Much like the natural landscapes he writes about, the poetic world that Jonathan Skinner inhabits is teeming with diversity and unexpected fusions. In 2001, Skinner founded ecopoetics, a journal that is at once art and critical inquiry, featuring poems, essays, drawings, photographs, and other mixed media that navigate the varied landscape of ecopoetry. Skinner’s first collection, Political Cactus Poems (2005), examined the starkly beautiful terrain and complicated history of the Southwest, where he grew up. His most recent volume of poetry, Birds of Tifft (2011), reads like a naturalist guide with botanical photographs and hand-drawn maps. He is currently working on two projects, a book about the urban landscapes of Frederick Law Olmsted and another on animal sounds in contemporary poetry. Skinner spoke with the Poetry Foundation from the United Kingdom, where he is an assistant professor in the writing program at the University of Warwick.
How would you explain ecopoetics to somebody who has never heard of it?
I call it the original “home ec.” … Poetics, broadly considered, goes back to the Greek root poesis, “to make,” so it can include artists, musicians, architects, dancers, and writers. For me, ecopoetics is not exclusively a writerly practice. It’s the question of how creative endeavors can contribute to learning how to be at home on the planet, learning how to be better neighbors to our fellow species on the planet. To get over this thing about being alien intelligences on some strange exotic rock somewhere. That’s why I’m writing a book on Frederick Law Olmsted right now. I think he was one of the great nineteenth-century poets who wasn’t content with the pen or the paintbrush, but decided to move earth and sculpt society, in a certain sense.
At the very micro level, artists, writers, and musicians can contribute to the way we listen on a day-to-day basis, the way we use words, what is the meaning of a word. These words get thrown around—“green,” “sustainable,” “eco”—and if you don’t have poets in there challenging, examining, weighing, reassessing, and reinventing the use of those words, I think they can easily just become tokens for the kind of greenwashing campaign that is all around us.
It sounds like you’re distinguishing between ecopoetics and ecopoetry. If we talk about ecopoetry specifically, how can it make a social impact?
That’s the big question. It’s the question for any tendency in poetry that wants to engage or make a difference politically. I’m pretty pessimistic. I don’t really think poetry makes much of an impact at all, in a certain sense. Maybe that’s its saving grace. I mean, very few people even know that poetry exists or that it’s being written by living human beings, especially in America. Advertisers read poetry, and they steal sometimes from poets, and that’s one way that poetry, in maybe kind of a dystopian way, can affect the discourse. The relationship between what poets do to language and with language and the mainstream discourse is never direct, and it’s always a matter of faith. But I don’t think poets can go on faith, and I do believe strongly in audience: writing to audience, thinking about audience, and being adventurous in one’s cultivation of audience. The most pleasure I’ve gotten out of performing, sharing, reading my poetry to, and engaging the public has been with diverse audiences—audiences that are made up of not just poets but birders, scientists, educators, people of different ages, children, retired people. I think there’s somehow something about ecopoetics that allows that to happen, without being a matter of writing to a particular audience. …
I led a workshop in the Olmsted park in Buffalo … and something like 30 people came, of all different backgrounds. Some people who had spent their entire life in Buffalo said, “You know, I’d never come to this part of the park that you took us to.” I made them walk and write and observe, and we shared a poem at the end. They were all struck at how they’d noticed things they’d never noticed before. As a site for pedagogy, there’s a way in which ecopoetics can really do local work. Ecopoetics is a site where all different kinds of poetry are practiced in common, with non-poets as well. It’s a site of investigation.
I’m curious about your work on the Olmsted parks. You’ve kept a blog about them, and now you have a book on the way. Why are you interested in Olmsted?
In a certain sense, the Olmsted project started with my dissertation work. I was working with Susan Howe at the University of Buffalo. I said I wanted to write my dissertation in relation to the open spaces of Buffalo. I wanted to ground it somehow in some sort of real engagement with the space and the ground where I was writing it. And she said, “You know, you really should look at Olmsted.” Buffalo is often considered to be his best-planned city. It’s one of his most successful park systems. It’s quite elaborate. There are six or seven Olmsted parks, and the parkway was practically invented in Buffalo. So I looked at Olmsted, and then that got me thinking about the picturesque and the curious Anglo-European tradition of green spaces and the aesthetics of the picturesque. I also started thinking about how that got combined with the social project that Olmsted had, which was to civilize American cities but also to foster some kind of neutral ground for a nation in crisis. Central Park was built just as the Civil War was erupting. He traveled south and observed and wrote volumes about slavery. Even though he didn’t write explicitly about the relation between his parks [and] the race question, increasingly Olmsted scholars think that was foremost in his mind. One of his goals for the parks was as places where the democratic dream could be realized. So ultimately the Olmsted project for me became about public space, and about commons, and about the status of public space in the U.S. and North America. The question of, can you have a democracy, can you have revolutions, without some sort of real space wherein people of all different stripes and backgrounds can experience, bump into, dialogue with, argue with one another?
