I have been thinking about afterness, ecopoetics, and ecological crisis. What does it mean to come after? After Katrina? After the BP blowout? After 400 parts per million? After what the philosopher Ray Brassier calls “the fact of extinction” itself? What might it mean for poetry and poetics? In Evelyn Reilly’s words, it’s possible that “we are in a moment of…more and more poetry [relating] to the ecological, that, in an inverse of ‘no poetry after Auschwitz,’ we are in a moment of ‘all poetry after Katrina,’ or the Deepwater Horizon, or Sandy or whatever it is that comes next.”
Following the Advisory Board Roundtable that launched the Conference on Ecopoetics, Charles Altieri, who later in the weekend led a seminar on “Ecopoetics and Affect,” asked a question: “Is ecopoetics a way to go beyond ethics to love?” (A paraphrase.) This question acknowledged a legacy of ethically motivated poetics—or “poethics” as Joan Retallack would say—while at the same time inquiring about something potentially far gushier and subject driven. And in fact, this possibility of an ecopoetics motivated by or productive of love, or loves, resurfaced throughout the weekend.
Robert Hass responded to Altieri’s question during the same Q&A by invoking Wordsworth’s “most watchful power of love,” which, early in the Prelude, registers both “transitory qualities,” “permanent relations,” and “difference” in the passing seasons. Wordsworth’s love is an acute attention, seeing what would otherwise go unseen, inviting the object world of matter to infiltrate the poet’s heart and mind and leave its mark. This attentive love serves an instructive function, driving the “Growth of a Poet’s Mind” that the Prelude chronicles. The pinnacle of what the poet learns from watching and loving is the exact hinge within his self that swings open toward the sublime.
What might an ecological education entail in a time of planetary crisis? Can a poem, or a walk, or a site-based action, produce new paths for thinking? How might ecopoetics inhabit a mode of collective and collaborative inquiry, a form of radical pedagogy?
In his opening remarks at the conference, Jonathan Skinner pointed out that a central dimension of ecopoetics is “what happens off the page,” both in terms of “where the work is sited and performed” and in terms of its reception — what happens, that is, not only within but beyond the bounds of a given work. Performance, conversation, collaboration, collective research, active investigation of materials and specific sites: such methods, prominently on display at the conference, foreground ecopoetics as “field work” whose aim is the development of new literacies.
"I am feeling the words on my skin already, long before the laptop is linked to the projector, my top is off, and the words appear on my bare back," relates Petra Kuppers, in reference to her experience collaborating with the poet Denise Leto. Kuppers described her collaboration during the Conference on Ecopoetics panel "Illness, Landscape, Healing" — one of the conference's most interactive.
In a studio in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Kuppers explained, the poets recorded what she calls their "improvisational assemblage," a performance/process that involved conjuring and composing lines of poetry through trance and touch, or "bodymind" (Kuppers' term). During their two-day session, the poets explored the possibilities of embodied composition, for which "body" was at once the materiality of layered voices; the blood, lymph, and cerebral fluid to which they were attuned, coursing through their circulatory and central nervous systems; the vulnerability and delight of exposed skin, warm under the studio lights; and the metal and rubber of Kuppers' wheelchair, amidst entangled hair and limbs.
Then the poem growled. Woods escalated from a screen to a wall to a page where an invisible hand was drawing. A book backed off onto roadside stones. An island absorbed a microphone. The poem had a body. The body a lens big enough to swallow something. Its eyes scaled trees. The trees were not hollow but sunk with echoes.