I arranged ten desks in a circle in preparation for students the first day of my undergraduate poetry workshop. It was fall 2011—my first semester teaching in the English department at the University of Hawai‘i, Mānoa. The students filed in, out of breath and sweating. “The AC feels good,” one said. “It’s 90 degrees outside.” I took roll, reviewed the syllabus, and began our first creative-writing exercise: haiku. As I would later learn, that August was the hottest in the history of O‘ahu.
Despite the heat, the students kept up with the coursework as we explored sonnets, villanelles, and imagism. By October, the rains came and the island cooled. During one workshop, however, our cell phones beeped with flood warning alerts. Sure enough, by the time our class was over, the campus was drenched. A record number of storms (including “twin hurricanes”) made landfall that semester, canceling many classes. Student absences also increased because of illnesses transmitted by the swarms of mosquitoes on campus. Our workshop fell behind, and I had to scrap many of my lesson plans. I was frustrated. And the students seemed to be drowning in stress and a new kind of “eco-anxiety” unrelated to grades, work, tuition, or debt. I knew we were experiencing the impacts of climate change that were prevalent across the Pacific: record heat, extreme drought, increased storms, infectious diseases, ocean warming, rising sea levels. But I didn’t discuss it with them. I didn’t know how to.
After that difficult semester, I couldn’t teach creative writing again without addressing the climate crisis. So I proposed to my department’s curriculum committee a course on “ecopoetry” that would help students understand the environmental changes around us and give them the opportunity to express their emotions through poetry. Ecopoetry generally refers to poetry about ecology, ecosystems, environmental injustice, animals, agriculture, climate change, water, and even food. It emerged in the 1990s as poets questioned the naturalness of “nature poetry,” especially since nature itself was rapidly changing due to global warming and environmental destruction. Even though I had never taught such a course before, I was familiar with and interested in ecopoetry partly because of my own cultural background.
I was born and raised on the western Pacific island of Guam. As a kid, I always played with my cousins in the jungle or at the beach. We were taught, by our grandma mostly, to always act respectfully in nature, because that is where the spirits of our ancestors dwelled. But as I became a teenager, I witnessed how not everyone treats the environment as a sacred place. Guam is a U.S. territory and one-third of our island is occupied by American military bases, which have contaminated our land, air, and water for decades, from the spraying of DDT to the leaking of PFAS into the island’s largest reservoir. Indigenous environmental beliefs and ethics, as well as the legacy and ongoing impacts of environmental injustice in Guam, have been major themes and concerns in my poetry.
I have taught Ecopoetry every year since 2012, thanks to strong student registration. A diverse enrollment has reflected the demographics of the state; most of my students have been Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and Asian American, with a smaller number of White, African American, and Latinx class members. They have been barefoot surfers, skaters, dreadlocked hippies, mountain bikers, fraternity and sorority members, athletes, vegetarians and vegans, and self-proclaimed “nerds.” Their majors have ranged from English to Ethnic Studies, psychology to science, hospitality to Hawaiian. Despite these differences, the students have always bonded through their shared love for the islands.
Unfortunately, most students know very little about ecology, environmentalism, or climate change. This is even true of science majors, whose knowledge seems to be more specialized in chemistry or physics. This gap led me to teaching ecopoetry as a creative pathway toward environmental literacy. So instead of reading just poetry, we also read science journalism and ecopoetry essays, as well as watch documentaries and YouTube videos about concepts like nature, ecology, wilderness, environmental justice, the Anthropocene, extinction, and climate change. As they read these contextual sources, I ask them to annotate key words, images, symbols, facts, data, history, or descriptions that will form the foundation for their own poems. To help students organize all this information, I divide the course into weekly units focusing on different themes/concepts, such as “Pastoral,” “Solastalgia,” “Water,” “Trees,” “Animals,” “Outer Space,” “Plastic,” “Nuclearism,” “Oil,” “Wildfires,” “Disaster,” “Gardens,” “Geo-Engineering,” “The Anthropocene,” and more. I also include themes related to identity, such as “Ecofeminism,” “Indigenous Ecopoetics,” “Black Ecopoetics,” “Queer Ecopoetics,” and “Disability Ecopoetics.” Along with providing a framework for engaging secondary readings, this organizational structure helps students develop environmental literacy while also priming them to interpret and write their own ecopoetry.
