“Poetry does not tamper with the world, but moves it” (William Carlos Williams): A Q&A with Ann Fisher-Wirth
Ann Fisher-Wirth kindly responded to some questions about The Ecopoetry Anthology which she co-edited with Laura-Gray Street.
The Ecopoetry Anthology (San Antonio, Texas: Trinity University Press, 2013; http://tupress.org/books/ecopoetry-anthology)
AE: What were your considerations in the selection of poets and poems for The Ecopoetry Anthology, which you coedited with Laura-Gray Street? Why, for instance, does the volume begin with Walt Whitman?
AFW: In choosing work for The Ecopoetry Anthology, our primary consideration was quality. Beyond that, we wanted to create a collection of poems that would indicate the tremendous range and variety of American nature poetry from Whitman to about 1960, and American ecopoetry from about 1960 to the present.
The anthology changed shape several times in its early days. At one point, Laura-Gray and I conceived of it as containing only work written since the increasing public awareness of environmental crisis that intensified with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), and that led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970) and other agencies, and the first Earth Day (1970). It was Robert Hass’s idea to begin with Whitman. Some years ago, I was having lunch with him in California and telling him about our plans. He suggested that we begin the book with a 30-page historical section of American nature poetry, starting with Whitman—creating a mini-unit that would give some background for American ecopoetry, and that high school or college teachers could use in class. Laura-Gray, our publisher Barbara Ras, and I agreed that was a fine idea. But once we started choosing work, that section grew and grew until it reached 130 pages, there was so much gorgeous poetry.
But why, specifically, start with Whitman? In The Poet (1844), Ralph Waldo Emerson writes:
We have yet had no genius in America, with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials…. Our logrolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes, and Indians, our boats, and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues, and the pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon, and Texas, are yet unsung. Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres.
With Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855, Whitman answers this call. He is not our first poet but he is arguably our greatest poet, and he enfolds America—its places, its earth as well as its people—in a vast, all-encompassing embrace. Hemingway famously said that all modern American literature “comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn”; just so, modern American poetry may be said to come from Leaves of Grass.
AE: Bonny Cassidy in her review, comments on the absence of poems by indigenous writers in this volume. What indigenous poets from North America might you wish to include, if possible, should there be a further edition of The Ecopoetry Anthology? In addition to contemporary poets, is there a body of indigenous work available, for example, pre-dating Whitman?
AFW: Though Bonny Cassidy remarks upon an “absence of poems by indigenous writers” in The Ecopoetry Anthology, that is not really the case. In the contemporary section of the anthology, there are a dozen poets who may be characterized as indigenous writers—though in the United States, ethnic and racial identity can be complex. We include several poets whose lineage is entirely Native American, several others whose lineage is mixed but who identify themselves as Native American, and several others whose lineage is partly Native American but who are usually described as Chicano(a). Also included are Juan Carlos Galeano, Luisa Igloria, and Craig Santos Perez. Here are the details:
Jimmy Santiago Baca was born in Santa Fe of Apache and Chicano descent. Lois Beardslee is Ojibwa, from northern Michigan. Lorna Dee Cervantes is a fifth generation Californian of Mexican and Native American (Chumash) descent. Louise Erdrich is Chippewa and German-American. Juan Carlos Galeano is from the Amazon region of Colombia. Joy Harjo, from Oklahoma, is a member of the Mvskogee Nation. Allison Hedge Coke is of mixed Huron, Metis, Cherokee, Creek, French Canadian, Portuguese, Irish, Scots, and English descent. Linda Hogan is Chickasaw. Deborah Miranda is of Esselen, Chumash, French, and Jewish ancestry. Luisa Igloria is Filipina-American. dg nanouk okpik is an Alaskan native, Inupiat-Inuit from the Arctic slope. Craig Santos Perez is native Chamoru from the Pacific Island of Guåhan/Guam.
If there were to be a further edition of The Ecopoetry Anthology, we’d welcome the opportunity to consider other contemporary indigenous poets. We might consider including Native American prayers and songs pre-dating Whitman; we would have to do further research in that regard. Definitely, we continue to come across wonderful recent work, and that is a pleasure.
AE: Do you see a moment in which ecopoetry and ecopoetics takes a new, or more conscious, trajectory after, for example, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), or do you see the development of “ecopoetry” in the United States, as more or less continuous from Whitman on?
AFW: In the Editors’ Preface to The Ecopoetry Anthology, Laura-Gray and I write:
Nature poetry has existed as long as poetry has existed. Around 1960, however, 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 some things 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 a hyperrationality that would separate mind from body—and earth and its creatures from human beings—and that would give preeminence 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.
