The Ecopoetry Anthology:
A Conversation with Ann Fisher-Wirth
and Laura-Gray Street
Interviewed by Kristi Moos
The Ecopoetry Anthology is a milestone in poetry. Comprising over 600 pages, the anthology brings together over a century of ecopoetical works by American authors from Walt Whitman to C.D. Wright. The anthology was published by Trinity University Press in 2013. The following interview with co-editors Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street took place over email in May 2013.
KRISTI: How did The Ecopoetry Anthology come about? How long did it take you to put together the anthology from start to finish? What did you learn about ecopoetry during that process?
ANN & LAURA-GRAY: Both of us have been active in the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, the 1000-member organization with many international affiliated organizations known as ASLE, for years, Ann since the organization’s founding in 1992 and Laura-Gray since 2001. Over time it struck Ann how many poets were members of ASLE, and her initial idea was to do an anthology of ASLE poets. That plan was abandoned, as we began to work with Barbara Ras, our publisher at Trinity University Press. In fact, at one point we planned to do an international, worldwide anthology of ecopoetry—but we really didn’t know much about worldwide ecopoetry so we decided we’d better confine ourselves to poets from the United States. And that turned out to be a huge and wonderful project, one that occupied us for just about six years. Perhaps the main things we learned were that hundreds of poets these days are concerned with writing about the environment and the environmental crisis, and that there is great variety in the ways they address these concerns.
KRISTI: The poems are organized in two sections: historical and contemporary poems. Why did you choose to organize the works in this way? Did any surprises emerge?
ANN: Some years ago I was having lunch with the poet Robert Hass and talking about the then-nascent anthology. He suggested that we begin it with a thirty-page section of American nature poems that predated the environmental movement, to give some background for the more recent work. Laura-Gray, Barbara, and I all thought that was a good idea. Soon, however, the thirty pages grew to 130 pages—there was just too much gorgeous work that we could not leave out. Now, this historical section is one of the things we love most about the anthology. In the historical section, poets are arranged chronologically, from Walt Whitman to James Schuyler. In the contemporary section, poets are arranged alphabetically, so that readers may make their own discoveries and connections as they read from beginning to end, or browse.
KRISTI: Can you give an example of two poems sitting side by side that generate a provocative and necessary dialogue?
ANN: My favorite example of poems that, when paired, generate a provocative and necessary dialogue is of poems that begin (or nearly begin) the two sections of the anthology. Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” comes second in the historical section, and A. R. Ammons’s “Corson’s Inlet” comes first in the contemporary section. Each is a great, sea-drenched poem. Whitman’s is quintessentially Romantic, creating a myth of the birth of the poet in terms of what Calvin Bedient has called the “abject sublime.” Ammons’s is quintessentially postmodernism, deeply imbued with a sense of open-endedness, change, and relativity. Together, they not only form an eloquent colloquy but also reveal much about the development of poetic epistemology over the last 150 years.
I’ll mention, too, two poems from the contemporary section: Jessica Fisher’s “Elegy” and the excerpt from Nathaniel Tarn’s “Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers.” Their mutual friend Joe Lamb heads an organization called The Borneo Project, which, Joe writes, exists to “bring attention to the plight of Borneo’s indigenous peoples and to the importance of their native customary land rights in the preservation of rainforests.” Nathaniel traveled to Borneo with The Borneo Project, and his poem recounts much about that journey. Jessica attended a slide show after their return and was so deeply moved by what she heard and saw that she wove responses into her own poem:
Several of us wept When he said elegy
The parade of image On the whitewashed wall
Marking pre- and post- Idyllic
Or was it only Eden after . . .
LAURA-GRAY: I find it almost impossible to limit myself to putting only two poems side by side. I started answering this question with e.e. cummings’s “Me up at does,” a seemingly slight poem about a poisoned mouse that exacts a powerful perspectival shift from a reader by the end of its eight brief lines. It’s a fascinating poem to juxtapose with Lucille Clifton’s “the beginning of the end of the world,” which re-envisions our relationship with another domestic infestation, in this case cockroaches. But then I thought of Louise Erdrich’s “The Strange People,” a persona poem in which the speaker, a doe shot and killed by a hunter, addresses, like cummings’s mouse, the person who killed her. And thinking about persona poems took me to Louise Glück’s two poems in the anthology, “Scilla” and “Witchgrass,” which also give voice to other-than-human entities, in this case vegetation. All of these poems push us to see the world biocentrically—through eyes other than our own as both individuals and as species.
