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In Search of Answers: An Evening with Ecopoets at the Southbank Centre


Photo by Clem Onojeghuo (licensed under Unsplash Licence)


As the lights dimmed in the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall for the opening night of Poetry International, the room pulsed with anticipation. The festival was celebrating its 53rd year with a focus on ecopoetry and activism, back for the first time since 2019. Ecopoetry, in my view, has always been a space that draws not just from nature’s beauty, but its fragility. While the evening sought to explore the essence of ecopoetry, I found myself reflecting on a piece by poet CAConrad: “The intense heat makes things seem further away; how is it doing that?” This observation — drawn from the Mojave Desert’s stark contrasts — nudges us to question our perceptions, much like ecopoetry challenges our understanding of nature. It was immediately clear, even before the discussion, that the evening wasn’t just about defining the genre but really trying to ask, how do we undo the damages we’ve done to our planet through verse?

Guiding the discourse was Gareth Evans, introducing a distinguished panel: CAConrad, John Kinsella, Olive Senior, and Yang Lian. This opening night of Southbank Centre’s longest running festival seamlessly traversed personal introductions, exploration of seminal works, debates on ecopoetry, and concluded with a memorable Q&A. During the Q&A, an attendee’s question lingered in the air: “How can we genuinely use poetry to counter the climate crisis?” This wasn’t just Alex’s query; it seemed to resonate with many, a collective contemplation on the evening’s core theme. The room went silent, every eye on Alex, then slowly turned to the panelists.

There wasn’t a direct response. How could there be? The climate crisis is a behemoth, its solutions multifaceted and complex. But the poets, in their understanding, offered varying views from experience. Some talked about the power of poetry to bring awareness, to shake people from their apathy. Others discussed the emotional tethering that only poetry can achieve, reaching people in ways reports and data often fail.

The discussion centred on the generational shifts in how we perceive nature: the evolution from viewing nature as something to be hunted and gathered to seeing it as a sanctuary for the soul. Attendees were invited to consider the necessity to “rework the world”, celebrating life’s inherent complexities.

Delving into the power and purpose of language, the poets emphasised how words can shape perceptions, simultaneously safeguarding and harming the environment. There were mentions of a certain forest that had dramatically changed over the past half-decade, with the tranquil space now disrupted by aggressive mining activities. This is the story of forests everywhere, and the beginning of most forest fires.

The poets highlighted the urgency to combat climate change, especially since such extensive forest clearances and new mining projects are often under the guise of environmental solutions. These activities stand in stark contrast to the poets’ advocacy — individuals who harness the potency of words to question such initiatives, mainly due to a widespread lack of genuine awareness. Poetry, and ecopoetry in particular, seeks to awaken a deep emotional connection to nature. This persistent commitment to the environment sets ecopoetry apart from other narratives on the climate crisis.

Reflecting on the increasing entanglement of humanity with machines, the conversation touched upon the feelings of alienation many experience in today’s world. The emphasis laid on the need to ground oneself in the present moment. Time, an ever-persistent theme, came up repeatedly, with mentions of influential works advocating for rethinking traditional industrial settings.

The discussion also touched upon a historic riverbank location in London, The Lea Valley, a place echoing with tales of industry. Here, tales of human connection to nature were rich and resonant. Memories of reconnection, of working close to nature, and feeling the life essence in waterways were shared. Highlighting the pressing need for action in our times, a certain poetic project was introduced, urging attendees to see beyond its literary value and recognize it as a call to arms.

The event at Southbank was not just a gathering of poets and enthusiasts; it was a microcosm of the larger world, searching for answers, seeking solace, and finding strength in collective consciousness. The answers floated in the air, much like the very essence of poetry — intangible yet impactful. Though the evening didn’t provide a singular answer to Alex or myself, the mere act of questioning, of seeking, seemed to embody the spirit of what the ecopoetry movement aims to achieve: sparking thought, fostering dialogue, and, perhaps, inching closer to understanding.


 

Edited by Lara Mae Simpson, Literature Editor


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