Guest post: Zoë Brigley – What is Ecojustice?

In this guest post Zoë Brigley, co-editor of landmark anthology 100 Poems to Save the Earth, looks at ecojustice – what it is, why it’s important – and talks about its place within the anthology and in poetry more widely.

100 Poems to Save the Earth. Edited by Zoë Brigley and Kristian Evans.

Our climate is on the brink of catastrophic change. 100 Poems to Save the Earth invites us to fine-tune our senses, to listen to the world around us, pay attention to what we have been missing. The defining crisis of our time is revealed to be fundamentally a crisis of perception. For too long, the earth has been exploited. With its incisive Foreword from editors Zoë Brigley and Kristian Evans, this landmark anthology is a call to action to fight the threat facing the only planet we have. 

What is Ecojustice?

After recently publishing 100 Poems to Save the Earth with Kristian Evans, I received many questions about ecojustice. With resolutions for the new year being made, this felt like a good time to talk about why ecojustice is important, and to spotlight some of the poets from the anthology.

In basic terms, ecojustice links ecological movements to global social justice movements, a move which is necessary because sometimes environmental movements have been coopted by groups with racist or bigoted agendas. (See this article in The Guardian by Jeff Sparrow on eco-fascism). Ecojustice refuses environmental narratives based on restricting or blaming people with fewer privileges, but instead listens to the voices of social justice activists. Very often, groups with fewer privileges experience most acutely the deprivations and hardships caused by climate crisis. Environmental changes are already horribly real for populations in the Global South. There are also, however, more direct connections between the active oppression of groups with fewer privileges and environmental exploitation.

Earlier this year, I spoke to scientist Kerry Ard about economic inequality and pollution, and how certain neighborhoods in American cities (often inhabited by low-income people, often of the global majority) are sidelined when it comes to their needs for clean air and unpolluted water. The obvious example is the water crisis in Flint, Michigan – I strongly recommend the documentary Flint: Voices from a Poisoned City by Elise Conklin. Or you could take for example the oil pipelines in the US that damage Native communities environmentally but also in terms of rising sexual violence against Native women. Here’s an interesting article too that explains the links between #BLM, racial justice and climate justice.

So social justice and climate justice are not two separate projects, and according to Raisa Foster and Rebecca A. Martusewicz, ‘Environmental and social impoverishment can be traced to the same deeply embedded cultural ways of thinking and being that our industrialized systems use and are created from’. Foster and Martusewicz hint at something that many writers have emphasized – see Wendy Wheeler in A New Modernity (1999).  The Baconian, empirical worldview dominating Western thinking has also caused deep, intractable problems.

Foster and Martusewicz describe how dualism in ‘Western industrial society’ has dictated ‘where we locate value’ and ‘what we learn to identify as inherently inferior or superior’. They conclude: ‘Social and ecological violence is born in and maintained by this fundamentally violent hierarchical structure:  culture–nature,  mind–body,  reason–emotion,  man–woman, and civilized–savage’. Thinking in the context of Latin America – a contested site of some of the most biodiverse areas in the world, Verónica Schild suggests that dualistic thinking is inherent in a capitalist society, as capitalism seeks to extract value from sites of nature as well as poor women, both of which exist on the other side of a constructed binary. She also notes that many indigenous activists have already made the connection between the capitalist shaping of nature and the shaping of women’s lives. Although our anthology was mainly focused on writers from the UK and Ireland, we did give a flavour of writing from around the Anglophone world, including indigenous poets like Carter Revard, Gwen Nell Westerman, Craig Santos Perez, and Ellen van Neerven.

"We cannot live / with the seas in our bellies" - Ellen van Neerven, 'Love and Tradition'

van Neerven is an award-winning writer and editor of Mununjali Yugambeh (Southeast Queensland) and Dutch heritage. van Neerven indicated in interview that her work has parallel themes that are ‘environmental’ and ‘anti-government.’ This comes together in van Neerven’s poems as, in Jeanine Leane’s words, ‘In this built-up and built-over environment the poet asserts the continuation of Aboriginal culture’ and ‘Australia is a nation imagined and constructed over many Aboriginal nations.’ Leane sees in van Neerven’s work the importance of ‘the role of women as gatherers of often small but essential items of food that sustain the clan – lizards, insects, bugs, berries, fruits, frogs, seeds, tubers’ but also ‘as gatherers and keepers of family histories, knowledge and secrets from Country that are handed down to nurture and sustain future generations.’

