This past April, I participated in the New Orleans Poetry Festival, 2019. I had been invited to be a featured reader at the opening night of the festival, alongside poets Chen Chen, Henk Roussow and Lee Ann Brown, and also to share my work on two panels, “Supernatural Language: Queering Ecopoetics” and “Marthe Reed’s ARK HIVE.” On the first, I read and discussed poems from my new book, Advantages of Being Evergreen (Cleveland State University, 2019). The latter was a discussion on eco-poet Marthe Reed’s posthumous book on one of the most ecologically vulnerable landscapes, South Louisiana, where she lived and taught for eleven years. Reed died unexpectedly in 2018. The official festival program included a second line brass parade down St. Claude Avenue for her as well as other poets who had died in the past year.
Loss—of species, habitats, etc.—is a major concern of contemporary eco-poetry, but so is the possibility of empathy and solidarity. In Reed’s own words from ARK HIVE: “At the interstices of ecological zones, species, cities, nations, bodies, those permeable borders separating ‘us’ from ‘them’, human from other-than-human, insider from outsider, the vulnerable from the powerful, how might we reconfigure our understanding, encounter the unbounded condition having neither center nor margin?”
“Nature poetry” more often than not evokes work from the pastoral tradition that idealizes rural life and landscapes. But, as Brian Teare writes in his introduction to the reprint of Green-Wood by Allison Cobb: “postmodern ecopoetics departs from more representational iterations of environmental writing in the fierce scrutiny it brings to bear upon language itself, and especially… a critical eye quick to see the anthropocentric and imperialist ideologies hidden in traditional literary language.” Contemporary eco-poetics, while in conversation with traditions of nature writing that came before, looks with a critical lens at the pressing climate crises of our time, and their social and ecological impacts.
Queering eco-poetics adds another lens, then, a shared interest in biodiversity and who lays claim to what’s considered “natural.” That question of what is “natural” is one that queer poet and naturalist Elizabeth Bradfield posed in an interview I read with her many years ago, and it’s one that still shapes my work as a writer and a teacher. It seems to be one way of understanding how injustices are linked, for example stripping of protections and autonomy from the most vulnerable: transgender and indigenous people, women, low income people, those incarcerated, protected land, and endangered species. But it’s also an opportunity to work, and write, in solidarity across issues, and to deepen awareness of how meaning is made, what it might mean to hold a poem accountable to ethics and why knowing more about poetic traditions can help bring into relief our options for formal innovation. It’s why I teach Marwa Helal’s “Poem to be Read from Right to Left,” in a form invented by the poet called “The Arabic,” that disrupts for some readers the “natural” way of reading words on a page. It’s also why I pair A.R. Ammons’ 20th century organic poetry, which takes an almost Transcendental view of nature (influenced by the poet’s upbringing on a farm during the Great Depression and his undergraduate studies in biology) with queer indigenous (Kumeyaay Nation) poet Tommy Pico’s contemporary book Nature Poem, where he writes, “I can’t write a nature poem bc it’s fodder for the noble savage narrative.” Ammons and Pico at first seem worlds apart, especially in their relationship to writing nature poems, but then we reach the page where Pico references Ammons’ work by name. Then we can trace each poet’s aesthetics and ethics, and have a lively discussion of how their positionality in relation to this thing we call the “natural” can be read even in each poet’s use of punctuation. Writing and reading, both, are always shaped by cultural, historical, and political contexts. Contemporary ecopoetics is a cauldron of these intersections— and simply, some really good poems.
These are some of the many questions and ideas alive at the New Orleans Poetry Festival, 2019. A few other panels from the festival’s offerings included: “Translation in a Xenophobic World,” “Gender and Voice in Experimental Poetics,” and “Writing Climate Change.”
My colleague in the English Department, Shanna Salinas, discusses intersections of race, environmental justice, and poetry, in an essay on the spectacle of Hurricane Katrina’s black suffering in Patricia Smith’s book, Blood Dazzler, which is forthcoming in a collection.
Reading List from New Orleans Poetry Festival 2019
- ARK HIVE by Marthe Reed
- Be About Beauty by Kalamu ya Salaam
- Counter-Desecration: A Glossary for Writing Within the Anthropocene, eds. Linda Russo and Marthe Reed
- How Dare We! Write: A Multicultural Creative Writing Discourse, ed. Sherry Quan Lee
- Earth, Water and Sky: A Bilingual Anthology of Environmental Poetry ed. Jesse Lee Kercheval
- Fable of an Inconsolable Man by Javier Etchevarren, translated by Jesse Lee Kercheval
- The grass is greener when the sun is yellow by Sarah Rosenthal and Valerie Witte
- Xamissa by Henk Rossouw
- When I Grow Up I Want To Be A List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen
- deciduous qween by Matty Layne Glasgow
- “Headwind” by Amber Flora Thomas
- System of Ghosts by Lindsay Tigue
Further Reading on Eco-Poetics
It must be said that this list barely scratches the surface, and is not meant to be comprehensive. Its core is texts that have been particularly meaningful to me and will hopefully help expand your explorations of poets writing queer, decolonial, and anti-racist approaches to eco-poetry.
- Nature Poem by Tommy Pico
- Doomstead Days and Companion Grasses by Brian Teare (my review of Doomstead Days is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Nov/Dec. 2019)
- Ecodeviance: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness by CAConrad
- To See the Earth Before the End of the World by Ed Roberson
- from unincorporated territory [lukao] by Craig Santos Perez
- Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary by Harryette Mullen
- In Full Velvet by Jenny Johnson
- Green-Wood by Allison Cobb
- Hello, the Roses by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge
- Toward Antarctica and Interpretive Work by Elizabeth Bradfield
- We Come Elemental by Tamiko Beyer
- Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology, ed. Melissa Tuckey
- Eco-Language Reader, ed. Brenda Iijima
- Tree Talks: Southern Arizona by Wendy Burke
- Big Energy Poets: Eco-Poetry Thinks Climate Change, eds. Heidi Lynn Staples and Amy King
- Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, ed. Camille T. Dungy
- Introduction: Queering Ecopoetics
Oliver Baez Bendorf is an assistant professor of poetry at Kalamazoo College and the author of two books of poetry, Advantages of Being Evergreen (CSU Poetry, 2019) and The Spectral Wilderness (Kent State U., 2015). He offers a special thanks to the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership for the grant which made it possible for him to participate in the New Orleans Poetry Festival.