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Q: Stan Apps
A: James Sherry
Q: Your new book on environmental poetics is titled Sorry. My understanding is that this is intended to be a somewhat provocative title, reflecting your discomfort with some of the emotional rhetoric associated with people’s talking and thought about environmentalism. What comment are you making on people’s tendency to apologize or feel sorrowful for their part in the degradation of the environment? Do you feel these kinds of emotional associations are somehow counter-productive?
A: I am not a moralist regarding the problems of environmental degradation. When thinking about the title to this book some 10 years ago I felt that the enormity of the damage done by our collective disregard for the consequences of our behavior makes any justice, retribution, or blame irrelevant. So in some ways the title tries to show the gap between relevant justice around the subject and the feelings of the clueless perpetrators. “Oh, was that me, oh, sorry, er, sorry.”
And the list of perps is long: industry treating private property and profit as they do, intellectuals and culture workers supporting imagination and productivity as the driving forces of humanity, religious leaders continuing to foment the invalid hierarchy that all major religions share in the name of soothing pain, politicians for not regulating the introduction of new materials, scientists for lending a hand to the process and isolating themselves from the consequences, alternative culture mongers for being willing to sacrifice all that humanity has accomplished in order to promote a simplistic answer to a complex question… you see, hardly anyone escapes including you and me.
And you can also see that a lot of the attitudes and actions of these participants were justified in the context of humanity trying to improve its position in nature which is only natural. No, blame is not the game. Making people feel bad about their contribution isn’t effective.
Producing measurable and relevant change takes us down a long and winding road. So saying “sorry” is about as strong and ironic a statement of culpability as I could think of; it’s an understatement, that’s all. We are engaged in the process and need to find a way out.
And yet we want to cast blame. We are angry at our parents for their mistakes and that continues to color our responses throughout our lives. We are angry at each other for a combination of self involvement and not being better citizens as we see it. We are angry at ourselves for our imperfections.
And blame is a key game in the culture world. The social critique current in all the arts also partakes of the fruits of the systems artists blame. Philosophers are largely trying to establish a “correct” view or path when no single result will accommodate all situations. Too much blame, not enough game. Sorry is the easy and creative part of the title.
Coming up with the other part of the title, Environmental Poetics, was a more difficult process.
Q: I think many contemporary poets are unsure or skeptical about the relation between environmentalism and aesthetics. For example, I was discussing environmental poetics with a close friend, another poet, and he commented that “The role I see for environmentalism in poetry is that it’s the basis for protest poetry. Or, you know, there could be description of natural scenes — but that’s really only of limited interest.” In other words, my friend perceived environmentalism in poetry as a legitimate matter of content, specifically the content of political grievance, but when he thought of environmentalism in aesthetic terms he thought of a narrowly scenic poetry. I have to agree with him that the scenic is of little interest, but I think you see environmentalism as having a much broader relevance to poetry. What would you say to my friend?
A: Your friend is reflecting the way nature was addressed in Romanticism, as a protest against the industrial revolution. Limiting poetry to its prior uses of nature as protest and as pastoral, I agree, wouldn’t be of much merit. Environmental poetics contains that critique of the machine, but includes human rational processes, such as technology, as part of nature. As Kant said, “Reason is a gift of nature.” Putting humanity and nature together allows us to expand the possibilities of nature for poetry. Otherwise nature poetry can tend to be dull or repetitive.
Environmental poetics does not focus on writing poems with nature as the theme. Instead it relates to nature through patterns of organization. It focuses on relationships, rather than describing our environment as an array of things in a container. Your friend’s desire to reduce the use of nature in poetry to description is indicative of the reductionism that plagues us in our analytical age.
Environmental poetics as a cultural bias encompasses more than conservation of resources because human processes will not brook such limitations. Humans will break out if not given a larger field to work with. We need ways to expand our horizons and avoid policies that only limit action; we thrive on incentives.
Initially, environmental poetics seeks strategies for synthesizing as well as analyzing structures, that is, what happens when we put two things together as opposed to only disassembling their components and then leave them lying about. The term of art used in the petroleum industry to describe such an analytical process is cracking.
The effort to build a culture of environmentalism cannot be undertaken by one person. Individuals, small and large groups, working on problems with related interests and intentions, build a culture reflecting the complexity of nature. But there are risks.
Very few synthetic compositions result in viable poems in the same way that few mutations result in viable organisms. Many efforts suffer from being still born contraptions that do not themselves take on life. The notion of willing a poem into perfection may be a victim of this process. Obviously, though, I am not able to divine what people can come up with. But all these efforts are opportunities to learn.
Environmental poetics treats humanity and nature as a single complex system. It attempts many other modes than description. It uses natural structures as analogs to poetic form and those options are virtually limitless. Some good examples of recent successes are Kim Rosenfield’s Re: Evolution (Les Figues, 2008) and Evelyn Reilly’s Styrofoam (Roof, 2009). I want to put together a fuller list, but haven’t done so. More and more people are borrowing natural form and themes to help construct their works.
Take, for example, basic ideas from complex systems such as parallelism as an alternative to the linear syntax of Roman sentences. Add vertical semantics in addition to the usual horizontal direction and you have constructed a DNA-like poem that can wind in various directions. In addition these helices can be both syntactical and semantic. Creative form.
Similarly, using concepts such as lack of predictability I have engaged various procedural poetry from Fluxus to flarf in service of environmental poetry. In fact it’s quite difficult to stop the nature poem generating machine once started. Adding themes from nature, industry, and culture becomes a way to engage in occasional content, an approach that increases audiences. One doesn’t need to exclude natural themes as bathos.
Also since science is one way to uncover natural structures, all of the methods of science and technology are open to poetry. Through the use of selected cultural tools, environmental poetics brings new material to the poetic and critical apparatus both as scientific experiments and as a militant invasion of isolated disciplines of art, science, and politics through the avant garde.
Prior innovations such as the use of found materials fit nicely into an environmental paradigm as recycling. Kenneth Goldsmith’s idea of uncreative writing, finding entire works in other forms of communication represents a current version of found poetry. Once you start looking at nature differently, a lot of what people have done imitates natural form and method.
Certain literary aspects of performance art in poets like Cecilia Vicuna are constructed by environmental methods. She juxtaposes anthropological, linguistic, site-oriented, critical, and gestural poetry techniques together. Vicuna’s conglomerate performances follow biomorphic patterns of organization.
But I do agree with your friend: “I hope that I shall never see / A poem as boring as a tree.” In fact most of the poetry around the environmental movement has been attached to older recursive views of nature. On the one hand a competitive poetry world echoes Darwin’s “nature red in tooth and claw”. On the other hand natural pietism thrives in the poetry world and elsewhere. Daoism has been an excuse for much maudlin verse.
And even the most celebrated eco-poets like Gary Snyder and Theodore Roethke have only scratched the surface of possibilities that need to be explored in developing a culture that links humanity and nature. Without that more complete culture based on environmental principles to support the science and politics of change, humanity will have difficulty generating the will to change because our self-centered myths about nature prohibit us from seeing the larger picture or even seeing the details accurately.
