Poetics and Extraction

Surely in the project of this agenda we call “literature” a person—especially one who is queer and/or BIPOC—can be asked to exchange the body for an economy, to work calorically as a means of currency, to burn the midnight oil so as to continue the project of pipelines that fund the very root of this institution. Here, this abuse I inflict willingly upon myself is a means of bloodletting into a vial, the blood then aged, like a fine wine, until it too becomes fossilized fuel running the larger machines of Canada, intricate cogs pressing through the coagulation of clogs, and I am celebrated for showing the body in its scraped, raped glories—all of this within the voyeurism of a genre we call non-fiction.
—Joshua Whitehead, Making Love with the Land


What do literary and cultural scholars talk about when we talk about extraction? What does an attention to resources and/or extraction animate in our analysis of cultural, literary, and poetic responses to so-called Canada? Understanding Canada as referring, always problematically, to the land on and with which we live, the settler-colonial nation-state, and an ideological cultural project, in what ways might cultural production and scholarship in the field of “Canadian literature” address the unfolding, intensifying, and deeply entangled environmental and social crises that mark the present moment? As literary scholars attentive to extraction in the context of settler colonialism’s ongoing manifestations, how does our practice shift when the texts we engage are produced by bodies at risk, in conflict, and on the front lines and frontiers of extractive capital?


This set of questions has guided our process for putting together this special issue of Canadian Literature on poetics and extraction. The first qualifies, and responds directly to, Imre Szeman and Jennifer Wenzel’s afterword to a recent special issue of Textual Practice titled Writing Extractivism, edited by Justin Parks. As our vision for this special issue has transformed over the eighteen months since we began discussing it, that collection of essays, particularly the afterword, has continued to exert a powerful influence on our thinking about the possibilities for cultural responses to environmental crisis, the assumptions about culture and extraction that we make as literary scholars, and the role of literature and art in representing and resisting extractivism in all of its harmful forms, as well as imagining equitable and just modes of relation for our present and future.


Szeman and Wenzel write that “[t]he relations between extraction as a concrete, physical practice, on the one hand, and extractivism as the cultural and ideological rationale that either motivates extraction or is the consequence of it, on the other, are necessarily complex and difficult to untangle” (508). A key element of their afterword is a circumspection about the ascendance of extractivism as theme and topic in literary studies. They emphasize the need to remain grounded in theoretical, geographical, and historical specifics in our discussions of individual extractive sites or projects, and they warn about the dangers of the portability of these terms—that is, the conceptual slippages that occur when we uncritically deploy extraction, or identify the ideological work of extractivism, in and across material, theoretical, and discursive contexts. Taking seriously these warnings against mistaking literary criticism for activism by “substituting words for politics” (520), we have adopted a different approach to both extraction and extractivism in the development of this special issue.


We are early career, white-settler scholars of ecopoetics, Canadian and Indigenous literatures, energy humanities, and settler-colonial studies living on Indigenous territory—Max on the traditional lands of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and the Mississaugas of the Credit in Toronto, and Melanie on Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, and Dene territory and Métis homeland in Winnipeg. From our embedded and implicated positions in the intersectional convergence of climate change, Indigenous resurgence, and reckoning with systemic racism (following colonial dispossession and enslavement, ecocide, and genocide), we consider the extraction of “natural resources” to be inseparable from the extractive logics and poetics of colonialism and racial capitalism. Beginning from an understanding of our work on oil-worker poetry (in Melanie’s case) and appropriative or extractive experimental poetic form (in Max’s case) as distinct yet related poetics of extraction, we framed our Poetics and Extraction call for submissions in ways that we hoped would evoke and welcome a multiplicity of poetics of/with/against extraction from various perspectives positioned within, near, or in resistance or opposition to the problematic field of Canadian literature.


