THE GRASS IS ITSELF A CHILD
1. For several years you’ve defined yourself as an eco-poet, while this year saw the announcement of the first major eco-poetry award: The Resurgence Poetry Prize. Firstly, do you consider eco-poetry to be a growing genre, and how would you choose to define it? Secondly, is poetry necessarily concerned with ethics and inevitably implicated in the reassessment of core value and systems? Does art have a public role and do poets have a public responsibility? Against this, W. H. Auden famously said “poetry makes nothing happen” whilst Keats claimed “we hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us”…
We might need to go back a step. There are, at the very least, three factors in society that hold back a fully creative contemporary consciousness that’s in harmony with ecology: bad ‘memes’, ‘Radical Inertia’ and ‘Framed Questions’. A meme is a self-replicating unit, a recurring splinter, of culture. Memes propagate from generation to generation, often mutating as they go [think of a famous folk melody, a TV catchphrase, a political idea that makes a neat headline]. In fact, the idea of a meme is probably, itself, a meme. I don’t completely believe in memes; but when I look at some of the ways in which assumptions, values and behaviours concerning the environment are perpetuated against the tide of data that calls for change, the notion of a ‘bad meme’ does seem to offer a useful partial idea. Next, Radical Inertia. That’s a deep resistance to change, encountered when an existing way of doing or seeing things is ingrained in us – not just ideas, but infrastructure, laws, etc. We’d come up hard against Radical Inertia if we tried to abolish the use of fossil fuels, say, or TV, or adverts. Finally, Framed Questions are questions with an agenda, posed so that only certain ‘answers’ are possible. They happen in politics and art because so many of our assumptions are largely invisible to us [the idea that economic growth is always good, and so on]. “Shall we build 5 or 10 nuclear power stations in our term of government?” That’s a Framed Question. If you think about it, so is: “As a poet, how do I find my voice?”
What can poetry do about this three-legged stool of trouble? Well, by heightening our awareness of the detailed texture of perception, by revealing private and collective thinking, by making the habitual and familiar unfamiliar – that is, through ‘defamiliarisation’ – great poetry can saw through all three legs on which denial and unsustainability squatly sit. Another strength of poetry is its ability to transform us. Transformation dents Radical Inertia. Rilke: “What is your most pressing injunction, if not for transformation?” [The Ninth Elegy; my translation]. One reasonably expects some of our poetry, at least, to have transformative potential stored in its DNA. Moreover, where poetry opens us to wider truths, when it reveals our selves to ourselves, it facilitates a breaking up of Framed Questions. Great poetry often challenges the dominant ideology and stimulates radical shifts in perspective, cracking Framed Questions open with its forensic, interrogating insights and its plural/fluxile trajectories through mind and heart. Poetry can also nurture connection, empathy and sensitivity: qualities that are essential to eco-conservation. What’s more, good poetry can be meme-proof, because it can’t be pinned down to one-eyed meanings, that charge of the Cyclops herd. It operates on several levels at once, across apparent boundaries and hermetic dimensions. Australian poet, Les Murray, said: “Only poetry recognises and maintains the centrality of absolutely everywhere”. Maybe poetry is one way to generate Lorca’s “Green wind” that eventually makes contact, all to all. Finally, all genuine art is a kind of ‘what if?’ It encourages us, indeed can train us, through its ‘what ifs’, to recreate ourselves, to re-engender our world, to recognise patterns [even those habits in ourselves we might prefer initially not to look at] and to shift them. Great art deflates denial. Great art, if we let it, reboots consciousness.