What got you interested in ecopoetics in the first place?
I grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the shadow of Los Alamos, about thirty miles away. It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. It’s sort of ironic that the builders of the atomic bomb chose this very spot. … I grew up with the awareness of what actually happened there, and I think it planted in my consciousness this relentless sense of the tension and the contradiction in our relationship to landscape and environment. …
When I came back from college, I was living in New Mexico and I got a job. … My job entailed the transcription of talks that had been given at the Bioneers conferences. There were all these really super-cool, innovative approaches to the environmental crisis that just opened up for me this alternative stance. I thought, “Here are people who are applying creativity to the problems; they’re seeking solutions.” It’s an applied poetics, really. At the same time I was in the process of developing as a poet and reading a lot of innovative poetry … some of the experimental language poets, like Bernadette Mayer. People who were being very adventurous with language and even sometimes with their lives. I thought, “Why don’t these poets and innovators get together?”
And then the other piece of it was that the ecopoetics that was in print was like the same five or seven writers over and over again. Mostly white, mostly male, writing mostly the same kind of poem. It just struck me: if eco-poetics, being engaged in the “eco,” is, I assume, interested in diversity, why is there so little diversity in the literature? At the time I thought I should create a site where conversations can happen between these different constituencies that aren’t even aware of each other.
Are you familiar with the concept of permaculture?
My knowledge of permaculture is simple, but I’m aware of it.
The reason I brought it up is because the description of your journal reads: “ecopoetics is a more or less annual journal dedicated to exploring creative, critical edges between making and ecology.” One of the important concepts in permaculture is the concept of “the edge,” which is the place where two ecological communities meet, and where there is the most biodiversity.
I was teaching at a community college in northern New Mexico. I could take a course for free, so I took a course in environmental studies, just because I wanted to learn from a guy named Fred Swetnam. He was a retired park ranger, an old guy with amazing experience in landscape management in New Mexico over decades. I learned so much in that course, and I think “the edge effect” was one of the concepts I learned. It’s the idea of the increased productivity, the more abundant kind of thriving life along the edge between different kinds of habitats. I also think I picked that up from Bill Cronon and his book Changes in the Land, about the early contact period in American history, and how the natives would burn and manage the landscape in certain ways, so as to multiply edges and create a kind of patchwork landscape to increase game. My thinking was, “Well, let’s bring two different disciplines together, or even within poetry.” For me, ecopoetics was partly an attempt to address what was at the time considered to be a crisis in the poetry community between language poets and the more traditional workshop poets. Or between spoken word and a more sort of hermetic writerly practice. It had gotten to be really toxic and deadly, especially in New York City, where I had been living for a year. I thought ecopoetics could be a site where you could have a more traditional poem and a more experimental poem side by side and just sort of see what happens.
How do you see the relationship between ecopoetry and the rest of the poetry world?
It’s hard to say. There’s an ever-ramifying network of practices of ecopoetics. They might not even use the term “ecopoetics,” and for reasons that I entirely respect—whether they be poets who are involved in developing a poetics of walking, or poets who are thinking about animals or our relationship to the animal, or poets who are interested in critiquing the oil economy, or writing about plastics or what Timothy Morton called hyper-objects. But then in the mainstream events, like conferences, you still find that gender, race, class, politics always come first and then environmental/eco will kind of get tacked on. At least we’re at the point where people don’t feel like they can get away with ignoring it altogether. But you still feel like it’s kind of an afterthought. I still haven’t figured out why that is. … [E]copoetics isn’t about getting to go to Alaska or Yosemite. It’s really about observing what’s happening in your backyard.
Correction, April 18: Jonathan Skinner grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, not Los Alamos, as the article originally stated.