Reeling, Remembering, Going Outside
A thorny summer for poetry or anything else
It’s seemed that every time, recently, when I’ve wanted to send one of these letters, something has happened—the shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde and Highland Park, the further excoriation of abortion access in the United States—that has rendered me without a lot to say. “Reeling” is a word that people use sometimes in situations where they don’t feel grounded, anchored, “reeling” like the feeling of being punched off-balance.
I’ve been trying to spend time outside to see what I can learn and off-load, connect to and remember: clusters of green iridescent beetles in the park, the century maple tree next door and all its progeny up and down the block, the way a doe parks her pair of fawns in the empty lots down the street during the day. People say things like “the pace of life is different” in a small town, and I’ve never known what that means because it seems like in a city, everyone has their own pace. Isn’t that the point? But there is a difference. My experience in this small town is that more of my neighbors are non-human. Their proximity—and that there are fewer humans—makes it easier for me to notice.
Poets respond in words. I’ve been thinking about the protest slogan “We Won’t Go Back,” and how we’ve been going back, and how I might create a protest sign that says, “We have gone back and we don’t like it here!” But all this has got me thinking about time, the slow march forward, the arc of history, and the way that multiple things are true at the same time. We lost access to reproductive health care in a big way this summer. And, many people already haven’t had that access for a long, long time. Both things are true. Poetry has the ability to express the multiplicity of truth, and I think that’s one of the reasons that poetry will always be political.
The class I’m teaching right now the Loft Literary Center on creating a joyful strategy for submitting poetry to literary journals is full of motivated, thoughtful students. We are navigating and negotiating what it might mean to make our inner dialogues public through publishing. Dipping our toes in the treacherous waters. One of the undercurrents, of course, is that “the business” of publishing is just that, a business. Capitalism acts in ways antithetical to vulnerable self-expression. And still, for many of us, we want to be published to publicly express and platform our multiple truths.
I had the chance to visit Northern Minnesota at the beginning of this month. One of the best ways to spend part of July is in Northern Minnesota, with its lakes and dragonflies and cold heat. I read Aldo Leopold’s 1949 hybrid memoir on conservation, A Sand County Almanac, while I was there, and so, as we hiked and kayaked and marveled at the open lakes and marshes and prairie flowers and and orioles and painted turtles, I was also thinking about how much wasn’t there, not anymore. Leopold is severely limited in his celebration of the white settler and his fetishization of hunting, the parts of human cruelty he knows about and leaves out. He was trying to crack the optic of infinite “resources” and name his grief for lost landscapes and species in a place white people decided to claim and call North America. It didn’t have to be this way. It doesn’t have to be this way.
I returned home through Iowa and Illinois thinking about prairies and staring at cornfields and eating gas station snacks made of corn and considering what my future students might know or not know about the land we live on. This fall, I’m teaching ecopoetry at Ripon College in central Wisconsin. Braiding Sweetgrass and Ghostfishing are on my tentative syllabus (though those of you who are teachers know that it’s only July, so that’s subject to change).
It’s hard. Everything feels hard sometimes. My slow road towards respite has to do with watching the fierce hummingbirds who do not need guns and even the squirrels in their comically furious determination.
I’m teaching a free, online workshop on Eco-Justice Poetry this Friday through the 1455 Festival of Storytelling. Join me, if you’d like, from wherever you’re living.
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