Writing Ecopoetry During Doomstead Days: A Conversation with Brian Teare
“In a global state of precarity, we don’t have choices other than looking for life in this ruin.” A quotation from Anna Tsing, this epigraph to Brian Teare’s Doomstead Days effectively introduces his new collection of eight extended “watershed poems” developed from walks through cities and rural landscapes.
Prompted initially by observing efforts to rescue an oil-covered western grebe, these place-based works foreground the multispecies impacts of anthropogenic environmental degradation. Acknowledging the porosity of bodies in a world poisoned by extraction industries, Teare’s poems explore how the impossibility of self-containment connects us in ways that are frightening yet also generative.
Brian Teare came to Madison to give a poetry reading on April 15, 2019, and we spoke that afternoon. Among the topics we discussed were his process of writing as he walks, his uses of botanical nomenclature and industrial history, and the impact on his ecopoetics of having suffered chronic illness.
Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Lynn Keller: The poems in your new book Doomstead Days arise from very specific locations. There’s a sense of place that’s enacted in a lot of the poems that trace walks, and it seems that from quite personal experiences of the local you’re able to connect to larger global environmental issues. I’d love to hear you talk about what walking means to you and provides for you.
Brian Teare: I’m someone who feels very strongly about bioregional literacy, through Gary Snyder’s advocacy for bioregional literacy and living in one’s watershed and bioregion, being very deeply of a place in that way. Since I teach environmental studies at an urban campus, I think a lot about what bioregional literacy means in a city. My students often ask, what use is it to me to know when the first flowering trees flower? I totally get that, but I do think knowing where your water comes from—and knowing how the oil industry and water intersect in Philadelphia (which is a major part of the book)—is an important part of bioregional literacy.
Walking is a form of physical intimacy with a place and a way of getting to know a place on a human scale. Ultimately, for me walking is a deeply pleasurable measure of a place, and it generates language through encounters with sensations, smells, tastes, and textures. I think watching anthropogenic change at a local level the way one can in Philadelphia is a way of measuring with one’s body and mind the things that are happening in analogous ways on a biospheric level, and the way that we’re entangled and inextricable from the more “natural” processes around us like hydrology. One can witness those things on foot in a way that isn’t abstract, as a way of teaching oneself what it means to be in a place.
LK: Some of the poems in Doomstead Days suggest that you write as you walk, not just that you take out a notebook when you sit down or stop for a rest, but that you sometimes make notes as you’re walking. Can you talk more about how the actual writing process and walking are connected for you?
BT: Each time I walk a place in a deliberate way, I generate what I think of as somatic map of my first encounter that with the place—a combination of phrases that I generate on foot and think of as the rhythm of the walk. Some of them are fragmentary and notational like a musical phrase, and others are more fully realized. Some encounters or parts of the walk evoke a lot of language, and others you just kind of walk by as ambient noise.
Every kind of being—trees, birds, mammals—requires its own form of looking with its own form of language.
I keep notes as the measure of the walk, but I’ll also eventually sit down and transcribe it. Then I’ll interleave in what I’ve been reading. In the poem “Convince me you have a seed there,” some of the language comes from a website about GMO trees, which is what triggered that walk, and some from my reading of Thoreau and Michael Marder, the plant philosopher. All of that makes it into the final weave that is based on the somatic map of the original encounter with the place.
LK: It seems that you love learning the scientific names of plants and you incorporate bits of that terminology into your poetry. How do you think naming alters our attention to our environment?
BT: I think naming, particularly scientific naming, is a form of attention. It’s also a tension. I remember when I was working the very beginning of Companion Grasses, which is where I would say that naming really starts for me, I bought this field guide to grasses. I went outside, and I realized how hard it was and how differently I would have to look at things in order to even begin really recognizing shapes and parts of the plant. It was a completely different way of looking. It taught me that every kind of being—trees, birds, mammals—requires its own form of looking with its own form of language. I think of that as relational and also empirical and scientific. I am aware, even though my looking is not based on killing, that my doing this work is based on a long history of slaughter and specimen collection. So, looking and naming is a species of attention, and it can be a respectful nonviolent one, but it’s always enmeshed in a long history of violence.
LK: You’ve suffered a great deal of chronic illness. How do you think your own experience of illness feeds into your writing as an ecopoet, particularly in this new book Doomstead Days?
BT: There’s a really great new volume of essays about environmental humanities and disability studies and the myths of the “natural” as a place of health and the naturalist as a healthy body. It made me think about the ways in which we don’t think of Thoreau as tubercular, out huckleberrying while he’s very ill. We don’t often think of Rachel Carson as dying of cancer while writing most of Silent Spring. So what are the ways in which environmental literature has edited out illness? It was really important to me to not erase that aspect of embodiment.
This poet body that moves through these poems is as enmeshed, as polluted and polluting, as everything else.
Late Thoreau’s writings on leaf litter and the role of decay as its own part of the life cycle made me think about how to place illness side by side with natural phenomenon. I wanted to place the experience of degenerative arthritis in the context of an embodiment within the larger world and the crises the larger world is facing without claiming that my illness has something to do with environmental crisis. It doesn’t. But they are simultaneous. In “A Poem Is a Walk,” A. R. Ammons says that a poem, like a walk, has a gait characteristic of the walker. My gait is sometimes inflected by chronic illness. I thought of it as part of the record of these poems and part of their commitment to being embodied in a place.
LK: I think that vulnerability is an enhancement in the work, and it’s not separated from something else that you insist on, which is the harmfulness of chemicals that we are releasing into our environment and that are absorbed into our bodies. Do you see your work as trying to help raise awareness of chemical pollution and its consequences?
BT: The reason I called this book Doomstead Days is because we are living in doomstead days. We have a government that is deregulating protections for, well, pretty much everything, but for the environment in particular. It’s closing our borders and hoarding resources. That is a doomsteading mentality, shutting things down and only taking care of your own. Unfortunately, this is becoming enshrined in law and policy, and it’s the exact opposite vision of the world that seems to me to be how the world actually works.
There are basics about being alive now in terms of the toxic burdens we carry. In Philadelphia, with proximity to the oil refinery, there are very specific toxic burdens that people bear in relation to that refinery. This poet body that moves through these poems is as enmeshed, as polluted and polluting, as everything else. I think it’s crucial to the moral and ethical impulse of the book to show the painfulness of that self-knowledge. It took me ten years to write this book and to really come to some way of assimilating the knowledge of my own complicities, and also to come out the other side to say there is still joy in this entanglement.
Featured Image: Brian Teare and Lynn Keller. Photo by Nicole Bennett, 2019.
Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.
Brian Teare is the author of five critically acclaimed books, most recently Companion Grasses, a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Award, and The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven. His sixth book, Doomstead Days, is just out from Nightboat Books. His honors include Lambda Literary and Publishing Triangle Awards, and fellowships from the NEA, the Pew Foundation, the American Antiquarian Society, the Headlands Center for the Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. An Associate Professor at Temple University, he lives in South Philadelphia, where he makes books by hand for his micropress, Albion Books. Website. Contact.
Lynn Keller is Martha Meier Renk Bascom Professor of Poetry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Director of CHE (the Center for Culture, History, and Environment). A former Guggenheim Fellow, she has written numerous articles and four books on contemporary poetry, including, most recently, Recomposing Ecopoetics: North American Poetry of the Self-Conscious Anthropocene. She co-edits the Contemporary North American Poetry Series from the University of Iowa Press. Her previous contributions to Edge Effects include the podcast episode “Why We Need Experimental Poetry in the Anthropocene: A Conversation with Lynn Keller” (May 2018). Website. Contact.