Where Szeman and Wenzel posit that it may be better to talk about extractivisms rather than extractivism (510), and about a variety of extractive aesthetics (511), we consider seemingly separate extractivisms to be localized expressions of a universalizing, geontological division between life and non-life that has been used to frame not only so-called inanimate resources such as furs and oil but also Indigenous, Black, and People of Colour as extractible (Povinelli; see also Yusoff). Following Macarena Gómez-Barris, we consider the “submerged perspectives” of localized seeing, grounded in specific human and non-human relations (1), as potential sites of resistance to the “extractive view,” a mode of colonial and “vertical seeing” that creates the “extractive zones” of the dominant geopolitical order (6-7). Despite this specificity, we suggest, the experience of extraction and of life in an extractive zone can be scaled up through analysis of racial capitalism and/or colonialism as generalizable but not universal phenomena (Robinson 2; see also Liboiron 151-56).


Following Métis scholar, scientist, and artist Max Liboiron’s intervention in environmental discourses in Pollution Is Colonialism, we consider practices of extraction in Canada to rely on historical and ongoing land theft as the basis for access to Indigenous land as both resource(s) and site(s) of pollution. As Oji-Cree/nêhiyaw writer and scholar Joshua Whitehead demonstrates in the epigraph above, Canadian extractivist logic extends to the realm of literature and the appropriation of queer and Indigenous literatures and body-spirits within CanLit. Following Ryan Cecil Jobson’s essay “Dead Labor,” which intervenes in the energy humanities to show that fossil capital is premised upon a pre-existing regime of racial capital, we understand the violent system of energy extraction, hoarding, and overconsumption, and the attendant environmental racism that exposes racialized communities to its worst effects, to be premised upon an original dehumanizing abstraction of labour through slavery. Our engagement with environmental humanities and energy humanities scholarship in the context of Canadian literature occurs with a view to anticolonial and antiracist practice in these fields, and with acknowledgement that as beneficiaries and inhabitants of colonial and racial-capitalist systems we may misstep or fall short.


In our thinking about our responsibilities as guest editors seeking to make meaningful links across disparate place-based struggles with and against extractivism, we have returned often to Liboiron’s articulation of decolonial and anticolonial methodologies that move between specificity and generalization. In the context of recognizing that “[d]ifferent groups have different roles in alterlives, reconciliation, decolonization, indigenization, and anticolonial work,” they argue for “specificity as a methodology of nuanced connection and humility” (22). In terms that resonate with Szeman and Wenzel’s cautions as ever more humanities scholars take up extractivism and its attendant concepts, Liboiron names a mode of reading and thinking with others that attends critically to different obligations, positions, and onto-epistemological backgrounds (31). In approaching extractive zones and thinking with literary and critical responses to those sites, we must remain cognizant of what we cannot know, of how each of us has come into our knowledge, and of the people, places, and beings to which we are beholden in our work, while also implementing practices to “‘study up’ toward structures of violence” and to forge solidarity and communities of resistance through “commonality, shared characteristics, and overlap” (88, 152-53).


The articles, statements of poetics, poems, and book reviews collected in this special issue on poetics and extraction speak to the theme from a range of perspectives—positioned, variously, as critical of, observing, opposed to, entangled in, harmed by, mimicking, enacting, subverting, averting, transforming, and finding alternatives to extraction and extractivism. As literary scholars, we are interested in the many ways these works apprehend and critique extractivism as a mode of racial capitalism (Gómez-Barris xvii), as a resource relation (Liboiron 145), and as a poetics; yet we are also interested, cautiously, in attending to what they contribute to envisioning good, non-extractive ways of living and being in relation. This would be to think of the work of literary scholarship in the face of ecological and social injustice as not only “the difficult task of understanding the character of [the] barriers” to materializing livable futures (Szeman and Wenzel 519), but also, with Liboiron again, as orienting ourselves “toward an ‘ought’ rather than an ‘is’” (154). Generalizing and speculating, we see a secondary theme both in the content of the issue and in our work and learning as editors: an ethics of care and love that emerges, like Whitehead’s formulation of “making love with the land,” as a poetics running against the current of extraction.


