Aotearoa, October 2020
This month, we spoke with the editors of a forthcoming collection of poetry around climate change, to be published in 2021 by Auckland University Press. We are grateful to Erik Kennedy, Jordan Hamel, Rebecca Hawkes and essa may ranapiri for sharing their insights and passion. And please note the call for submissions for this anthology, until 31 October!
Love in the Time of COVID: You are the editors of a climate change anthology of poetry, to be published by AUP in 2021. Can you tell us about the genesis of the project?
Everyone: This project emerged from our shared concern for the future of our planet and people, and our sense that poetry is an important means of communicating the effects of the climate emergency that is increasingly present in our lives. We are at turns horrified and desperately hopeful. We are grateful that artists see it as their responsibility to process the traumatic and chaotic energy of climate change, and we saw work being created that we thought should be collected in one place. We’re letting poets do what they do best: write their way through a terrible situation, like a train going through a haystack. As Bertolt Brecht says in his short poem ‘Motto’:
In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times.
LitToC: Let’s talk about the moment you knew things had to change. In a recent article, Shaun Hendy tells about his transformative moment, when he had to rethink his view on climate (‘I was living my life like I didn’t believe in climate change’). What was your moment of realising Something’s not right…?
Erik: There have been many ‘oh shit’ moments. Speaking for myself, I will say that it has been a cumulative process, a process of being damaged by the damage you see happening around you. If you get several mild concussions, the total effect of them can be far more serious than you might expect if you did a bit of back-of-the-napkin addition. It’s like that.
When I was in grad school, my roommate’s family home near San Diego was destroyed during what was then a record fire season. I was still in New York when Superstorm Sandy visited once-in-a-century flooding across the tri-state area. How quaint calling anything ‘once-in-a-century’ seems now. I became a vegetarian in 2016, and then a vegan, because I finally started seeing myself as a link in a food production chain that is, frankly, obscene. (And even though I’m aware of the structural drivers of climate change — overwhelmingly more important than consumer behaviours — I still blame myself for things, just as capitalism has taught me to do.) The last straw was added on New Year’s Day this year, when this anthology was already being pitched. I know that 1 January 2020 feels like it was at least thirty years ago, but cast your mind back for a moment. I’ll take you to where I was: in the sea on the beach at Sumner, in Christchurch, looking at the brown sky and the red sun and the sickly orange glare dancing off the water and incandescing in the spindrift. Bushfire smoke from Victoria, 2,000 kilometres away, on the first day of 2020. One of the most shocking and beautiful things I have ever seen, but portending horror. By the time you’re looking at scenes like that, you know that things are already out of control.
LitToC: The language of poetry is both precise and suggestive – and we have many examples of effective poetic activism, from Langston Hughes to Gwendolyn Brooks, from Francesco Levato to Ilya Kaminsky, from Hone Tuwhare to Selina Tusitala Marsh. Who are some of the finest examples of poetic activists you look to as role models – whether activists around climate change or other necessary forces / voices of change?
Jordan: I often hear people say the act of writing or performing or making art is inherently political by nature. While I don’t know whether that is necessarily true, I think we see all forms of activism in poetry, particularly Aotearoa poetry. Some of the most prescient examples today are young wāhine using their voices to elevate those around them, challenge institutions and explore identity, particularly within the spoken word scene, where calls to action can feel more immediate and influential. I think of Stevie Davis-Tana’s incredible visual spoken word album ‘Kō’, I think of the poems of Fili Fepulea’i-Tapua’i, I think of Ngā Hinepūkōrero performing their work at the Auckland BLM march, I think of the work of community leaders like Tusiata Avia and Grace Taylor. While all of this poetry may not be explicitly climate-focussed, the issue of climate change is always present as an issue, even if indirectly, and I think that speaks to the holistic nature of this issue: that we can’t talk about climate change as a society without talking about colonialism or capitalism.
LitToC: What of the relationship between community and freedom? Especially today, this, from poet and activist Audre Lorde, feels so relevant: “Without community, there is no liberation…” (in The New Yorker, here). Are you finding a community around poetry and activism as you work through this project?
Jordan: YES! In short. We’ve been overwhelmed with the support this project has received so far, both within poetry communities and outside of them. We’ve had a surge of teenagers reaching out to send us work and share our call for submissions, alongside more established figures in poetry communities who have gone above and beyond to help us and try to push our call far and wide. I think that’s ultimately why we four editors work so well together for this project. While there is undoubtedly overlap, all of us are active in different poetry and climate communities, giving us the best chance at getting work that represents a cross-section of climate-related writing in New Zealand and the Pacific.