Q: Environmentalism seems to be fundamentally a doctrine of amelioration, to discover the path of least damage, in the broadest sense. As such, it proposes politically a new centrism, similar to the old centrism in many ways, but based on a different calculus of risk and profit, quantifying forms of risk and profit that have not been under discussion previously. What role can poetry have in characterizing and increasing awareness of the profits and risks relevant to environmental awareness?
A: Environmental poetics’ goal to establish a renewed culture that combines human and non-human activity does not have to only address awareness of environmental degradation. Although both are in play, it doesn’t seem to me, based both on history and my understanding of human nature, that a critique alone can be the basis of sustainable culture. Awareness and solutions are iterative processes.
Tremendous effort is already underway toward stimulating sensitivity to problems with the environment. We must now propose a real alternative relationship to humans combating nature. Culture, to be incorporated into our lives, thrives on aspiration as well as cautionary notes, shining light on the way we are both like and unlike other components of nature. In fact nature provides the tools to change our status so we can never really claim victory over nature or even rely on simply understanding that we need to achieve a more balanced relationship with the planet. Humanity partners with other planetary forces to survive.
Culture provides the perspective that we are working with nature to produce our societies and conditions the will to change. We are working with the minds that nature developed in collaboration with humanity. We are working with the hands that natural selection provided under its rules of propagation. Rather than mere awareness, watching the news, we need cultural tools and artifacts that build a more balanced relationship between humanity and nature: Humans still seek to optimize our use of those resources, but profligacy ignores the fact that we inhabit an essentially closed system.
Juggling these priorities is the task of poetics. Poetics organizes the things, relationships, and actions that compose our environmental grammar. What relevant concepts does this poetics entertain?
Poetry has always been about what risks the poet is willing to take with language. Poets talk about making it new or renewing language even if their goal is to maintain the status quo. Writers as diverse as Paul Eluard, Margaret Atwood, Robert Frost, and Harold Bloom all talk about poetry renewing language to renew one’s spirit. Lots of theories have been proposed, but the active process of the poet is always that of renewing the language. And risk accompanies any change. (Of course I should hasten to add that people write poetry to perfect language as well, but that is a technical activity included in the process of taking risks with language.)
Risk is also an important concept because nature is unpredictable. It has an apparent order but its complex processes are difficult to foresee beyond a short period into the future. The further we get into the future the less accurately we are able to forecast. We observe that difficulty in weather forecasting, earthquakes, lung inflation, vortices in superconductors, understanding traffic patterns, and the flow of any stream that suddenly breaks into white water. In fact almost all natural processes exhibit this kind of behavior: many variables in a single system interact dynamically.
What’s more surprising, these complex activities produce an apparent order. The shapes of clouds famously interact with our imagination. Four people that I know have the same birthday. The telephone always rings just when I lie down for a nap. Déjà vu. Similar forms appear in nature and human efforts at different scales. Taken together the simultaneous presence of apparent order and unpredictable outcomes produces a lot of quirky, superstitious, and radical behavior. These observations might lead us in another context to a discussion of creativity.
But imagination aside for a moment, there is also a prudent response to this unpredictable kind of order: risk management. And poetry from one perspective is precisely that: Careful selection and placement of words combined with the urge to create new formulations. Generals use reserve troops, lawyers don’t ask any questions if they don’t already know the answer, and investment bankers hedge.
So while the poet takes risks with language, stretching the current state of its use, the poet also mitigates losses. Mallarme and the language poets use careful arrangement of words on the page. Pound and Eliot sought accurate selection of words. Flarf internet searches filter the available resources for the poem through a carefully designed screen.
And taking the edge off loss is also an important theme in poetries from Tang Chinese to the Persian of Hafiz to the Lake Poets to confessional writing in England and America in the 20th century. This linkage of mitigating loss both in technique and in theme gives poetry power beyond common speech and prose, although they both can simulate it.
On the other side of loss, the profit motive is a bit more difficult and has not heretofore been part of the poetical balance sheet except in war poetry. And profit has never been poetry’s strong suit. It has long been my contention that while a piece of paper costs a penny, once you write a poem on it, you can’t give it away. The negative space created by the poem returns to that idea of protest that retrieves romanticism and evokes the physics of dark matter in the 21st century. There’s little profit in a poem. Nevertheless I’d like to try.
As politics produces such strange bedfellows, environmentalism implies a centrist, but inclusive, position, taking carefully considered risks and buttressing against them further by defining a canon. Further centrist naturalism makes sense from the perspective of life at standard pressure and temperature. Too radical a notion of environment cannot be sustained as our top-heavy humanism proved in the way it puts man at the apex of a pyramid almost totally separated from nature but in charge of the whole shebang. Hence there is some danger of reversion to the mean in environmental poetics and ultimate stagnation in entropy. We will need to emphasize the anti-entropic tendencies in poetry.
Yet change is part of the picture. We want to reserve the right to combat the oligarchy to retrieve our stolen goods and heritages and to reassert a better balance within society. We are engaged in such a process in these days after 30 years of oligarchic domination in the US of culture, politics, and science. It will be difficult to untie the cultural knot the oligarchy has tied to its class interests.
But both points of view need to be accommodated because we will not thrive as a species by suppressing highly functional individuals. An example of social structure in nature can be found in stable niches in forests, fields, and deserts.
Environmental poetics also recognizes that specialized thought and action drive much change. Radical change in mass extinction or local storm shows nature’s support for radical thought and action on the social plane, if we are willing to include ourselves in nature. We can’t merely pay lip service to this linkage, but need to find ways to reconstruct our language and our discourse to accommodate non-polarizing structures. Sentence structure, non-linear poetries, and discursive rather than rhetorical politics are useful tools to reengineer our self-protective, self-congratulating culture.
So at one end of the spectrum environmental poetics suggests a radical reordering of humanity’s status vis a vis the rest of the planet and at the other end a stabilizing of the processes we use to manipulate our environment. In these decades of great prosperity, more radical human experiments can thrive in a livable range. There is at this moment quite a low risk to humanity if we actively seek change while in the past our extinction was always part of the equation.
Environmental poetics is not an idealist reordering of society that inverts the controlling hierarchy within humanity, but a reordering of our relationship to nature, leveling the hierarchy between human and non-human components for the purposes of stabilizing our population in its surroundings. It’s simple, let’s not carry a good thing too far; we don’t want to radically experiment with our surroundings, especially when results are unpredictable. Nevertheless the suggested change is radical. Let us adjust ourselves so that our self image is not in such high contrast to our surroundings.
Q: You say that we “need to find ways to reconstruct our language and our discourse to accommodate non-polarizing structures,” and then add that “sentence structure, non-linear poetries, and discursive rather than rhetorical politics” can be tools to achieve this. “Accommodating non-polarizing structures" seems to me to be a new goal for poetry, whereas the tools you propose to accomplish it mix the new and the familiar. Could you go into more detail about your current goals as a poet and publisher of poetry, and about the relevance of sentence structure and discursive politics to these goals?
A: Now we’re getting into what is both the meat of the problem of environmental poetics and the least developed, because it’s the place where no one wants to go. Writers and readers both resist explanation about this level of the writing process, preferring to refer to it obliquely, claiming that nothing said about it is accurate, that it is merely technical, and/or that it is ultimately unknowable, a mystery. But let me look at it directly, take a position, see how it reads to you, and then let you reformulate it―that whole sequence.