In the texts that follow, you will see instances of radical care, self-care, and love as responses or alternatives to extraction. These take the forms of land and water defence, care for family, harm mitigation, self-protection, refusal, reclamation, revision, manifesto, survival, learning what it means to be beholden to Indigenous law in the places where we live, and more. These submerged and emergent poetics, which must themselves be handled with respect and care, offer clues for how to orient ourselves and our critical and creative work toward new, more just horizons.


The first two articles link extraction with racist and colonial logics. In “Pro Pelle Cutem: On the Subject(s) of Extraction in Fred Stenson’s The Trade,” R?ta Šlapkauskait? uses the Hudson’s Bay Company’s motto as a starting point for a reading of the figures of skin, flesh, bones, rum, and the Windigo in Stenson’s turn-of-the-millennium novel. Šlapkauskait?’s geontological lens links a colonial distinction between living and non-living matter to the racist, misogynist, and classist power dynamics that underpin the fur trade, the transatlantic slave trade, and the settler-colonial nation-state. In “‘Quite here you reach’: T(h)inking Language, Place, Extraction with Dionne Brand’s Land to Light On,” Louis M. Maraj thinks and tinkers with Brand’s foundational Black ecopoetic text in a poetic-essayistic mode that incorporates Trinidadian English. Maraj brings personal reflections, on a return to Trinidad to care for his mother, into conversation with Dionne Brand’s engagements with language, place, and extraction. Where others have seen ambiguity in Brand’s poetics of refusal (of gender and sexuality, of language, of geography and nationality, and of the land affiliations on offer) in Land to Light On (1997), Maraj points to a para/ontological poetics of Black meaning-making that animates the fraught terrain of anti-Blackness and its undoing.


In the third article, “Al Moritz’s Anti-Extractivist Style: Non-Instrumental Instrumentalism and the Poetics of Materiality,” Shane Neilson argues that Al Moritz’s visionary and understudied poetics of abundance resists extractivism in both form and content, especially in the 1994 collection Mahoning. Responding to Szeman and Wenzel’s call for specificity, material grounding, and a kind of realism in literary scholars’ engagements with extraction and extractivism, Neilson argues that poetry in general, and Moritz’s Romantic-influenced poetics in particular, face the question of their own meaning and efficacy in the world with a “non-instrumental instrumentalism” that counters extractive logics.


The fourth and fifth articles focus their analyses on petropoetics. In “‘Stinking as Thinking’ in Warren Cariou’s ‘Tarhands: A Messy Manifesto,’” a study of resource aesthetics that draws on recent work in olfactory ecocriticism and settler atmospherics, Stephanie Oliver offers a close, smell-focused reading of Cariou’s 2012 experimental photoessay. In light of Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol in 2011, the energy humanities’ foundational concern over the question of whether oil is representable or perceptible, and petromodernity’s preoccupation with vision, audition, and rationality, Oliver demonstrates that Cariou mobilizes a different, irrational distribution of the sensible. “Making a stink” within the settler-colonial petrostate leads to more intimate and ethical forms of energy, responsibility, and the future. In “Low Class Oil Trash and the Politico-Aesthetics of the Fossilized Proletariat,” Jacob McLean studies Facebook posts made by Low Class Oil Trash, a pro-oil, working-class clothing company founded by the spouse of an oil-and-gas-industry worker. Comparing the politics and poetics of Low Class Oil Trash to other extractive populist social media groups funded by the oil and gas industry and studied elsewhere, McLean shows that operating independently of the oil lobby allows Low Class Oil Trash to be more extreme—more “vulgar, racist, misogynistic, and violent” than the subsidized groups (100). Yet even this extreme extractive populism is tacitly endorsed by and enfolded into the reactionary pro-oil discourses the industry depends upon—so McLean calls for a rapprochement of studies of fossil capital and the far right.


