Poetry for climate action

Written by Christine Wu on September 5, 2019

Photo by Porapak Apichodilok.

How can something this big be invisible?
The ozone is everywhere and yet it isn’t visible
Maybe if we saw it we would see it’s not invincible
and have to take responsibility as individuals.
IN-Q, from “Movie Stars”

Last month my partner and I attended the New Brunswick Summer Music Festival in Fredericton. We had been gifted passes by a kind friend and supporter of the arts who joked that we would likely be the youngest in the audience. Sure enough, as we found our seats and surveyed the crowd, a sea of white hair reflected back at us. We thought about the people around us as we contemplated the draw of classical music in modern times. What had drawn this particular crowd to this particular concert?

Friday evening began with “Light of Day,” composed by Matthew Whittall and performed by violinist Nadia Francavilla and pianist Peter Allen. Serenely poised on the stage, Francavilla offered some context to the dissonant piece about to be performed.

Reading from Whittall’s notes on the piece, she intoned: “During a period of particular despair, a faraway friend commented to me, ‘I guess these are exactly the kind of times we need art for – when the reality is difficult to bear.’ From this exchange, the idea emerged of art as a kind of light in dark times, when minds and hearts close, simple disagreement turn into irrational enmity, and discourse grows toxic from fear and cynicism. Creating becomes an act of defiance against ignorance and uncaring, and a way of resisting the impulse toward withdrawal.”

Whittall’s thoughts on the creation of art struck a deep chord in me, as murmurs of agreement rose from the crowd. Art has the ability to be a light in the darkness, a balm for both audience and artist. As a poet, I often think about the value and purpose of my work—other than an outlet for me to make sense of my experiences of the world, what does poetry bring to our world?

In the earlier quoted poem “Movie Stars,” spoken word artist IN-Q makes a compelling, lyrical argument to take ownership and responsibility for our world. Similarly, poet Jetnil-Kijiner made international news as the “poet [who brought] world leaders to tears at UN Climate Summit” with her poem “Dear Matafele Peinem.”

On her blog, Jetnil-Kijiner explains her poetry comes from a desire to raise awareness around issues and threats faced by her community: nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, militarism, rising sea levels, climate change, forced migration, adaptation, and racism in America. Her piece, “Dear Matafele Peinem” is a fierce promise to her newborn daughter that she is part of a community that will fight for a better planet so that “no one else” becomes a climate change refugee. Presented to 120 state dignitaries, her piece was received with misty eyes and a standing ovation.

Closer to home, New Brunswick artists are just as active with musicians playing songs for social justice during Mayworks, local poets, musicians, and drag queens sharing their work in support of fellow writers speaking out about sexual harassment and assault, Sackville poet Marilyn Lerch unapologetically publishing political poems, and Wolastoq playwright Samaqani Cocahq (Natalie Sappier) bringing to the stage the complexities of being an Indigenous woman.

We are living on a planet where human-made climate change has already warmed the earth one degree Celsius since pre-industrial times. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report with an urgent plea to the world to work toward limiting additional warming to half a degree, to a total of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Even if we manage to keep warming under half a degree, there would still be melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and numerous deaths—just drastically fewer than if we allow the earth to warm beyond 1.5 degrees.

Despite the urgency of our current situation, it often feels as if there are just as many people who believe climate change is a hoax as there are people bringing their own travel mugs to coffee shops and filling their own containers at bulk stores in an attempt to save the planet. As a card-carrying member of the latter group, I often wrestle with feelings of inadequacy when I refuse a single plastic bag. A drop in the bucket seems inconsequential compared to torrential tides in the ocean.

Often, in those moments of despondency, I write. Sometimes creation as “an act of defiance” is all there is to continue in a dark world. As I listened to Whittall’s words, I was reminded of the power of art to bring light to the darkness and transform lives and hearts. It sounds overly lofty, perhaps, but wasn’t art exactly the medium that brought me—a young, leftist, Asian-Canadian woman from Vancouver—into a room full of people from a completely different demographic?

This, then, is the power of art and creative storytelling. It connects artist and audience with threads of human emotion. It “resists the impulse toward withdrawal” and, instead, urges connection and empathy. It moves world leaders to their feet and brings tears to their eyes. It is inter-generational, indiscriminate, and reaches out with tenuous strands of hope and compulsion.

Christine Wu is a poet and librarian in Fredericton.

September 20, 2019 marks the start of a week of international strikes for climate action. In Fredericton, RAVEN will be hosting Poetry for the Climate Crisis. Launching at noon on Friday September 20 with a performance by spoken word activist El Jones alongside New Brunswick poets Jenna Lyn Albert, Sue Sinclair, Rebecca Salazar, Lauren Korn and Emily Skov-Nielson, the weekend following will feature a spoken word workshop led by El Jones for participants interested in crafting their own pieces with a focus on rural and environmental stories. Registration is required for the workshop; for more information, including registration details, please see: https://raven-research.org/poetry

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