In 100 Poems to Save the Earth, we included ‘Love and Tradition,’ dedicated to van Neerven’s Aunty Nancy Bamaga. The poem is a prayer registering the danger of rising sea levels. Sparsely written, ‘Love and Tradition’ carefully maps out the problem while also calling on the wider community to recognise the effects on the indigenous community. van Neerven poses what Leane calls ‘the everyday activism that occurs in the Aboriginal home, differing from the more public or “loud” expressions of activism’ but posing ‘the home front as a sovereign space of nurture, growth and actualisation.’ 

There are many other poets in the anthology writing about ecojustice. For example, Ross Gay’s poem, ‘A Small Needful Fact,’ emphasizes the nurturing work of Eric Garner at the Parks and Rec, before he was killed in a racist murder by police. Kazim Ali in ‘Checkpoint’ emphasizes the pettiness of customs officials juxtaposed with portentous events in nature which seem to accuse humanity. The Cyborg Jillian Weise explores the body and nature in the context of disability, commenting on the hierarchies and judgements imposed on both. Sean Bonney’s ‘Our Death / What If the Summer Never Ends,’ Erin Robinsong’s ‘Late Prayer’ and many other poems in the anthology call out capitalism and its detrimental effects on nature and people.

"Some of us voted. Some of us put on balaclavas. There were several earthquakes. Endless strategies of tedious indifference. Some major buildings and some statues defaces. Declaration of endless war. Parties in the park. Criminalisation of drinking. Several dead friends." - Sean Bonney, 'Our Death / What If the Summer Never Ends'

Many poems speak of ecojustice in global terms. In interview with Nicholas Wroe, Welsh/Indian poet Tishani Doshi has commented on how transnationally, women often ‘have to navigate economic and environmental hostilities’. In Doshi’s work, concerns for women and for the environment mingle and jostle, and she also challenges the centrality of human beings over nature or the greater-than-human. In ‘Self’, the poem included in the anthology, there is an acknowledgement that the world does not necessarily need people. Also thinking on a global scale, Vidyan Ravinthiran’s ‘More Context Required’ seems to grapple with global circulation of information about climate crisis and social justice, which can’t be fathomed from ‘beautiful computer-generated maps.’ Other poems register how war creates disconnectedness from land and people, as populations are killed by remote control. Mir Mahfuz Ali comments on the violence of war in ‘MIG-21 at Shegontola,’ where a boy riding a bicycle seems to be the only survivor of an idyllic rural community destroyed by missiles.

Some poets speak from a spirit of hope in the face of climate and social injustice. Roger Robinson’s ‘A Portable Paradise’ turns to wisdom from his grandmother about rewilding ourselves – carrying a paradise within us in spite of injustices we may face. Registering awe of the greater-than-human, Carter Revard describes a happy afternoon as two Native boys explore nature in ‘Over by Fairfax, Leaving Tracks.’ The poem extends into networks of global capitalism, across time and space towards a profound thought about how nature might be preserved in our memory – if we survive.

"stippled tracks from soles made / in Hong Kong, maybe with Osage oil. / Lawrence and Wesley pick blue-speckled flints / along our path, one Ponca boy / in braids, one part Osage / in cowboy hat." - Carter Revards, 'Over by Fairfax, Leaving Tracks'

What you won’t find in the anthology are moralizing or didactic poems for the simple reason that we don’t think they are very effective. As we suggest in the anthology introduction, poems that work through clichéd or even moralizing trains of thought can be easily dismissed. Poems that seek to make people – already feeling immense guilt about climate crisis – to feel even more guilty don’t help. People are moved to act far more out of inspiration, hope and – yes! – sometimes fear than out of guilt. What tends to happen more often with didactic writing is that people turn away and put their heads in the sand.

That doesn’t mean that these poems aren’t moving, inspiring, brilliant, or that they don’t work on the reader in significant and subtle ways to make those connections between damage to people and the environment. According to Foster and Martusewicz, ecojustice proceeds ‘from the fundamental acknowledgment that humans are utterly dependent upon a complex and diverse ecological system,’ and ‘damages to the ecological system are damages to ourselves’.

Zoë Brigley

Books and Articles to Read

Leane, Jeanine (2020) ‘On the Power to Be Still’: rev. Throat by Ellen van Neerven. The Sydney Review of Books, August 3rd. https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/van-neerven-throat/

Foster, Raisa and Rebecca A. Martusewicz (2018) ‘Introduction.’ Art, EcoJustice, and Education: Intersecting Theories and Practices, ed. Raisa Foster, Jussi Mäkelä, and Rebecca A. Martusewicz. London: Routledge: pp 1-9 (p. 1, 3).

