Why We Need Experimental Poetry in the Anthropocene: A Conversation with Lynn Keller

Lynn Keller stands in front of several lines of poetry written in grey words on a wall. The words "en-wrap" "swaddled" "holdfast" and "Buddha" are emboldened.

The phrase “poetry and the environment” probably brings to mind hallmarks of the American literary canon: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wendell Berry, or Mary Oliver. But in the twenty-first century a new generation of poets is changing the aesthetic contours, conceptual boundaries, and subject matter of “nature poetry” in works that reflect and respond to our current environmental crises. Lynn Keller, in her recently published book Recomposing Ecopoetics: North American Poetry of the Self-Conscious Anthropocene (University of Virginia Press, 2018), prefers the term “ecopoetics” to describe the capacious way that contemporary poets bring together humans, nature, culture, and the nonhuman world. For as poet Juliana Spahr writes in Well Then There Now, “I was more suspicious of nature poetry because even when it got the birds and the plants and the animals right it tended to show the beautiful bird but not so often the bulldozer off to the side that was destroying the bird’s habitat.”

The book cover of Lynn Keller's Recomposing Ecopoetics, a green cover with the image of a pile of trash and trees Along with Juliana Spahr, Keller writes about poets Adam Dickinson, Forrest Gander, Jody Gladding, Jorie Graham, Myung Mi Kim, Mark Nowak, Jena Osman, Angela Rawlings, Evelyn Reilly, Ed Roberson, and Jonathan Skinner. Readers will be impressed by Keller’s deft synthesis of the long history of ecocriticism, environmentalism, and experimental poetics along with her lucid attention to what are definitely difficult poems—and to why this difficulty might matter as we re-orient ourselves as self-conscious inheritors of an unfolding environmental catastrophe.

I spoke with Lynn Keller on May 18, 2018 in Madison, Wisconsin at the WSUM 91.7 FM studio. We discussed how contemporary experimental ecopoets can help us think through the perceptual dilemmas of the Anthropocene, how race, gender, and class affect our experiences of environmental crisis, and how poetry is a significant index of the cultural power of scientific knowledge.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights follow.

Interview highlights:

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity, and has additional poetry excerpts.

Sara Thomas: Your book, Recomposing Ecopoetics: North American Poetry of the Self-Conscious Anthropocene takes up ecopoetry. While some may be familiar with the “nature poetry” of William Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, or Mary Oliver, you focus instead on contemporary writers who, you write, “create poems that are more analogous to landfills scavenged by gulls or city boulevards awash in diesel fumes.”1 Could you tell us why you’ve chosen to focus on “ecopoetics” and how ecopoetics can move us productively past the tradition of nature poetry?

Lynn Keller: I have no desire to denigrate nature poetry and the kinds of resources that it offers people. But it is a very narrowly construed category. And there’s so much writing now, poetry, that goes beyond the parameters of nature poetry—nature poetry being associated with the solitary individual in a “natural” wilderness or rural setting finding consolation in the beauties of nature. The poets that I’m writing about, who are all twenty-first century poets, are interested in looking much more at how nature and culture are imbricated and work together. They are really inseparable.

Juliana Spahr, for instance, is a poet who expresses a desire to think of poetry as a more capacious genre that can go beyond thinking just about the position of the person wandering in the wilderness or looking out their suburban window at the beautiful birds. She does so to confront the environmental problems that we face, to allow poetry to be a more intellectual genre without sacrificing its emotional depth, but also to allow lots of kinds of information and lots of issues into the work itself. . . . One of the purposes of my book is to introduce readers, people who are interested in reading literature about the environment, to a whole range of poets who are doing things that go beyond nature poetry.

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From Spahr’s “Unnamed Dragonfly Species” in Well Then There Now:

They heard about all this cracking and breaking away on the news and then they began to search over the internet for information on what was going on. Blue Whale On the internet they found an animation of the piece of the Antarctic Pine Island glacier breaking off. Bluebreast Darter After they found this, they often called this animation up and just watched it over and over on their screen in their dimly lit room. Blue-spotted Salamander In the animation, which was really just a series of six or so satellite photographs, a crack would appear in the middle of the glacier. Bog Buckmoth Then a few frames later the crack would widen and extend itself toward the edges and then the piece would break off. Bog Turtle They wondered often about the details. Brook Floater Buffalo Pebble Snail What does this breaking off sound like? Canada Lynx Or what it was like to be there on the piece that was breaking off. Cerulean Warbler Did waves form? Checkered White Was there a tsunami? Chittenango Ovate Amber Snail What had it been like for the penguins or the fish? Clubshell

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ST: One of the central terms of your book is the “self-conscious Anthropocene.” Can you explain this term?