I assume that simply talking about things directs our consciousness toward them. No matter what my position about a topic, simply introducing it allows each individual reader to apply their assumptions and predilections to the topic. And it is only with great difficulty and cunning that I can change their minds. For example, if I write, “I never said Barack Obama was gay, not once, nor did I ever imply it,” I will never get the cat back in the bag. Anyone who reads this sentence will immediately apply their politics to the problem and the response will in most cases reflect that individual’s political bias. I can never prove the negative; all I can do is look for opportunities to photograph Timothy Geithner and Barack coming out of the Watergate together and the race is on.
The conservatives have used this strategy to death but only late in the second Bush administration did people actually start to reject the obvious conclusions as predicted by representing a topic. All semantic constructions support representation, but we also need to provide alternatives to representation in modes of presentation and integration of disparate components to seek new meanings. Several of the advanced forms of writing avoid a simplified communications model of poetry replacing it with a more inclusive approach. Environmental poetics attempts this inclusive approach by not valorizing one kind of semantic construction over another.
The same is true for the grammar and syntax of our writing and speaking. Certain grammars predict certain reactions. For example, shorter sentences produce greater emotional impact than long ones and are memorable. Long sentences allow understanding over time and awareness of contingent factors which has a greater impact on the intellect and increases dimensionality. Not that I suggest you value one over the other, but I do suggest that we notice that sentence length in Proust reinforces his ideas about time. Roman syntax in French, English and other languages supports a logical flow while Chinese variable syntax forces the reader to reconstruct the reality that the sentence illustrates. American syntax allows for more variation in syntax than most European constructions. Using Ebonics, slang and dialect have liberating effects. By its multiplicity, American syntax falls somewhere in between Europe and Asia, pushing individuals to take certain steps by themselves that the Roman syntax does for them in a restricted way.
If European language syntax produces a certain kind of linear logic: subject, verb, and object, and the less determined American and Chinese syntaxes allow for thinking less tied to linear logic, what then is the syntactical perspective that promotes acceptance of humanity and nature together as a single complex system? If it’s not linear or free-form, then what is it? I’d suggest that polymorphic syntax incorporates many possibilities and doesn’t limit the kind of thinking that we do. It’s a goal we set early in the development of language poetry and I think, while I’m perverting it a little from its formulation in the 70s, polymorphism links well as a metaphor with environmentalism. It opens up more possibilities than forcing acceptance of any one of the syntactical models I have referred to above.
Creating a sequence of syntactical and semantic changes characterizes innovative poetries of many types and has existed as a strategy for almost 200 years. Many sentences in modern writing begin with one structure and end with another, anacoluthon. Word play itself is a characteristic of all languages and times. Avoiding polarizing constructions will be more difficult to achieve. They are embedded in the very fabric of thought.
Cogito ergo sum implies several polarities at once. It separates the self from the other. It separates being and non-being. Lacan points to accepting one’s name in the “other” of language as the primal split in subjectivity between the ego “in” language and the subject “of” language. This continuous polarizing at many levels of structure furthers the contentions of critical theory about alienation. It also is essential to making distinctions, but it becomes habitual and is applied indiscriminately.
As we described above, Roman syntax implies a kind of logic that to my mind at least is far from universal within the range of natural processes. Any kind of either/or construction predicts an argument. Beyond polymorphic experimentalism what are the other constructions that don’t polarize?
In the first place polarity implies a charge, and uncharged language doesn’t generally make good poetry. Kenny Goldsmith’s idea of uncreative writing is one solution proposed recently to address those stable language structures as poetry. But mostly poetry, all language in fact, creates a charge that pulls us in one direction or another. That is the point of the argument about representation. What can be done about this?
One solution that occurs to me is to make productive use of the energy in the charged particles/participles that accumulate, even in uncreative writing, as subtexts of the text we seek to discharge. Medieval texts engaged in such efforts both as summary of an argument and to reconcile divergences in points of view. Footnotes represent the academic version of that discharging text. Poetry has always reserved a place for unstated meaning that accrues as we build up our poems. The charges in poetic language accumulate a meaning and the stronger the charges the more indelible the non-referential meaning. But we need those structures of organization, footnotes, and connotation as well as polymorphism to defuse the tendency to turn every sentence or line of thought into an argument with two sides.
Other examples of non-polar writing implode political arguments by compressing or multiplying the dichotomy. In this approach non-polarizing components are most likely critical discourse, but there are some examples in poetry as far back as Hesiod.
The conflict in contemporary poetry between flarf and the conceptualists is a good example. The writing of both groups starts with a concept and then uses a process of selection to come up with the text. The differences between them are largely social status issues. The distinction is between two social groups and is not formal.
The reading at the Whitney Museum on April 17, 2009 was proof of that when four poets of each stripe read nearly indistinguishable poems. I say nearly because there are differences that occur in language based on social structure. The flarfs were dressed in costume; Kasey Mohammed even wore his NASA jumpsuit while the suits of the conceptuals were all business. Yet the poems of Darren Werschler Henry, the conceptualist, sounded more like those of Gary Sullivan, the flarfist, while Christian Bok read sound poems. All had concept, all had external selection processes, and none languished in polar distinctions. Them and us were united.
Polymorphism occurs outside of poetry and prose in the world of optics. Polarized light vibrates all on one plane. Further investigation into this metaphor can be found at: http://www.benwiens.com/encyclopedia.html. Non-polarized poetries are polymorphic and can be read in several ways.
While physics is based on a singular energy system, plural energy systems are known to be available in chemical structures where there are mixtures of gibbs energy or kinetic energy and only relativistic energy is conserved. For biological systems multiple energy systems are more the norm. Energy conservation necessitated by limited resources for generating energy make for a complex energy profile that looks more like one of the functions of biological systems: poetry writing. The absurdity of these comparisons emphasizes how much of innovative poetry from Dada to flarf is implicated in primary planetary processes and not the usual decorative postures or psychological states that are expressed in poetry. Hence the perspective of environmental poetics creates the ability to use nature in poetry without describing the flowers.
Q: I was wondering if you could compare or relate ecological thinking to Hegelian/Marxist dialectical thinking. In ecological thinking, there is the conception of a multiplicity of distinct ecological niches, each of which is distinct and relevant to the whole. From this perspective, is the dialectical insistence on triads (thesis-antithesis-synthesis) useful, or is it an overly reductive model?
A: I notice your question narrows in on the process of change rather than attempting a contrast between Marxist doctrine and Environmental Poetics. So I’d like to address your question directly rather than side-stepping into a political statement about romanticism and environmentalism.
Environmental poetics posits a process for social change that tends to follow natural processes. Environmental poetics insists that human rational processes are part of the natural in that humanity is part of nature and does not have the separate status described in Genesis. Natural processes have to be understood to include both human and non-human processes. As a description of that process of change, Hegel’s dialectic attempts to follow natural processes as a good romantic should, but may be unduly influenced by the critique of the industrial revolution as an “unnatural,” human process.
Romanticism separated society from nature. Consider Wordsworth’s couplet “Little we see in nature that is ours; / We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon.” Hegel’s dialectic is an attempt to link change in society with natural change in that he describes a process very much like a biological one. In that sense he is prescient. From Hegel’s point of view the niches in society participate in dialectical change and are in that way similar to each other.