Schild, V. (2019) ‘Feminisms, the Environment and Capitalism: On the Necessary Ecological Dimension of a Critical Latin American Feminism’, Journal of International Women’s Studies, 20(6), pp. 23–43 (p. 25). Available at: https://search-ebscohost-com.proxy.lib.ohio-state.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=qth&AN=137364832&site=eds-live&scope=site (Accessed: 15 October 2021).

Wroe, Nicholas. ‘Tishani Doshi: “I can go out alone at night but the dangers don’t go away.’ The Guardian, 27 July. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jul/27/tishani-doshi-interview

Note

This article is based on a paper, ‘Justice, Ecologies, and Transnational Feminist Poetics: What Poetry Has to Say About Ecojustice’ given at the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) Convention this past October 2021. Thanks to the NWSA for including this paper.

Zoë Brigley is a poet and academic who has three PBS recommended poetry collections: The Secret (2007), Conquest (2012), and Hand & Skull (2019) (all from Bloodaxe). She has also published a collection of nonfiction essays Notes from a Swing State (Parthian 2019) and several chapbooks. She is Assistant Professor in English at the Ohio State University where she produces an anti-violence podcast: Sinister Myth. She won an Eric Gregory Award for the best British poets under 30, was Forward Prize commended, and listed in the Dylan Thomas Prize. She is the current editor of Poetry Wales Magazine.

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Friday Poem – ‘For a Coming Extinction’ by Pascale Petit

As COP26 continues in Glasgow, this week’s Friday Poem is ‘For a Coming Extinction’ by Pascale Petit which features in the anthology 100 Poems to Save the Earth.

100 Poems to Save the Earth Edited by Zoë Brigley and Kristian Evans

Our climate is on the brink of catastrophic change. 100 Poems to Save the Earth invites us to fine-tune our senses, to listen to the world around us, pay attention to what we have been missing. The defining crisis of our time is revealed to be fundamentally a crisis of perception. For too long, the earth has been exploited. With its incisive Foreword from editors Zoë Brigley and Kristian Evans, this landmark anthology is a call to action to fight the threat facing the only planet we have. 

For a Coming Extinction
(after W. S. Merwin)
You whom we have named Charger, Challenger,
Great King, and Noor the shining one,
now that you are at the brink of extinction,
I am writing to those of you
who have reached the black groves of the sky,
where you glide beneath branches of galaxies,
your fur damasked with constellations,
tell him who sits at the centre of the mystery,
that we did all we could.
That we kept some of you alive
in the prisons we built for you.
You tigers of Amur and Sumatra,
of Turkey and Iran, Java and Borneo,
and you — Royal Bengals, who lingered last.
Tell the one who would judge
that we are innocent of your slaughter.
That we kiss each pugmark,
the water trembling inside
as if you had just passed.
Masters of ambush and camouflage,
hiding behind astral trees,
invisible as always,
when we gaze up at the night,
when we look lightyears into the past —
we see your eyes staring down at us.

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Read our COP26 guest post from 100 Poems to Save the Earth co-editor Kristian Evans.

Guest Post: COP26 – Kristian Evans on poetry & the climate crisis

Today’s guest post is by Kristian Evans, co-editor of the landmark anthology 100 Poems to Save the Earth – vital reading as world leaders meet in Glasgow for COP26.

100 Poems to Save the Earth edited by Zoë Brigley and Kristian Evans

Our climate is on the brink of catastrophic change. 100 Poems to Save the Earth invites us to fine-tune our senses, to listen to the world around us, pay attention to what we have been missing. The defining crisis of our time is revealed to be fundamentally a crisis of perception. For too long, the earth has been exploited. With its incisive Foreword from editors Zoë Brigley and Kristian Evans, this landmark anthology is a call to action to fight the threat facing the only planet we have. 

Leaders from the world’s governments and businesses are currently meeting in Glasgow for the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Delegates are attempting to create a roadmap towards a zero-carbon future, to find ways to prevent the earth from warming by more than 1.5C, and to explore other technological and financial options to help us mitigate climate change.

Considering the results of previous conferences, we can be forgiven for feeling less than optimistic about this one. Surely here are the same old people, using the same old tools, trying to make the problem conform to the same old solutions they have found for it.

Einstein famously said “no problem can be solved by the same consciousness that created it. We need to see the world anew.”