In addition to the five peer-reviewed articles, we are excited to present a forum titled “Writing with/against/as Extraction in So-Called Canada: Poets on Poetics.” The forum includes edited versions of statements first delivered at two invitational, online “Poetics, Energy, and Extraction” events that we hosted together with Dr. Warren Cariou (Métis) at the University of Manitoba Institute for the Humanities in 2022. We are gratified to present these critical reflections and engagements with intersectional decolonial poetics and hydro justice in Kazim Ali’s Northern Light; Madhur Anand’s repurposing or treatment of her own scientific articles as poems, so as to imagine new transits between science and culture; poetry about oil work and the oil industry, including Lesley Battler’s Endangered Hydrocarbons and Lindsay Bird’s Boom Time; Indigenous poetics and Cariou’s concept of “Indigenous energy intimacy”; Adam Dickinson’s “metabolic poetics” responding to the permeable body’s experience of petrocultures; Cecily Nicholson’s articulations of alternative modes of relation from spaces and sites of extraction; Kelly Shepherd’s embodied writing practice that tracks the exchange between environment, work, and writing subject; the literary care work of Douglas Walbourne-Gough (mixed/adopted Qalipu Mi’kmaq) for Crow Gulch in Corner Brook, Newfoundland; and activist and anti-pipeline poetry and poetics from Jennifer Wickham (Gidimt’en Witsuwit’en) and Rita Wong. We would like to thank all of the contributors to this special issue for their generous, careful, and brilliant work, and for their willingness to share their work with us and with readers.


This issue also includes thoughtful, on-theme selections of poetry and reviews curated by poetry editor Phinder Dulai and book reviews editor Nicholas Bradley. We are so grateful for the opportunity to work with all of the editorial and support staff at Canadian Literature, especially Christine Kim and Niamh Harold, who generously guided and helped us through the process of editing a special issue.


Works Cited

Gómez-Barris, Macarena. The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives. Duke UP, 2017.

Jobson, Ryan Cecil. “Dead Labor: On Racial Capital and Fossil Capital.” Histories of Racial Capitalism, edited by Destin Jenkins and Justin Leroy, Columbia UP, 2021, pp. 215-30.

Liboiron, Max. Pollution Is Colonialism. Duke UP, 2021.

Parks, Justin, editor. Writing Extractivism, special issue of Textual Practice, vol. 35, no. 3, 2021.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. Duke UP, 2016.

Robinson, Cedric J. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. 1983. 3rd ed., U of North Carolina P, 2021.

Szeman, Imre, and Jennifer Wenzel. “What Do We Talk about When We Talk about Extractivism?” Textual Practice, vol. 35, no. 3, 2021, pp. 505-23.

Whitehead, Joshua. Making Love with the Land. Knopf Canada, 2022.

Yusoff, Kathryn. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. U of Minnesota P, 2018.


Max Karpinski is a settler scholar and Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English and Drama at the University of Toronto Mississauga. His recent critical writing has appeared or is forthcoming in venues such as Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Canada and Beyond, and Imaginations: Journal of Cross-Cultural Image Studies. In Fall 2023 he will join the Department of Humanities at York University as a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow.


Melanie Dennis Unrau is a settler of mixed European ancestry living on Treaty 1 territory in Winnipeg. Melanie is a Research Affiliate and Visiting Fellow at the University of Manitoba; she will hold a SSHRC Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship in Geography/Environmental Studies and English at the University of Regina beginning in 2023. She is the author of the poetry collection Happiness Threads (Muses’ Company, 2013), a co-editor of Seriality and Texts for Young People: The Compulsion to Repeat (Palgrave, 2014), and a former editor of The Goose journal and Geez magazine. Her forthcoming book The Rough Poets: Petropoetics and the Tradition of Canadian Oil-Worker Poetry is on contract with McGill-Queen’s University Press.

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