For each unit, I assign ecopoetry related to the theme. We read and discuss the poems in the context of our supplemental materials, focusing on both literary interpretations and craft elements. I highlight how poetry can communicate environmental issues through creative language and expressive form. Moreover, I foreground how poetry can put a human face and emotional experience on abstract natural disaster and climate crises. For example, one poem I teach is a long poem, “Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache,” by American poet Juliana Spahr. The poem is about how the environment has been degraded and how many species have gone extinct. The students read the poem aloud and can hear the heartache and mourning of the speaker. They can feel the overwhelming loss embodied in the long lists of extinct and endangered species. In terms of course readings, I introduce students to a wide range of poets, forms, and styles. Diversity is an important pedagogical ethic when teaching ecopoetry, because it reflects and honors ecological biodiversity. I have found that the most strategic way to present this is through ecopoetry anthologies, since the anthology form is itself an assemblage (see Appendix A for recommended texts). I supplement these anthologies with my own course reader that features Hawaiian and Pacific Islander ecopoetry. Through close reading an array of ecopoetry, the students develop critical reading and interpretation skills, an understanding of poetic craft and technique, and the recognition of the power of ecopoetry to humanize environmental themes.
Inspired by our reading and discussion, I then prompt the students to write their own original ecopoetry based on the current theme. Through their poems, they can demonstrate their understanding of the theme by incorporating their notes in creative ways, and they can articulate their own personal, emotional, cultural, or political relationships with the topic. We then conduct a conventional poetry workshop so the students can receive constructive feedback on their drafts, after which they revise and ultimately perform their finished poems aloud to the class.
The most memorable part of this course is not actually what happens in the classroom, but the experiences we have outside campus. Several times a semester, I organize class meetings that literally connect students to the environment. Imagine—students are sitting in a circle at Kaimana Beach, a small strip of sand at the end of Waikīkī. We read aloud “Ocean Birth,” a stirring poem by Māori writer Robert Sullivan. The sound of waves crashing against the shore punctuate the rhythm of the lines. The trade winds billow the pages of poems in the students’ hands. After we discuss the poem, the students find their own spots on the beach to freewrite. Several students stand in the ocean, the water rising to their knees, while they write in their journals. One student, lost in thought, does not notice a large swell approaching until it is too late, and his journal is soaked. We have had class at an arboretum in the valley behind our campus, inspired by the many native and introduced trees there. We have also met at a sustainable farm and community garden, as well as in Honolulu itself for our “urban nature” unit. The poems written from these fieldtrips tended to be the most powerful and vivid work the students produced.
When I first taught this course, several of the more conscientious students asked on the last day of class, “Is it enough to simply read and write ecopoetry?” We concluded it was not enough. As one student poignantly phrased it, “Ecopoetry inspires us to act.” The following semester, I began including community and public engagement components, requiring students to attend two community-engaged environmental events throughout the semester (extra credit if they attended more). On the syllabus, I list local environmental organizations they can volunteer with, such as the Surfrider Foundation and the Sierra Club Hawai‘i. Over the years, students have attended beach clean-ups, volunteered for farm work days, participated in Earth Day, and attended the Hawai‘i Conservation Alliance Conference and the Honolulu Climate Change March. Beyond participating in environmental movements, we also brainstorm ways to engage the public. Students have shared their ecopoetry on social media platforms to educate their friends/followers, submitted their ecopoems to the school newspaper, distributed their poems as broadsides around campus and local coffee shops, and organized ecopoetry readings on and off campus. The most substantial public ecopoetry project we completed was a collaboration with an online magazine, the Hawai‘i Independent, in 2015. Each week of the semester, the magazine published a selection of student poems, accompanied by my introduction that explained our theme and readings for that week (see Appendix B for a selection of my introductions and a URL for the student poems). Community and public engagement has been a powerful way for students to actualize their desire to “do something” about environmental injustice and climate crisis, as well as to think creatively about how poetry can make an impact in the world as a form of literary eco-activism.