So how does our culture see the world today? What does ‘nature’ mean to those of us in the West? What does our way of life tell us about our unconscious beliefs and attitudes to it? What might ‘seeing the world anew’ mean?

empty your paradise onto a desk:
your white sands, green hills and fresh fish.
Shine the lamp on it like the fresh hope
of morning, and keep staring at it till you sleep.

From ‘A Portable Paradise’ by Roger Robinson – 100 Poems to Save the Earth

Since the Enlightenment, it has become the custom to see nature as a machine, something inert, a predictable resource, perfectly intelligible to reason. Animals are considered to be little more than complicated robots – it’s ok to test cosmetics, drugs and ammunition on them. Nature can be dominated, controlled and tamed. There is nothing truly strange or mysterious out there, certainly no ghost haunting the moving the parts.

We find these beliefs reflected in our perception of human life: consciousness is only a brain process, life has no intrinsic meaning and ends completely in death. We don’t have souls and should find fulfilment in material things, tools and toys that will, we are promised, get bigger and better year after year. Get it while you can and drink it dry, because time is running out and soon you will be gone.

At least, that’s how it used to be. That was the dream. Poets were never quite convinced by it and climate change and the ecological crisis are now ringing a very loud alarm. Blake railed against the oppression of a rationalising utilitarian mind he saw embodied in ‘the dark Satanic mills’. The Romantics, foreshadowing Freud, found plenty of evidence that the Enlightenment had a concealed dark side, that it was haunted and shaped by the superstitions it thought it had banished.

Illustration of ‘The Ancient Mariner’ by artist David Jones

Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is now often read as an ecological fable, a warning of the consequences of adopting a violent, domineering attitude to nature. Most of us will have seen images of dead Albatross chicks, their stomachs stuffed full of the bits of plastic they’ve been fed by the parent bird, the shiny junk plucked from the waves, fragments of the rubbish with which we fill our own lives. We’re all the Mariner now, it seems; every one of us has killed the Albatross.

Yet at the end of his terrifying hallucinatory voyage to the edges of the world, to the edges of himself, the Mariner does “see the world anew.” He is reconciled to a vision of nature as a complex web of relationships, beautiful and strange, everything intertwined with everything else.

Albatros chick

What if we were no longer separated and isolated, disconnected from nature and each other? We too might see a world transformed. What was once viewed as a collection of dead, inert or robotic objects, might now be experienced as a community of vibrantly alive subjects, multi-faceted aspects of a cosmos full of meaning, intelligence and imagination not confined to humans, but distributed throughout everything.

When we were editing 100 Poems to Save the Earth thoughts such as these were never far from our minds. Poets have always kept an ear open to communication from the earth, imagining what the birds and fish and fungi, the oceans and forests might say. It’s not hard to hear them. They are only saying what our own souls are saying after all. Stop. Change. Please listen.

It is as if there were some irresistible force
blowing us over into a strange new century
that billows beyond us, between our thin heart-beats.

From ‘Climate’ by George Szirtes – 100 Poems to Save the Earth

It’s time also to listen to those of us beyond the West, especially indigenous peoples, who are often on the front line of climate change and habitat and biodiversity loss, and who still hold a vision of the possibility of a meaningful existence with an intelligent world. As Ozawa Bineshi Albert of Climate Justice Alliance says, “Solutions to the climate crisis must come from those communities most directly impacted. At COP26, the orientation of the international community must come from them, not economists, corporations and politicians who created the problems in the first place. Solutions can’t be about us without us.”

The ecological crisis is transforming us, forcing us to reassess the relationship between mind and nature, forcing us to revise our cultural assumptions and beliefs about who we are, where we are going and what we want to become. COP26 might attempt technological solutions and new finance initiatives. It might be an exercise in perception management that enables business as usual. A new dark age might be closer than we realise.

Whatever happens, if we don’t jettison the old mechanistic worldview and learn to see the world anew as alive and intelligent, we will remain stuck in the old ways of thinking that got us into this crisis in the first place.

