Skinner brings ecopoetics to BIG NIGHT Saturday
Of all the conceptual and linguistic frameworks to emerge in early 21st century poetry, none speaks to a more pivotal constellation of human concerns than the ethos known as "ecopoetics."
What is ecopoetics?
That's the question we asked poet-critic Jonathan Skinner -- the founding editor of the influential journal ecopoetics -- when we spoke to him by phone earlier this week. Skinner, a former Buffalo resident who earned his Ph.D. in Poetics at the University of Buffalo in 2005, is the author of the much-praised Political Cactus Poems (Palm Press, 2005) and With Naked Foot (Little Scratch Pad Press, 2009). He teaches in the Environmental Studies Program at Bates College in Maine.
Skinner wrote of Buffalo's Tifft Farm Nature Preserve (“264 acres of secondary forests and wetlands reclaimed from 1.6 million cubic yards of municipal waste, since 1975, within the city limits of Buffalo") in Political Cactus Poems and his essay "Wetlands" -- a text some have suggested is a corrective to "Walden Pond" for the 21st century. OnSaturday night, he returns to the city that has become one of the focal points of ecopoetics as a sensibility as the featured guest of Just Buffalo's season-concluding "Big Night" event at the Western New York Book Arts Center, 468 Washington St. (near Mohawk). The festivities begin at 8 p.m.
So, what of ecopoetics? Perhaps it would be best to begin with what it is not. It is not "nature poetry" in the traditional sense, and indeed it explicitly rejects the objectification of "nature" by the poetic subject. For Skinner, ecopoetics explores "the role of aesthetics in intersections between nature and culture, and the role of language in our perceptions of the natural world."
More specifically, "an ecopoetics is a human language entrenched with the materiality and relationships that subsume our shared 'environment' – the 'house' of eco in which we all dwell: the planet earth. Thus: eco-poetics, a house-making. This implies writing what is habitable and undertaking a writing practice that is part of the process of making the habitable."
Ecopoetics applies "[an] innovative poetics to the creative-critical edges between making (with an emphasis on writing) and ecology (the theory and praxis of deliberate and responsible human beings on this planet)." It focuses on "relationships rather than the assertion of the individual ego," on the "edge effects" of human action and human perception on the environment we live in, rather than an overarching subjugation of the planet and its resources. It recognizes the moral and linguistic agency of the individual, but contextualizes it within the sustainability of the group, the species, and the language.
Within those broad parameters, a wide range of expression and variety of constraint-based formalisms are possible. Like one of its antecedents, "language-centered writing," ecopoetics is less a "movement" than an approach to and process of writing and art-making.
On Saturday, for instance, we will hear not only from Skinner's work, but also from the markedly different narratives of Buffalo-based poet Florine Melnyk, who has served as an editorial assistant to ecopoetics, Slope Press and (currently) Starcherone Books as well as the poetry editor of Artvoice.
Melnyk will be reading from Suspended Imagination, her first collection of poems published by BlazeVox Books and will join Skinner in reading selections from the first five volumes of ecopoetics, the journal.
Also featured in this special Ecopoetics/Earth Day installment of Big Night will be an installation by the visual/media artist Julian Montague, who utilizes drawing, photography and other media to explore the peripheral features of our environment. Montague's internationally acclaimed "The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification" picks up on many of the same themes as Skinner's critical writing.
Skinner's interest in soundscape studies -- including the art of bird song -- offers an interesting counterpoint to sound artist Leah Rico's practice, which explores the function of language in relation to identity. In her
"Big Night" installation Saturday, she will "use the phenomenological characteristics of audio to take the work into the lived space of the audience, breaking down the sonic structure of speech, revealing its hidden histories, mapping its unspoken politics, and allowing language to find form through acoustic subtlety."
As at all "Big Night" events this season, food will be catered by Culinary Institute of America-trained chef Geoffrey Gatza, a Gulf War veteran who just happens to be the founder and editor of Buffalo's own "post-avant" poetry and fiction publisher BlazeVox Books. Admission to the most popular and eclectic new literary and art event series to debut in Buffalo in many years is just $5, free to Just Buffalo members.