Environmental poetics accepts that there are common mechanisms of change in nature. It appreciates how these mechanisms condition rational structures as well. In some sense Hegel must have understood that, although I can’t point to it in his work. Hegel may not have articulated this link between humanity and nature. I think it must have been very difficult for people prior to the 20th century to see nature on a large scale as fragile, but the dialectic does link change in humanity and nature in a way that’s similar to environmentalism. For example, the presence of both the thesis and antithesis in the synthesis is a subtlety that is often lost in polarized political arguments today.
The important difference between dialectical change and environmental poetics is how the dialectic is separated from the unique act. Environmental poetics posits a matrix that shows how similar and unique aspects of each niche can be modeled. Dialectic models only change, becoming, while environmental poetics to be effective models change, stasis, and operational conditions as well. Perfection of purpose and definition is less important in nature than presence and completeness. The aspiration of dialectical change applies to only one vector of environmental poetics.
The problem for environmental poetics is to determine which natural processes are relevant to a human problem and then to find a way to change human cultural assumptions to allow us as a species to accept that change and the resulting conditions that purport to solve that human problem.
For example, we would not easily accept a natural process that increases infant mortality, even though huge amounts of resources are required to sustain infants who would not live without special medical attention. Humanity has decided that it has enough surplus energy to allow resources to sustain infants that are not viable on their own. Most other animals do not have the surplus energy or the means to sustain non-viable infants, but some runts do survive and prosper with maternal care in non-human species.
A host of similar problems occur as a result of all the human solutions that we have devised to overcome threats from nature that go against the grain of natural processes. Our culture needs to help us decipher the genuine threats from those that are only threats to status or identity. Unfortunately our current culture does not easily make such distinctions and often institutionalizes lumping threats together so that we end up fighting wars for status as in Iraq rather than for more concrete interests.
Culture also has to help us focus on the important threats rather than those that simply stir up emotional responses. Publicity has focused on how energy production destroys its surroundings, but there are many others including mining and cement production for development projects that degrade the surroundings on that scale as well.
Looking at each of these problems separately is necessary to solve them, but environmental poetics benefits us by looking at them together, representing the matrix of solutions rather than extracting a single thread and treating it as the whole.
Solutions are also found separately but are informed by a common environmental framework. Farming with multiple species together in one field, cooperative micro financing, and inefficient computing are just some of the solutions that may allow humanity to maintain its advantages but avoid soiling the nest. These changes may come about through an evolutionary process like the dialectic or change may occur in other ways.
For example nature has other processes of change like extinction of species, mitosis that lacks an antithesis component, mutation as a result of stochastic processes, and others that I have looked at in Sorry that aren’t really dialectical. Dialectic becomes one of the models for change, but certainly an important one when looking at stable environments.
Q: I always thought Gertrude Stein said so much when she referred to Ezra Pound as a “village explainer,” implying that his formulations about economics and politics were of minimal use to a sophisticated cosmopolitan reader like herself. Now they say we live in a “global village", and many poets concerned with the “big picture” could be called “global village explainers.” And yet the readers of poetry continue to be, for the most part, cosmopolitan and rather specialized. How useful are the broad generalizations of poetry in a society dominated by highly specialized, technical workers? Specifically, what is the role of generalization in environmental poetry?
A: The Stein quote represents a snide criticism of Pound’s position as a public intellectual by what Ulla Dydo describes as a very private person, and by inference criticism of the activist poetics.
I don’t want to get into postmodern clichés about how the “specialized, technical workers” of our society are isolated from each other by their modes of discourse and their long hours of devotion, or how five or fewer corporations of the mainstream media control 80% of content and means of distribution of books, magazines, radio, television worldwide that reinforce that isolation with a cult of individualism and personal gratification. Much has been made of this isolation in the postmodern texts of the past 30 years and I don’t think we need to rehearse that strain. There is more advantage in investigating alternatives to the cult of the individual that acts as a cover for oligarchic control.
It will be very difficult to unwind the ties between that mainstream culture, capital flows, and the workforce that allow for free global flow of capital and suppression of labor mobility. It may have to wait until environmental degradation or overpopulation stifle the flow of capital or increase costs beyond the ability of humanity to cope. That would be sad if we cannot see the train coming. Global flooding, viral storms and other signals of a major shift in the stability of our environment may be the only way that society and the mass of individuals can change from the self-absorbed state we find ourselves in today.
And technological solutions that negate the increasing power of individual citizens may already be coming into play such as surveillance and detection of any deviation from desired behavior. The mainstream cultural organs are another means to those ends driving standards of disinformation to new heights. Many of us have spent the past 30 years trying to keep cultural alternatives alive and now, glory be, I have a theory about it. I do not think that humanity will easily change without these environmental disasters and among them I include the kind of collapse we have just experienced in the global financial meltdown.
Once those changes in the environment begin to occur, what can we foresee about the resulting society? Michael Thompson has postulated that a society will emerge based on our views of nature. Thompson proposes that there are about five different points of view about nature:
View of Nature
|The Ineffectual||Lottery Controlled Cornucopia|
|The Hierarchist||Isomorphic Nature|
|The Hermit||Freely Available Cornucopia|
|The Entrepreneur||Skill-Controlled Cornucopia|
|The Sectist||Accountable Nature|
This structure can be contrasted to our current society built around our specialized jobs and the roles we take within them. We can contrast Thompson’s social structure with the social structure established at the beginning of the humanist era in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales where the roles of the knight, squire, priest, and others suggest a story about the individual’s life and attitude. Thompson’s view is quite subtle in that he recognizes that an individual will have a different view of nature depending on his or her role at the time.
Thompson proposes, and I support this approach for poetry, that the new model resists the urge to remove complexity, goal ambiguity, contradictory certainties, conflict, institutional inertia, and temporal change from our culture. He suggests implementing policies in order to preserve their “historical contingency.”
One’s view of nature may be different sitting in front of a computer at a bank than when gardening. Complexities of this kind reflect your point about how explanation is less sophisticated than any reality it purports to explain, but there are several kinds of criticism. I end up preferring elucidation to Stein’s hierarchical evaluation that tends to polarize between good and bad and over simplifies to an even greater extent than the elucidation to which I am prone in my activist poetics.
Generalization is a vital part of environmental poetics for good and for ill. Environmental poetics links the isolated silos of epistemology. It is also one of those specialties that allow our highly differentiated society to function. We need a cultural bonding principle rather than a culture that validates our isolation from each other. Environmental poetics’ generalizations are intended to provide that bond. I have written at length about this topic of linkages between organisms in my work on poet’s theater. (This material is forthcoming in Post Modern Culture special issue on Poet’s Theater).
From another point of view the generalizations of environmental poetics are a starting point. I can’t hope to document all the environmental aspects of all the disciplines that run our world today. I can only hope, as a kind of advertisement for this phase, to promote the ideas to encourage others to seek the special relationships that link their disciplines.
There’s a bit more didacticism in this process than I’d like. But then the risk management aspect of poetry does predict that we poets, as unseen legislators wagging our fingers at all and sundry, will be annoying and subject, as is the poet in the Satyricon, to an ambush of small pebbles rather than a judgmental stoning. It’s why we like poets like Whitman, larger than life, so that their lectures are less pedantic and more inclusive. This is the expansive part of environmental poetics. Environmental poetics accepts many forms of poetry and many instances of each form, relying as it does, not only on critical judgment, but also on natural selection.