Kristian Evans

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David Baker reads ‘Pastoral’ from 100 Poems to Save the Earth

Guest Post – Polly Atkin: On Co-Tenancy 

In Much With Body I wanted to write into and around the relationship between us – as individuals, as humans – and the ecosystems we live in. I wanted explore to what Sarah Jaquette Ray and Jay Sibara call the ‘contingency between environments and bodies’ that is central to disability poetics, with a focus on the particular environment I have made my home.[1] In many ways this is an extension of conversations begun in my previous collection, Basic Nest Architecture, which revolve around questions of belonging, of location and dislocation, of co-habitation, of what it is to live in a sick body in an ailing world. I’ve always found it difficult to separate myself from my environment, to draw a clear line or apprehend a solid barrier between me and the rest of the world, to be certain what is internal or external. This sense of permeability, coupled with a complicated sense of bodily risk, determines all of my encounters with the world, all of my movements through it.

Photo of a deer on a hillside.

I wanted to bring that sense of permeability into these poems – from those drawn from Dorothy Wordsworth’s Rydal Journals, that place rain and pain in parallel, both leaching in an out of the body – to the poems about the frogs and toads who come into our house every summer. We are none of us able to call ourself separate from one another.

Photo of a frog

There is a kind of eco-poetry, and a broader kind of nature writing, that wants to remove the human observer from the observation, to cut out the body of the writer from the writing. It sees the human as degrading the nonhuman, as distracting, diverting essential attention. I can’t help seeing this tendency in nature writing to blot out the body of the writer as coupled to the tendency Virginia Woolf writes about in her essay ‘On Being Ill’ to present the body as a clear pane of glass to see the world through. I am not a clear pane of glass. My noisy, interrupting body never lets me forget its presence. As Woolf writes, ‘all day, all night, the body intervenes’. To me the relationship between the intervening body and the other outside is the poem. To pretend otherwise is the distraction.

Photo of an owl amongst the branches of a tree.

I wanted to bring the intervention of the body into the foreground of these poems, whether they are centred on an encounter with a deer, or an owl that won’t be photographed, or a disappearing hospital, or the body’s internal machinations. I cannot write an owl, but I can write myself observing an owl, what observing it in my body gives me, what the co-presence of our bodies in the same space does, what it changes, what it enables. I wanted to write about co-habitation, about co-tenancy of a shared home, whether that is a woodland, society, or our bodies. Luckily for me, my co-tenants were obliging.

Polly Atkin

This cover shows a painting of a swimmer floating on her back in a blue green lake.

Much With Body is the startlingly original second collection by poet Polly Atkin. The beauty of the Lake District is both balm and mirror, refracting pain and also soothing it with distraction. Much of the landscape is lakescape, giving the book a watery feel, the author’s wild swimming being just one kind of immersion. There is also a distinct link with the past in a central section of found poems taken from transcripts of the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, from a period late in her life when she was often ill. In common with the works of the Wordsworths, these poems share a quality of the metaphysical sublime. Their reverence for the natural world is an uneasy awe, contingent upon knowledge of our fragility and mortality.

Polly Atkin’s latest collection Much With Body is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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[1] Sarah Jaquette Ray and Jay Sibara, ‘Introduction’, in Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities Toward an Eco- Crip Theory, ed by Sarah Jaquette Ray and Jay Sibara (Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 2017), p.1.

Friday Poem – ‘Lakeclean’ by Polly Atkin

This week’s Friday Poem is ‘Lakeclean’ by Polly Atkin from her latest collection Much With Body which is a Poetry Book Society Winter Choice.

This cover shows a painting of a swimmer floating on her back in a blue green lake.

Much With Body is the startlingly original second collection by poet Polly Atkin. The beauty of the Lake District is both balm and mirror, refracting pain and also soothing it with distraction. Much of the landscape is lakescape, giving the book a watery feel, the author’s wild swimming being just one kind of immersion. There is also a distinct link with the past in a central section of found poems taken from transcripts of the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, from a period late in her life when she was often ill. In common with the works of the Wordsworths, these poems share a quality of the metaphysical sublime. Their reverence for the natural world is an uneasy awe, contingent upon knowledge of our fragility and mortality.

Lakeclean

Still damp hours after I sank myself under the surface my hair
smells like violets when I run my hand through it

not the ones crushed at the edge of the path through the wood,
yesterday’s shampoo. My skin smells of heat and mud.

I don’t swim because it’s challenging I swim because I can. For the body
released from the tyranny of gravity, resistance of air. Land

is the enemy. We are comfortable here, suspended, above,
in, and under. We dwell in transparency.

We sweep mountains aside with our arms without wincing.
We move with something like ease.

Much With Body is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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Join us online for the virtual launch of Much With Body on Wednesday 20th October from 7pm. Polly will be reading from the collection alongside guest readers Hannah Hodgson, Éireann Lorsung and Claudine Toutoungi. Register for free via Eventbrite www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/186887905757.

