Nature Writing, A Writer’s Responsibility and an Introduction to Erasure Poetry
My writing, and in particular my poetry, is often influenced by and grounded in the natural world. Up until now, my primary focus has been exploring the folklore and symbolism that certain plants, trees and animals evoke to help me get in touch with my authentic self. However, of late, my attention has been drawn in a different direction. I’ve been thinking more about the increasing difficulties the living world faces such as deforestation, climate change and consumerism; all of which threaten and devastate.
The natural world is one of life’s great givers. As I’m sure many of you will find, it provides us with plenty of joyous experiences. One of my favourite moments recently has been watching a family of goslings grow from tiny, fluffy babies to majestic adolescents. The love and protection their parents have given has been so heart-warming to witness.
Not only does the natural world instil feelings of love and peace, without which I can say, devoid of any hint of melodrama, we would cease to exist. We owe our lives to the natural world. Therefore, it is only right that we give it the attention it so readily affords us.
When I heard about a unique opportunity to learn more about the genre of nature writing through an event run by the British Council in Germany, I leapt at the chance to find out more in the hopes of nurturing this new direction.
After submitting examples of my work to the British Council in May of this year, I was lucky enough to be chosen as a highly commended writer. As such, I was invited out to Munich to take part in writing workshops with key poets and nature writers such as Helen Mort and Nancy Campbell and attend the British Council’s Nature Writing seminar in June.
What is Nature Writing?
First things first.
In its simplest form, nature writing is nonfiction or fiction prose or poetry about the natural environment. It is also known as ‘literature of landscape’ or ‘place-writing.’ Award winning nature writer Robert Macfarlane notes that the roots of this writing can be found in early Celtic Christian poetry of the sixth to ninth centuries AD. The subjects of this form of literature are expansive, ranging from alienation, care, love, fear and loss and often political in nature.
On my first day in Munich I attended a fantastic writing workshop with award winning poet Helen Mort and author and journalist Prof. Dr. Torsten Schäfer who addressed this question. Both writers started off by saying it was hard to define as nature writing means a lot of things to a lot of people. Although, helpfully, Prof. Dr. Schäfer went on to say that to his mind, it is a combination of three key elements:
1) Description (factual)
2) Reflection (ie: questions of responsibility)
3) Poetry (motion and subjectivity)
A Writer’s Responsibility…
As part of the nature writing seminar, I attended a panel discussion about ‘Ethics and Activism: The Politics of Writing Nature in the Anthropocene’ with writers Helen MacDonald, Nancy Campbell and Sarah Hall, chaired by Robert Macfarlane.
I had been looking forward to this particular discussion as I felt it would offer valuable insight into questions of responsibility, how to enact change and what writers can do to encourage change. I was not disappointed.
The discussion began by talk about disappearing animals and barren landscapes. A particularly unsettling point was made about the fact that every generation accepts impoverished landscapes as the norm. This led me to think about the trees, plants and animals that I grew up with and love that might become rare or extinct by the time I have children. Their experiences of landscape and the animal kingdom will most likely be very different to my own which is a terrifying thought. I’m sure you have come across the same dilemma with children or grandchildren and the problem is only getting worse.
After researching more about this later on, I read an article written by science correspondent Sarah Knapton for the telegraph in 2014. The headline read: ‘Half of world’s animals have disappeared since 1970.’ These fatalities are due to habitat loss, deforestation, climate change, over-fishing and hunting. The article draws on a report that calls on consumers to:
1) Change shopping habits by only buying sustainable products.
2) Use public transport instead of a car wherever possible.
3) Increase recycling.
4) Reduce consumption of meat and dairy products to cut down on the amount of land being deforested for farming.
It’s very easy to get swept up by consumerism but these practical tips can help us secure a better future for generations to come so that they can enjoy engaging with the trees, animals and plants that we have been able to. The buck stops firmly with us and I for one know I could be doing more.
Attention was also drawn to the must watch film Albatross, made by artist Chris Jordan. Perhaps some of you have heard of it or watched it already. I saw the film after my trip to Germany and to say I was devastated would be an understatement. Never has a film moved me, angered me and broken me in the way that Albatross did. For those of you who haven’t seen the film, it follows the life cycle and habits of the beautiful Albatross birds on Midway Island in the Pacific. Central to the film is the shattering fact that Albatross parents are unintentionally feeding their babies pieces of sharp, brightly coloured plastic instead of the nutrients they believe them to be. As a result they are, through no fault of their own, killing their children. These loving creatures put their trust in the ocean as they have done for generations. Why would they know any different? By extension, there is an unspoken trust being placed in us by the ocean, by the birds who feed from it and the animals that live in it. We are breaking this trust and I won’t be complicit anymore.
