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Literature : Interview

Beyond the pastoral, James Sherry engages our biosphere with the syncretic Oops! Environmental Poetics.


Joan Jonas. Mirror Piece I, 1969, performance view, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson.

I won't describe his Bowery loft, the books left open on his table, or any other details concerning the interior of James Sherry's apartment, because it's not what he's concerned with; he is far more interested in what is happening outside.

James Sherry's most recent work, Oops! Environmental Poetics (BlazeVOX, 2013) addresses poets, ecologists, politicians, environmental scientists, and anyone else concerned by climate change. But don't go stuffing your ears yet in anticipation of the dreaded term, “global warming.” This book isn't your average finger-pointing, guilt-inducing publication about landfills and green energy; it's a proposed set of concepts and theories for overriding an age-old way of thinking that's informed the system for too long. It's a series of suggestions for maintaining “connectedness,” not a list of bills that Congress should be passing. It's a poem and an essay and a far cry from An Inconvenient Truth. Sherry proposes a new thesis on the front of global warming: that it is caused by desire.

Oops! demonstrates in its structure and form a degree of interconnectedness: academic essays flow into prose poetry which morph into lyrical which hatches experimental. Oops! isn't laden with language writing like some of Sherry's former works, but certainly doesn't lack it. He explains how he spent the last decade cutting and pasting the various fragments.

Zoe R. Panagopoulos In the introduction you mention playing with a few different forms before arriving at Oops!. Can you take us through that initial process of trial and error?

James Sherry In 1991 I published a book called Our Nuclear Heritage composed of short essays and poems that linked to form a more complete idea. I tried to make each essay a partial solution to a centralized model. In Oops! I initially tried to extend the ideas to longer more composite discussions, but found that the complex interactions of various themes—which also lead to the point of the book—meant that each essay didn’t have clear boundaries. I considered writing a single long piece, maybe even avoiding paragraph breaks, but felt it was not only too hard to read but also didn’t reflect the observable independence of individual organisms.

So after writing a few long pieces, I chopped them back to the short form of Our Nuclear Heritage. In Oops!, however, I tried to render each essay both an independent entity and contributing to a larger whole—a distributed form. The short form accommodates different shapes based on the theme (or themes) of the essay. Sometimes I focused on a single theme with others revolving around it. Sometimes I balanced two or three themes to show their interaction when they were treated on the same level of hierarchy, such as biological risk juxtaposed to risk in experimental poetry juxtaposed to systems management of risk. I like this kind of formal experimentation and think it’s relevant for readers to do both close and distant reading of the text. I recommend reading Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees to find out about distant reading and its environmental associations.

ZRP Did you intend for the form and style within the structural layout of Oops! to better exemplify the ideas it's comprised of than the text itself?

JS I wanted the method of linking ideas in Oops! to reflect environmental concepts found in science, politics, and poetry. I tried to balance between the thematics and the form/style rather than to make grammar lead the lexicon as in language poetries. In this sense, I think the text at a detailed, syntactic level is comparatively conservative/conservationist. Hybrid intentions link form, style, and theme. Oops! valorizes chimera, rather than a single, centralized intent, to yoke incompatible forms and ideas, and tells whether—contrary to popular opinion—they function effectively.

Plus, intent in poetry does not preclude unintended environmental/natural forms in the work. As an editor I find that so much of what people write contains involuntary natural structures; we can’t help it. My piece on Fiona Templeton’s You—The City, published in Postmodern Culture, is an extended example of finding environmental structures in innovative texts.

ZRP Oops! draws a lot of attention to nature poets who focus on aspects of the environment that are romanticized or, perhaps, separate from those of reality. Can you speak a little bit more about how that imagery compares to the current, more stark state of nature—as we know or don't know it?

JS I want to be supportive of other writers who are doing good work in a mode that dates back centuries, the Pastoral tendency, the nature poem. The household earth imagery of natural phenomena is attractive, but will turn out to operate as a mechanism of social control; its aesthetics narrow the field to nature imagery, to the human ego in nature. I’d suggest we make our sense of poetry more inclusive. We don’t need to be forever told how beautiful and intricate nature is, but re-imagine how we are part of it. Oops! launches images on many scales and on many subjects. And in environmentalism, scaling projects cultural change as much as subjectivity.