But art can be part of the disease too. Remember all that awful pro-war verse of the IWW. So, am I referring to the avant-garde? Not necessarily. What I’m really indicating, maybe, is any poetry that possesses a more radical, authentic intent, or that observes so intimately and sensitively that we’re profoundly changed by it. Poetry that pierces. Poetry that can ramify, into the culture, the integrity and insight of those individuals who are still, in some way, more fully awake, more completely connected. Any poetry that does this becomes, by association, “eco-poetry” [or at least a close cousin to it] because without these motivations, mobilisations and re-awakenings of the human spirit we remain individually trapped in ourselves as we are, in our seemingly separate and disconnected selves, whilst being trammelled collectively by the myriad systems of unsustainability and deadness that our culture has invested so much in for so long. You ask: is such poetry on the rise? Well, it depends where you look. Rather than point the finger, though, let me instead say this: we need to find, from somewhere, the capacity and generosity for deep-moving change that leads us to greater harmony-humility with respect to [and for] ecology. First and foremost, in this, one is helped by having rich and actual relationships with the environment: we can’t all just read about it in sealed tower blocks. But reading, too, is also part of human experience, so poetry contributes something powerful and important, even if it’s just a seed-crystal for a much larger development. So, when you read a poem, ask yourself: does this language contribute to the enterprise outlined above? Never mind about definitions or reputations or fads or trends; one of the chief concerns, for me, in answering the question posed at the start of this interview, is how far the art/poetry I’m experiencing is part of the cultural wound or part of its healing. Is it perpetuating unhelpful memes, especially those I might not immediately register? And that’s not just about ‘content’, or what the poem is, on its surface, saying: it’s also about the taproots of language itself.
As for the Auden quote, may I turn that on its head? That phrase of his is too often used to suggest that poetry is, at heart, ineffectual and impractical; but, later in the same poem, Auden writes: “With your unconstraining voice/ Still persuade us to rejoice”. That’s a clue, I think, to how we might re-read the preceding phrase. Perhaps the sense here is not: Poetry makes nothing happen, but: Poetry does not make anything happen. So, poetry doesn’t force, cajole or constrain; it persuades. It guides us to openings, possibilities, and ultimately to that empowering ‘nothing’ which occasionally suggests itself, tangibly, beyond content – rather like the carrier wave in a radio signal. And Keats? I won’t argue with Keats – except to observe that perhaps poets and their readers can be owls as well as Eagles….
2. In your work Bosco, a wonderful example of “eco-poetry”, you make no explicit reference to climate change as such. Similarly in the poem “in hay waist-deep was” in i tulips, a poem set in the future after the onset of severe climate change, you avoid using any language commonly associated with “global warming”. Is this deliberate and, if so, why?
Deliberate, yes, in that the poem demands an absence of that kind of rhetoric. The reader’s encouraged connection with the poem’s hayfield, whose men are telling their outlandish [though possibly true] stories – this comes first. The poem is a partial antidote to those brutal futuristic visions we’ve been exposed to, mostly characterised by what we will have harrowingly and irreversibly lost. This poem emphasises, instead, the eternal values we will in all likelihood retain, or even augment. It is telling, indeed sharing, its story rather than selling a story, contrary to what a great deal of commercial literature now seems to have to do. That’s one way in which, I hope, the poem evades being another form of Framed Question.
3. How about your most recent work, crib? Compared to earlier works, there seems to be a significant effort to condense and compress your language even further, stripping back all verbal excess and focussing on an almost ‘concrete’ visual simplicity. The poems are largely about your relationship with, love for, and tender observation of, your son. However, there are still many references to ecology and a strong sense that the natural world provides the live and sensitive backdrop against which one is able to describe and understand a very human connection: “ground so down you /go so shallow /& grave //let damp /life seep in /mould to you //as you ascend /make you /green”. Is crib “eco-poetry”?
Perhaps one way to answer this is to quote an excerpt from the back cover of the book:
In its fascination with infant consciousness, crib adds a distinctive strand to Petrucci’s immense i tulips sequence. Bringing wakefulness and sleep to archetypal pitch, these lines extend paternity into fresh dimensions that encompass ecology, geology and cosmology until, with Walt Whitman, we witness how ‘the grass is itself a child’.
So, indeed, for me, it’s very much a book of eco-poems, at least in part. crib itself is an extended excerpt from a strand of 111 poems, which are themselves contained within the much larger overall project of 1111 poems entitled i tulips; so, you see the onion skins, the nested relationships in how the poems came to be written, the suggestion of ecology in the very way the book was conceived. Even if the primary concern in crib is ‘father and son’, how can our chief-most relationships not have something to do with [capital ‘R’] Relationship – this R-word being, in a way, what ecology is. And isn’t good parenting – or an intimate and closely attentive, watchful registering – a kind of metaphor for what we need to be like, or what Gaia may be like towards our species, in terms of readjusting and re-balancing what’s happening around us and therefore to us? Aren’t the falterings of a child at least a partial metaphor, too, for the problematic consciousness of the modern adult, of modern culture, of a species, that fails to comprehend itself and its rightful place in things? Like the book’s boy, are we urgently seeking a language: the language of ecology? And is scientific, rational knowledge enough for us? Does it hinder or augment? Is a technological relationship – whether it’s your enwombed child displayed on a monitor or a proposed scientific management and maintenance of global climate – really the best relationship, or even a relationship at all? I suppose these kinds of question might be imaginatively extrapolated from crib.
