In his latest book, Doomstead Days, Brian Teare writes of the impact of climate change and the dire effects humankind continues to have on their environment. By interweaving philosophical ideas with his own encounters on meditative nature walks, Teare delivers a beautifully layered and dynamic poetry experience that displays his vast understanding of the world that each of us inhabits. Doomstead Days compares human suffering with the destruction of nature while describing ecosystems that struggle to stay alive in this ever-changing world. Teare is a master of his craft who doesn’t shy away from painting the real pictures that illustrate how humanity treats the planet we call home. I had the pleasure of interviewing him about Doomstead Days over email.
Richard Sharp [RS]: In “Clear Water Renga” you place each stanza on the page to create what looks like a river flowing downstream. How do you decide on forming your work and how does it impact the message specific to that poem overall?
Brian Teare [BT]: I’m a promiscuous formalist. Promiscuous in the sense that my work employs attitudes toward poetic form that can be found across many, often conflicting, poetic traditions. Formalist in the sense that I practice poetic form as an epistemological project, a style of knowing the world. But I’m also a promiscuous formalist because I believe form doesn’t begin and end on the page: my poems are derived from processes that generate language and eventually suggest the forms the poems take. In the case of Doomstead Days, that means drafting the poems while walking a specific site, adding much research in subsequent drafts, revising by reading aloud, and more revising by repeating the same processes.
My mature poetics is deeply indebted to the west coast cultures in which I came of age as a poet – this means Gary Snyder’s translations of Han Shan as well as Gay Liberation, and all the wonderful experiments in politics, community, spirituality, poetics, and literary form that have come out of the Bay Area since the early twentieth century. One of the great gifts of my informal education in the literary, feminist, Buddhist, and queer communities of the Bay is that I didn’t have to choose one tradition or attitude toward poetic form, and I haven’t. Doomstead Days marries forms of knowing derived from western translations of Japanese and Chinese poetry and Buddhist philosophy with forms of knowing derived from my own readings of western ecopoetry and environmental literature. What these traditions share is a commitment to placing the human subject in relation to language, landscape, plants, birds, weather, time, and change.
All the poems in this book emerge first from encounters with places – and then from my encounters with information about those places and/or about the larger world. These encounters dictate the forms the poems take, and what measures structure them. This is largely a series of intuitive decisions that then get reified through critical thought and stringent revision. “Clear Water Renga” was written out of the direct encounter with the Cosco Busan oil spill in the San Francisco Bay in 2007, and out of the indirect encounter, through research, with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 – I processed these encounters during hikes in Point Reyes National Seashore. To my mind and eye, the visual form of “Clear Water Renga” embodies the idea that, as I write late in the poem, “life, habitat, & ruin/run recombinant//& helical in hurt forms/that keep life going & do//not heal.”
RS: I really enjoyed the first stanza of Headlands Quadrats where you place us in a tangible setting:
past the decommissioned fortpast the nike missile site
past the abandoned battery past the empty gun platform
past dugouts lined with concrete sandbags
Putting the reader in a physical place can sometimes be difficult to achieve in poetry. What is the importance of this technique and how do you use it to your advantage in the book overall?
BT: One of the hardest things about a bioregional poetics – writing from a watershed region, or a particular plant community – is that bioregional detail can be alienating, given that the quiddity of central Pennsylvania might reside in species and geological features alien to readers in Dubuque or Houston. In Doomstead Days I worked to try to locate and ground the reader in landscapes with which they would likely not be familiar. Given that the book charts my struggle to come to something like a land ethic in the midst of an unethical culture that knowingly and systematically destroys the land, water, air, and lives that surround us and upon which we depend, the poems have to facilitate the reader’s intimacy with specific places, to make them tangible in some of the ways they’d become tangible to me.
We live in a time when the living land has become fairly dematerialized for the majority of citizens, most of whom live now in cities, and are for many reasons distanced from the material reality of complex ecosystems under threat by development, warming, water scarcity, and pollution of all sorts. But as Aldo Leopold writes in Sand County Almanac, “We can be ethical only in relation to something, we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.” Leopold places understanding, love, and faith after seeing and feeling, and I believe he does so in order to acknowledge the fact that the immediacy of the senses leads us to relate more complexly to the world through the intellect and emotions. So in coming to understand, love, and have faith in the hugely compromised and ongoing natural world around me, and in recording that journey, I needed my poems to make their locations visible and felt.