LitToC: How do you view the relationship between poetry and climate change activism, specifically – and how is this view evolving as you work on this project?
Essa: So I want to make something very clear. To me, a poem isn’t climate change activism; it’s a celebration of a life, it’s a cry out in the dark; a poem can be part of activism but isn’t it alone. And the good thing about this project is that it’s not just one poem from one person. It’s going to be many poems from many people, and it’s that solidarity, that model of connectedness, which absolutely is climate change activism. It’s a small thing maybe, but a connection made by anything as life affirming as poetry doesn’t feel small at all.
LitToC: Aotearoa New Zealand holds a specific place in the world, with regard to its reality of being an island nation and its relationship between people and land. What do you hope this collection will do for us in terms of continuing this examination of who we are as a nation? And how does (or: should) the climate change poetry discussion also overlap with our care and attention to Indigenous voices?
Essa: Well I think it will do a few things in regards to examining who we are as a nation. Firstly, our call for submissions stretches beyond this nation state. We have solicited submissions from those who live in the Pacific in general or whakapapa to it. I think this is part of recognising our connections to each other. Māori are a Pacific people and stretch beyond the limiting framework of the colonial nation state. As Alice Te Punga Somerville has made clear, the answers to this problem, the solutions, will most likely come from Pasifika/Moana peoples, as it is they who disproportionately feel the impacts of climate change.
And as I think I’ve made clear, Indigenous voices are everything to this anthology. Māori whakapapa to this land, we are one with it, as it is one with us, our fate is bound to it. We are the kaitiaki of this land and what we have to say about our connection to it – about the fate it faces – is everything. We are best fit to speak for the land here. There wouldn’t be an anthology without us.
LitToC: You have recently participated in the New Zealand Young Writers’ Festival (Sept 24-27). What kinds of observations can you make about youth involvement in the current eco-political state of our world? And what of youth voices in poetry?
Rebecca: Young people live in the same world as adults. Young people pay attention. Young people absorb the troubles and preoccupations present in their families and the wider world, and when the need arises they deliver astounding energy, intelligence, imagination and care in the face of all kinds of ‘adult’ problems. Climate change is one of these areas in which it has a privilege to see the impact of rangatahi understanding a fundamental problem facing us all, and demanding justice – clearly, eloquently, movingly.
In speeches or in poetry, in the School Strikes for Climate, Black Lives Matter marches, spoken word slams and sonnets scribbled in schoolbooks, our young writers and activists are inspiring in their willingness to confront the climate crisis that is our present and their future. But this admirable leadership comes at a cost too — from the gloom of climate anxiety, uncertain futures, and their understanding that they are being forced to bear the brunt of their elders’ lifestyles, [in]decisions, and apathy. I think of Greta Thunberg’s admonitions to global powerbrokers: that children should be allowed to be children and not need to wallow in the woes of this broiling world.
But then I think of how grateful I am for poetry by younger writers. How stirring it is to hear art and politics rising in the voice of someone who knows they are still learning but can damn well recognise injustice when they see it and are moved to make something in response. Someone who is finding their power and sharing it. Age doesn’t determine an orator’s charisma; time doesn’t necessarily improve how deeply a poem can cut to the core of a troubled heart, or how wisely a healing lyric can be written. Just look at youth journals like Starling to get a sense of the range and sophistication of young writing. On climate issues, in the ultimate form of youth poetry (by which I mean……… memes), I am often struck by the anger, insight, resilience and humour found in even these short form tidbits – as well as longer written works and performances.
It’s funny talking about “the youth of today” – I’m still practically young, and was just in the Young Writers’ Festival in Dunedin as an official Young Writer! Still, as… an older young person… I should say that abdicating our own grown responsibilities by assuming that youth will take it all in hand is a sure-fire way to burn out both our young people and our planet… but uplifting young voices still empowers rangatahi and energises the rest of us. As does listening to older people who have laid the path for us all so far! Which I should note is part of the intergenerational effort of the school strikes – as well as something we’re interested in doing within this anthology, as we collect voices raised across Aotearoa and the Pacific.
LitToC: Poetry about climate is not only political but also a deeply personal endeavour. How might poetry help the individual cope with an issue that invokes such despair? Is poetry healing?
