Tuesday, February 16, 2010

James Sherry on Environmental Poetics (interview by Stan Apps)

I was intrigued to read this interview, up at Jacket, of James Sherry by Stan Apps on the subject of Environmental Poetics.

Some brief thoughts on a few complexities it raises:

I was pleased to see Sherry try to avoid the politics of guilt-tripping and blame laying. Plenty of blame lies all over the place, as he points out, but guilt is rarely effective as a large scale political tool because of its tendency to lead to resentment and (often passive) resistance. The issue according to Sherry is not to tell people how bad they are and make them say “Sorry” but to make them clearer about ways in which environmental consciousness is in their interest (although only by shifting the nature of what is meant by self-interest).

It’s fascinating to see the way that terms that to some extent I associate with corporate capitalism, like “risk management,” come into play in the interview. Admittedly, poetry and environmentalism are more closely related to businesses than many people are comfortable acknowledging, and certainly part of Sherry’s point is that conventional leftist oppositional language isn’t sufficient for the task at hand. But will such terminology really help more conventional environmental practices become more effective or might it not instead co-opt and ultimately misuse them? Still, Sherry definitely acknowledges this risk. He’s careful to insist that predicting what will happen is difficult.

Sherry also makes the point that significant change in environmental practices on a large social is unlikely to come until people really find themselves in disastrous circumstances. While suggesting the importance of an environmental poetics, he’s also a bit of a fatalist (or at least skeptical) regarding its ultimate use value. But like him, I like the idea of making the attempt anyway, despite necessary skepticism.

How Sherry connects environmental issues with aesthetic practice seems to me more tenuous. He tends to assert a fairly well-known lineage of consciously avant garde writers as figures helping lead towards his ideas, but I’m not sure how the details regarding these writers’ work really supports his position.

I note for instance that the contemporary writers he mentions are heavily weighted towards contemporary poetry in New York City, with an emphasis on Roof Books authors. That doesn’t surprise me, given where he lives and his role as the publisher of Roof, but it doesn’t seem to me necessarily the best way to develop a list of writers whose aesthetic practices support the kind of philosophy of environmental poetics that Sherry is urging.

Where for instance are the west coast poets, in Canada or the U.S., who have specifically engaged with Pacific Rim cultural development issues? What about poetic practices beyond the U.S.? In the case of the poets he mentions, Sherry seems to be falling back more on the writers he specifically promotes and lives near than he is making an entirely convincing case for where his kind of environmental poetics might be found among writers. That’s interesting given his remarks about how easy it is to fall back into individualized self-promotion even when one is highly aware the problems of such self-promotion (and I have no intention of playing holier than thou relative to this).

With all due respect to my flarf and conceptual writing friends, I didn’t see how his repeated mentioning of them was really tying into his argument. He is making the case that it’s not subject matter, but structural developments in poetics, that most closely tie into his concept of environmental poetics. Citing Kenny Goldsmith as an instance environmental poetics struck me as off, especially given some of Goldsmith’s takes regarding poetry and politics, and I didn’t see the specifics to back it up: does it come from the way Goldsmith recycles text, rather than attempting to create new works of individual human genius to clog up our air? That seems a stretch to me, a metaphorical resonance perhaps but not much more. And while I think I can see a connection between environmentalism and some of Nada Gordon’s work, I’m not sure exactly how to tie most of the other writers of flarf into this situation, except again along the rather tenuous line of re-use of materials.

Minor note: I wonder if my friend Cathy Eisenhower will like her appearance in this essay as an example of a new generation of language poet.

Sherry himself says that he doesn’t wish to unsettle too far the relevance of earlier generations of writers relevant to “avant garde” practice, a term he uses only once though he insists on its significance, which I actually appreciate while seeing the pitfalls. He wants to rock the poetic boat but not to rock it too much, and he’s probably overly cautious here and ends up dishing out a few extra kudos to the usual suspects.

Lastly, I wondered about the degree to which Sherry insists on the rejection of most emotional, affective practices re the environment, that is, those practices that draw on emotional human responses. Sherry definitely does not favor the “we need to feel sad/mad about the dying animals” approach; he just isn’t sentimental about penguins. He notes, rightly I think, that putting individual human emotion and experience at the center of all things is part of why human beings find themselves in such a physically endangered world.

Yet the degree to which Sherry resists any return to a language involving emotion (so much so that he deconstructs Apps’ questions when Apps tries to draw him out on this and related subjects like that of individual responses) strikes me as overkill, simply too much careful theoretical and managerial distance. His attempt to refuse the value of emotion is something of a return to the blame-laying Sherry wishes to avoid, as if emotion’s frequent refusal to understand structural conditions is in fact still too much to blame for environmental problems. I’d suggest that we need a rethinking of how to consider emotion and structural understanding in relation to each other without rejecting emotional response so thoroughly.

These are very off-the-cuff (and quickly typed) thoughts, not all final versions of what I ultimately might think about all this.


Stanley Bishop Burhans said...

