November 03, 2009

I had to introduce and then ask questions of Jonathan Skinner at a reading at the U of Arizona, Tucson Poetry Center.


I sort of want to introduce Jonathan Skinner by talking all about myself. But narcissism is not my motive. I feel that he is exemplary as an example of how one can be a poet in the world and I have learned a lot from him about this work of being a poet and I think I am not the only one who might tell this story. The story goes like this… I was for many years a poet who was well schooled in experimental traditions. I barely thought about any sort of poetry that wasn’t written in the modernist tradition. Which meant I didn’t think much about nature poetry. If I had, I probably would have thought that it was not of my concern; that this sort of content was better left to those beats influenced by the eastern traditions, like Gary Snyder, or the lyrical poets of what I probably would have dismissed as suburban pastoral. I was two things that I felt had no use for nature poetry: I was rural industrial by birth and I was urban by choice. But one thing that Jonathan’s work as both a poet and as an editor of the journal Ecopoetics did was insist that the planet needed the attentions of all sorts of poetry. That this issue—the environmental collapse that so defines this time—needs all of our attention, needs all of our brains, needs all of our poetic forms. Jonathan is well aware of the special status that the natural world has to poetry. That its traditions have long held irreplaceable knowledge of plants and animals and winds and currents. That it has often held within it systemic and ecological representations. And his own poetry acknowledges this as it is attentively listening to the quiet an the loud, refusing the divides between nature and culture, full of clash and meditation. Please welcome him.

Three questions:

You somewhat “own” the term ecopoetics. And yet, as a student pointed out to me the other day, you are constantly disowning it. Or complicating it. I am thinking here of your piece “Statement for ‘New Nature Writing’ Panel at 2005 AWP” where you come up with four very complicated and multisyllabic terms. And the journal itself is relentlessly inclusive. At moments almost puzzling so. Talk some about this strategy.

We’ve been emailing a lot and we keep talking about this issue of inclusivity. About how an ecopoetry should do all sorts of work and also some about when it isn’t doing any sort of work at all, or what I want to call the “March of the Penguins” problem, where something might seem to be deliberately covering over or ignoring something crucial about environmental crisis. Are there limits to your inclusivity? And if so, what are they? Is there a bad ecopoetry/nature poetry?

Composition. You are always telling us to get out. You tell us to visit the wetlands in your Katrina poem. And yet your poetry also often shows its book learning, its reliance on the field guide. Talk some about this.

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