Though Orion has published many poems that explore the connection between humans and the natural world, there’s much worth reading beyond the magazine’s pages. Earlier this year, Trinity University Press published The Ecopoetry Anthology, a definitive new collection of poems about nature and environment from the mid-nineteenth century to today. Orion friend and poet Derek Sheffield spoke with the anthology’s editors, Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street.
Derek Sheffield: Where did the idea for The Ecopoetry Anthology come from?
Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street: The first conception of the book that became The Ecopoetry Anthology was an idea for a collection of poems written by members of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, the 1,000-member organization known as ASLE in which both of us—Ann and Laura-Gray—have been active for many years. But this plan seemed too small. So we played with the idea of putting together a collection of international ecopoetry, and went so far as to put out a call for submissions and gather a great many poems. But that plan was too big. So, in dialogue with our editor at Trinity University Press, Barbara Ras, we arrived at the idea of creating an anthology of ecopoetry from the United States. And this plan was just right—so that’s what we did. That original idea is now so composted under layers of new thinking and new input that it’s almost unrecognizable, but it was rich soil for what The Ecopoetry Anthology grew into.
Derek: Have you come across anything comparable to this collection? If so, what distinguishes this project from others?
Ann and Laura-Gray: There are several recent, very good anthologies of American ecopoetry—in particular Black Nature, edited by Camille Dungy, and The Arcadia Project, edited by Joshua Corey and G. C. Waldrep. They are comparable to The Ecopoetry Anthology in size and ambition, but very different in focus. Black Nature is a collection of African-American nature poetry over the past several hundred years, whereas the earliest poems in The Arcadia Project date from 1995, and its subtitle defines its focus as “North American postmodern pastoral.” The Ecopoetry Anthology is deliberately more varied than either, in nearly every way.
The UK has produced a number of ecopoetry anthologies, including Peter Abbs’s Earth Songs: A Resurgence Anthology of Contemporary Ecopoetry, Neil Astley’s Earth Shattering: Ecopoems, and Alice Oswald’s The Thunder Mutters: 101 Ecopoems for the Planet. Canada has Regreen: New Canadian Ecological Poetry, edited by Madhur Anand and Adam Dickinson. Again, the focus of these anthologies differs from ours in that they are specific to a different region, more temporally defined, and/or more overtly activist in nature. While we did, for practical reasons, end up concentrating our project on U.S. poets, that honing-in also enlarged the anthology in many ways.
We intentionally wanted an expansive conceptual space for ecopoetry so the anthology would reflect the astonishing variety of work that’s out there, reach as wide an audience as possible, and be useful in the classroom at many levels, from intro courses to graduate seminars. Does this ecopoetry—as a concept, as an anthology— contradict itself? Very well, then it contracts itself. It is large. It contains multitudes.
Derek: I feel comfortably grounded reading this collection, not just in all the soil that clings to the words in the poems, but, thanks to your and Robert Hass’s introductions, in the theory and history of ecopoetry. You credit Hass with the suggestion of adding a historical section of “thirty pages.” By my count, you ended up with 128 pages. What happened? What did you learn about the precursors to ecopoetry? Were there more than you initially suspected?
Ann and Laura-Gray: Yes, what we first envisioned as a short, introductory section of American nature poetry from Whitman to 1960 grew and grew and grew, because we simply kept finding more amazing poems to include. Some of the poets whose work is represented in this section wrote ecopoetry avant la lettre; Robinson Jeffers and Lorine Niedecker are preeminent examples. Others, like Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Jean Toomer, Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop, wrote frequently and essentially about the natural world though their work does not exhibit a fully developed environmental consciousness. The inclusion of still others, like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, might come as a surprise. But what better metaphor for what we are turning the planet into could there be than “The Waste Land,” and what more piercingly beautiful environmental admonition could there be than Pound’s lines from “The Pisan Cantos”:
Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
Made courage, or made order, or made grace,
Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.
Learn of the green world what can be thy place
In scaled invention or true artistry,
Pull down thy vanity. . . .
Derek: What kind of feedback are you getting from readers? Are there any poems included that surprise people because they qualify as an ecopoem?
Ann and Laura-Gray: The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, both from readers and from teachers using the anthology in the classroom. Much of the enthusiasm is generated by the historical section, in which people are thrilled to see so many poems they already know and love. And then we hear how exciting the contemporary section is, how broad and ranging, how many new discoveries to read in relationship with those in the historical section. John Ashbery and his poem “River of the Canoefish” have been the poet and poem we’ve heard the most surprise expressed over—some contention even. Mostly, the response with regard to this surprise has been along the lines of “Aha, how cool. Seeing the poems in this context reveals facets and dimensions of them I hadn’t noticed before.”
Derek: In your introduction, Laura-Gray, you write, “Ecopoetry isn’t just any poetry garnished with birds or trees; it is a kind of paradigm shift. It is the apprehension of our real biological selves.” Do you think ecopoetry is a necessary component to instigating a change in how we interact with the other-than-human world? How does ecopoetry relate to sustainability and biophilia?
Laura-Gray: “Necessary” is a big claim to make in terms of instigating change in our behavior. I believe it is fundamental and can have enormous impact, but to claim that ecopoetry is necessary feels a bit hubristic. Policy change is necessary. Paradigm shift is necessary. Ecopoetry can affect those redirections in both direct and oblique ways, but it isn’t the only thing that can do that. It is a potent way, however. I would say that ecopoetry relates to sustainability and biophilia in the way that our digestive systems relate to our overall health, level of energy, and sense of well-being. I have always thought of poetry as our culture’s emotional digestive system.
But ecopoetry is perhaps more akin to the filtering and stabilizing role of wetlands generally or oyster reefs in the Chesapeake Bay. So maybe I do want to make a claim for the necessity of ecopoetry. As Aldo Leopold argues in A Sand County Almanac, unless people are moved to value the natural world not just in terms of economics, but also in terms of ethics and aesthetics, they have far less reason to preserve it or to engage with it as “thou” rather than “it.” Ecopoetry exercises our environmental imaginations, it enlarges our ethical spheres, and it engenders empathic bonds with what’s beyond our human egos.
Derek: Ann, in your introduction, you quote some lines from Gary Snyder’s “Piute Creek” and discuss the poem as a “provocative reminder that everything in the world returns our gaze.” Why is such a reminder important? Do we need to be reminded of this now more than ever?
Ann: When I studied Eastern religions at Pomona College many years ago, the professor, who was Chinese, told us that, traditionally, Chinese woodworkers would decorate not only the fronts and sides of chests, but also the backs, because the eye of the Tao falls upon all things equally; what is hidden to us is just as real, just as worthy, as the things that are presented to our earthly vision. But we have forgotten that just as we see, we are seen—whether it’s by the Tao, a God, or an individual creature:
Cold proud eyes
Of Cougar or Coyote
Watch me rise and go
Snyder’s lines eloquently remind us that we are embedded in creation—and that when we vanish, it remains. But in our greed and pride we humans have lost a sense of context and proportion, and yes, we need to be reminded more than ever.
Derek Sheffield’s book of poems, Through the Second Skin, was published in 2013 by Orchises Press. His work has also appeared in Poetry, The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, and elsewhere; his poem “Delicious Apocalypse” was published in the September/October 2009 issue of Orion.