The two poems we’ve included from Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead make for interesting reading alongside other poems in the anthology that employ a kind of documentary activism: C.S. Giscombe’s excerpts from Giscome Road, Charles Goodrich’s “Millennial Spring,” Brenda Hillman’s “Request to the Berkeley City Council Concerning Strawberry Creek,” D.A. Powell’s “republic,” Sheryl St. Germain’s “Midnight Oil,” Craig Santos Perez’s various excerpts, and so on.
KRISTI: How did you come to ecopoetry? What was your starting point?
ANN: I realized how much I treasure the natural world when my husband and various combinations of our five blended-family children lived on a farm south of Charlottesville, Virginia, during the 1980’s My involvement with ASLE gave me an academic community that shared this love. My husband Peter and I have always followed environmental issues and have taken various sorts of environmental action. When I began to write poetry seriously around 1990, and when I began to work on creating an Environmental Studies minor at the University of Mississippi in the late 1990’s, these various passions came together.
LAURA-GRAY: Growing up, I was mostly a bookworm, so I spent most of those years with my eyes on the page rather than on whatever was around me. But all the while the world outside was shaping me nonetheless. In my late twenties I completed a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) course in Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, and I’d mark that experience as the beginning of my own conscious relationship with “the environment.” After finishing my MFA in ’97, I started teaching at Randolph College (then Randolph-Macon Woman’s College), was a part of the committee that helped structure the new Environmental Studies major, and attended my first ASLE conference (where I first met Ann). So, like Ann, my start with ecopoetry itself resulted from a convergence of life, teaching, and writing.
KRISTI: What would you say to readers of the anthology who are new to poetry, and ecopoetry in particular? What would you like them to come away with?
ANN & LAURA-GRAY: People turn to poetry in time of celebration or grief: births, weddings, funerals, and public catastrophes such as 9/11 or BP. Poetry expresses our deepest feelings and speaks to our deepest needs. And little children almost always love poems. Yet many adult Americans are afraid of, or scorn, poetry because it was badly taught in schools or has not been part of their lives. Therefore, we’d like for readers of the anthology who are new to poetry, or new to ecopoetry, to just start anywhere—to browse through the book and find poems that give them pleasure, make them think, and/or awaken their emotions.
KRISTI: Let’s talk about the definition of ecopoetry. What does The Ecopoetry Anthology have to say about defining the term? How do you define it for yourself as writers? Ecopoetry is often thought of as a relatively new arena in poetry, and yet people have been writing poems and telling stories about the environment for a long time. What’s useful about having this term – as writers, readers, and humans?
ANN & LAURA-GRAY: In our introduction to The Ecopoetry Anthology, we write:
Around 1960, public attention increasingly turned to the burgeoning environmental crisis, and nature poetry began to reflect this concern. In recent decades, the term “ecopoetry” has come into use to designate poetry that in some way is shaped by and responds specifically to that crisis. The term has no precise definition and rather fluid boundaries, but there are some things that can usefully be said about it. Generally, this poetry addresses contemporary problems and issues in ways that are ecocentric and that respect the integrity of the other-than-human world. It challenges the belief that we are meant to have dominion over nature and is skeptical of the hyperrationality that would separate mind from body, earth and its creatures from human beings, and that would give pre-eminence to fantasies of control. Some of it is based in the conviction that poetry can help us find our way back to an awareness that we are at one with the more-than-human world.
We also go on to distinguish between three kinds of ecopoetry, or approaches to ecopoetry. The first is nature poetry, which, in Wendell Berry’s words, “considers nature as subject matter and inspiration; often this poetry, shaped by Romanticism and American Transcendentalism, meditates upon an encounter between the human subject and something in the other-than-human world that reveals an aspect of the meaning of life. The second is environmental poetry, which, we write, is “propelled by and engages directly with active and politicized environmentalism. Environmental poetry is also greatly influenced by social and environmental justice movements; it is committed to questions of human injustice as well as to issues of damage and degradation to the other-than-human world.” And the third is what we call ecological poetry, which we describe as poetry that “engages questions of form most directly, not only poetic form but also a form historically taken for granted: that of the singular, coherent self. . . . As the poet Forrest Gander argues, it thematically and formally investigates ‘the relationship between nature and culture, language and perception’; it is poetry informed by a biocentric perspective and by ecological interrelatedness, intermingling, and entanglement.” The term “ecopoetry,” itself, is useful insofar as it delimits an area of concern—the environment and the environmental crisis—and a field of poetry—admittedly difficult to pin down and with very fluid boundaries—that exists in response to this concern.