RS: In “Toxics Release Inventory” you describe the self-destructive relationship between human beings and nature. I like the points you make about how people pollute their own environment for political and economic gain while illustrating the fact that humanity is putting their own health and future at risk.
I feel you intended for this piece to have a political message. Could you expand on what that message might be?
BT: What western culture calls nature has never not been political – the Crown sent colonists to this continent in part to secure timber for its navy, the forests of England already too depleted of old-growth to yield the masts of ships. What western culture calls nature has never not been a site from which power extracts the resources it needs to stay in power, a dynamic that inevitably causes what we call nature to suffer the ideological force of anthropocentrism, but which also causes collateral damage to human populations without power to resist parallel and related exploitation.
“Toxics Release Inventory” is in part about the way such abuses of power structure capitalism, inflect our lives and harm our bodies: the oil refinery in South Philly, for instance, has poisoned its working-class neighbors for decades, and a wide range of poorly regulated industrial chemicals have left us all with toxic body burdens. In a previous book, Companion Grasses, I wrote: “What we love, how we care for it,/is where we live.”
It’s clear that the love and care of corporations and of our government have created for many of us little hellscapes from which the powerful are, for now, exempted – I think of Pennsylvania citizens whose water’s been contaminated by fracking, or black families in Louisiana’s cancer alley, or West Virginians poisoned by Dupont, and I could list off all the instances of environmental racism and slow violence in Philadelphia and Detroit, among thousands of other locations in the US alone. The problem, as ecology teaches us, is that no system is singular; the myriad connections between all things will continue to distribute environmental catastrophe throughout and across nations and cultures, regardless of class and race.
RS: The same piece evokes Alexander Pope’s influential philosophical poem, An Essay on Man. One of the messages in this work warns humanity against attempting to wield power over nature. In “Toxics Release Inventory” you interweave these ideas with the very real consequences that people have suffered due to their ignorance of these teachings.
Do you view humankind as woefully doomed to repeat their mistakes, or do you feel that philosophical lessons such as those in your book can inform people to act differently?
BT: Gary Snyder once remarked that critics and readers use the label “nature poetry” as a pejorative. And when I published Sight Map, my first book of ecopoetry, a critic who attended one of my readings sneered, “Oh so you’re a nature poet!” as though he was putting me in my place. But it’s a toxic notion, that what westerners call nature is a “mere” subject and calls upon a long history of misogynist, racist, imperialist backgrounding of the natural world to “proper” patriarchal cultural pursuits. That said, I write in order to pay attention, to better pay out my attention, to attend to love and care in this time of climate crisis.
I write to inform myself about our collective environmental situation and to empower myself to resist this violent, exploitative, consumerist, patriarchal, carbon-addicted culture. I write to educate myself, to acknowledge my complicities in the sixth extinction, and to resist the disappearance of biodiversity. I write to map out my local life on foot, to describe non-violent alternatives to the unsustainable capitalist cosmologies into which we were born. I write to hold myself accountable to what I perceive and to what I believe in. I write to articulate a land ethic of love and care – to create an ethic that is itself, in part, where I live. I can’t predict whether my poems will encourage or empower others to do so, but I’d be pleased and honored if they did.
RS. In this book, you illustrate the relationship between the human body and nature. You also convey your deep understanding of the damage humanity has done to the planet. As an ecopoet who’s concerned with the growing impact of climate change, your work seems to try and persuade people into taking action by relating their own experiences to nature in various ways.
I’m interested to hear how you would use this way of writing to debate someone who criticizes the severity of climate change and its dire repercussions on humanity.
BT: Our most vulnerable sites of selfhood are our bodies, our mortal naked selves. They ground us in mammalian experience, a welter of hormones and hungers. Eating, breathing, and drinking are some portals via which the circuit of the world travels through us – via nutrition and energy, yes, but also saliva and microbes and toxins. I want the language and images of the poems to be sensorial, to register at the sensual level of the mammal – to leave an impression on readers the way the world presses itself upon us. So I first feel my way through composition by eye and ear, on foot, registering the world around me, keeping the phrases and sounds the world elicits from me in the hopes that this strategy of somatic mapping will track with readers even after I add more rhetorical and researched elements to the language.
