes: “And yet / Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set, / And blew, ‘<i>Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came</i>.'”


Alan Gilbert: hope as a form of resistance “as fluid and omnipresent as power.”


Cites William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All as an early example of a work of posthuman imagination, comparable to “Childe Roland.”


Brian Teare: Nature is a rhetorical figure from which we have excluded ourselves. Emerson: commodity and beauty–the use-value of nature to poets. “The backgrounding of nature.”


“Misogyny is a precondition for our current ecological crisis.” Women linked to nature by their shared capacity for reproduction (a capacity to be controlled and exploited), while gays are “unnatural” because of their separation from reproduction. But this is to deny the universality of our dependence on biospheric processes.


4:30 PM: “The Ecopoetics of Film” with Forrest Gander, Rusty Morrison, Peter Burghardt, and Joshua Marie Wilkinson


Wilkinson’s Rabbit Light Movies succeed by not being illustrative: the voice of the poet is accompanied by banal images of urban or suburban space. The eye is distracted while the voice does its work. It’s an inversion of what we’ve come to expect in an overwhelmingly visual culture (or as Forrest puts it, “We’re poets in the age of fucking spectacle!”): the visual is background and the words and the grain of the poet’s voice are foregrounded. “I’m trapped in this time-based medium now, so I can enter the poem.” “The awkward almostness of poetry”–not quite “getting it.”


Particularly like this Fred Moten poem-film:


Morrison and Burghardt’s films are more intensely collaborative and constrained. Their images do verge on the illustrative as they move the poem through the industrial landscape of Richmond, California. I’m interested in what amounts to self-collaboration: allowing the images one captures to dictate the (re)arrangement of the poem.


Forrest’s films are the most beautiful and saturated: poetry and spectacle dictate to each other. “People are scared away by poetry’s investment in silence.”


Sunday, February 24

10:30 AM: “Ecopoetics, Object Relations, and Object-Oriented Ontology” with Nathan Brown, Anthony Camara, Devin King, Dustin Drum, Julia Fiedorczuk, Sarah Lewison, Eileen Myles, and Tze-Yin Teo

Drum kicks what will prove to be my favorite panel of the conference off with an exuberantly melancholy bang, handing out slips of paper and ink with which to draw “sad penguins.” A quasi-poetic means of recharging and reorienting, reminding me of Brenda Hillman’s sixth point.

Sad penguin from my notebook.

Many people’s penguins.


King on a Chicago artist named Mark Booth who practices “alien metaphorism” in a manner akin to Ben Marcus. “God is represented by the sea.”  Metaphor as complication and proliferation rather than (symbolic) reduction.


Fiedorczuk talks about Bruno Schulz. A strong ecological reading of the father-figure in Schulz’s work, which is usually interpreted in messianic-theological terms (the same thing happens to Kafka). Instead of focusing on this figure focusing on the objects “behind his back.” Ecology among other things a rejection or even the opposite of theology.


OOO is useful as an attempt to think the multiple (which ecology must also always do, provided it is depicted non-normatively, that is, not as a fantasized stability but as constant mutually interdependent flux). To think outside holism and dualism. An attempt to thin the agency of objects, wresting them away from both theology and its handmaiden Nature.


thing-power, weird objects, the fecundity of matter –> the fecundity of language


Lewlson on Lyme disease and the uncanniness of becoming a host–literally “not myself.” Cites the work of Lynn Margulis and her theory of “symbiogenesis.” The “queer animal.”


Myles: “Foam is a kind of radio show.” Promises at ten minutes to blow bubbles. Here she is doing just that:


“There’s a monument to men–that’s what the world is.”


“Gender makes excess.”


“I’m absolutely going to research this talk after I give it.”


“‘I want what you’ve got’ is a thing that breaks down walls.”


Feminism had to be recharged by playfulness and humor; ecopoetics now stands in the same relation to normative doom-laden or greenwashed environmentalist discourse.


Teo on Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation: a rewriting of Wordsworth without the lyric I. “They” and “may.” May [a] book stave her?


Brown skeptical of OOO: “philosophically incoherent” because it argues for the withdrawal of objects from relationality (which is primary to post-structuralism). But all the most interesting work is relational, and you can’t talk about the non-relational without establishing a relation (what Meillassoux calls “correlationism”). [Is there a poetic justification for the philosophically incoherent? It is primarily, in my view, an aesthetics.]


Skinner in Q&A: the problem of the inaccessible hyperobject: the impossibility of establishing a perceptual, phenomenological relation to global warming, islands of plastic trash in the Pacific, etc. [Pastoral enables an affective relation to hyperobjects?]


Ecopoetics as “ethical cut” communicating experience, not knowledge. Restoring affect to make activism possible indirectly.


The double gesture of poetry toward its object and toward language.