Between Stein and Pound I sense as much a conflict of personalities as a conflict of political beliefs. The private Stein scolds the public and unseemly Pound. Further Stein did not share Pound’s interest in politics. Stein was also quite conservative but in no way supportive of National Socialism which has been from time to time implied.
Environmental poetics seeks to be both cosmopolitan in its acceptance of difference and activist in its goals. If it sounds a bit too explanatory, then at least I have been clear. Explaining and composition as explanation interact in our environment to produce the compound that we call literature. The assertion that one is better than another might well be replaced by a structure that shows how they work together.
Q: How has your work as the publisher of Roof Books evolved in relation to your changing ideas (and particularly your intense focus on environmentalism in the last decade)? In other words, what were your goals as a publisher when Roof began in the 1970s, and how do they compare to your goals now? Also, has your focus on environmentalism led you to change any of your practices regarding publishing, such as your choice of materials or printing methods?
A: I started Roof Magazine in 1976 at Naropa Institute and quickly oriented it to publishing language poetries. Roof Magazine published 10 issues quarterly, mostly co-edited with poet Michael Gottlieb. Then in 1979, I started publishing Roof Books by Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein, Hannah Wiener, Bruce Andrews, Diane Ward, Bob Perelman, Steve McCaffery, the entire panoply of language poets. Most of those original writers with the exception of Andrews and Perelman are not actively published by me anymore. Bernstein publishes with FS&G and major university presses, and Silliman’s books are coming out from University of California Press. So I did my job of helping to mainstream some of the writers Roof published.
In fact the attitude of the poetry world in 1979, “You can’t write like that!” has now become “How do we write like that?” And many academic departments have embraced language poets from Buffalo to University of Pennsylvania to University of California. Roof was part of that effort.
But Roof is still focused on publishing emerging writers. There are second generation language poets like Cathy Eisenhower that Roof will publish in the fall of 2009. And there are also new tendencies like flarf. Roof has published flarfists Gary Sullivan, Nada Gordon, Drew Gardner, and forthcoming work from Kasey Mohammed. Another new tendency is the notion of uncreative writing, a conceptual take on found poetry that is associated with Kenneth Goldsmith. Roof has published Rob Fitterman and Kim Rosenfield from that group. And I suspect their work has an environmental process underneath their concepts. Recycling alone is an interesting strategy.
Now that I have formulated my notion of environmental poetics and feel comfortable about it, I have started publishing environmental writing that’s consciously consistent with my conception of it. Roof recently published Evelyn Reilly’s Styrofoam, a poem that I think certainly realizes the tenets of environmental poetics.
But the majority of environmental writing still falls into the daoist or conservationist approach to environment where humans are separated from the rest of the planet even though an appeal is made to pay more respect to non-human nature. A larger effort that includes both the environmental poetics material that I am interested in and the other views is EcoPoetics, a journal edited by my friend and colleague Jonathan Skinner. I recently realized that Christian Bok has gotten a grant to include his poetic text as the junk code of an actual DNA strand. The ideas are proliferating in the poetry world and I’m gratified by that.
Also I am trying to find how environmental poetics can address other innovative practices. I mentioned the relationship between environmentalism and flarf or conceptual writing. In many ways language poetry creates an environment of language and the texts that inhabit it.
In fact other than essentializing language, language poetry is quite consistent with environmental poetic practices. I don’t think my colleagues would necessarily agree especially on the political grounds that you point to in your earlier questions. But I would like to create a big tent for other poetries as they realize their affiliation with natural processes and begin to break down barriers between human and non-human activity. In fall 2009 for example Roof will also publish procedural poems by Joan Retallack. I suspect I will try to focus the book so that the procedures can be understood as naturalistic to try to be consistent with environmental poetics.
Finally, my views on environment have not much affected my publishing practices. For example although the stock Roof uses has a percentage of recycled material in it, I’m certainly not hard line about it. I have changed the way I print, not in the printing technology, but in the printing cycle.
Roof used to publish 1000 copies of a title for the first print run and store them until we ran out. Now we use a galley printer who can do very short runs without significantly increasing unit cost. So Roof prints a few copies, distributes them for publicity, gauges the market and then schedules short print runs in series until sales drop off. We sell about the same number of books but don’t suffer from overstock if a book doesn’t sell as well as we expect. I suspect that’s ecologically sound printing. Deborah Thomas, my wife and partner in the publishing for the past 20 years, came up with that idea about the print cycle.
Q: I was recently watching the Disney documentary “Earth” with my son and I found myself quite disappointed in it, I think because of how it conceptualized environment. The movie started well, at the North Pole and then traveled south to the boreal forest, but it soon lost its southward motion and became focused only on those parts of the “Earth” entirely without people. It was as if any part of Earth where people lived didn’t count, or wasn’t really Earth! Since the so-called “unspoiled environment” or “nature” accounts for such a small percentage of Earth’s surface, I felt the film did not deserve its title, but that it could have been a good film if it had not shied away from showing us the life activity within human-dominated areas. Nonetheless, the idea of environment expressed by the movie is a common one, a view in which “Nature” is “spoiled” or “disappears” once humans take up residence.
All this as a preface to asking, what is the significance of “Earth” in environmental poetics, and how does it differ from the version of “Earth” represented by Disney?
A: At this point earth is all that is the case. We can think about other worlds, other dimensions, cyberspace and mental space, but in the end our planet is the mostly, though not entirely, closed system where we are integrated. In that regard I like the garden metaphor, but not the original sin view. Rather I’d like to see our planet as our plot that we have to cultivate, carefully, to make it improve sustainably.
Separating the earth from humans is the most difficult problem to solve. Inevitably we need to separate one organism from another, to separate individuals from the larger groupings in species, ecosystems, and global flows of water and heat, and to understand the linkage between each organism and its surroundings. This combination of simultaneous separation and interdependence doesn’t have a great emotional appeal in our current way of looking at the world.
Looking at the idea of wilderness from the American point of view we have the additional difficulty of our heritage as a great wilderness. From de Tocqueville to Disney the idea of wilderness appeals to our need for values greater than ourselves, since we often feel small and alone, isolated and afraid.
The appeal to the values of wilderness even extends to the art world where one of the leading avant garde institutions is called the New Wilderness Foundation, referring to the wilds of the imagination and ultimately to indigenous peoples struggling in it rather than the majority of humans who struggle against each other.
Environmental poetics tends to look at humanity and nature as a single complex system. From that perspective wilderness is a place where we can see how nature behaves when we’re not there. Wilderness has a value as a contrast to our tortuous lives in society. But along with wilderness always comes the idea of Darwinian competition, nature red in tooth and claw, that sort of hyperbole.
To be sure species with sexual reproduction compete for the right to reproduce, but so much more of our planetary processes are involved with synergy, symbiosis, and cooperation. Lyn Margulies has developed the idea of endosymbiosis showing how different species interact at a most basic level to integrate with other planetary processes. As proof of the theory she has done extensive work to show how mitochondria, the energy source in cells, originated as independent bacteria, outside the organism, and over time integrated into the cell, losing some of their own particular characteristics to allow cells to process oxygen.