KRISTI: In the preface, you state that “the environmental crisis is made possible by a profound failure of the imagination.” You offer up poetry as one possible antidote to this breakdown, because “poetry returns us in countless ways to the world of our senses.” What are some of the ways that poetry can return us? How can it aid us as we remodel our responses to environmental crisis? Laura-Gray, you write in your introduction that “in a sense, poetry has always been ecopoetry.” Can you explain?
ANN & LAURA-GRAY: In a sense, poetry has always been ecopoetry in that the origins of poetry are embedded in the natural world and poetry has traditionally foregrounded nature in a way that drama and fiction have not. No one knows the exact origins of poetry, of course, or how the first poem happened, but many think it’s connected to the rise of agricultural cultures and/or integral to early religious practices, which had much to do with our early understandings of the natural world. More fundamentally, poetry is grounded in the body. Through image and through all the sensory powers that language has (such as sound, rhythm, pattern, voice, cadence), poetry speaks to us not as abstractions or automatons but as living, earthed beings. It wants to reach us on emotional and spiritual, not just intellectual, levels; in this way, it offers us life more abundant. Its significance in helping us shape our responses to environmental crisis is simply that it can help us care–because it can help us feel and see. In Joseph Conrad’s words: “My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel–it is, before all, to make you see.” Our responses to the environmental crisis must be holistic, must include (as Aldo Leopold writes in A Sand County Almanac) aesthetic and ethical as well as economic questions of value, and in many ways poetry can awaken us to these questions of value.
KRISTI: How do you see the anthology being used as a teaching tool? How can educators in different disciplines outside English (such environmental studies, urban planning, architecture, etc.) make use of this collection?
ANN & LAURA-GRAY: All along, we designed The Ecopoetry Anthology for classroom use, as well as for a general reading public. The 25-page introduction by Robert Hass brilliantly traces the history of environmental thought and action in the United States, and weaves developments in poetry from Transcendentalism to the present throughout this history. The 130-page historical section, with work by poets from Walt Whitman to Denise Levertov and James Schuyler, offers important nature poems predating the environmental movement of the 1960’s, and the much longer contemporary section contains ecopoems right up to the present moment. We worked to include a wide variety of voices in every possible way, because we wanted to create an anthology that would welcome and prove to be rewarding for all sorts of readers.
KRISTI: Can you give an example of a marginalized perspective that comes to light in this anthology?
ANN: A marginalized perspective that comes to light in this anthology is the short prose poem by the Inupiat-Inuit poet Dg Nanouk Okpik, “She Sang to Me Once at a Place for Hunting Owls: Utkiavik.” It goes like this:
I wade through the nesting ground fitted like a fingerprint. You say it’s a
place of speckled day owls with golden eyes. You and I traveling together
following the caribou at the entrance of Quunquq River, we see caves
in old sod houses which belonged to reindeer herders. Our dogs start
barking, whining. We follow the whale-rib steps up to the ridge, leave
tobacco. We keep hiking up the mountains where there live many Dall
sheep, we set camp. I dream of a snow bird with pearlescent plumes, a
horntail and a spiked crown. She brought me a lens to use in the echo
chamber. When we come upon Okpikrauq River I hear her song vibrate
off the cliffs:
People have as their names, their rivers, their rivers.
KRISTI: Beautiful. There are poems like Deborah Miranda’s “Eating a Mountain”, which describes the visceral and spiritual act of preparing a deer carcass for cooking. There are poems like Ralph Black’s “21st Century Lecture”, which is sharply political and timely. And there are more contemplative works, like George Oppen’s “Psalm”. What risks did you take in putting together such an eclectic body of works? What risks, if any, are there for readers?
ANN & LAURA-GRAY: You point out that “the anthology contains an array of voices—voices that draw attention to an even wider array of possibilities for how we relate to the natural world. In these pages, there isn’t one single narrative that wins out—not celebration, not rebuke, not pleasure, not apocalypse. Instead, the collection offers ways out into the world, to explore its shifting terrains.” And you ask if there are risks for the anthologist or for the reader, in such an eclectic collection. We’d say no: no risks, just plenitude. Coediting The Ecopoetry Anthology over the past six years has been a labor of love. Our hope is that readers of The Ecopoetry Anthology will find much to love in it as well—will find challenge, instruction, and many hours of pleasure.
Mississippi, Virginia, California, May 2013