EJ McAdams and I wrote a collaborative review of Jack Collom's Exchanges of Earth and Sky. In it, Collom writes poems in two separate sections: usually one about himself and the other about some natural phenomenon like a bird. But he connects the two sections with ampersands; those ampersands link humanity and nature. For us the connection between birds and humans can be more than “&.” Check out the review in Jacket2; the collaboration was accomplished with MS Word comments.

Oops! goes beyond activism to construct a solutionist approach using poetry and styles that include humanity and nature as part of a single complex entity. Throughout the book I look for ways to integrate the human and non-human parts of the biosphere: love poetry and reproduction or overpopulation, multiplicity and increased security, similar structures at different scales. There are many examples; it was hard to stop writing once I started to see the connections: “Reason is a gift of nature” (Kant). War and greed are as natural as trees. There are exceptions of course: where eco-poets do find themselves not in nature but of nature. Charles Olson sometimes falls into nature. Jackson Pollock famously said, “I am nature.” Jonathan Skinner describes his “new nature poetry” as a kind of “linguistic topology.” There are plenty of contrary examples. Oops! tries to show the wealth and indeterminacy of poetic solutions and images when humanity identifies itself in the environment.

ZRP I was surprised to see prose, for the most part, dominate this work and had expected more poetry (in both the more and less traditional sense).

JS There are some essays where poetry gets included as part of other discourses because it's important to me to practice the different ways people think and write together rather than all these separate discourses under separate covers. Which is, you know, as a result of the way we live, increasingly difficult to do. A new manuscript called Entangled Bank focuses more on poetry, and I’m not surprised that you’re surprised.

ZRP So the idea of “connectivity” really mandated the form and structure of Oops!.

JS Exactly. I think that's really well put because the concept that I decided was the most important is to understand how we're connected to each other and to focus on those connections rather than just: I'm focused on me, you're focused on you. And we don't get very far that way. I met a famous writer on the street the other day, and after ten minutes of telling me what she was doing, she said, "But enough about me; what did you think of my new book?" That's not the way the world is constituted. First of all, we all share basic resources: our air, food, and water. We all share space, and we share culture, streets and styles, spit and Shakespeare. So it's part of our makeup that we work together; mutual aid is a human strength, way above other primates, and we need to start to define those connections more rigorously. Rather than just me expressing myself as a poet and you expressing yourself as an interviewer, our identities are really composite. That’s how the interview makes sense.

ZRP You call out self-interested poets for placing themselves “on an island” by failing to fully engage with the world outside their immediate bubble. Stylistically, do you see Oops! "on an island" away from those outside of language writing?

JS Stylistically, sometimes. Oops! is rarely radically styled. Some of my poems (especially in the unpublished manuscript, Entangled Bank) are written in language [writing], flarf, or conceptual styles and methods, but overall the discourse in Oops! is not particularly difficult. I'd like to think of this writing as “A Conceptual Memoir of Language Ecosystems” by which I mean that style doesn’t need to be consistent. John Ashbery said to me, “James, you have no style.

Some will read the Chinese essays and some will read the conceptual essays and some will read the flarf poem. Each person can have her own reading of the book because of the different styles and shapes of ideas. In that sense it’s language oriented but not locked into it. At least, I hope not.

ZRP On the back cover, Oops! is categorized under Poetry/Essay/Science/Politics/Ecology. Did you have any notion of who your audience would be mainly comprised of?

JS First off, I should say that I've been writing the book over many years so it was not composed initially as a single concept. It was written in pieces and then later put together. When I did put it together I was trying to do so for different readerships. So rather than addressing just the art world, I was also trying to address professionals in a bunch of fields who I think will be influential in this arena: people in the environmental area, people in systems, people in policy areas. And I don't expect anybody to have to read through the whole book to get the point, but if you see something that interests you, let's say you're a policy person, well what are the poets thinking about this subject? If you're a systems person (where I have some street cred) you might read about multiple receivers.

