“A good map opens up the world; a great map evokes a story about the world.” —David McCloskey
- A Call to Eco-action
National Poetry Month ended this year in BC with an exhilarating event. The third annual Cascadia Poetry Festival, held in Nanaimo April 30–May 3 (http://cascadiapoetryfestival.org/2015-nanaimo), was an opportunity for poets from throughout the Pacific Northwest and northern BC to come together and—for a few days at least—erase the social and political borders they normally live within. Dr. David McCloskey, an Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Seattle University, kicked off the Friday morning program with the unveiling of his new Cascadia bio-region map.
“The life of our bioregion has been obscured, split up by boundaries and separated into categories, the matrix dismembered,” McCloskey writes on the Cascadia Institute website (http://cascadia-institute.org). “This map reveals something important that has long remained invisible—namely, the integrality of the bioregion we are calling ‘Cascadia.’”
McCloskey has spent 5,000 hours creating the Cascadia map, which not only erases the political boundaries of the Pacific Northwest, it provides a detailed geographical, tectonic and hydrological image of the region we call home. This diverse ecological region is bounded by the Rockies and the Continental Divide on the east, the Pacific Ocean and Cascadia Subduction Zone on the west, California’s Mount Shasta on the south and Alaska’s Mount Logan on the north. Appropriately, Cascadia means “land of falling waters,” and includes several of western North America’s major river systems—the Fraser, the Columbia, the Snake.
But what does this have to do with poetry? McCloskey pointed out that in today’s world we tend to have an idea of the local and the global, but not what lies in between—the bio-region we inhabit. “How is it we don’t know the place of our own home?” he asked. Our sense of place in the landscape is often best articulated by our storytellers and poets. McCloskey asserts that a new narrative of Cascadia needs to be born. Aside from its value as a finely grained geographical tool showing details of every ecological sub-region, the Cascadia map is a springboard for the writer’s imagination. It’s a call to explore its many layers—our neighbourhoods, communities, watersheds, bio-region and all the way outward in consciousness to our continental rim and the ecosphere itself.
“We wanted help imagining the place,” said McCloskey. “The poets were a great help. We need all the voices, just like the trees each sing in their own way. The poetic imagination can translate it and go into the heart of it.” To that end, McCloskey urged poets to abandon abstraction in their verse in favour of poetry that connects readers with Cascadia’s landscape in a more direct, accessible fashion. “We need to get beyond ourselves,” he said. With the global climate change crisis, it’s all hands on deck—we need to widen our view as poets from the self to the universal.
This is something I’ve been saying for more than a decade. In the Introduction to my 2005 collection The Charlatans of Paradise, I wrote: “In the trajectory toward the universal, contemplation of the self is only going halfway.” I decried postmodern poetry’s tendency to create “word snapshots that are pretty, clever, but ultimately meaningless.” Finally, it would appear that postmodernism’s death grip on poetry is relaxing as we realize it actually fosters separation and disconnection from the world. What we need right now is writing that connects people to the landscape, the bio-region we inhabit.
In Gary Geddes’ collection of essays, Out of the Ordinary: Politics, Poetry and Narrative (Kalamalka Press, 2009), he quotes American poet and ecologist Wendell Berry, writing on the eclipse of narrative poetry by postmodernism: “…this weakening of narrative in poetry—whether by policy, indifference or debility—may be one of the keys to what is wrong with us, both as poets and as people. It is indicative of a serious lack of interest, first, in action, and second, in responsible action. Muir said that ‘the story, though it is our story, is disappearing from poetry.’ Narrative poetry records, contemplates, hands down the actions of the past. Poetry has a responsibility to remember and to preserve and reveal the truth about these actions.”
It’s interesting to note in this context the impact that ‘slam’ poetry has had on mainstream poetry. I liken it to the effect of punk music on the popular music of the late 1970s—although much of punk wasn’t particularly good or lasting work, it forced the music industry to snap out of its disco-induced trance and revitalize itself. Slam poetry often lacks the editing rigour of literary poetry but at least it has reintroduced performance and politics to the poem. In other words, it has placed us squarely where we are in history—beyond our own heads or literary conceits—just as narrative poets have done since Homer.
This theme was echoed somewhat in the Cascadia Poetry Festival panel discussion Make It True, riffing on the launch of the 100 Innovative Cascadia Poets Anthology of that title. On the panel—consisting of festival founder Paul Nelson, Barry McKinnon and George Stanley and moderated by Nadine Maestas, Nelson noted that too much current poetry suffers from “the tyranny of irony.” While it’s fine to tear down and expose society, there’s a need to build up as well. To me the firm impression was also that the time for experimentalism in language has run its course. Now is the time for intimacy and connection. What panelists called “the corruption of our biosphere” is in fact a call to action, as Berry suggests. McKinnon cited avant-garde composer Philip Glass, who, when asked: What is music? answered: “Music is a place.” This fit nicely with McCloskey’s call to develop a wider consciousness of the Cascadia bio-region. Stanley asked a question I’ve been asking for decades now: “What does obscurity communicate?” Exactly. If the purpose of writing isn’t to communicate, why bother?