So yes, there is a new trajectory beginning in the 1960’s. And yet there is not a definite break. For one thing, poems can reveal themselves as ecopoetic, depending upon the sorts of awareness we bring to them; think of Emily Dickinson’s statement that “nature is a stranger yet” or Ezra Pound’s “Learn of the green world what can be thy place.” Much of Robinson Jeffers’s work is ecopoetry avant la lettre. Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead is, among other things, a powerful work of environmental justice. Sterling A. Brown’s “Riverbank Blues” has much to tell us about the environmental history of the Mississippi. Kenneth Rexroth, quoting John Tyndall, writes of “The chain of dependence which runs through creation, / And links the roll of a planet alike with the interests / Of marmots and of men.”
AE: In retrospect, are there any significant poets or poems you feel you have left out and would like to include?
AFW: You always leave somebody out. If we were to reissue the anthology, I would want to include James Wright, for instance, and Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” or “Wales Visitation.”
AE: In your introduction, you write of a pivotal moment when you first read Robert Frost’s “Spring Pools”, which characterises trees as entities capable of thought. You speak of the awareness of the trees’ otherness that the oddness of the idea of a tree that thinks awakened in you. Might this idea also hint at a kind of material agency, that perhaps might be best not anthropomorphised in terms of human thought, but might suggest its own kind of self-in-relation being-acting-purposing?
AFW: Robert Frost, often an ironist, does not really characterize trees as capable of thought; he is using the conceit to express the same melancholia about natural change as informs, for instance, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” But when I first read “Spring Pools” I was very young, and the poem struck me so poignantly because I had never really thought about human cognition at all, or (therefore) about how the other-than-human world does not participate in human cognition. But yes, of course the trees—and everything else in existence—have their own forms of non-anthropomorphic agency. They fulfill (or are not permitted to fulfill) their own natures; like the kingfishers and dragonflies in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s beautiful sonnet, all things are “Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.”
AE: With reference to William Carlos Williams, you speak of poetry as having the power to move the world. Can you say a bit more about your sense of this, perhaps with reference to one or two poems from the book or elsewhere?
AFW: In Spring and All, William Carlos Williams writes, “Poetry does not tamper with the world, but moves it.” It does not meddle, intrude, or interfere; it does not play around with, alter, or falsify. Instead, it picks the world up and puts it down somewhere else. It arouses the imagination. It stirs up emotions, and in so doing, it can cause the reader or listener to change from one state, opinion, sphere, or activity to another.
I’ll give you an example. Last year I taught a graduate seminar on American ecopoetry in which we read The Ecopoetry Anthology, Camille Dungy’s anthology Black Nature, Joshua Corey and G. C. Waldrep’s anthology The Arcadia Project, and individual volumes by several poets. There was plenty of discussion, sometimes disagreement, about what ecopoetry is, where its boundaries are, what kind of poetry succeeds best in interrogating the manifold, complex relations between human and other-than-human. But every one of my students fell for Ronald Johnson’s little poem “[earthearthearth]” in The Ecopoetry Anthology, which goes like this:
They fell for it not only because it is clever, but because, like me, they were moved by it. It made them experience ear, earth, heart, hearth, and art as all interconnected, part of one living breath, one living poetry.
Now, does this experience move the world?
I am writing three days after the American midterm elections in which the Republicans gained control of the Senate and therefore both houses of Congress. Things could hardly look worse for the environment. A scientist friend of mine remarked that, whereas usually in America one can say “Wait a few years till the next elections,” at this point we may not have a few years. As Gary Snyder says, the amoebae will survive. Perhaps poetry may give us heart—may awaken those qualities of imagination, attentiveness, and tenderness toward existence that will help us also survive, and though our actions, help life’s other entities survive, too.
AE: Who do you see as the primary audience for this volume? Are there particular commercial constraints on putting together a volume of this nature, that influence the selection?
AFW: The Ecopoetry Anthology is for everyone. The long introduction by Robert Hass, former US Poet Laureate, weaves the poetry and poets into his brilliant overview of American environmental history and thought; it is an indispensable resource for scholars and teachers as well as general readers. The historical section and the contemporary section offer hundreds of beautiful, provocative, memorable poems of all sorts, from Whitman to the present. The Ecopoetry Anthology is for students and teachers at all levels from junior high through graduate school. It is for poets, readers of poetry, committed environmentalists, ordinary citizens, and those who think they don’t like poetry, who pick it up in an idle moment and find something to love. It is for anti-environmentalists, both in and out of power—would that they would discover and read it.
Trinity University Press was incredibly generous in letting us grow the volume from its first targeted length of 250 pages through many expansions to its present length of over 600 pages. Barbara Ras, our publisher, committed to raising funding to support a big and beautifully rendered book, and, as we overshot limit after limit, finally concluded, “Don’t worry about the length; just make it good.”
AE: Is there anything else you would like to say about your own sense of what ecopoetry and ecopoetics might be and about what informs your own work as a poet?
AFW: I have five grandchildren, aged three to eight. I have dedicated my part of this book to them, and to the world’s children. They move into the world we have made. We need to think hard about this: They move into the world we have made. May it be a legacy worth bequeathing.