“While a few poems in our anthology offer a perspective on how humans can respond to the reality of extinction, others give us an awareness of how we can struggle to keep what we still have. Some poems share earnest insights into our own evolution, and others offer grim warnings or raise voices against the imminent threat of extinction and the fate of our planet. Some poets spin interconnected incantations and weave healing nature through their blood, and others honour it by connecting the sustainable with their personal poetic bones. The environmental theme of most poems can inspire meditation as well as a commitment to apocalyptic action. The poets anthologised here offer landscapes of beauty and joy, of rustic retreat, of communion with our natural world, against the larger looming questions of human survival, of spurring toward conservation and preservation, of recognising our ancestral knowledge, of a complicated pact and a complex impact,” introduces us Nishi Chawla to the groundbreaking poetry anthology edited by her and K. Satchidanandan, called Greening the Earth.
“The anthology, in short, is our kind of shock tactic to the glaring lacunae within our urbanised, post-industrial society. We cannot stress enough the ‘sustainable’ route palpably felt in the ‘sustainable’ poetic voices of our anthology. Along with our conscious ecowarrior poets, Greening the Earth is our kind of responsible activism,” she shares further. Read more from our conversation with both the editors about poetry for climate action below:
How would you describe your relationship with poetry as today?
Nishi Chawla: It is hard to appreciate poetry per se without plumbing into the deeper dimensions of poems. We have both been writing and teaching poetry for most of our lives, and our commitment and devotion to poetry has been as enduring as our relationship to mother earth. Living our own individual and separate lives, now in different lands, poetry is what connects us as human beings as well as poets.
KS: Organic. Even while I am not actually writing, lines and images fill my mind. Poetry is my way of talking to myself, to others, to nature and the universe. It is my primary means of engaging with the world(s) I live in — inner as well as outer.
How was the book, Greening the Earth: A Global Anthology of Poetry conceived?
NC: After the enormous success of our first anthology, Singing in the Dark, we were keen to co-edit another global anthology on something that is as relevant to our modern times as the pandemic that reshaped our reality a few years ago. The environmental crisis seemed to be a natural sequel to Singing in the Dark.
It is interesting that poets writing in this current phase of ‘green postmodernism’ have revitalised the referentiality of language. The definition of the term ‘postmodern’ is very contextual. Antithetical to modernism, the postmodern can be viewed from a socio-political and cultural perspective as it relies on the economic forces of capitalism and globalisation. If language is not neutral, then the aesthetics of postmodern poetry is referential. And green poetry, specifically the poetry and literature of ‘green postmodernism,’ helps us look upon the world as context. It helps us incorporate the natural environment and the earth as part of our lives in a very real sense. The catchphrases of sustainable, integrated, holistic, conscious, and cosmic, emerge in interpretive practices of the poetry of our times to make us reflect on environmental justice and equity as well as the forces that threaten the earth.
KS: I had helped Nishi Chawla in editing an earlier volume, Singing in the Dark on her request. The idea was hers though the title was mine, a phrase borrowed from Bertolt Brecht (“Will there be singing in dark times? Yes, singing about darkness”). After its publication I began to feel it should have a companion volume that upholds hope. Covid 19 was around and discussions on climate change had caught on. Several philosophers including Bruno Latour and writers including Amitav Ghosh suggested the Anthropocene — the age of human being as the master of everything — was over and we are entering a new age of companionship and harmony with nature, Symbiocene, or else we are on the verge of extinction as a species. I felt we need to address this question too and thus the idea of a collection of poems on or around nature and environment emerged. The title was already in my mind, Greening the Earth. I shared the idea with Nishi, as we had together edited the earlier anthology. She was only happy to help.
The diversity within poetic inventions is magnanimous. Could you tell us a little bit about your curatorial process behind the anthology.
KS: We did not give a public call as that would lead to a deluge of poems making the selection difficult; instead we approached poets we know and trust and requested them to send the poems they have around the theme of the anthology. In the original version there were many poems by each poet; but the publisher had problems of size; so we had to limit the number of poems to one for each poet, without leaving out any poet entirely.
