This is the first installment of a three-part essay series on poetics and drought, originally delivered as a series of panel talks at the 2016 AWP conference in Los Angeles.
Kristin George Bagdanov, Moderator & Organizer
Many have hailed El Niño as the end of the great California drought. Certainly, the recent rain has been plentiful and good, and yet L.A. still had to seed the clouds with silver iodide in hopes of augmenting rainfall for the summer. The other day, PG&E sent an email to remind me that even with the extra rainfall, “every drop still counts,” urging me to purchase a $10 showerhead to reduce my water consumption. Overall, this winter has been the warmest on record—a statement repeated each year, it seems—as we, the geophysical force of humanity (to use Dipesh Chakrabarty’s term), continually outdo our ability to emit, consume, and produce. This is not to say that we can’t celebrate when drought is alleviated, but rather to caution against such short-term relief sliding into complacency. Indeed, one of the most difficult aspects of contemplating anthropogenic climate change concerns the problem of scale: how can we sustain urgency in an emergency that stretches beyond the life of any single individual? How can we conserve water as if there is always already a drought?
The slow violence of drought is particularly difficult to manage and imagine. The majority of people in California don’t question whether there will be water when they turn on their faucets. But drought is built into the very structures that govern our lives—from industrial food processing plants to golf courses. What I mean is, the treatment of water as a limitless resource embeds the crisis of drought into water’s very materiality. Every oilrig and nuclear reactor has a built-in “fail-safe” mechanism that is supposed to ensure its safety, though it actually reveals how failure is not just a possibility but a logical outcome of the entire operation. Similarly, drought in the epoch of the Anthropocene is no longer a natural cycle of scarcity, but a logical outcome of how we live, both in terms of how we contribute to the conditions that produce drought and how we allocate the water we do have. How can poetry offer a method of restructuring and de-structuring the conditions that always already lead to failure?
The purpose of this panel is to imagine how poetry might help us engage conceptually and materially with the crisis of drought. Is drought a totality that draws together and dries up the disparate things we once thought separate? To speak of drought is to speak of a lack, always calling forth the element that is missing—water. How do tropes of water as limitless, pure, or cleansing contribute to how we rationalize water use? What are the affordances of water as a poetic form? Water seeps, gushes, erodes; it fills the shape of the container that holds it while also pointing toward that which cannot be contained or accessed. Is the poem always merely a representation of the environment, or can it actually interrupt, engage, and shape it? Jeffrey Jerome Cohen proposes we think of the elements beyond their symbolic valences: “Through their action metaphor becomes matterphor, a tropic-material coil, word and substance together transported: of language but not reducible to linguistic terms, agentic and thick.”1 What is the agency of something we define by lack? How does the present absence of water subtend the poetics of drought?
The word emergency, which literally means to “rise up out of water,” calls to mind not just the agency of human actors but the dynamic agency inherent in all matter—from the ground that absorbs and distributes water to the clouds that disperse and withhold it. This panel proposes that the poem is entangled with this very materiality and that the formal constraints and affordances of drought bear upon the poetic form, which in turn can reconfigure the means by which we engage the conditions of this ecological crisis.
1. Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome and Lowell Duckert. “Eleven Principles of the Elements.” Elemental Ecocriticism, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert, University of Minnesota Press. 2015. 11.
uses of drought
I am imagining that if you are here, you are a writer, and if you are like me, you are constantly experiencing a drought of time, a drought of adequate energy, a drought of methods to answer the weight of your anxieties. Those anxieties for me don’t only come from how I am culpable in the crisis of our environment, but also how I am culpable as a member of organizations whose methods and ethics I question, yet that I find myself, of necessity engaged with—for instance, I am here at AWP because I’m a senior editor of Omnidawn, a small press. Our survival depends upon the contacts we make and renew, upon the people who find our books to read and/or to teach. And we’ve made commitments to our authors to host readings for them and to sell their books. And I’m here because I want to meet or renew my friendship with people, like those on this panel, who deeply inspire me, and like yourselves in this audience, those I know and those I am yet meet, who bring me their aliveness.
Similarly, I participate in cultural forums, in civic or creative communities, I pay taxes to my city and state governments, yet I am confounded by the inequities and stark unfairness propagated by these power structures.
I am here on this panel to talk about how my writing helps me to manage conceptually and materially the crisis of drought, but it is drought that helps me to manage conceptually and materially the crises of my life that I might otherwise drown in.