As I write this, I am preparing for my eighth year teaching Ecopoetry. This summer of 2019 was the hottest in history, breaking the record set when I first taught the course. I am rereading the Hawai‘i Sea Level Rise Vulnerability and Adaptation Report, published by the state in 2017. How will my students confront the data from this report: rising temperatures, increased respiratory and mosquito-borne diseases, extreme drought, collapsing fish populations, more frequent hurricanes and tsunamis, and the extinction of endemic species? How will they cope with the fact that sea-level rise will cause periodic flooding, permanent inundation, and coastal erosion, which will damage more than 6,500 structures, 25,000 acres of nearshore land, 500 Hawaiian cultural sites, and forty miles of major roads and highways—causing over $20 billion in damages? How will they reckon with the projected displacement of over 20,000 residents?
Despite my anxiety, I know our classroom will be a space where we can learn about, confront, and cope with the climate crisis together. We will be inspired by the ecopoetry we will read and the places in Hawai‘i we will visit. We will empower ourselves by creatively transforming our thoughts and emotions into ecopoetry. We will participate in the environmental movement, engage the public, cultivate hope, and imagine sustainable futures through our poetry.
The anthology I have most regularly assigned is The Ecopoetry Anthology (2013), edited by Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street. This anthology opens with excellent introductions by the editors and the former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass, and it includes both historical and contemporary ecopoetry. Other anthologies I have assigned as required or recommended reading are Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (2009), edited by Camille Dungy; The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (2012), edited by Joshua Corey and G. C. Waldrep; Big Energy Poets: Ecopoetry Thinks Climate Change (2017), edited by Amy King and Heidi Lynn Staples; Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Anthology (2018), edited by Melissa Tuckey; Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California (2018), edited by Lucille Lang Day and Ruth Nolan; and Here: Poems for the Planet (2019), edited by Elizabeth Coleman.
In terms of scholarly anthologies, I have assigned Ecopoetry: A Critical Introduction (2002), edited by Scott Bryson; Eco Language Reader (2010), edited by Brenda Iijima; The Poem’s Country: Place and Poetic Practice (2018), edited by Shara Lessley and Bruce Snider; and Ecopoetics: Essays in the Field (2018), edited by Angela Hume and Gillian Osborne. For individual scholarly monographs, I have introduced students to Sustainable Poetry: Four American Ecopoetics (1999) by Leonard Scigaj; This Compost: Ecological Imperatives in American Poetry (2002) by Jed Rasula; Greening the Lyre: Environmental Poetics and Ethics (2002) by David Gilcrest; Can Poetry Save the Earth: A Field Guide to Nature Poems (2009) by John Felstiner; Ecology of Modernism: American Environments and Avant-Garde Poetics (2015) by Joshua Schuster; Remainders: American Poetry at Nature’s End (2018) by Margaret Ronda; and Recomposing Ecopoetics: North American Poetry of the Self-Conscious Anthropocene (2018) by Lynn Keller.
Below are a few selections and excerpts of my introductions to the collaboration with the Hawai‘i Independent. For links to the full publications, which include the student poems, please visit craigsantosperez.com/eco-poetics/.
Discussions about ecopoetics often involve nostalgia. The word itself has a fascinating etymology: from the Greek algos (pain, grief, distress) and nostos (homecoming). The word further descends from Proto-Indo-European nes- (to return safely home), which is cognate with Old Norse nest (food for a journey) and Gothic ganisan (to heal).
From the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, nostalgia was considered a wound and a serious disease afflicting people who had been taken from their homes and families by colonization, war, enslavement, industrialization, and globalization. These massive displacements not only separated peoples from their native countries, but also separated them from the natural environment, since many migrations arced toward urban centers. Climate change has increased this kind of migration.
Another term, solastalgia (combining solace, desolation, and nostalgia), speaks to the pain and distress caused when your homeland is destroyed but you are not necessarily displaced. In other words, you yearn for what your home was before it was desecrated by mining, logging, fracking, military testing, or oil spills; it is feeling homesick even when you are still at home. Sadly, solastalgia is becoming more and more common, especially for peoples of color and those in developing countries.
Ecopoetry is one expressive form through which people have addressed the pain, grief, and trauma associated with nostalgia and solastalgia. Two poems that we read and discussed in class were American poet Robert Hass’s “The State of the Planet” and Hawaiian poet Brandy Nālani McDougall’s “Water Remembers.” In these poems, the natural world is longed for because of its association with home, innocence, family, peace, sustenance, and nurturance.