Friday Poem – ‘Slave Bangle, Wales’ by Maggie Harris

This week’s Friday Poem is ‘Slave Bangle, Wales’ by Maggie Harris from the pamphlet Poems from the Borders. Maggie recently won the Poetry Wales Wales Poetry Award judged by Pascale Petit.

Poems from The Borders is part of Seren’s pamphlet series celebrating the spirit of place. Featured poems range from “the spine of the A470”, through Monmouthshire, over the dramatic Brecon Beacons, and also through the Black Mountains towards Hay-on-Wye, towns in Herefordshire and Radnorshire and along rivers, the Wye and Severn.​

Poems from The Borders is available on the Seren website: £5

Maggie’s short story collection Writing on Water is available on the Seren website: £8.99

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An interview with Angela Graham

Ahead of the launch of her debut short story collection A City Burning, we interview Angela Graham to find out more about the book and what inspires her.

In the twenty-six stories in A City Burning, set in Wales, Northern Ireland and Italy, children and adults face, in the flames of personal tragedy, moments of potential transformation. On the threshold of their futures each must make a choice: how to live in this new ‘now’. With a virtuoso control of tone, by turns elegiac, comic, lyrical, philosophical, A City Burning examines power of all types. The result is a deeply human book full of hauntingly memorable characters and narratives.

What is the meaning behind the title A City Burning?

In the opening story, ‘The Road’, a young girl witnesses her city blazing. She understands that this is a sign of the collapse of the status quo, of all the usual certainties. She is confronted with the need to react to this new situation. What values should guide her in this choice? I realised that this story encapsulates the theme of many stories in the collection – witnessing major change and having to work out a response. It seemed a fitting title for the book.

There is a theme of change in this collection, what, if anything, do you hope the reader can take away from this underlying message?

I haven’t thought in terms of such a message – at least, not while I was writing the stories. It wasn’t until late in the day that I saw that facing change was a link between them, and it took someone else, an editor, to point that out. In an important sense, I had to understand my own work from a more objective perspective. I’d like readers to recognise that ‘the given’ (whether positive or negative) can break down in very noticeable and in very subtle ways. One person sees a city burning, another sees some detail in a single photograph that opens their eyes. Usually, I believe few such opportunities for perception appear out of the blue. We have usually been sensitized to a shift in circumstances but we may be unwilling or unable to respond at an earlier point.

I’ve just looked up the etymology of ‘catastrophe’. The word comes from kata- ‘down’ + strophē ‘turning’. I imagine that as the point at which a wheel, goes into its irreversible downward momentum. We have watched the wheel move upwards and we know something has to give but we are not always prepared for it.

Words Flowering at Ty Newydd

There are a lot of different settings and ideas conveyed in these stories. Where do you draw your inspiration from?

Anywhere that’ll have me! To give an example, the story, ‘Life-Task’ which is set in northern Italy at the end of the Second World War came to me because a person who had just retuned from Italy recounted a story she’d been told by someone who’d had it from someone who’d heard it from the actual protagonist. It must have been brilliantly told originally to be so vivid (after passing through several tellings in this way) for it to reach me so powerfully that I could see the events as the story was shared with me. I went home and wrote it down. Of course, it helped that I had, for completely other reasons, been doing research into post-war Italy, had read Italian novels on the subject, and taken a particular interest in what happened in northern Italy when the Germans (the allies of the Italians) had been defeated. And, in writing a story, one has to aim for a satisfying balance between all the elements. This may introduce material which is not part of ‘the original’.

Do any of the stories draw on personal experience?

This is a book of fiction. It’s not memoir or autobiography. It’s all made up. But it’s true to experience, my own and that of many others.

Coasteering near Dunluce Castle, Co. Antrim

You engage with a number of different languages in the book including Ulster Scots in the story ‘Coasteering’. Why was it important for you to foreground these languages in the collection?

I have always been interested in languages and I’ve worked in Wales for a long time, a country where two languages are in use alongside each other. I learned Welsh as soon as I moved to Wales when I married a Welshman. In Northern Ireland I had much experience of the link between language and identity; even nuances of accent, in a city such as Belfast, are sifted for meaning. Whenever a chance has presented itself to get involved with a language I’ve tried to take it. For example, I did a crash-course in Romanian as part of the writing of a screenplay set in that country and it made a big difference, when I was researching there, that I could follow what people were saying. I learned Italian by ear when I was a teenager and, again, I wrote a screenplay, set in Puglia. Most of the time, people are pleased that one has made an effort to allow them to stay in the language in which they are most comfortable, most ‘themselves’.