4. Lastly, you work a lot on educational projects, encouraging the younger generation to engage with poetics. Do you believe that contemporary society is in danger of undervaluing the importance of poetry and its educational value? Do you believe poetry is a powerful tool in helping the younger generation to reconfigure, redefine and reassess their relationship with the environment?
The extent to which most individuals – even if immersed in great poetry – can effect a genuine shift in themselves, let alone in our most ingrained collective assumptions and systems… I admit, that’s something I do worry about. Even Marx couldn’t foresee the mutating tenacity of our capital-intensive systems and their associated ideologies, systems that now seem to have almost outgrown, in part, human intervention and that get more socially entrenched and personally invasive by the month. Look up ‘TTIP’ online if you don’t know what it is, and quake in your bindings. The problem here is that poetry, even if it stands against such things, generally isn’t a mass-communication form, partly because it isn’t a major art form in our culture anyway, and partly because it operates on individuals so differently [which is part of its inherent strength]. Most people I meet outside poetry don’t use poetry much as a way of growing themselves. That said, I’m infinitely optimistic about what poetry is able to achieve in honest hands and ears, particularly when I’ve worked in schools; in any case, I’m deeply and prejudicially vocational about poetry, so I’ll swim with the poetry dolphins until I’m drowned or saved; most of all, I sense that we’ll probably need humanity to overcome Radical Inertia in ways that themselves imitate how ecology works. If so, poetry could well turn out to be an essential [even if minor] ‘species’ in the deeply enmeshed and webby totality of what society is and how it manifests future self-inspections and self-alterations.
True, one might easily assume that film or music are far more potent social ‘carriers’ of the eco-message, especially for younger people; but you never know where those knotholes of opportunity and change will be in the homogeneous planks of cultural wood. Just as business and materialist society tend to undervalue ecology, so too do they tend to undervalue anything, like poetry, that has kinship with ecology [I mean, anything that has something in it to do with Relationship]. And yet, a single poem in the classroom, if it’s the right poem for that person, can rechannel a life. Returning to those more popular forms: poetry is such a supple organism, it can cross-pollinate with them. I certainly brought all my poetry DNA to bear when co-writing possibly the first ever R&B ecological song [Lover Earth – the track’s available online], and I’ve mixed poetry with film to reach wide audiences. Of course, media like music and film can possess very strong colours in themselves, and one is right to be concerned that stirring poetry’s more subtle hues into them might result in a dullish brown mess. But be bold: with courage, imagination and sensitivity, combined forms that involve poetry can work.
I have to note, though, some possible impediments to getting the best out of working with young people. I wonder sometimes if there’s too much of a drive towards – if not complete infatuation with – reputation and first publication. There’s nothing entirely wrong with that, in moderation; but is poetry at the moment more concerned with the next wave of semi-celebrity poets and who they are, how important they are, rather than with the various messages we all might have to offer each other? Surely, contemporary poetry’s role isn’t just about generating more and more contemporary poetry? Like many other forms of art, is poetry flirting with celebrity culture, leading us [to frame my own question!] to something hyped, too business/sales-oriented, too concerned with entertainment, something implicated [like market economy] in the creation of winners and losers in an inward-looking and arbitrary literary race rather than a generous and outwardly-oriented act of connection? There are some extraordinary poets around who deserve greater public attention, who would add something unique and challenging to what young people already receive from poetry. As for me, an artist’s duty, my very first duty, is to grow in every way possible and to help others to do the same [in their own terms, not mine] through Relationship; not to be best-selling, rhetorical, sensational, accessible, famous, entertaining or ‘right’. That duty towards reality and growth isn’t imposed from without; it arises, from the creative act of withinness that poetry engages. Poetry, especially in its more serious and earnest concerns, has to do with its reflections on [and of] the tenuous and tenacious glow of Relationship. The poem – and the poet – need to be first allowed to be fully, reflectively themselves before they can become something ‘useful’ or something ‘else’.
Mario Petrucci - July 2015
* * *
Published in: Myths of the Near Future [issue 6: Autumn 2015] (issue theme: climate ‘Breakdown’).