Poetry and the People’s Climate March: A Brief Report
How do we account for the lived quality of life itself, writ large—the vast web of species that are collectively, relationally, alive at any given moment we care to tune into our planetary presence? How do we think this biospheric being alive, and how do we perform it, and act so that the web itself is alive, right now, all around us, attuned to our inter-species-connectivity?
Questions one might ask when on a walk with 400,000 people, New York City, Peoples Climate March, September 21 2014, wondering if there are ways we can expand this even further—into inter-species zones of organization and demonstration. I came to New York to talk with other poets—about poetry in the Anthropocene, poetry as an index—an indexical pointing towards—what is a massively indexical event: climate change (which itself indexes what global capitalism and the burning of fossil fuels is doing to the planet). We met on the Lilac, a decommissioned steamship converted into a floating library, docked at Pier 25 in lower Manhattan. We held onto each other’s words for a time. Life vest. Dinghy. A leaf blew in an open window. Brenda: “A self portrait of everything.” Laura: “You live in a time that is over.” Marcella: “The poem as a zone in which we learn”—temporary, autonomous.
The Anthropocene: that era in which all of life, including the geophysical and stratospheric aspects of the planet, has come to be exploited for human profit.
The Anthropocene: best exemplified, for me, by the Tar Sands, outside Fort McMurray Alberta, where everything that was living has been removed in its entirety, in order to get at the bitumen underneath.
The Anthropocene: which I hear now calling for the uprising of a “biotariat”—that newly recognizable exploited class formed by the entirety of life itself—in the formation of which it seems poets might help indicate the way.
The Anthropocene: which asks, how do we act, so there is a future?
So poets gathered, read, talked. And the next day we walked together in the Climate March. We were Laura Elrick and Rodrigo Toscano. We were Brenda Iijima and Anne Waldman. We were Evelyn Reilly and Kristin Prevallet. We were Marcella Durand and E. J. McAdams, we were Lila Zemborain and Cecelia Vicuna with a bee on the end of her wand and we were many others too walking behind and before the poet’s banner.
In the midst of a massive march, you at first only experience the local. The people you are walking with—old friends and new. Then the people right in front of you—in our local part of the march, the Greens in matching apple coloured t-shirts, chanting and singing. And finally the people directly behind you—at our backs, Bread and Puppets, carrying flowing white fabric boreal caribou figures with twigs for horns, and behind them a New Orleans jazz band, complete with dancing skeletons wearing the names of oil companies around their necks, a giant skull puppet with a black Canadian maple leaf on its grey forehead looming. For five hours this is our mobile location, the village we move with somewhere in the middle of the column of 400,000 human beings. We are a local grouping of a vast grouping of groups. We are a company of poets, taking pictures of each other, laughing, staying close to Cecelia’s bee-wand, which was our talisman.
Then, hands rose into the air. Looking up and down the column, hands in the air and fingers to lips. Complete silence ensuing. Birds rising from trees in Central Park. A seemingly spontaneous transfer of information amongst us all, the local left behind so now we are aware of a several miles long stretch of street filled with thousands of people going quiet, a wave of stillness passing through us and into the Park’s trees, into the air of bird flutter, an attuning to the complex totality of our being live here together. As though we were a forest, passing news limb to limb. Then just as spontaneously a great cheer going up, rising from the heart of that collective silence. A roar against the buildings, a new signal rushing through our 400,000 celled body. What is this informational pulsing in and out of a local relation of people in a street together—in and out of a world that suddenly becomes sensible, sensate? A web that includes more than the human bodies amassed together, but reaches into the earth, the sky, the park, the birds, the clouds?
Anthropologist Eduardo Kohn argues that “Life is constitutively semiotic,” and that “it is through our partially shared semiotic propensities that multi-species relations are possible” (How Forests Think). Even “signs are alive” and “Selves, human or nonhuman, simple or complex, are … waypoints in a semiotic process.” Life is information transmission and reception.
Poetry, I want to suggest, is a special use of human language by which we can activate this wider semiotic process and engage with signs that are alive. Poetry sounds things and patterns that extend beyond mere human speech, into the wider surround of the living. I say this because I think poetry is that process of careful listening—to what Blaser and Spicer called “the outside”—as well as an exercise of the ability to respond to that outside (to borrow from Robert Duncan, and complete the San Francisco Renaissance trifecta).
Poetry is also bodies being alive together in the street. Poetry is joining the masses as they well. Poetry is all of us following a bee through Manhattan. “Don’t fuck with my pigeons,” a poet says. Poetry floods Wall Street. Poetry has been in revolt for I don’t know how long. Poetry is an index of the desperate state we are in—as well as the desire we have to be many, and then be many more.
Of the Indexical, or, Hockey Night in the Anthropocene
And then we extend the climate
Of our unknowing
Despite false colour views and
Massive stacks of data
The moment wasn’t about the
Symbolic after all
The moment followed a bee through
The streets of Manhattan
The earth spinning hot from its axis
More like a tree falling in a forest
Than it was like an instrument
Measuring CO2 in Hawaii—
But if a tree falls in a forest
And everyone is already in that tree
Having climbed there
To get above rising waters
Does it make any sound?
Or is that just the noise our limbs make
Wind-milling in space
As we launch—indexical
Of our own distraction—
Off the ends of our
Two hundred year old hockey sticks?
Only one question remains: are we
Leaping away from each other
Or leaping towards the animals we
Always already knew we were?
—Stephen Collis is the author of four books of poetry, Mine (New Star 2001), Anarchive (New Star 2005), which was nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, The Commons (Talonbooks 2008)—the latter two form parts of the on-going “Barricades Project”—and On the Material(Talonbooks 2010). He is also the author of two book-length studies, Phyllis Webb and the Common Good (Talonbooks 2007) and Through Words of Others: Susan Howe and Anarcho-Scholasticism (ELS Editions 2006). He is currently editing a collection of essays, Reading Duncan Reading, organizing the Charles Olson Centenary Conference (June 4-6 2010), and continuing to work on “The Barricades Project.” A member of the Kootenay School of Writing, he teaches American literature, poetry, and poetics at Simon Fraser University.
You can read his earlier posts on Lemon Hound