In my writing I attempt to press language in revision after revision to the edge of the drought of my experience. And in my reading of other poets, I seek the poems that I sense have been written as an interrogation of the limitations the writer began with, where, in the space of the the writing process, the poet has so attuned to the drought of her/his/their experience, that the lack itself has trained them to a heightened adaptability, to find that trace of moisture in the air of the poem that allows them to revise or to write further into what becomes a perception shift, even the most subtle, least bit of moisture of the new possibility that is essential to a survival of the poem is most honestly engaged in—as it expresses all of the culpability and complicity that the poet feels in very specific, very actual events and experiences, experiences that seem initially to offer only a drought of answers, of solutions.
Such a poem is able to cull itself from a speaker’s safer ways of making sense, making syntax, and becomes attuned to relinquishing the common cultural speak of the moment, what Forrest Gander calls “the predetermined expressions that circumscribe thinking and condition perception.” (Redstart)
How to take full advantage of a consciousness of drought? We each will have our methods. I have found that I need to create organic constraints that compel me toward change. Rather than only write about the limitations that I struggle to feel are answerless, I have to write within severe limitation, severe drought, and see what happens. The act of writing itself brings me a direct experience of what I live, what I want the poem to interrogate.
Constraints do draw me into long, dry bouts of revision, my more normative ways of thinking must transform and transform, until I glimpse a way forward that I had no idea of. Some wisp of moisture in the drought exposes a content with more contextual resources than I’d had access to.
Another process I use in early revisions is that I often will break in mid line and write, if I feel there’s a bit of moisture to be had by breaking open my syntax.
For me, the limits attune me to seeking the unorthodox, which at times becomes insight. I don’t share this with you because I believe constraints are the only or even the best way to write a poetry of drought, a poetry of crisis, be it on the personal or the global level.
As a reader, I find the sudden consciousness shift to a new moisture in so many exploratory poems, constraint or no. I believe the act of writing an exploratory poem, a poem that continues to inquire more and more into its nature, a poem that does not simply acquire a stance and is done—draws the writer, and the reader as well, out of our complacencies.
Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at M.I.T. tells us that when ever we experience a new insight, it “registers as a new pattern of neural activity…[and] [o]nce that restructuring occurs, it is available to us again. (Though you must practice it to strengthen it)
So all the unexplainable, illogical, pathways of neural activity that we generate when we break out of some mold and find a way to proceed that’s unexpectedly new in our writing, those pathways will be available to us again.
But, even more interesting, is that our ‘ability to seek an unexpected insight’ is itself a pathway, a pattern that we can make more accessible with practice.
We can ‘practice’ the ‘feeling’ of seeking a way to open to unexpected insight! to let the drought attune us to the ways to seek and use the scant glimpses of moisture that might otherwise be entirely ignored.
Most important is that the ability to find new pathways will be more available to us if we are looking for them, for this possibility, and thus leaving ourselves more open to its occurrence. this is why the consciousness of drought is such a fine teacher.
Reading poems by others that seem to me to have made this kind of leap inspire such synaptic connections in my own consciousness. I sense that the deep complicated act of writing has taken the poet over and revised the poet’s consciousness in the act of its being written. Such poems are not just rubrics for writing but rubrics for survival, for using the droughts we live in as a means of sustaining alternatives to the crises we feel constrain us.
In his essay “What is the Contemporary?” Giorgio Agamben explains that “the entry point to the present necessarily takes the form of an archeology; an archeology that does not, however, regress to the historical past, but returns to that part within the present that we are absolutely incapable of living.”
To me, that part within the present, which we are absolutely incapable of living, is the space of drought yet with the consciousness that it gives us, we can unearth more and more of what has seemed to us impossible.
Since our moderator asked us to share a poem of our own, I’ll read a poem that is in a tight constraint: 7 syllables per segment, until the last, which is a single syllable.
you rub the just-picked poppy petal between your thumb and first finger until orange
is your prisoner just like squeezing yourself between one politic act and the next
leaving just trace color hard even to recognize as an adaptation you once
thought would breed safety a compressed petal isn’t pretty why is pressure your
preoccupation kept as companion mechanism you have sex under tight sheets
just to feel how skin is such a thin containment for what’s dispossessed inside you as
the sheets too so easily give way orphaned in air sometimes you close your eyes spit over
the side of the world any world and the moisture on your husband’s face that you find weeks
later not tears but finer in texture the way steam is a mirror of what bodies
are just heat and surrender you are excess but won’t know even as you feel yourself
turn into pure static but sweetly pungent as heated tar