I’d like to talk about the relationship between work poetry and ecopoetry.
But first I should come clean and admit that I don’t have a lot of interest, or confidence, in labels.
American poet Juliana Spahr writes in Well Then There Now about a tendency of nature poetry “to show the beautiful bird but not so often the bulldozer off to the side that [is] destroying the bird’s habitat” (69). Ecopoetry, in contrast, is political: “a poetics full of systemic analysis that questions the divisions between nature and culture” (71).
I’d dismiss all this as arbitrary labelling, except that I think Spahr’s distinction accomplishes more than was originally intended. The birdhabitat-bulldozer image not only distinguishes ecopoetry from nature poetry but also, perhaps more significantly, connects ecopoetry to work poetry. The inclusion of the bulldozer implicates human labour and industry in ecopoetry.
What’s the bulldozer doing there? Who’s operating it? And who’s paying them?
This can be taken a step further: perhaps work poetry and ecopoetry are not separate categories at all, but rather two expressions of the same approach. I think they might reasonably be seen as two faces of the same impulse: a Janus-poetics.
Just as work cannot be separated from its environmental impacts, these genres should also not be compartmentalized. They’re two separate things, but they’re inextricably joined: How do we live on the land without also working there? And how do we work on the land without also affecting (often, damaging) it? How can we talk about one without talking about the other?
Spahr’s example invokes connectedness between categories; I think an embodied approach to writing can bridge the gap between theory and our own real, lived experience of these things. I’ll try to explain.
One of my first poetic interests was haiku. With its seasonal and bioregional references, haiku is definitely nature poetry. Classical Japanese poets (like Basho, Issa) were writing before and outside of our present-day understandings of “the environment,” much less environmental activism. But haiku is also ecopoetry, I would argue, not because it’s political—it isn’t—but because of the emphasis it places on relationships. Despite its brevity, a haiku poem is not simply about objects. It’s always about interconnectedness.
Haiku’s ecopoetic qualities have been discussed by various writers—Buddhist philosopher Jason Wirth, Irish-language poet Gabriel Rosenstock—but I’m not aware of any links between haiku and work poetry. (Although I’m sure Gary Snyder has written about it, somewhere.)
There is at least one connection between them, which I’ve observed in my own personal writing practice.
For over twenty years, I’ve written in pocket-sized notebooks. I carry them with me everywhere. They’re low-tech, no batteries required, which appeals to my Luddite sensibilities.
Small pages make for haiku-sized poems. But even when I’m not writing haiku, I try to be mindful of relationships: between the things being written about, and between the writer and the act of writing. My poems about working in Alberta’s tar sands, for example, which were published in Fort McMurray Tricksters (2014), bear little resemblance to haiku, but they all started on haiku-sized paper. And they all retain an underlying haiku-ecological concept of interconnectedness.
This writing practice calls for bodily engagement: the notebook rests in the palm of one hand, which resists the slight but steady pressure applied by the other hand as I write. This sounds obvious, but many writers don’t do anything without a keyboard. And unlike the experience of a digital screen, when you compose this way, you can physically feel every word that you write.
It’s a deliberately slowed-down process, meditative perhaps, and for me, following Charlotte Du Cann (of The Dark Mountain Project), it’s an act of “cultural divestment.” It’s a way to distance one’s poetry, and oneself, from digital technology.
Bodily also means rhythmic. I often write while I’m walking, so there are all kinds of rhythmic elements involved. One is the heartbeat, which quickens as you walk faster, or as a path grows steeper. When you consciously focus your attention onto your writing hands, you can feel the pulse in your fingertips.
When you write while walking, your choice of footwear influences your poetry.
There is the rhythm of footsteps on the ground or sidewalk, and of breathing when you stop to rest. Haiku have been called one-breath poems because they can be recited in one go, without pausing to take a breath. They can be composed that way, too.
I use these pocket-sized notebooks for everything, not just poetry: I jot down bits of conversation I overhear in the hallways at work; I keep a notebook on my bedside table, where I try to capture whatever I can remember from dreams.
The poems in Insomnia Bird: Edmonton Poems (2018) were constructed from lines and fragments I wrote in notebooks on public transit, copying text from road signs and books, recording observations about the city. For these poems, I tried to imagine the lines of found text were like the twigs and sticks magpies use to build their nests.
But what, you might be wondering, does this have to do with work poetry, let alone Canada’s extraction industries?
I admit this writing practice has no unique relationship to labour or industry. Its connection to work is that you can take it to work. You can’t carry a laptop on shift at a cement plant; smartphones aren’t allowed on construction sites. But you can always carry notebooks.
I had them in my pockets when I was in the bush in northern BC, in the Arctic doing environmental cleanup, and while labouring in Fort McMurray. The poems were written in the moment, on the job, in steel-toed boots.
Du Cann, Charlotte. After Ithaca: Journeys in Deep Time. Sumeru Press, 2022.
Shepherd, Kelly. Fort McMurray Tricksters. The Alfred Gustav Press, 2014.
—. Insomnia Bird: Edmonton Poems. Thistledown, 2018.
Spahr, Juliana. Well Then There Now. Black Sparrow, 2011.
Kelly Shepherd’s second poetry collection, Insomnia Bird, won the 2019 Robert Kroetsch City of Edmonton Book Prize and was shortlisted for the 2019 Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry. Kelly has written eight chapbooks, and he is a poetry editor for the environmental philosophy journal The Trumpeter. He has a Creative Writing MFA from UBC Okanagan and an MA in Religious Studies from the University of Alberta. Originally from Smithers, BC, Kelly lives and teaches in Edmonton.
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