Contrast that process with the notion of wilderness and you begin to have an idea of how complex our planet has become over the eons and how that complexity, rather than a simplified dichotomy of humanity and wilderness, makes life as we know it possible. Disney’s reassuring dualism of nature and humanity destroys our ability to look at our situation as it is, forcing us to further emotional extremes as we try to separate ourselves from the environment while seeing daily proof of the contrary.
Q: You argue that a dualistic view of environment, viewing nature and humanity as opposed principles, forces us to emotional extremes. Obviously, much rhetoric produced by the environmental movement encourages such emotional extremes, perhaps as a short-cut to a sense of urgency. Is there a use for such emotional intensity, in your opinion? If the urgency in Environmental Poetics is not based on emotional extremes, such as those produced by concerns about the loss of wilderness, then what is the source of urgency in this new work? In other words, can you discuss the emotional ramifications of your view of environmentalism, especially in relation to the emotional urgency that many readers desire from poetry?
A: It seems to me that you are asking about a phenomenological theory of mind. You point on the one hand to emotions like pride and love, subjects of poetry, and also to a general feeling of benevolence or what Hume calls “sentiment of humanity” that perhaps is one of the impulses toward poetry. There is an important tension between these two kinds of phenomenological passions that relates to change in the mind, much as your earlier question about dialectic inquires about social change. I think this is your subject as it keeps recurring in your questions.
The emotional rhetoric in the environmental movement is largely misplaced blame and looks to me like piousness. An ecologist wants to be seen as careful and intent on a solution, but winds up thoughtlessly castigating people with different opinions because they leave a mess. It’s a competitive trap set by the oppositional nature of how the ecologist wants to be perceived. Instead of being viewed as a person with a multitude of opinions, facts, skills and failings, the ecologist identifies with his argument and embodies it.
The poet wants to be recognized by the image she has of herself and tries to embody that in the poetry. She is rarely successful more often generating a caricature or thin version of her image. This inadequacy of poetry is often one of the chief emotions of poetry and speaks to the reader’s sense of personal loss. While these identifications are important in poetry, their emotional impact derives from identifying with loss.
Another suggestion. I see no reason why poetry has to be the province of emotional oversimplification. Poets spend far too much time talking about good and bad, likes and dislikes, ours and theirs and these personal judgments are often proposed as the only honest evaluation. Contrarily, poetry that advances the art rarely relies on these emotional simplifications. Rather poetry is subtle, full of innuendos and contingencies. Even the boldest action in the Iliad implicates the accuracy of the description, the psychology, and the meter together.
Emotional urgency comes not from dualism alone, although that certainly sparks rhetorical excitement and anger. Most effectively urgency is generated by linking the way the words are put together, the way the theme is addressed, and how the body works. If the body is not engaged in the process, the poem usually falls flat.
I don’t mean that spleen isn’t a useful humor. There are plenty of reasons to be annoyed at and to try to redirect misplaced energies, especially when energy conservation motivates so many biological imperatives and hence environmental considerations.
Another suggestion. Neural networks have developed in such a way that the patterns of activity of the neuronal arrays invite the hypothesis that the arrays are doing matrix multiplication rather than input output processes. The very synapses performing these tasks do so in a non-dualist model.
So I took your idea of dualist emotion and tried to generate a matrix for it. The reasons behind what I put in the cells will have to wait for a more thorough engagement. But you will notice, to the extent that you agree with the content of the cells, that the progression isn’t predictive. Also apparent is that any poem can participate in several of these cells if it chooses and that looks like the lower right cell.
Ways emotions work in poetry:
|Multiple Points of View||Career trajectory or indecision||Narrative poetry||School of poetry|
|Matrix||Innovative poetries||Poetic judgments, criticism, canons||Poems intense at nodes but containing diverse impacts|
Emotions create convictions. “The anthropomorphic theory of the world is made absurd by modern biology―but that is not saying, of course, that it will ever be abandoned by the generality of men. To the contrary, they will cherish it in proportion as it becomes more and more dubious.” H. L. Mencken. I’m not sure Mencken was a supporter of environmental poetics, but this notion seems to me consistent with my view of deeply held convictions in general.
Drew Westen in his book The Political Brain refers to studies he has performed on the brains of individuals with strong political convictions. If a democrat for example is shown a film of a republican candidate making a mistake, the part of the brain that gets engaged is anger. But if the democrat is shown a democratic candidate making a mistake, the part of the brain that gets engaged is the conflict resolution region. The same conflict resolution takes place when a republican is shown a film of a republican making a mistake.
These points of view are more than convictions; they are embodied in the brain. Likewise a poet’s identity is embodied and she seeks to write to that embodied role. The recycling of actions and identities in all fields supports Mencken’s perception that people don’t change, or at least it takes a significant effort to change. And that effort has to have an adaptive function or the individual will have wasted that energy. Too much wasted energy spells disaster for the individual and if those non-adaptive functions are passed to the next generation through genetics or culture, that species or variety is jeopardized.
The collective memory in bureaucratic states is the academy.
Q: I’m interested in how you’re using the context of this interview to comment on my habits of mind (frequently dualistic, emotionally focused, interested in provoking polemic), as demonstrated by my choice of questions. I suppose my choice of questions portrays me as the “Western citizen,” drawing predominantly on a heritage of humanistic thought, asking about the limitations of the Western humanist view in terms that nonetheless derive from that view. This leads to an interesting way of thinking about what’s at stake in environmental poetics’ critique of our culture, that the horizon of environmental poetics is a revision in our habits of thinking.
And yet there is always this pressure to be a more effective Western citizen, to employ rhetorical distinctions as self-promotion, to portray the self as a prelude to occupying and managing the self, to imagine that which cannot be incorporated into the self in terms of loss. How does environmental poetics operate to resist old habits of mind and the social pressures that enforce those habits? And further, if environmental poetics is associated with the advocacy of new habits, what are the positive powers and agencies associated with those new habits?
A: This is the most interesting question so far because it clearly posits your point of view. The beginning of the question reads as an essay on how we seek to retain our identities, that is, the self image that western culture often documents as a physical body inhabited by various non-physical entities which are things in themselves like mind and soul.
The last sentence of your first paragraph identifies one of the main foci of environmental poetics as you term it “a revision of our habits of thinking.” I would quibble that environmental poetics contains both a critique and a program, although that program is not very well developed. In fact environmental poetics aspires to coax the program from its participants such as you rather than create some linear philosophy in a book.
The second paragraph of your question reproduces the structure of the first and as such defies your statement that you are a western thinker because this parallelism in your paragraphs reads more like the parallel methodology and scaling of environmental poetics. And since my answer so far is mostly about your question, it fulfills a second criterion of environmental poetics, the extension of the self into the other. We have touched on this idea of self briefly and I have an extended view of the environmental self in my essay on Fiona Templeton. (see above)
These paragraphs also fulfill a third criterion of environmental poetics specifically relating to poetry, one that is already familiar to postmodernism, the simultaneous and sequential analysis of content and form. This analytic approach links these structures and reveals their interdependence leading toward recognizing the interdependence in the biosphere through the aegis of poetry. Simply put, culture of writing addresses culture of science. In Against Method, Feyerabend shows how metaphor in science addresses the reverse flow.
