Far from a doom and gloom autopsy of the contemporary environmental crisis, ‘Awakening’ indulges in fun. From the craziness of shipping bottled water 6,000 miles, to how bacteria evolves for a counterattack, this collection laughs at humanity’s war on nature. After reading Love’s poetry, you will never look at nature in the same way.
“Sam’s musings on planetary survival emerged out of his pioneering work in the civil rights and environmental movements a half century ago, but have not stopped deepening. May the awakenings which have come to this big-hearted poet ripple out to transform our entire society, for Sam Love has become our modern-day Walt Whitman, a beam of light in this moment of darkness.”
– Dr. Gary Paul Nabhan, Author and Research Scientist on Southwestern Borderlands Food and Water Security at the University of Arizona.
“I generally find contemporary poetry overly pretentious, and intentionally opaque, but Sam’s poetry is lucid and provocative. Fifty years ago, as one of the first Earth Day regional organizers, Sam played a key role in Earth Day’s mobilizing millions of people. Now Sam writes beautifully of environmental shame and hope.”
– Denis Hayes, President of the Bullitt Foundation and National Coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970.
Today I’m welcoming poet Sam Love to The Shelf to talk about his latest poetry collection Awakening: Musings on Planetary Survival.
Awakening is an ecopoetry collection that examines the environmental crisis from a number of perspectives, musing on long-distance shipping to examining the evolution of the natural world and I’m delighted that Sam took the time out of his schedule to answer some questions and tell us more about Awakening, and to share one of his poems with The Shelf.
Hi Sam, welcome to The Shelf of Unread Books! Your first chapbook of eco and nature poetry, Awakening, has just been published and has already been nominated for the prestigious Laurel Prize.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the collection and its themes?
Awakening: Musings on Planetary Survival is a collection of my environmental poems that address critical ecological issues in a literary and sometimes fun way. Now issues like global warming have literally disappeared from the news as Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter absorb the media environment. But these ecological issues aren’t going away.
Each of the poems addresses a pressing issue such as global warming, plastic pollution, endocrine disruption, our insane support systems, migratory pattern changes, or deforestation. But rather than present them as a science tome, I frame the issues in very clear language and images that are relatable. I even had fun with some of them, for example in “One Word: Plastics” I speculated that aliens invented plastics, a material so “…enticing we couldn’t resist the lure of a plastic covered earth.”
Your poems explore various aspects of our relationship to nature and the environment. What is it that draws you to this subject?
I have been concerned about the environment since I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring as a teenager. I also worked on the national staff of the first Earth Day in 1970. April 22 was the fiftieth anniversary of the first Earth Day. Unfortunately, a great opportunity to promote environmental awareness was lost because all events were cancelled because of Covid-19.
I feel poets can play an important role in changing our environmental consciousness and they need to speak out in poems with clear messages. It is not a time for obscure images that we hope some people will get. Also, people are scared and depressed because of Covid-19, and we can provide inspiration and understanding. I recently put up a graphic on Facebook “Quarantine Your Body, Not Your Mind, Read Poetry.” Some people shared it.
Over the years I have had a number of environmental poems published so I decided to pull some together in a manuscript which Fly on the Wall Poetry Press published as Awakening: Musings on Planetary Survival.
In the last few years, the climate crisis has become an increasingly important topic on the world stage; however, environmental issues are often assumed to be the remit of scientists. What role do you think writers and the arts play – or should play – in helping to address environmental issues such as climate change, plastic waste, carbon emissions etc?
Environmental issues affect all of us. Poets and artists are gifted with the ability to hear our survival instinct screaming and they can visualize or articulate the cry for help.
Teachers could take inspiration from some of my poems that explore where things come from. They can develop exercises such as showing the class a plastic water bottle from Fiji and challenge them to write or draw about where the components come from. Or challenge the class to explore what native plants fed an earlier group of people. Covid-19 has revealed some real cracks in the food delivery systems and in “Karmic Revenge” I speculate that “native spirits are smiling as their ghosts watch can openers stare at empty grocery shelves.”
I recently published an article entitled “Short Loop Living” on Medium, and shortening our supply chains is a good way to think about our carbon footprint.
We are also seeing more ecopoetry appear. At first relegated to emerging small presses who paid only in copies, ecopoetry is now rocking the poetry world. Contests with substantial backing are now springing up to encourage green poems. One of the most prominent is the Laurel Prize. UK Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage donated his honorarium as Laureate to establish an annual prize for environmental, ecopoetry, or nature poetry books. The contest offers a first prize of £5,000. The Prize is administered by the Poetry School and follows the success of its annual Ginkgo Prize for Ecopoetry, an award for the best single ecopoem.
Some readers struggle with poetry – it’s often perceived as ‘difficult’, which I always think is a great shame. Do you have any tips for readers who might be interested in reading more poetry but are struggling to access and engage with poems? Where should they start when they look at a poem?
If possible, it helps to hear a poet read the poem in their voice. That’s why it is so exciting that Twitter is now allowing short videos. Poetry may be the original short attention span medium since most poems are relatively short. Also great poetry mines a phrase to create an image in your head as you are reading it. So many poems fall into categories like feminism, racial identity, ecopoetry, LGBTQ, teen angst etc. It may help to find a niche that you can relate to and read some of those poets. You may find they give voice to some of your inner angels and demons.
The Shelf note: I think this is a great idea for accessing poetry and there are some clips of Sam reading his work aloud on his website so do check that out!
Are there any particular natural landscapes or spaces that help inspire your work?