In regards to Ulster Scots, that fascinates me. I have written the first draft of a novel in which two major characters are Ulster Scots-speakers and language, including Irish, is key to the book. Clashes over language and culture are deep-rooted in Northern Ireland but there is also great potential to overcome seeing language as an obstacle. I’ve worked with a number of Ulster Scots writers. My father’s family are Ulster Scots. It’s important to me that Ulster Scots takes its place in contemporary literary fiction.

Words from Ulster Scots displayed at the Seamus Heaney Centre, Bellaghy

What is your favourite story and why?

The Road. In its 800-or-so words I’d like to think it pushes that wheel up out of catastrophe; gives it a push into an upward turn.

You’ve added some new stories based on the pandemic in the last few months. Why did you decide to write about it and were they hard to write?

They were not hard to write in that I was fuelled by indignation at the plight of low-paid workers whose interests were not given proper consideration. I have personal experience of the ‘worlds’ of both stories and I felt able to depict them forcefully. I checked out facts, naturally, but the internal impetus was immediate. Once again, it seemed to me, the people who are considered ‘least’ in our society − least important, least powerful − were receiving least attention, whereas if their needs were a priority we’d have a better balanced society in which to live.

You turned to writing full time a few years ago. How did you first get into writing and what has it been like working up to publication of your debut collection during the pandemic?

I committed solely to writing because I was busy with media work and I felt the need to sharpen my focus. Writing is what I have always done, since I was about six years old. My first poem was published in a mainstream magazine when I was seven and I wasn’t one bit surprised at the time. I knew that was what magazines were for – publishing stuff. I had a very child-like view of things. Of course. Very naïve. It’s by no means easy to get work published. And that’s a good sign – there are so many exceptionally talented writers.

I’ve always written but usually for the screen. I’ve done journalism and radio work and non-fiction tv tie-in work and poetry. A City Burning is my first chance to pull a substantial amount of fictional material together into a coherent whole.

Once I’d negotiated the early days of the pandemic – the practicalities − the pandemic (because I was lucky to stay well) made no great difference to the practice of writing at a desk. There were fewer distractions. But there was no access to libraries and I had planned to do an in situ major piece of writing for a month and the restrictions made that impossible. I had to re-invent the form of the work. It’s a book on my childhood in Belfast, partially supported by a Support for the Individual Artist Programme award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the National Lottery.

Acquiring a cover photo was hard in the circumstances. It would have been lovely to have had the launch I had been hoping for in Belfast’s No Alibis bookstore and I would have had a small one in Ballycastle, County Antrim which is where I’ve spent lockdown. Ballycastle Library is accepting a copy of the book, I’m pleased to say. Filming and editing a promotional video had to be done by ingenious means by my director husband, John Geraint. Sending paper proofs back and forth was interesting because of blips in the postal service. But the attention from Seren’s staff has been the key thing and that was undiminished.

Angela Graham on Ballycastle Beach, Co. Antrim

A City Burning is available on the Seren website £9.99

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Join us tonight for the virtual launch of A City Burning which starts at 7pm. Angela will be in conversation with Phil George and there will be readings from the book by Viviana Fiorentino, Liam Logan and Geraint Lewis.

Friday Poem – ‘Little Black Dress’ by Tamar Yoseloff

This week’s Friday Poem is ‘Little Black Dress’ by Tamar Yoseloff from her collection The Black Place. Tamar was one of two Seren poets highly commended in this year’s Forward Prizes and her poem ‘The Black Place’ is featured in the Forward Book of Poetry 2021, alongside ‘Our Front Garden’ by Cath Drake.

The Black Place is a dark and gorgeously multi-faceted collection that eschews the sentimental, embraces alternatives and offers antidotes to cheery capitalist hype. But there is a sort of dark grandeur to Tamar Yoseloff’s view of mortality, one that matches the sublime desert painting by Georgia O’Keeffe, the subject of the title poem. The book’s subjects include Georgia O’Keeffe, the poet’s cancer diagnosis and treatment, and the Grenfell Tower fire disaster.

 

The Black Place is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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Watch Tamar reading ‘Little Black Dress’ on our Youtube channel:

 

Friday Poem – ‘If I Could Wake’ by Cath Drake

Our Friday Poem this week is ‘If I Could Wake’ by Cath Drake from her debut collection The Shaking City.

