What To Say That We Say Top Kill: Beginning Notes and Thoughts on (an) Ecopoetics

As I write, there’s something called a “Top Kill” going on in the Gulf of Mexico: a militaristic/violent name the latest attempt to stop the massive, devastating, 5-week long oil spill. Maybe it will work ??? the coast guard seems “cautiously optimistic” so far.

But even if they manage to stop up the leak this very moment, the actual and potential devastation resulting from the millions and millions of gallons of leaked oil is almost indescribable. A poisoned food chain, brown pelicans’ nesting habitats destroyed, “dead-zones” in the oceans, and more, and more, and more.


I’m paying attention to the language we are using to try to communicate about this. Because this feels like the most pressing thing. I’ve started in on my summer-reading list with The Ecolanguage Reader, and on Wednesday I attended the Ecopoetical Futures panel at Poets House, featuring Marcella Durand, Brenda Iijima, Ted Mathys, and Tyrone Williams.

For the past six months or so, I’ve been writing a series of poems about water and humans and our relationships and desires for (the) water (in us). Recently, I’ve realized that I’m participating in/creating/writing into ecopoetics.

Previously, I had heard the term, but I hadn’t really considered closely, assuming it was another term for “nature poetry,” rather than describing the kind of political and experimental work that I am interested in.

But it most certainly does, as evidenced in editor Brenda Iijima’s preface to the Ecolanguage Reader:

How do poetic language, forms, structures, syntaxes and grammars contend or comply with the forces of environmental disaster? Can innovative languages forward the cause of living sustainably in a world of radical interconnectedness? In what ways do vectors of geography, race, gender, class and culture intersect with the development of individual or collective ecopoetic projects?

At the Ecopoetical Futures panel, Ted Mathys proposed (and I’m paraphrasing since I didn’t take good notes) that perhaps the largest, broadest question that ecopoetics engages with is the role of aesthetic production in our navigation of our relationship between the human and nonhuman world.

I understand that to mean that the act of thinking through an ecopetics forces us to ask questions about the role and function of art/writing/etc. as we approach a critical ecological/environmental breaking point. The problems ??? as in the oil spill ??? are so huge and seemingly impossible to tackle ??? what use, then, poetry?

It’s a question that’s been asked before in many different contexts, but for me, it makes intuitive sense that an ecopoetics is a reasonable, appropriate, even vital response to ecological disaster. As one panelist pointed out (Iijima? Durand?) all poetry in some respect is ecopoetic: our language and language production cannot help but be influenced by and indicate the ecology that we exist in.

Given that, I want to think that we can start to reconsider our relationship with our ecology/environment by putting pressure on the language that is a manifestation of that relationship.

There’s much more to be said on this topic. I’m interested in investigating the concept of inside/outside that Durand brought up at the panel and which Leslie Scalapino addresses in her essay “1Eco-logic in Writing” in the Reader. Both at the panel and in some of the essays, there seems to be a resistance to claiming that ecopoetics can actually affect tangible change, but I want to push against that resistance. I’m starting to develop some thoughts on how to articulate a queer ecopoetics, which is about, I think, blurring the distinctions between inside/outside, poet/citizen. So, more, soon, on all this.

(Image: Architect Tadao Ando | Telstar Logistics | Flickr)
(Image: Architect Tadao Ando | Telstar Logistics | Flickr)

In the meantime, check out this (eco)poetic response to the Gulf Coast spill, conceived of and edited by Amy King and Heidi Lynn Staples. Poets for Living Waters features a whole bunch of contemporary poets sharing their work and their own ecopoetics. (And a few of my water poems will be appearing on the site shortly!)