We really are in a new era with ecopoetry. It breaks from nature poetry that describes the landscape out there apart from us. Classical nature poetry romanticized and explored the natural world with poets like William Blake, Shelley, Keats, Mary Oliver, and Robert Frost. Other poets such as Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder focused us on how we live within nature and ways to lower our impact.
But travelogues and lyrical descriptions of nature tend to view nature as out there, apart from us. In a sense they harken back to the King James Bible’s interpretation of Genesis where God grants humans “dominion” over the Earth. According to one translation God admonished humans to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” The authors of Genesis never envisioned factory fish trawlers decimating entire species.
With the emergence of an ecopoetry sensibility, poets are recognizing that we are integrated into nature and our actions affect the ecological construct of the web of life. Our very existence, with our cities, technology, engineering, reductionist science and blessing from the almighty is wreaking havoc on our planet and leading to massive extinctions. For many ecopoets the clock is running out. Sustainability may be a truly radical concept. In my poem regretting the demise of the ecology symbol I write, “if everyone lives the American dream, we will need a planet, three times the size of Mother Earth, and the last time I looked, she’s not gaining weight.”
Your poem ‘Escape’ uses a quote from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, one of the foundational texts of nature writing. Is Thoreau a favorite writer and have his reflections on nature inspired or influenced your own work in any way?
Thoreau’s work was a celebration of observation and quieting the mind. When I recently reread Walden I realized it was a critique of the emerging industrial age with all of its busy-ness. He understood solitude is important to open one up to the natural world. I think the real problem today is overstimulation. I weed my inbox and there are still over 2,000 emails. We are constantly assaulted by noise. I used to edit TV commercials and you would hold a scene for three or four seconds. Then the pace picked up so now commercials are a strobing light show. The real casualty now is the loss of memory. We are so overloaded memory is disappearing from our culture. Today’s politicians can say or do something preposterous and a day later no one remembers it.
Can you tell us a little more about your writing process? How do you get from an initial idea to a finished poem? And what does a typical working day look like?
I read the news in both print and on line to observe the culture and I describe my work as exploring cracks in the culture. With environmental issues driven by consumption, those cracks may be stealing our children’s future. I will see something like an article on what’s happening to sperm and then I cogitate on the concept (cogitate is an old- fashioned word for slow deliberate thinking and I titled one of my poetry books Cogitation and lament that no one has time for it now). In the Awakening poem “Each Day” I encourage everyone through their actions to become their own ad agency to advertise a viable future.
You’ve previously written a children’s book, My Little Plastic Bag, to educate children about plastic waste. Did you find the writing process differed from the one you use when you write poetry? And what made you want to write for children?
Poetry is all about creating mental images. My Little Plastic Bag started as a poem I wrote about what happens to plastic bags on the side of the road. I cycle on some rural roads in North Carolina and I got so angry at all the plastic trash thrown from cars that I wrote the poem to let people know where the plastic goes. A version of it appeared in Eno, Duke University’s environmental arts magazine, and several people said it should be a children’s story so I teamed up with a wonderful local illustrator, Samrae Duke, and she brought my words to life. I am impressed with how fast kids get the lessons that there is no away and there are cycles in nature. A Spanish version is being used in a literacy program in rural Mexico and it made my day when the director sent me pictures of the kids reading the book.
I always ask guests on The Shelf to recommend some books – if any readers of Awakening wanted to find out more about ecopoetry, nature writing or writing about sustainability and the climate, who would you recommend they read?
One of the best contemporary books is Fly on the Wall Poetry Press’s Planet in Peril. The publisher is now recording some of the poems and putting them on the web so you can hear the poet’s voice. Two other anthologies are Earth Songs edited by Peter Abbs and The Ecopoetry Anthology edited by Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street.
A lot of ecopoetry has an immediacy to it and there are a number of Twitter accounts where you can find ecopoetry. One of the most active is Poets for the Planet (poetsfortheplanet.org).
Sam has also kindly agreed to share one of his poems from Awakening with us:
(A tale of two raindrops)
Nothing says affluence more
than a square bottle of pure water
from a virgin South Pacific ecosystem,
where raindrops fall on a pristine rainforest.
Empty American plastic
bottles travel thousands of miles
to Fiji for filling from
the mineral-laden volcanic aquifer.
Machines twist on Taiwan plastic caps
and apply labels
from who knows where.
Once filled and ready,
the square bottles are snugged
into an imported cardboard box.
Next, the bottles load into shipping containers,
so the water can move 6,000 miles
across the Pacific to ports in California
or through the Panama Canal to the East Coast.
Cranes like giant erector sets
then unload the water
for shipping to your store.
Savoring each smooth sip
evokes the illusion of health,
but wonderful for your body
is not wonderful for the planet
as one million Fiji water bottles
per day move around the world
on belching container ships.
To really enjoy Nature’s finest water
just ignore how its super-sized carbon footprint
contributes to the changing climate
with record hurricanes and floods.
This torrent of fresh rainwater
will be cleansed by municipal water systems
and piped to the tap of those who can’t afford
to grip a square bottle.
Thank you again to Sam for taking the time to talk to answer my questions and tell us more about Awakening! I hope this might encourage some readers to check out some of the ecopoets discussed so do let me know if you pick up Sam’s collection, or any of his recommendations!
Awakening by Sam Love is published by Fly on the Wall Press and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including the Fly on the Wall online store, Hive, Waterstones, and Book Depository.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to Isabelle from Fly on the Wall for putting me in touch with Sam and providing the sample poem and accompanying pictures for this post.