Rebecca: I definitely believe that a helpful way through an inner trouble is to write it out. Once you’ve got something written down, pinned in the light on a page, you can work with it. And so for climate anxiety, poetry arrives as one way to think through the prevailing hugeness of it all. Or the climate, background to life, barges to the foreground in poems about something else! A ‘climate poem’ doesn’t need to be about just that. It could be about Alzheimer’s, a breakup, a toy, a roadtrip, a place, a loss, a meal, an especially beautiful cow. But climate change seeps into everything, in the colonial capitalist systems we live our lives through. Climate change is present even in the way we eat, work, play, dress, travel, consume, dispose, worry, or dream…
Poetry can capture any emotion, and climate poetry as a genre is broad in its moods. It contains multitudes of grief and despair and rage and hope and absurd laughter and guilty overwhelmed apathy… But as well as pure force of feeling, poetry brings thoughtful consideration to a topic, making us sit with and explore a feeling and its contributing circumstances. Poems also offer handholds of material sensory concreteness to cling to, so specific objects and images and textures from life can bring out the emotiveness or messages of a poem (we definitely like concrete imagery to add focus and avoid getting lost in untethered philosophical tracts about how humans are the real virus or whatev.). As a communication form, poems can work something like stream-of-consciousness thoughts, or like dreams, with their capacity to contain contradictions and abstractions in a way that feels nevertheless true within a self-contained reality.
So poems can probe into humanly connecting truths of feelings without getting caught up in justifications. All these climate poems will reflect an overwhelming body of explanation, a scientific consensus set in dense prose, generated by the pros – scientists, journalists, governance bodies and communicators. It’s not hard to access the facts. But part of the power in this anthology will be in accessing feelings deeply and immediately.
As a communications professional I’m interested in just how profoundly feelings determine how we respond to information. I don’t think there’s much exclusivity between facts and feelings when it comes to collective understanding and action. Facts are nothing without belief – without faith. Peoples’ hopes, loves, and fears are what ultimately drive action. Appeals to rational level-headedness are all very well, and of course poetry can do cynicism or cool appraisal as much as the next literary form, but at the NZ Young Writers Festival, we editors discussed at length the capacity of poetry to be moving – to move you to laughter, to tears, to anger, to pity, to adoration, to action. And in the connecting magic of art-making, a poem that means something to the writer will connect when it reaches the right reader – sharing the healing, or fury, or fear, or calls to power. Poems being machines for empathy, and all that.
Anyhow. Because climate is something we all feel – I challenge anyone to say they didn’t have some kind of unease under the doom red sun in the sky during the Australian bushfire season last summer – there is naturally art emerging that processes feelings around climate change. Hopefully some of it is healing, for the writers and for readers. We are definitely keen to see some radical imagination deployed to envision hopeful futures for those who come after us, as well as the anticipated devastations.
LitToC: If you could point people to the most useful places to see climate change activism at its best, what would you recommend — here in our country and in the world?
Erik: This is very much a case of ‘we are standing on the shoulders of giants’. The first people to credit are Indigenous activists who are, in many cases, protecting land and resources that they have had stewardship over for centuries. In South America or Africa, for instance, they do this largely without international media attention, and they face dangers that would be unimaginable to most Western activists. In Aotearoa, the police rarely press charges even after disruptive actions like mine or harbour shutdowns; in the Amazon, you might be murdered for having the wrong friends or associates. And then of course there are the Indigenous activists within anglophone countries – from the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota to the Carmichael mine in Queensland – who act as a superego for societies that have lost their way. It’s also important to acknowledge the generations of environmentalists and scientists who have become more exasperated and vociferous in their calls to action; there simply wouldn’t be as many activists today if they hadn’t been sounding the klaxon while many of us were sleepwalking.
In Aotearoa, School Strike 4 Climate and Fridays for Future have been a source of vital energy. Activism without the key stakeholders in the future – young people – will go nowhere. Coal Action Network, 350, Greenpeace, Extinction Rebellion (XR), and others occupy various points on the spectrum from research and awareness-raising to nonviolent direct action. My involvement personally is with XR. XR goes beyond demonstrations and symbolic actions to undertake campaigns that disrupt the operations of polluters, suppliers of fossil capital, and sclerotic government bodies that refuse to do the hard but necessary work of making forward-thinking policy. There is no one theory of change embraced by all activists, and progress is slow, disappointment regular. But I don’t know anyone who thinks we can abandon this work. In climate change activism, there is a place for anyone who is filled with love and rage.