This discussion of your question begins, I think, to answer your question about how environmental poetics operates “to resist old habits of mind and the social pressures that enforce those habits”, that is, through interactive behavior. (Again, you do a wonderful job at crisply identifying issues and relating them to the current state of culture.) The recognition of parallel development and interactive networking seems to me a way to start changing habits of mind. Our interaction resists social pressure by avoiding a structure where you ask a question and then I answer the question.
The question of reducing social pressure I suspect has primarily to come from outside. Environmental degradation has to force the issue. In a cynical way I don’t think people change because it would be good for them but only because they must. “Necessity is that which it is impossible to do otherwise.” The process of creation is not limited to humans, but to larger biological processes as well. Nature appears less to create species from component parts than to adapt species from other species when an extinction or ecological change modifies a location leaving a niche for that adaptable species.
This point also undermines the common interpretation of competition in nature by showing how species do less competing for resources and more adapting to take advantage of available resources. Such a strategy also occurs because species attempt to exploit these resources with a minimum expenditure of energy, nature economizing.
The “positive” forces you seek are only good in the Aristotelian sense; they are that which is aimed at. But we can say sharing and partitioning ecosystems containing both physical and conceptual resources is an example of a positive force. This sharing and partitioning appears at many scales from helping an old lady across the street to endosymbiosis to the conditions supporting life on the planet.
Agency is a more knotty topic in that you can’t always identify agency and are often forced to accept multiple agencies. Culture increases consciousness about a given theme. Environmental poetics explores the language and art that can expand consciousness beyond the traditional views of nature and the journalistic simplification of environmental problems. Conservation is not a solution; it’s one tool. Corporate responsibility, regarding the downstream effects of their activities, has to be inculcated over years in the same way that the conservative movement changed the discourse around government during the Reagan revolution thirty years ago.
Individuals may start viewing themselves differently, too. The ideas of freedom and opportunity must find their analogs in a society that understands that linkages between people are as important as individual identities. So the self as agency shares the ecosystems with a network of selves. Epistemology changes with the introduction of a multidimensional taxonomy, and horizontal vectors of environment cut across silos of knowledge. These are very broad statements that are worth exploring.
Environmental poetics operates similarly to any culture, through language, and works to achieve its ends. A renewed social structure such as the one described by Thompson enables us to become aware that our attitudes change with our role. Social structure therefore is another agency. In that way those attitudes don’t become idée fixes that have to be defended as in our current culture.
My new group “Environmentalism for Adults” recognizes the importance of governance, another agency. E.A. also accepts that we can’t really predict if our efforts will improve things or make them worse. Some sophisticated accounting of environmental fixes finds that most “solutions” to environmental problems are hardly a significant improvement over the current state and may cost society more than the costs of doing nothing.
Culture as an agency provides the will to engage scientific solutions to environmental problems, and it permits us to take those risks. It builds a more complete language for the political system to implement those solutions. It also establishes the criteria, forms, and works that create a collective memory that help keep us on track.
Q: I’m very interested in this idea of culture and social structure as forms of human agency (rather than limiting structures, as I might tend to think of them). Of course, many individuals in our culture will be very threatened by the idea that “attitudes change with our role” and therefore that shifting social structures will change their thinking; the contemporary conservative movement is very effective at dramatizing such fears. Whereas for myself I’m so used to being in the minority politically that it has become almost a given to assume that culture and social structure will present as inertial―always in the way of whatever I think is the best approach.
But I think you’re right to think of culture and social structure as being forms of agency, and yet an agency that is alienated from the ego (because the individual ego invariably views itself as “knowing better” than the collective―and often does). And I think of the ways that individuals who don’t want to pollute engage in polluting activities without wanting to, due to the requirements placed on them by culture, so that those activities become “ego distantiated,” identified with circumstance rather than with the self. That would seem to be evidence for the way human agency accretes to the social, so that the ego’s sphere of action might already be quite limited.
It seems to me that human agency manifested through culture and social structure may be how humans evolve (that since our physical success prevents us from evolving genetically, we have shaped the cultural sphere as an alternative venue for evolution). My understanding of this for some time has been that by evolving through cultural shift rather than genetically, the human race avoids the discomfort of the normative form of evolution (in which evolutionary pressure takes the form of the fear of death and the fact of death).
But we seem to be facing a very great cultural crisis, perhaps as great as the crisis in the 18th century when industrialization became the source of many new possibilities and the value of forced labor economies (slavery) was called into question. That cultural crisis was worked out through political violence, which was unavoidable because different stakeholders had fundamentally different views of value (industrialists saw value as situated in technology and resources whereas slave-based economies situated it in human bodies.)
My question is: what are the ways of understanding value that are most dangerous during this cultural crisis? Does environmental poetics ask us to understand/incorporate/puzzle over these dangerous views? Is the idea that we can somehow neutralize or denature dangerous ways of conceiving value by incorporating them into a broader point of view (a “multidimensional taxonomy” in your words)?
Q: Can you say more about the idea that “Too radical a notion of environment cannot be sustained as our top-heavy humanism proved.” What do you view as an overly radical view of environmentalism: would that be something like a rigid conservationist viewpoint, or Peter Singer’s rejection of “speciesism” and call for “animal liberation"? It occurs to me that a very committed conservationist or animal rights activist might see your position as precisely overly humanistic, as valuing human prerogatives and human desire too much. Considering how much you’ve critiqued humanism for its egocentrism, would it disturb you to be thought of as in the “humanist wing” of environmentalists?
A: To me radical notions in environmentalism abound. That’s what makes it interesting. Often at the beginning of a movement many versions of the idea form. The language poetry movement, for example, started with a vigorous variety of different strategies from lettrism to rebus to simply using mathematical symbols as graphical elements in a poetry format to stamp art. All were under consideration.
Gradually the more historically alert individuals began to focus on the styles, forms, and approaches that could carry the ideas forward. Today New Sentences abound; many writers use politically charged fragments of slang in a musical way to drive an emotionally charged poetry, but the field is vastly narrowed at least as a self-conscious tendency.
In addition, language poetry has branched and merged into new tendencies. Flarf writers create language poems using procedural strategies. Conceptual writers link conceptual art and postmodern literary theory. Artistic development emanates from the body as much as from intention.
This conceptual evolution is happening today in the environmental movement. The radical notions of the early conservationists have united with other restrictive tendencies to form a school of no-no. Blaming human industry for environmental degradation a kind of self hatred arose among a class of environmentalists. Animal rights activists present an important contrast to the humanist approach to global engineering. And there are many more, like the Gaia hypothesis and its new antithesis the Medea Hypothesis, that are regularly exercised in our democratic press.
In environmental poetics a perspectival structure pervades change. All these species of ideas participate in the social structure. Michael Thompson’s classes in an environmentally aware society portray an immense variety of alternatives. Each of them strives for hegemony, to be right. More likely different classes of citizens and different characters of individuals gravitate to certain ideas due to conditions of body, mind, nurture, and experience. And each set of ideas has a following and a reason for being.
Environmental points of view may also be conditioned by other kinds of politics that seek to position larger groups ahead of the smaller number of highly functional individuals, the oligarchy. Or vice versa those who support the most effective members as having rights and privileges above the rest imitate the status conditions in animal groups like gorillas or wolves.