Hi Mark,

Thank for the interesting comments! I thought I'd chime in about a couple of them:

Were I to list interesting poets who do ecopoetics/environmental poetics, I would list many that James doesn't mention, especially David Buuck, Jonathan Skinner, Juliana Spahr, Jane Sprague, and CA Conrad. . . and there are many more. Perhaps the difference is that James would find some of these poets overly committed to an expressivist model? His list leans toward writers who employ a collage-based approach.

Also, I too am a little skeptical of seeing Kenneth Goldsmith as an environmental poet, since his work is so focused on questions of framing and intellectual property that are distant from environmental discourse. But I think including writers like him is part of a "big tent" approach that James is using. . . This big tent, however, does seem to exclude writers who take a self-expressive stance.

I guess the broader question is whether a distaste for self-expressive writing is fully compatible with environmental poetics. . . Also, writing like Spahr's and Conrad's, which uses first person modes to express collective identifications, isn't really self-expressive in the pejorative sense but rather Whitmanic, and it's not clear how much James values approaches like that.

But I think the work of many writers is broadly compatible with the ideas James puts forth.

As for the language of risk management, to me such language seems essential for discussing environmentalism. And after all, risk management and risk assessment are things our culture does particularly well, though it's true we do them better on the individual than on the collective level. But I think environmental poetics shouldn't shy away from discussing systemic risk and engaging (as well as critiquing) the logic of cost-benefit analysis, especially since risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis impinge so much on our day-to-day lives these days.



Unknown said...

Mark, I agree that we need to be inclusive in our poetics. Making distinctions is also critical. I think of that inclusivity as a social structure based on how we view nature.

Our different points of view and the different roles we take compose society. Completing that social structure so that it's functional appears to me as the pivotal part for poetry to play in developing a culture that contributes to the social change.
As you and Stan point out, many poets are contributing: Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Jonathan Skinner, Cecelia Vicuna, Jack Collom, Evelyn Reilly, Christopher Dewdney, Marcella Durand, and many others. Brenda Iijima did a superior anthology called )((eco(lang) (uage (reader)) (with all those parentheses of inclusion). Skinner has published 10 issues of a carefully considered magazine of poetry and ecology called "ecopoetics". The term ecopoetics is now widely used in many spheres. Even the ecocritics contribute although often I my view in a questionable way. And there's a lot more that you and Stan mention.

I add a series of considerations about natural structures in poetic practice. The reason to focus on various innovative poetics is to show how poetry is about the risks we are willing to take with our use of language. Consciously avant garde and experimental processes are most involved with this kind of effort. I'd like more poets to see their creativity (conceptual or linguistic) as a risk taking activity. Identifying with risk taking is a way to see the link between writing practice and other daily activities.

Before we can use poetry to change society we work on ourselves: what if, how about, various trial and error methods as well as well practices from other disciplines. Extending the idea of the individual beyond the organism seems vital to placing value on that which is not in the mind.
The planet and the mind are equally recursive due to the scaling characteristics of dynamic systems. Our emotions are not different from other turbulence, but they take place in our bodies. Since we perceive them inside ourselves, it's hard for us to understand them, separating our thoughts about ourselves from the responses to them in other corners of the planet. (It’s also fair to mention we’ve been on this track since Petrarch climbed Monte Alban. It will continue but needs now to be circumscribed by more inclusive activities such as the various poetics prompted by climate change.) Seeing those emotions as characteristics of nature may help us integrate. Here there needs to be a discussion of the relative values of similarity and difference, but that's another subject.

I agree that it’s difficult for me to show the connections with aesthetic practices. I’d like that to take place collectively and collaboratively. One thought I had was that shaping poems by accretive or other synthetic methods (you note collage as one type) may help address our history of problems between our minds and our surroundings. Understanding how the planetary processes are collaged by dynamic forces is a good analog to innovative poetic practices such as in Cage, flarf, and other procedural poetics. The strength of metaphor derives from how it arises in the mind when the logic of language breaks down. Other innovative practices can focus our attention on scalar connections with different planetary or local forces that promote change.

Writing about natural subjects in a new way, as many of the ecopoetics writers have done, promotes the idea of nature to the front of our consciousness. Then it is equally important to provide an alternative to the way we think and use nature today, linking human thoughts and emotions with the larger structures in our surroundings. Extending and shaping those links in poetry suggests a future path for writing. And discussion.

Unknown said...

Mark, I forgot to say I only disagree with you about my sentiment regarding penguins.

susan said...

Love hearing you stand up for the Pacific, Mark! And yes, there are a lot of Pacific and Pacific Rim writers who work on ecological issues, including Teresia Teaiwa (whose "a coconut a day will kill you" is brilliant), a lot of younger Hawai`i poets who are concerned with development issues and militarism, Craig Santos Perez on the destruction of Guam by many waves of colonialism/militarization, and on and on. So no, NYC has no monopoly on such things.

Anonymous said...

we were working through similar issues.


nice to read the apps interview and discussion here