Ecology and the non-human grounds of poetry

Abiding images: of underground rivers and wet paper wasps, of disrupted circuits and lichens making declarations of interdependence.  Ecology and the non-human grounds of poetry: a daytime event on Saturday March 24, at the Royal Holloway Poetics Research Centre, comprising a poetry sandwich in which the bread was poetry and the filling was a discussion. 

On the top layer of the sandwich, four readers from the MA in Poetic Practice.  Iris Colomb’s work often takes found texts and powerfully reorganises them, as in the piece ‘Fracture’.  This takes basic instructions for wiring an electrical item, and from them energises a kind of machine re- and re-routing.  There’s disturbance here, but also a kind of sensibility that reflects our electronic age: however the circuit breaks, it can’t be entirely interrupted. In the words of the poem, ‘the fix takes only a minute’.  The message or at least the medium of the poem returns again and again, shifting midway and partially into the ‘tension’ and ‘difference’ of French.

This implacable return, with its humming conduits of capital, spoke obliquely to the theme of the day: in the discussion, Drew Milne drew attention to the dependence of poetry on ‘some other substrate’, print or voice or song or digital, our writing ‘on top of’ the ubiquitous mobile phone or laptop coming at a price of industrial despoliation. 

Also buzzing with that materiality was Libby Norman’s performance: she read from her poem replete with insect imagery, and after reading each couple of lines or so out loud, tore a strip off the poem and ate it.  Papier literally maché. As this consumption of stanzas went on, we were rapt with attention, seeing how long she could keep it up.  Which was a long time: three pages worth of paper. 

Her performance kept us entranced, in a visceral appeal to what (given the day’s stern reading of ‘nature’) the imp in me wants to describe as the curious chimp in us.  We were watching her mouth and eyes as she worked: as with her little ‘Ohs’ and ‘Ahs’ of surprise and volubly pained expressions, she expertly kept us on the edge between laughter at the hamming up and genuine concern. I realised fairly soon (to greater unease) that she was actually chewing and at the same time with her fingers steering the paper into her cheeks.  This was finally regurgitated and shaped into several little white and inkily bluish packages on her palm. ‘Bees!’ she announced.

Drew’s panel presentation was flanked by pop-up stands holding his parody of the US Declaration of Independence revised in favour of the Biotariat, a call for non-human and biological representation, and against the Carbon Liberation Front.  His critical thinking as well as his poetry aims to hold us to a profound engagement with and critique of ‘disaster capitalism’, often through the medium of lichens.  How might we go beyond a romantic ecopoetics, recognising that concepts of ‘nature’ always do major political work, but also that apocalyptic gloom can function as another form of escapism? He read from poems including the cleverly and chillingly entitled ‘Defeat Devices’ which refers to the devices used by car manufacturers to evade diesel controls.  Refreshingly, he didn’t claim too much for poetry, seeing it as participating in a much wider struggle and ‘hinting’ at ways forward.

Jonathan Skinner’s approach to ecopoetics was to attempt to go beyond the romantic too, a case he described as ‘see a deer, come back with an epiphany’.  It emphasised a listening – including works which were based either on him recording birdsong or the conversation of scientists.

The panellists, though coming from different approaches, concurred on the search for a kind of solidarity with the non-human.  This would include an opening to science and to what Zoe Skoulding called ‘entanglement in and out of the situation’.  Drawing on the work of Denise Riley, she seeks a ‘Zoepoetics’ that could recognise multiplicity through the radical lyric, acknowledging a fluid boundary between the animate and the inanimate, and the deathly within life and language.  Her own poetry has been attempting a sympoeisis, by means of a ‘cutting across’, looking for example at the geographical and textual spaces within which rivers exist. 

Zoe read from work that drew on one of those rivers, the Bièvre, an underground river in Paris, and also from a series she has developed based on the French revolutionary calendar.  What I hadn’t known before was that this calendar not only changed the months but also each saints day, turning them into references to particular plants, animals and elements.  In her reading of the Germinal sections (Primrose, Plane Tree, Asparagus, Tulip, Hen etc) and Nivose (Peat, Coal, Bitumen, Sulphur, Dog etc), this formed a remarkable tableau, each given a few brilliant, connective lines creating intersecting patterns of the human and the material.

Jonathan Catherall