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Eco-Poetics and the New Orleans Poetry Festival

By Oliver Baez Bendorf

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.

A photo of the New Orleans Healing Center.
New Orleans Healing Center (in Bywater/Marigny neighborhood), site of the New Orleans Poetry Festival and Bookfair 2019.
A photo of St. Roche Cemetery.
St. Roche Cemetery in the neighborhood of St. Roche, New Orleans. Because of New Orleans’ elevation at slightly below sea level, the city has a high percentage of above-ground burials.

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.

A photo of avier Etchevarren and Jesse Lee Kercheval.
From the festival’s Friday Night Feature, Javier Echevarren (Uruguay) and translator Jesse Lee Kercheval.

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.

A photo of Kalamu ya Salaam reading.
From the festival’s Saturday night feature, a performance by New Orleans poet, editor, filmmaker and teacher Kalamu ya Salaam. His latest books are The Magic of Juju: A History of the Black Arts Movement (Third World Press – 2016) and, as editor, New Orleans Griot – The Tom Dent Reader (University of New Orleans Press – 2017).

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.”

Further reading.

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

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.

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.

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