As essayistic as these poems can be, they are not designed to persuade per se. That said, they are as full of fleshy joy and sonic pleasure as they are of politics and polemic. And they are written with certain assumptions: that human culture is not separate from nature, for instance, and that our bodies connect us to natural and industrial systems. The way the poems enact these assumptions might invite or even seduce the skeptical into momentarily inhabiting another position – that of a body deeply vulnerable to and dependent on the world around it.
RS: In “Sitting River Meditation,” “Convince me you have a seed there,” and “Olivine, Quartz, Granite, Carnelian” you note that the setting is in Johnson, Vermont. I also understand that you wrote these poems while on a meditative nature walk. What kind of energy did this environment bring out in you and are there other places you like to write that give you a similar spark in creativity?
BT: I can’t always explain why some places seem to “speak” directly to me, though after I’m done with a poem, I often better understand the urge to write about the place it arose from. “Convince me you have a seed there” was the first Johnson poem, and it came about because of the stand of pines at the poem’s center – first the way they sounded as the wind blew through their canopies, and then the fact that they’d been planted for harvest and then went unharvested, so their plantation symmetry had been broken by undergrowth and a succession of deciduous trees.
I remember hearing the trees from the road and just standing there listening before I turned to look at them. I was called back to listen to them several times during that first visit to Johnson, in conjunction with having read Thoreau’s essay “Succession of Forest Trees” and having read news coverage about the potential dangers of transgenic pollen. So I was thinking about trees anyway. And pines specifically, because the transgenic pollen in the news came from bioengineered Loblolly pines.
The first draft arose from my encounter with the red pines. The other two poems unfolded from subsequent visits to Johnson, during which I became much more familiar with the landscape, the Lamoille River watershed, and the land-use history of the region through long walks, talking with locals, and research. It was important for me to realize that anthropogenic processes that seemed far-flung from Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom – bioengineering, biodiversity loss, and extinction – couldn’t really be separated from my embodied human presence in that rural landscape.
RS: In the title poem you connect nature to humanity in a way that touches the soul and demonstrates an understanding of the symbiosis between all lives on Earth. I felt the last lines were especially impactful:
the world is awake be careful my dears it is the gender that remembers everything
Did you intend for this poem to illustrate the world as an entity that retaliates against those who abuse it?
BT: I’m not sure I believe the earth can intend retaliation, though it’s certainly a fantasy I’ve harbored while reading news of Trump’s systematic destruction of environmental protections, Trudeau’s deliberate expansion of tar sands pipelines, Morrison’s inability to create meaningful policies that address his country’s increasing droughts and bushfires, Bolsonaro’s underwriting of the Amazon’s accelerating fragmentation and diminishment, and Modi’s mania for massive dams that destroy riverine habitats and rob working people of land. These reckless patriarchs accrue capital and power without thinking about the limits of the biosphere’s carrying capacity, which the human population has already well exceeded. Technocapitalist patriarchal culture tells itself it is an exception to an otherwise ironclad rule, and the patriarchs do not think enough about the fact that when a species exceeds carrying capacity, it has drastic consequences.
All that dire messaging aside, the poem “Doomstead Days” is about “being at its biggest,” the plasticity, beauty, and ongoingness of being’s kinetic energy – it’s a praise song for the generative principle, a hymn to gender at its root. But in taking advantage of being’s plasticity and apparent resilience, we underestimate the “memory” of the earth systems upon which we rely. Water has a hard time forgetting us: our pharmaceuticals, carbon, nitrogen, plastics, lead, pesticides, herbicides, and human waste, just to name a few anthropogenic pollutants.
Land also has a hard time forgetting us when we bury it under concrete and starve it of its connection to the biotic circuit – or when we pump it full of artificial fertilizers and plant monocultures that continue to drain it of what little remains of a fertility built by biodiversity. It’s because of being’s ability to engender, its astonishing capacity to keep going, that water and land remember us too well. And it’s because of their memory – which will outlast each of us – that we need to take care.
Brian Teare is a poet, literary critic, and an associate professor of English at the University of Virginia.
Richard Sharpe is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at The New School.
This interview was first published on March 2nd, 2020 at the Creative Writing at The New School blog, thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School.