LK: I’m hoping this term can be used more broadly than thinking about poetry. The “Anthropocene” was initially proposed by several scientists, and they were making a call largely to other scientists to recognize the many ways in which humans are transforming the planet. Subsequently there’ve been all these debates among geologists: where did it start, where is the beginning, where is the “golden spike,” and so forth. Those are very interesting and important discussions, but I wanted to step aside from those considerations and look at the cultural ramifications of this awareness. The term “Anthropocene” became public in 2000, and I use this as a marker for what I call the “self-conscious Anthropocene,” which is a period when people in the developed world, at least, are very conscious of the impact of humans and often anxiously so. So I’m trying to side-step the debates about when the Anthropocene begins and call attention to the now pervasive awareness that we are in a big environmental mess. These poets are responding to that. Many more parts of our society are responding to that than just poets, so I am hoping that this notion of the “self-conscious Anthropocene” as a cultural phenomenon can be more broadly useful.

ST: What can poetry offer to the perceptual problems of the Anthropocene?

LK: Scale is certainly one problem: the human is both way off-scale in a huge way in terms of its impact and yet so pathetically tiny in geological time. What poets can offer is always a kind of capacious response and way of thinking about these issues. . . . A scientist can only write up his or her research data, whereas a poet can read that scientific work, think about his or her experience, interview people, read in other fields, bring in a lot of different kinds of material to try to convey the complexity of the kinds of issues that we face but do so in a way that’s still intelligible and that generates a meaningful response in readers.

ST: Some of the poetry collections you discuss experiment with poetic form. How does this poetry do something different than the lyric or other protest forms of poetry?

LK: A lot of this work might be understood as protest work, it depends on how you define that term. Certainly many of these poets feel passionately about the need for a change in our society and in global trends, and they try to convey that passion. . . . . This kind of work tries to reflect in its forms the kinds of experiences of this complicated world. . . . These poets are engaged in exploration and interrogation and are just trying things out in the hopes, often, that by pushing the boundaries of conventional language use they’re also pushing the boundaries of conventional ways of thinking and behaving and that that will open new possibilities for us.

***

From Evelyn Reilly’s “Hence Mystical Cosmetic Over Sunset Landfill” in Styrofoam:

Answer: Styrofoam deathlessness

Question: How long does it take?

& all the time singing in my throat

little dead Greek lady
in your eternity.saddle

[hat: 59% Acrylic 41% Modacrylic]
[ornamental trim: 24% Polyvinyl 76% Polyamide]

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Featured image: Lynn Keller standing with text by Forrest Gander. Photo by Adriana Barrios, 2018.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Lynn Keller is the Martha Meier Renk Bascom Professor of Poetry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she also serves as Director of the Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE).  An award-winning teacher and recent Guggenheim fellow, she has written four books and numerous articles on contemporary poetry and co-edits the Contemporary North American Poetry Series from the University of Iowa Press. Her most recent contribution to Edge Effects was “A Podcast on Simplicity” (December 2014). Website. Contact.

Sara Thomas is a Literary Studies Ph.D. student in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a member of the Edge Effects editorial board. Her research spans twentieth and twenty-first century transnational American literature and culture. She is especially interested in the archipelagic and oceanic networks of U.S. empire making and the affective, aesthetic, and ecological effects of these material and metaphorical relations. Her most recent contribution to Edge Effects was “Private Land Conservation is Troubling—and Probably Indispensable” (March 2018). Contact.


  1. Lynn Keller, Recomposing Ecopoetics: North American Poetry of the Self-Conscious Anthropocene (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2018), 11. 

2 Responses

  1. I am fascinated that poetry, like Eco-Fiction is coming to terms with human complicity in the destruction of our beloved planet. Poetry takes us to the soul of things, and Lynn Keller is an astute guide to what is going on there.

    I have a kind of idiosyncratic quibble with the term “anthropocene” because it strikes me as hubristic, one more instance of human self-centeredness. (see http://bit.ly/2EWxycs)

    Annis Pratt, Professor Emerita, the University of Wisconsin=Madison.

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