LitToC: And, finally, some poetry…
Hine-nui-te-Pō and the Dominant Species by essa may ranapiri
Hine-nui-te-pō lies down next to the carpark
a fantail dancing over her fingers go she says
the cars just sit there for hours on end
doing and saying nothing she watches
as a person approaches listens to the
short chirp of the vehicle unlocked what
bird was caught inside the key
Where will this engine
go and what will it do when it gets there
moving from one place to
the next in the most destructive
way like a mammal
a grunt in its non-existent throat
These machines look like death to her
and she knows what death looks like.
Te Papa’s giant squid dreams of the moana by Jordan Hamel
school kids stare in awe and disgust
I’ve learnt more facts about my own
history from science teachers
giant soldiers mourn my captivity
the earthquake house shakes
in disapproval, docents wipe
away rebellious fingerprints
Did you know the Architeuthis has three hearts
and a donut shaped brain?
my ink is responsible
for love notes in math class
complicated café orders
ratifying bilateral trade agreements
are you reading this in hard copy
if so… you’re welcome
once people have extracted
everything from you that’s special
they put you on display
and tell the world
how special you were
like the rugby hall of fame next door
where the 1985 All Blacks are kept in chains
destined to perpetually tackle each other
into eternity or permanent brain damage
I can’t find my edges
I’ve forgotten my reach
in industrial brine, I’m just
sinew floating in a historically
if you’re reading this before 2040 there’s still a chance
take an E-Scooter to the waterfront at midnight
break into the nature exhibit
pry open my oversized jar
let me Shawshank out of there
sliding back to my mother’s grey embrace
if you’re reading this after 2040 it’s too late
she’s already taken me back,
Te Papa too.
– Previously published on NZ Poetry Shelf
Dread weather by Rebecca Hawkes
summer burns out on the highway verge
like the husk of a stolen car
so the stale cologne odor of city
rain is a small relief.
my hands are gathered against your body
like fallen leaves. you sweat
heavily in your sleep
while I’m plunging through my lucid blues. scrolling for doom
bushfire smoke a continent away casts wicked light
from capricorn to pisces.
the season’s hot new look
pinned in stories – cute omens for hypersaturated brimstone,
the blood red sun & fuchsia moon. yea baby
I hope you like this bad disc energy
celestial bodies colluding behind the smokescreen.
It’s the aesthetic of the century…
our lashes smudged with charcoal
remnants of flammable carbon offset forestry.
the bats and birds come swooning from their trees
fluttering morsels adrift like biodegradable glitter.
when we can bear to go outside the rancid sky
tastes metallic as old cherry cola.
& when we reach up
to touch our eyelids
our sockets have been inlaid
with polished circlets of pink dyed pāua
to watch the rising mercury in bloom.
Local Politics by Erik Kennedy
I just want to know
at the start of every day
if I will see the civic willows
by the river
in the morning mist
and by them
the day’s official geese
busy at their tasks
so I can calibrate myself
and is that so much to ask
Jordan Hamel is a Pōneke-based poet and performer. He is the co-editor of Stasis Journal. He was the 2018 New Zealand Poetry Slam champion and has words published or forthcoming in Poetry New Zealand, takahē, Landfall, Sport, Mimicry, Mayhem and elsewhere. Jordan also occasionally writes things for The Spinoff and previously for The Niche Cache. He’s obsessed with all things pop culture and NBA. He’s also an MC, aspiring spoken word educator and disgraced sudoku champion.
Rebecca Hawkes is a queer Pākehā poet and painter. Raised on the snowy slopes of the Southern Alps, she is now based in in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. Her debut chapbook ‘Softcore coldsores’ was published in AUP New Poets 5 for the 2019 revival of the series, and her writing has been widely published in Aotearoa. She is editor in chief of the poetry journal Sweet Mammalian and founding member of poetry performance collective Show Ponies. You can find her words and work via her vanity shrine rebeccahawkesart.com.
Erik Kennedy is the author of There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime (Victoria University Press, 2018). His poems and criticism have recently been published in places like FENCE, Landfall, The Moth, Poetry, Poetry Ireland Review, and the TLS. Originally from New Jersey, he lives in Christchurch, New Zealand. More here.
essa may ranapiri (Ngāti Wehi Wehi, Ngāti Raukawa-ki-te-Tonga, Te Arawa, Waikato-Tainui, Ngāti Pukeko, Ngāti Takatāpui, Na Guinnich, Highgate) is a poet from Kirikiriroa. Their first book of poetry ransack (VUP) was longlisted for the Ockham Awards 2020. They are the featured writer in Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2020 with their work ‘HAUNT|HUNT’. They self-released a chapbook titled POLEMIC in July. Currently they are working on their second book of poems tentatively titled Echidna. They will write until they’re dead.