Ultimately, I don’t think it makes sense to put other classes or species in front of or even on an equal footing with ourselves. It is contrary to nature that endows individuals with a will to survive and is a sure way to eliminate the species. Although each group from mice to bacteria needs consideration, citizens rights are endowed by governments and animal rights is a metaphor.
On the other hand in special circumstances where the destruction of a species is balanced against human expansion, it makes sense to negotiate in favor of the species that has so much more to lose. This process does not give the animals rights; people choose to act that way because on balance it protects our own nest as a humanitarian tendency. And humanitarian approaches to human affairs are more than reasonable.
I would even question the human rights movement as predating any institution that could assign them. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a wonderful concept that awaits a real global government to enforce with law. We should support it, but not as a tool of imperialism or intergovernmental coercion as it is widely used today, having lost the impulse of the 1948 U.N. document. All these tendencies strive to contrast themselves with global industrialization that puts profit and growth first. We need more striving together.
Shaping our aggressive and productive tendencies so that we fit better into the environment is also self-serving. Total independence from the rest of the planet or dominance as in Genesis isn’t a viable long term position. So in that case I am certainly in favor of favoring humanity but using rationality rather than ideology to position ourselves for a more sustainable relationship with planetary forces. On balance again, humanity may need to relinquish some of its prerogatives to survive.
Q: I wanted to ask a more specific question about viewing human beings differently, about the adjustment of our collective self-image. Humanism placed human beings in a special status between that of animals and angels, with the additional provision of free will that made humans potentially greater than angels. Such a hierarchy of beings is no longer plausible or sustainable, of course, but it is imaginatively vigorous. As poets I think we are tasked to provide our readers with imaginatively vigorous ways of comprehending humanness, and preferably ways that are as open-ended and appealing as those from four hundred years ago. Now it seems that we need to think about humans as mammals, skilled at nurture and predation with a thinking process that is in many ways less rational than driven by charismatic concerns and group structures. Can you discuss the redefinition of the human, this process of revisiting our self-image?
A: This is the hardest question of all, similar to the one faced by socialism a century ago and humanism further back and Christianity before that: how do you modify current culture and perhaps even human nature in order to establish an improved, in this case more balanced, relationship to the means of production, be they bureaucracies, factories, or plants? I don’t know the answer; I don’t think you can will a specific set of policies and get a predictable result. That’s why the indirection of culture is a useful tool.
So rather than attempt to create a solution orthogonal to human nature, and remember there are lots of different configurations of our cultures, my strategy has simply been to create an alternative self image to the one in Genesis to try on for size and see if it fits. Trial and error, just like nature. Find the gaps and fill them in with components that seem appropriate to the available niche.
The self image we’re replacing with environmentalism isn’t a monolithic one. It has various views depending on your orientation. The self image can replace the consumer/product model of American culture or the resource model of globalization where we and our surroundings are resources to be engaged by institutions or the human/property model of law or the subject/object model. The list goes on.
For the most part environmental poetics addresses methods and concepts that influence our self image rather than predicting a specific one. Whatever images we create they must accommodate several million years of evolution. And there must be more than one to accommodate the different conditions and characters of people. It’s unlikely that we will both simultaneously change our nature and keep nature safe from humanity, so we can’t address the question quite directly, hence my interest in using poetry as a wedge.
The practical thrust of your question points to one of the chief difficulties with my approach to culture. Building culture from the bottom up, through experience and from necessity, has given humanity a self-centered culture that can’t see far enough to avoid self-destruction. But trying to build one bottom up and top down through looking at the situation using a variety of conscious tools is likely to make mistakes because there are too many variables to account for.
Whatever we do in constructing a self image, it has to include the likely failure, even continuous failure, of our efforts. In this quandary we are aided by our will to survive. The arts we use to construct the self image―poetry, music, film, news, advertising, computer modeling―stretch the usual notion of art to include the social and scientific thinking that provide us with detailed knowledge and a structure to implement the changes we consider.
Lest I get too abstract discussing your question about “revisiting” humanity’s self image, let me suggest a few methods already in progress and how they contribute to change. My ultimate appeal is not that I will conceive of all these drivers of change, because change doesn’t come from nowhere, but from a gap in the network into which a species or idea attempts to fit.
One effort we have been discussing here is constantly questioning the validity of dualism and replacing it with a matrix of problem formulations and solutions. This process doesn’t fit your concern to retain imaginative vigor as it doesn’t synchronize with the self/other identity issues that make us feel good or threatened. As a result it suggests a consistent need to pause and reflect, then respond. I’m not sure this change can be implemented easily and may be a later step in the process even though it’s easy to talk about.
Another approach is simply looking for an alternative formulation to an accepted condition. John Cage is a wonderful example in his contrast of music and silence. Rests of various lengths were always part of music. Cage enhanced our awareness of that relationship to include notes and no notes, mitigating the intervallic ideas of tonal music. So now we have intervals up and down the scale as well as intervals of existence and non-existence.
A third approach can be found in Ron Silliman’s New Sentence. Here a similar issue comes into play. Until Sunset Debris and Ketjak prose sentences were viewed as a syntax of morphemic components furthering a narrative or sequence of events. Silliman reconceived the sentence as a quantum focused on the distance between itself and other quanta. Each quantum is focused both on its own theme and the theme of the preceding and subsequent quanta. These relationships also thereby established a renewed focus on time in prose, linking it more closely to poetry.
Other examples occur in Fiona Templeton’s poet’s theater and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s poetry that both renew the concept of the individual creating a complex of self images to consider in every interaction. Both writers pursue a vision of a social network that redefines the self. And in Berssenbrugge’s case her network extends beyond a human society linking us to plants and rocks.
I have recently started publishing poems that are structured to reflect parallel development in nature to undercut the exclusivity of individual creativity. These Environmental Parallels poems establish a horizontal and a vertical reading where the horizontal focuses on multiple themes and each vertical provides a sequence of events. And there are a lot of other readings that could be developed. Medieval Indian poetry made similar efforts linking poetry with mathematics in a more overt way than simply counting syllables or varying time signatures.
Clark Coolidge and Bruce Andrews showed how sequences of fragments can create a system of meaning to replace sentence syntax and story while retaining the impact of identifying with the tale. Gertrude Stein influenced both of them. John Ashbery’s poems point nowhere and in multiple directions at once. I make this list to reassure the likely readers of our conversation that I’m not suggesting we scrap recent innovations but to show how their similarity of purpose in the poetry world is employed by an environmental poetics rather than treat them only as competing tendencies which is the tendency in our social environment.
To the extent then that poetry is about self image, innovative poetries have already done a lot to redefine how we perceive and identify with our surroundings. The intensity you seek I’d suggest is provided by the challenge to our current and comfortable assumptions about how the world works. “What do you mean? How can you say that? What about humanness?” My point is simply all this is human, and if we understand how it extends beyond the human and into a larger field as well, we may be more attentive to the downstream effects of our activities.
The process of revisiting the human has to be undertaken by many of us before the change can be solidified into cultural codes that foster sustainability. Our current consumer culture focuses too heavily on the individual and not enough on the group. The revolution comes in challenging our assumptions about who we are rather than providing continual reassurance in order to engender passivity. And courtesy of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge I’d suggest that environmental uncertainty acts as imagination for the group.