NC: Since I live and teach in the US, it was easy for me to reach out to established American poets. K Satchidanandan as director of the Kerala Literary Festival, is well known to all the well known poets across India and the globe. Since the book was commissioned by Penguin Random House which sets its own gold standard in publishing only the best, we were keen make our selection process rigorous. It is always challenging to break the hearts of many aspiring and sincere minded poets. In the end, though, we had to exercise some caution and judgment in accepting the most relevant as well as the most inspiring of poems from a diverse range of established poets.
What for you was the biggest challenge of creating this book?
KS: While sending out the requests we were not sure they would all have poems that suit the anthology, but most poets had some poem on nature or environment as that is a universal concern in our times. Then there was the question of choice where Nishi and Elizabeth from Penguin came to help in a big way. Of course we also had to get the bios and edit them, which involved a lot of resizing where the Penguin editors readily helped and also choose a good cover from those offered. Creating connections is the real challenge for all theme anthologies, but we hope we have pulled through.
NC: I would imagine that the time it took for us to select the most relevant poems for the anthology and also stay inclusive about a broad spectrum of poets, was a challenge by itself, even though we enjoyed the process immensely. The rich and diverse array of poetic voices that we have included here grapple with the ongoing environmental crisis in their own kind of permeable thoughts, words and images. Within the polemics of literary debate, ‘nature poetry’ has had a bad rap with publishers until only a few decades ago when climate change became a real issue. While nature poetry has never been the exclusive domain of the Greek and Latin pastorals or the British Romantic poets, its true merit was diminished by the publishing industry in the twentieth century. It is only in the last decade or so that "Greening the Earth" has regained an astonishing political currency and urgency. From being perceived as merely ‘descriptive’ in a pejorative sense, it has assumed a definite shift and rich political dimension as our often destructive relationship with our environment has become a hard reality. Connecting to mother earth through poetry, understanding the true worth of our environment through verse, has become important as the environmental crisis looms large amid all of humanity. The intricate connection with our ecosystem, with nature and with our biosphere, seems fraught as humanity is threatened with extinction. The need for emissions reduction, the need to heed global warming, the need to recognise ourselves as thoughtless and greedy manipulators, has become overwhelming.
The anthology is rather urgent and necessary in its intention and scope. What do you hope the readers take away from this book?
KS: The message that human beings are not necessarily the masters of the universe which existed before us and will exist after us if we become extinct, that too much of human intervention in nature, often promoted by capitalist greed, means depletion of environment that is ultimately suicidal, that we need to live in harmony with all beings around us rather than considering them enemies — we often forget that from bacteria to birds and beasts and trees are necessary for our own survival. I was recently reading Amitav Ghosh’s fable, The Living Mountain which sums up our situation allegorically and beautifully. It is a critique of greed, capitalistic profit-mongering, colonisation and the consequent destruction of nature.
NC: As climate change worsens, poetry may also play a role in driving home the message of ecological regeneration to the readers and policymakers. I have read somewhere that, “There have been many histories of poetry, but its natural history has yet to be written.” If we look at poetry from the criteria of the ‘environmental text,'' then yes, the ecological consciousness projected in poetry can play a vital role in understanding the bonds and harmony within various elements of nature. The interdependence of natural elements and the significance of ecological regeneration is often driven home by green poetry that helps us realise the environmental problems caused by massive industrialisation, chemicals and pollutants, population explosion, devastation wrought by human activities on the environment. Even though, in W.H. Auden’s words, ‘poetry makes nothing happen,’ eco poetry and green poetry can help us reassess our attitude as well as our damaging impact on the environment. From that point, the message of ecological regeneration becomes clear to poetry readers as well as to policymakers.
Lastly, what are you working on next?
NC: I am working on my eighth poetry collection that will be focused on ‘Race and Religion.’ I am also helping edit my fourth feature film on Gandhi, MLK and Thoreau that I wrote and directed.
KS: I am now concentrating on collecting my own work as I am getting old. I have enough new poems for a collection in Malayalam and a parallel collection in English. With some more stories I will have enough stories for a second collection and have enough poems for children for a third collection in that genre. Many translators are also working on selections of my poetry in different Indian and foreign languages, on their own. I also have a lot of organising work to do as the Director of Kerala Literature Festival and the President of the Kerala Sahitya Akademi. All these are keeping me alive and active at seventy-seven.
Words Nidhi Verma
R: Photo by Sikha Khanna