Thus the first poetry prompt for our ecopoetics course was related to nostalgia: students were asked to write about a childhood memory in which they felt connected to nature.
Waikīkī, Raw Sewage, and the Necro-Pastoral
The “pastoral” is another important topic in ecopoetics, referring to a long tradition of poetry about idealized rural life. The pastoral goes back to ancient Greece, with poets like Hesiod and Theocritus, and to Rome, with Virgil, and through the literary renaissances of Italy, Britain, and America. Throughout, the romantic pastoral acted as a criticism of the squalor and poverty of urban and industrial life. The pastoral encouraged a return to nature and rural life as a space of virtue, honest work, reflection, transcendence, and—even—romance.
Of course, anyone who has actually worked on a rural farm knows that it’s not all peaceful sheep and idyllic shepherding. Thus, a tradition of the anti-pastoral also emerged, criticizing pastoral poets for romanticizing rural life, as well as for ignoring the race, class, and gender problems one might find on the farm—or plantation. These problems extend to how the rural landscape is often gendered in the pastoral as well.
Since modernization has removed so many from nature, many poets have imagined and fantasized what it might be like to live back on the farm, the ranch, the homestead, off the grid, et cetera. In class, we discussed one of the more interesting (and problematic) twentieth-century pastoral poems: Allen Ginsberg’s “Wales Visitation.”
Admittedly, my favorite kind of pastoral is the “necro-pastoral” (see the haunting work of Joyelle McSweeney, who writes both poetry and scholarship about degradation, decay, and contamination). “Necro” comes from the Greek nekros, meaning death or corpse. Imagine a landscape filled with dead bodies, enslaved bodies, diseased bodies, mutilated bodies, worms, rats, cockroaches, rabid animals, decaying trees, polluted rivers, smog, rotting food, ruins, and blazing wildfires. This, too, has a long, changing tradition. Think certain scary fairy tales, the Book of Revelation, Dante’s circles of hell, the Gothic, vampires, zombies, apocalypse stories, Halloween, Banksy’s Dismaland, for example. The necro-pastoral aims to make us look at death, sin, evil, fear, and destruction so that we might consider our mortality, morality, and ethics. Sometimes fear wakes us up better than romance. Like the pastoral, the necro-pastoral has its own problematic relation to race, class, and gender.
In terms of ecopoetics, the death and destruction caused by climate change has brought the necro-pastoral to the forefront of our imaginations. We are now surrounded by images and stories of the necro-pastoral—from the Tar Sands to industrial slaughterhouses, from raging wildfires in California to massive chemical explosions in China, from the mass die-offs of fish washing ashore on Pacific coasts to the mass migrations of refugees to the shores of Europe. Collapse and catastrophe flood the stream of all our media.
Speaking of floods, Hawai‘i has experienced quite a few with the onslaught of a series of hurricanes. With all the rainfall, the streets of Waikīkī were recently flooded with more than 500,000 gallons of raw sewage. Waikīkī, often cast as a literary site of the Pacific necro-pastoral, was shut down. So we decided to write poems about Waikīkī, sewage, and shit.
The Ocean in Us
The essay “The Ocean in Us” (1998), by Tongan scholar Epeli Hau‘ofa, insists that the “sea is as real as you and I, that it shapes the character of this planet, that it is a major source of our sustenance, that it is something that we all share in common wherever we are in Oceania.”
Alongside Hau‘ofa’s essay, we read the poem “Ocean Birth” (2005) by Māori poet Robert Sullivan. This poem is a chant-like ocean pastoral, lyrically calling forth the currents, the sea creatures, the names of Polynesian islands, and the bodies of Pacific Islanders to all sing their songs of birth. The poem ends: “Every wave carries us here— // every song to remind us— / we are skin of the ocean.” Hau‘ofa and Sullivan represent a Native Pacific perspective on the ocean, in which the ocean is our source, our origin, our common inheritance.