The shaking city of Australian poet Cath Drake’s debut poetry collection is a metaphor for the swiftly changing precarity of modern life within the looming climate and ecological emergency, and the unease of the narrator who is far from home. Tall tales combine with a conversational style, playful humour and a lyrical assurance.​ The poet works a wide set of diverse spells upon the reader through her adept use of tone, technique, plot and form. She is a welcome new voice for contemporary poetry.

The Shaking City is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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Guest post: Sarah Philpott introduces us to ‘The Seasonal Vegan’

Today, we publish Sarah Philpott’s much-anticipated new book The Seasonal Vegan, and who better to introduce it than the author herself.

The Seasonal Vegan by Sarah Philpott is a kitchen diary of seasonal recipes with a delicious mixture of fine food writing and beautiful photography. This guide to eating with the seasons takes a realistic approach to shopping cheaply and sustainably and proves that the vegan lifestyle is anything but expensive. As well as tasting good, these dishes look beautiful thanks to the wonderful photography of Manon Houston.

 

Season’s Eatings

I can’t think of a more apt time to write about seasonal eating. With food security at risk more than ever thanks to the Covid outbreak and Brexit (it’s still happening, in case you’d forgotten), it might be time to think about what we’re eating and where it comes from.

I started writing The Seasonal Vegan over a year ago when things were very different. I always try to eat seasonally, mainly because it tastes better, and I wanted to create recipes inspired by the different seasons.

For a while now, campaigners, food writers and chefs have advocated seasonal eating because it can have a positive impact on the environment and local communities. Now, in these unprecedented times, access to imported foods might become more difficult, and so seasonal eating is more important than ever.

You can still buy pretty much anything you want at the supermarket all year round – and fruit and vegetables tend to be ignored by panic buyers – but there are some very good reasons to eat with the seasons.

Buying seasonal produce is generally better for the environment because it requires lower levels of heating, lighting, pesticides and fertilisers than at other times of the year. Eating fruit and vegetables that have been grown in the UK reduces the energy needed to transport them from other countries – 26 per cent of all carbon emissions come from food production – so eating British asparagus in May uses less food mileage than buying what’s flown in from South America – ­and, of course, it’s tastier.

Because food in season is usually in abundance and has less distance to travel, it’s also cheaper. It costs less for farmers and distribution companies to harvest and get to the supermarket or greengrocer, which means that a British tomato bought in peak harvest season in August will cost less than one bought in January. And it’s not only cheaper at the big supermarkets – if you can, shopping at your local greengrocer, or farm shop can be just as cost effective. And although farmer’s markets can be a little pricier, you’ll be supporting a local business and you really do get what you pay for in terms of freshness, taste and quality.

Now, I’m no gardener (the flat we live in doesn’t have a garden) and I’ve never grown my own vegetables – not yet, anyway – but I love nature and I notice the change in the air as the months go by. Wouldn’t it be dull if we ate the same all year round? Nothing beats a warm stew with squash or beetroot when it’s cold outside, and now, at the peak of summer, we can enjoy succulent strawberries, tomatoes, broad beans and peas.

Eating seasonally is sometimes seen as inaccessible or elitist, but it really doesn’t have to be – and it’s possible to cook and eat fruit and vegetables in a way that’s  easy, inexpensive and tasty. Studies show that only 31 per cent of adults in the UK eat the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day – with just 18 per cent of children doing the same – and that’s something we need to address.

The Seasonal Vegan isn’t about being perfect, puritanical or prescriptive about eating what’s in season, but it does celebrate a rainbow of fruits and vegetables and all their health benefits – and it might inspire you to eat and cook a bit differently.

 

Recipe: Cucumber Gazpacho

Photograph by Manon Houston

 

15 minutes, plus 2 hours in the fridge

Serves 4-6

 

Ingredients

2-3 cucumbers, cut into chunks

1 onion, peeled and diced

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 slice of white bread, roughly torn

350ml hot vegetable stock

4 tsp rice vinegar

1-2 tsp tabasco sauce

1 tbsp sugar

Fresh basil

Flaked almonds

 

Method

1. Blend the cucumber, onion, garlic and bread using a food processor or a hand held blender. You should end up with a fairly smooth mixture. Tip into a large bowl and pour over the hot stock and the other ingredients and stir. Leave to cool, then when at room temperature, cover and refrigerate for at least two hours

2. Serve with toasted flaked almonds and torn basil leaves.

 

The Seasonal Vegan is available on the Seren website: £12.99

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