Still, it was interesting to watch professors McKinnon and Stanley dance when asked by an audience member: “What’s so wrong with bringing issues into poetry?” This touches the raw nerve in academia regarding political poetry, typically a taboo area for literary poets. Here again the slam poets have no such compunction. Nelson offered a useful clarification, pointing out that political poetry often suffers from a lack of craft: “If you remove the line breaks and it reads like bad prose, then it’s rhetoric, not poetry.” Thankfully there are plenty of examples of first-rate poets who have written political poems that meet the test of craft: Tom Wayman, Gary Geddes, Denise Levertov, Neruda, etc.
In terms of craft, the panel agreed that one can’t simply revisit and rehash the poetics of the past—new forms are needed. Nelson cited Levertov’s credo that “form is never more than an revelation of content.” The festival screening of the documentary The Line Has Shattered, about the 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference, underscored the connection with history’s break from the classical poetic forms. Traditional meters were revived briefly with the New Formalism movement of the ’70s, but it never gained much traction. An exception to this rule would be Bruce Meyer’s excellent 2009 collection Mesopotamia (http://49thshelf.com/Books/M/Mesopotamia), which does an amazing job of creating dazzling originality within traditional forms. But few poets are capable of this feat; too often it descends into Hallmark greeting card rhyme. Meanwhile in poetry generally, the openness fostered by Creeley and the Black Mountain School as it intersected with BC’s TISH movement seemed to collapse into a largely impenetrable postmodernism. The potential of postmodernism failed, just as Hemingway’s obliteration of literary ornamentation in the novel has failed us by spawning legions of imitators writing mostly dead, flat prose. Nelson stressed that the organizing principle of the Make it True anthology was to be open on the question of form.
- Conferences and the Middle-Aged Body
The festival schedule was so packed from morning ’til night it was impossible to take everything in. “Exhilarated yet exhausted” is how I described my reaction. There were many excellent panel discussions, including Where Geography, Culture and Language Intersect, moderated by festival organizer Kim Goldberg; The Ground is Always Shifting, moderated by Yvonne Blomer; and On the Margins, moderated by Mary Anne Moore. This latter session was rocked by a statement from Chilean poet Aaramë, who pointed out that if you really want to see marginalized poets, talk to a Chilean fisher-poet who has had his fishing grounds decimated by commercial trawlers. McCloskey in Where Geography, Culture and Language Intersect, reiterated the call to poets to get out of their own heads. “Poetry of the self is ultimately a lonely, lost poetry because it doesn’t get you out of the self.” We need to be open to having the world speak of itself through us, he said, similar to the First Nations concept of becoming a ‘hollow bone’ through which nature can speak. And all of it done, not in the spirit of ‘look at me,’ but the potlatch spirit of ‘how much can I give?’
The Living Room readings held at the Nanaimo Museum in the city’s beautiful heritage old town district were a chance for poets at all levels to read their work. Poets sat in a circle, each one reading a single poem, with occasionally enough time for a second poem. Attendance averaged between 35-55 at each circle. The diversity of voices from all over Cascadia was fascinating and covered poets from their teens to late retirement ages.
Unfortunately I had to miss the slam event Saturday evening After Party due to staying with friends on Protection Island; the last ferry leaves Nanaimo Harbour at 10:10 pm. Though given how full my head was at the end of each day’s session, I’m not sure I’d have had the energy to ‘slam’ deep into the night anyway. The keynote presentation on Saturday’s program, with poets Yvonne Blomer, Brenda Hillman, Amber Dawn, Susan Musgrave, Gary Gottfriedson and Harold Rhenisch was stunning. These poets proved that compelling public performance of poetry isn’t limited to slam poets; the evocative and technical excellence was glittering. Sam Hamill, founder of Poets Against the War, was a revelation. Despite frail health he performed gustily and the awareness dawned that here is a new modern master. Hamill set a record when he amassed 30,000 poems from 27,000 poets to be registered in the Congressional record in opposition to the Iraq War. Along with Sandra Stephenson of John Abbott College Peace Studies in Montreal, I co-founded the Canadian branch of Poets Against War about ten years ago.
Cascadia Poetry Festival organizers and volunteers are to be commended for an amazing job. There were a few glitches, as one expects at any event. The Book Fair schedule needs fine-tuning so that booksellers aren’t sitting staring at each other for hours on end waiting for participants to get out of sessions on all-too-brief breaks. And the Living Room Circle would have benefited by breaking up into smaller groups (where the hard-of-hearing like myself could hear more). But overall, it was an exhilarating, not-to-be-missed experience!
I came home with a shelf-full of new poetry books, including Sam Hamill’s magnum opus, Habitation, a truly masterful collection of his work and a true voice of Cascadia. I urge you to pick up a copy: (http://www.losthorsepress.org/catalog/habitation/).
And watch out for next year’s Cascadia Poetry Festival!