Ecopoetic resurgence: Feral/interdisciplinary/bioregional

Notes on ecopoetries from the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment Conference (June 23–27, 2015)

investigating the feral at the ASLE 2015 conference, "Notes from Underground: The Depths of Environmental Arts, Culture and Justice." Photo by Heidi Lynn Staples.

In their plenary at the recent conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing oriented us toward the concept of a multi- species world-making based on the ecological process of resurgence. Resurgence, they clarified, is the response to a “disturbance” – any quick ecological change, such as farming. They explained that in our management of ecosystems, we block resurgence – even though an ecosystem (and we humans) can’t survive without it.Resurgence arises from the ability of plants and animals to move around and make their own rearrangements of and contributions to an ecosystem. Blocking resurgence results in the eruption of destructive feral biologies – they spoke of killer fungi and other forms of blight unleashed by and on nonhuman organisms. With this as a backdrop, Haraway and Tsing provoke a new, collaborative world-making with deep-seated materialities. They begin and end by reminding us that stories, in particular, help us rethink human and nonhuman resurgence.

In their model, it seems, feral biologies are solely destructive. But as I listened to several ecologically-oriented poets present their work over several days, I saw ferality engaged as positive resurgence. The feral sometimes took the form of posthumanist subjectivity, sometimes it was articulated through a rewilding of knowing through poetic interventions into otherwise "settled" discourses, sometimes it sprung up as a reworking of relations in place through an emergent bioregional consciousness.  In a variety of works I saw the creation of new contexts for thinking and enacting ecological work.

A quick search of "ecology" on-line tells me it is a branch of biology that “deals with” relations of organisms to one another and their contexts. I feel bullied by that verb; “to deal,” at its root (from the Old English dælan: "to divide, distribute, separate, share, bestow, dispense"), too easily elides into, corroborates with, anthropocentric ideologies of 'development' and 'management.' More and more we realize while we have reconfigured the fundamental workings of global ecologies, we are not the handlers of “our” ecologies. More and more we are onlookers, reckoning with loss, uncertainty, inequity, imbalance, destruction, change.

But remind: an “ecology” is also the relationships themselves. Good. Let’s return ecology to “the study of” through the relationships themselves – which returns us to a figuring through of relations. As my recent experience at the ASLE biennial conference revealed, poets are relentless in finding new ways to do this figuring work. Embracing a lack of  ‘expert’ knowledge of the ecologies with which they engage, they consciously undertake “creative research” (as Eric Magrane calls it). They emplace themselves in state parks and forests and garbage dumps and on city streets and underpasses and amid local water politics and in the way of petrochemical infrastructure development. Through their geographic and ideological mobility, they cultivate resurgent ecopoetic practices. They move the poem out, embed it within, recreating both poem and context. 

Why is poetry good for this work, this figuring? Any ecology is a collaboration. Poets can approach it like that because their subject is more than anything the human subject and language as the medium through which we know and express knowledge. For many poets, and certainly for those in resurgence, this means a refiguring of poetic value – of the aesthics and of the semiotics, of the "work" of the poem. This is of course not a new thing, but as we resurgent poets talked amongst ourselves and thought about the role of poetry in the work of ecology, and the work of the writer as it was largely represented at the conference; as we thought about our own marginal position (we are used to that), I realized this capability of poems was worth articulating at this time, in response to this recent literature-and-environment event.

I happen to be of the opinion that poems should be open to all possibilities, and that a poem can be an exploratory ecology as it explores its ecology, in as much as it makes or tests assumptions about the human organism, the consciousness that human organisms inhabit or animate, and the language and structures of language that we humans use to express that consciousness.

Let me be clear that I do not mean 'ecology' as a metaphor here. I do not mean that poems do metaphorical ecosystem services, like recycling language, as way of further serving humans – to echo one current understanding of an ecosystem service: “any positive benefit that wildlife or ecosystems provides to people." I mean that a poem is an act through which a human organism (or organization) explores an ecology, a set of relations to other organisms and contexts. I mean that a resurgent ecopoetics has a set of tangible, material effects, that these works take part in, and impinge upon and serve, ecosystems as we conceive of them through the science of ecology.

Any ‘ecological’ poem is a collaboration – can we approach it like that?  I encountered at ASLE a few poets who help me answer 'yes.' Their poetic investigations variously take the shapes and rhetorics of poems, variously test and rewrite assumptions about poems. They take the form of poems, and exceed the form of poems, because the poem itself is embedded in and arises from the larger ecology of an emplaced resurgent practice. One ecosystem service these poets render, from my perspective, is to redefine “our” and “our” ideologies & processes of engagement with the bigger “our." But I do not want to describe or characterize these poets' works. Partly because these are works in progress, even nascent to some degree, and partly because I am not the authority on their works; like them, I am inexpert, and I embrace an inexpertness that makes me mobile – that makes me reach out and collaborate as a way of knowing. This is something I learned some years ago from Kaia Sand, who calls her book Remember to Wave “an inexpert investigation, a pedestrian inquiry.”

I plan to follow up this commentary with a few examples and some dialogue around the resurgent ecopoetics I encountered at ASLE.  To be continued.