It can feel hard and even overwhelming to make changes in a society that covers everything in plastic and sometimes we find ourselves thinking – but I’m just one person, what can I really do? But I believe that individuals can change the world. If every individual makes a change, society, and as a consequence, the world, will change. If ever I feel disheartened by how far we still have to go or find myself asking the question of what can I really do, I return to a quote my husband once told me by Gandhi: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’ It’s as simple as that.
Top tips for reducing plastic consumption can be found at: 4ocean.com. I have found their article: 15 Ways to Reduce Your Plastic Use of great help.
The talk also touched on the disposable earth attitude that many of us have. Statements such as: ‘Well if earth gets ruined, we’ll just move to mars’, seems to be falling all too easily off of our lips. As the discussion panel pointed out – we must stay with the trouble, not run away from it. A question was raised as to why so many people don’t care. What it comes down to is lack of education. Education is key. The more we learn about the natural world from a young age and the more we are exposed to the truth of the situation, the more responsibility we will take and the more we will care. As a writer, I believe I have a responsibility to draw attention to injustices and to say it how it is, but importantly, I concur with the panels belief that we need to move through our grief to hope, joy and collaboration. There is hope and it is this that will move us forwards.
“Make ethical choices in what we buy, do, and watch. In a consumer-driven society our individual choices, used collectively for the good of animals and nature, can change the world faster than laws.” — Marc Bekoff –
The Power of Erasure Poetry…
On my last day I was lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to partake in a workshop with award winning poet, Nancy Campbell. I cannot recommend highly enough her poetry collection: Disko Bay which takes the reader on a breathtaking and poignant journey to the shores of Greenland.
One of the things Nancy introduced us to was Erasure poetry, or ‘found poetry’ which is defined as follows by erasurepoetry.wordpress.com:
‘Found poetry is a type of poetry created by taking words, phrases, and sometimes whole passages from other sources and reframing them as poetry by making changes in spacing and lines, or by adding or deleting text, thus imparting new meaning.’
Text as an open and changeable entity is a source of great fascination to me. It is a powerful act to take someone else’s words and use them to create something else. With that comes a great deal of responsibility, but if used for good, it can be a wonderful way for a text to keep giving and to highlight important layers beneath a text.
Erasure poetry also offers a chance to engage, in a cross-platform manner, with art. This can be done digitally or by hand and provides a wonderful opportunity to create another layer of meaning in the text.
I’d encourage you to try your own Erasure poem as its great fun and you can come up with some very potent pieces using this genre of poetry.
I would recommend selecting a piece of poetic-prose or prose to turn into a poem as good quality work of this kind is often filled with interesting words and turn of phrase. However, you can select text from anywhere, such as a newspaper or magazine.
Once you’ve got your original text, either scan this into the computer and work digitally or alternatively, you can work by hand. A good black felt tip for erasing sections of text would come in handy if working by hand.
After reading the text, begin to erase any sentences or words that you don’t want, leaving behind your chosen words to create a poem that adds another layer of meaning to the text you have read. Think carefully about the space you’re leaving between words, what does this space add? Why is it there?
You can add artwork as you go along, sketching or painting. You can draw lines between words or circle words. You can scribble or use a ruler to erase sections – it’s entirely up to you.
Last Cry of the Sparrows…
I’d now like to share my own Erasure poem with you to end this blog post.
The original piece of text was written by poet Edward Thomas and came from a collection of poems selected by Matthew Hollis. As part of this collection, Hollis selected an extract from a diary entry by Thomas entitled: A diary in English Fields and Woods. Thomas has a wonderful way with words, so this poetic-prose extract detailing the birds, plants and trees of the English fields and woods that he observed, provided a lot of fodder for me to work with.
The poem I’ve written provides the reality. This article, written in February 2018 by James Common, provides hope by giving us the tools we need to change this reality: Catering for Garden Birds: A how-to guide.
You can find the article by typing the title and author into Google.
Until next month then!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post and my poem!
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