ZRP You draw much attention to the roles of "highly productive individuals" and how they directly and indirectly influence us. How must those roles change in order for an environmental culture to sustain itself?

JS This may be the most important question for changing how people view the biosphere. We have been duped into thinking that all this competition is really going on [between highly productive individuals]. But if you in fact look at how these highly productive individuals interact, they are not competing; they are working closely together; coopetition is their phrase. They are creating scenarios that they will benefit from in the future. They are promoting the public idea of competition in order to set one person against another, one group against another to weaken those groups and make individuals more brittle. But that's not in fact how they work, and it shouldn't be the way we work.

We as intellectuals are concerned about education, but in fact the greatest threat to humanity is the mis-education our children—including those of the rich and powerful—receive that is rooted in competition, or the adult support of it in sports when all sport is really collaborative and rules-based. After WWII corporate leaders viewed their role as stewards of American prosperity. But gradually the resurgence of conservative ideology driven by those oligarchs and their captive mouthpieces, young people now think interaction in the world is about competition. Everything turns competitive. Oops! tries to show that most interactions are not only cooperative or commensal, but that evolution itself is more about mutual aid than competition. In fact, competition in nature and in culture only really relates to reproduction. Human inference has spread competition all over society. We look at so many things in terms of sexual reproduction for which it's really an inappropriate metaphor.

ZRP Sexual reproduction seems to be one of the primary means by which you remind us as humans of our connections to animals.

JS Bi-parental sex is really a response to risk in ecosystems. As risk increases, sexual competition becomes more important. As risk decreases, sexual competition becomes less important. If you look at animals, they compete heavily during rutting periods, fighting for mates and the like, but the rest of the time there's virtually no fighting or competition going on among them. If you look at other organisms that don't use bi-parental reproduction but rather have a single sex reproduction, you can see how competition disappears almost entirely. And for those organisms, you don't always have clear species lines. But the most interesting example is among those organisms who could be either single parent or bi-parental. In those cases where there are a lot of parasites in the environment, they tend toward bi-parental reproduction. But in the case where there are fewer parasites, that is, a less risky environment, then they tend to have a single parent reproductive process. Think also of risk and queer theory.

So how can we overcome our own cultural bias toward projecting sexual reproduction throughout social interactions? Competition is an outlier and of increasingly little use as human overpopulation dominates ecosystems. We can compete for fewer and fewer resources, or we can realize that cooperation and symbiosis represent the core of our relations in society and in our interactions with the biosphere.

ZRPOops! calls fault to society lacking a true “environmental culture,” claiming that achieving such requires a “contemporary cast.” Do you feel that this up and coming generation (which includes your son—and me) is equipped for that task?

JS The cause of global warming is desire. Young people are more aware today and can transform that desire. To implement these changes they are going to have to start looking around them to see what it is they must do, heads up. As environmental degradation increases, people’s view of their world will increasingly focus on how they understand nature. In that way, nature becomes socially constructed. Instead of seeing the world through a Chaucerian lens where we identify ourselves through our role or job—the knight, the squire, the priest—we are starting to separate socially by how we view nature. The entrepreneur sees the world as a skills-controlled cornucopia. The hermit sees it as a freely available cornucopia. Nature has unlimited resources for the physicist since matter can be neither created nor destroyed, while the ecologist sees resources as limited. Michael Thompson has several interesting essays on this topic and I cite his work in Oops!.

Think about how you might view nature differently depending on what you do. As a writer you might see the world differently than you do as a woman. Accepting inconsistency in our world view is consistent with how nature operates. The fixed rules are few and the optional formations many. Your identities in environmental terms are built from components: the intermediate organizations that define you as much as your inherent/natural self.

James Sherry is the author of eleven books of poetry and prose. He is the editor of Roof Books and founder of the Segue Foundation in New York City.

Zoe R. Panagopoulos is a Brooklyn-based writer and photographer studying at the New School for Public Engagement. Her photos have been published in NY_ and 12th Street.

Tags:
Environmentalism
Nature
Poetics
Poetry
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