We also read and discussed two texts that speak to a Trans-Pacific perspective. First: “Oceania as Peril and Promise: Towards Theorizing a Worlded Vision of Trans-Pacific Ecopoetics” (2012) by American poet Rob Wilson. This essay foregrounds the ocean as a theoretical network of global flow, “liquid modernity,” and “postmodern fluidity,” as well as a material network of capitalist shipping lanes and airfreights, military bases and testing sites, and marine territorializations and exclusive economic zones—all routing across the west coast of the American continent, the Pacific Islands, and Asia. Thus, the ocean represents both peril and promise. It is in peril from us through plastic pollution, overfishing, nuclear testing, and warming, but it can also be perilous through rising tides, tsunamis, and hurricanes. The ocean also represents promise in the sense that it offers a vision of “transnational belonging, ecological confederation, and trans-racial solidarity.”
Lastly, we read and performed the poem “Pacific Ocean” (2009) by American poet Brenda Hillman. This poem views the Pacific from California, where the poet touches the coastal waters and launches into a meditation on the vastness and complexity of the ocean. As such, the poem flows in fragmented waves and currents of perception, swirling with flotsam and jetsam, memory and information, plastic and prayers, of spice and maritime routes, dreams and drownings. Or, as Hillman puts it: “a fertile dread . . . mixed with ecstasy.”
Every culture—and even every person—has a different relationship to, and understanding of, the vastness and complexity of the ocean. And even though poets represent the ocean in different ways, it has always been a space and place of deep symbolism and meaning. As Hau‘ofa wrote: “The sea is our pathway to each other and to everyone else, the sea is our endless saga, the sea is our most powerful metaphor, the ocean is in us.”
The Poetry of Disaster
To me, storms invoke nostalgia. Guam, where I grew up, lies in “Typhoon Alley.” I remember a super typhoon so forceful that it broke through shutters and flooded our bedrooms. Our family closed all the doors and slept in the hallway as the storm shook the house.
Guam is also located in the “Ring of Fire,” an area of frequent earthquakes and volcanic activity. One of the scariest moments of my life occurred in 1993, when an 8.1 earthquake struck for nearly sixty seconds. My family ran and held each other under a doorway until the earth stopped trembling.
Natural disasters are one of the most prevalent themes in ecopoetics, especially since disasters are occurring with much more frequency and intensity due to climate change. In Nicole Cooley’s essay “Poetry of Disaster,” she suggests that the poetry of disaster opens up a space for us to gather and grieve, to seek solace and solidarity, to express sympathy and empathy, to educate and raise awareness, and to share our trauma and resilience. Cooley also highlights how the poetry of disaster inspires action, pointing to the Poets for Living Waters project, an example of literary activism responding to the BP Gulf oil disaster.
Indeed, disasters not only inspire poems, but they inspire post-poem literary activism, including publication in mainstream and social media, benefit readings, fundraising anthologies, educational websites, ethnographic/interview-based poetry projects, and writing workshops for survivors.
We read or heard and discussed several examples of disaster poetry and literary activism: in response to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, the 2009 tsunami in Samoa, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, and the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis.
Creation Stories and Indigenous Ecopoetics
Creation stories are central to indigenous ecopoetics, since they are often encoded with ecological ethics. While native peoples have always looked to our creation stories for guidance and inspiration, many non-native peoples have turned to indigenous stories to address the crisis of climate change.
Indigenous creation stories, and native ecopoetics in general, foreground how the primary themes in native texts express the idea of interconnection and interrelatedness of humans and the non-human world; the centrality of land and water in the conception of indigenous genealogy, identity, and community; and the importance of knowing the indigenous histories of a place. Moreover, native writers often employ creation stories and ecological images, metaphors, and symbols to critique colonial views of nature as an empty, separate object that exists to be exploited for profit. What scholars refer to as “ecological imperialism” includes the displacement of indigenous peoples from ancestral lands; the establishment of plantation, industrial, and chemical agriculture; the development of tourism and urbanism; the contamination from militarism and nuclearism; rapid deforestation and desertification; the extraction of natural resources and indigenous remains; and species extinction and endangerment.
Lastly, indigenous ecopoetics reconnects people to the sacredness of the earth, honors the earth as an ancestor, protests against further environmental degradation, and insists that the earth (and literary representations of the earth) are sites of healing, co-belonging, resistance, and mutual care.