Sunday, February 2, 2014
This interview recently appeared in an Italian newspaper, in the Italian language.
Why is poetry necessary?
I believe all poetry is political at one level or another, and as such, poetry for me is a form of activism. As an environmentalist, when I write of the natural world I hope that my insights and ‘ways of seeing’ will contribute to the respect for and protection of ecologies. I am not interested in creating poems that hang as artefacts in museums, but in a living, breathing poetry that engages with the environmental crisis that the world faces. As a poet of landscape who is interested in exploring ‘up close’ the particular characteristics and qualities of a place, I hope to act as witness, to prevent damage being done, to preserve. So poetry is entirely necessary as a means of resisting, for example, the horrors of capitalist exploitation of land, of the pollution and exploitation of industrialisation, and other such examples of greed. My poems see the damage being done, and bring it to the attention of readers. Yet it’s not a case of propaganda, but of letting the images and language of the poems stimulate awareness, curiosity, and investigation. As a vegan-anarchist-pacifist, I have very strong feelings and ideas about how we might respect, conserve and experience the world we live in, especially the natural world, and I find poetry a more effective means of articulating these positions than the process of constantly being arrested and locked up, as I was when I was a young activist. Peaceful resistance still has an important place in my life, but I find poetry has been a truly effective means of communication.
Is there a relation between poetry and hope?
For me, poetry is entirely about hope. I actually once contributed poems to an anthology published by an Icelandic poet, which I think was called something like The Book of Hope. When I draw attention to what I have called ‘the damage done’ — to the exploitations, cruelties, and greed of humanity — it is because I believe that there’s another way, that people don’t have to be those things, and are very often not. Poetry becomes a superb ‘lens’, a way of focussing concern for positive change. I am strongly supportive of indigenous land rights around the world, and I come from a place where the indigenous people have had their land stolen with little if any compensation. Indigenous and non-indigenous poets who draw attention to this wrong (doing so in a variety of ways), have formed an essential part of broader community discourses that raise awareness about these wrongs. All nations want a literary ‘tradition’, and want literature they can show the world: if that literature (and for me, especially poetry), constantly speaks of the wrongs of theft of land, dispossession, inequality and exploitation, as well as speaking of the strength and cultural richness of dispossessed and disempowered communities, then external pressure can bring positive change. No country likes to feel embarrassed by what its writers are saying to the rest of the world. Poetry is all about hope to me. I have seen it stop bulldozers (I wrote an article about this once), and I have used it to help stop developments that would have put rare species of plants at risk. Poetry, for me, is an extension of how we live, and projects into how we might live better.
Can poetry contribute to a renaissance of humankind?
Of course — it always has. In doing my ‘distractions’ of Dante’s Divine Comedy, I tried to connect with one kind of eruption of insight into the torments and delights of the human soul with a need for another such eruption of awareness about the impacts humans have had on the planet. There are criticisms in there, of course, but also celebrations. For me, a new renaissance is an environmental one: if we do not act now to lessen the damage being done, there will be no planet, and no people to renew. Really, we are on the verge of needing a New Classicism which is about a more harmonic relationship with the natural world, and taking as models for art and existence, those from ‘nature’ that have persisted so effectively for so long. Which is not to deny there should be change or ‘development’, but rather, that this change might be more organic and less damaging, more in keeping with the ‘natural’ progress and changes of the biosphere, rather than those being forced at a rapid pace by humans. In this New Classicism is an acceptance that the rapid climate change we are now experiencing is in large part because of human industry and behaviour, and that less industrialisation, less reliance on energy for fuelling devices and other commercial fetishes, will mean a better life for all living things.
Do you think there is a relation between the poetic and the sacred spheres?
For me, poetry always contains a spiritual aspect. I write about spirituality, but I do not belong to any religion. I believe in all religions, and in no religions. I do not think a religious administration can conduct the workings of the human soul — if anything, I think it can take away and diminish the spirit. I have known many good people in various positions of religious authority — people whom I respect — but I cannot respect any edifices of power. As a non-violent anarchist, I am against centralisation and concentrations of power, and too often religion becomes these. Interestingly, many of my favourite poets, from Dante to Milton, have had ‘religion’ as a core concern, so it’s something about which I think and write, but I am always arguing that the human (or animal) spirit needs to find its own direction and its own freedom. Enlightenment can come about in many ways, and most often outside doctrine. Observing the natural world, listening to an old local farmer tell his life, watching the sun rise or set, are for me far more informative than rituals which have become hollow through being enforced and being offered as the ‘right’ way. Sometimes the ‘wrong’ way is more enriching! Poems are rarely perfect, and their ‘wrongs’ are sometimes as informative and spiritual as their ‘rights’. An imperfection in rhythm or prosody in general, something ‘misdescribed’, something misheard or misunderstood, can come across in a poem as a revelation, a new insight. The errors are as important as the ‘correct’ ways of doing things. No structure is perfect; all are worth pulling to bits and rebuilding as long as no living thing is hurt in the process. Vive la différence!