Discussing the Value of Ecopoetics with Evelyn Reilly

It is not all too often that creative artists and humanities researchers gather in the same space to discuss issues that are equally at stake for both. The English Department, with co-sponsorship from the UC Davis Humanities Institute, made this possible with an April 27th event featuring poet Evelyn Reilly. The intervention of the humanities in environmental issues is something both scholars and creative writers are vitally interested in.

Reilly read a selection of her poems in the event titled “Is ‘Eco’ a Poetics? Self, Subjectivity, and Species in the Poetry of the Anthropocene” that led into a roundtable discussion, with Angela Hume Lewandowski, a doctoral candidate in English and panel moderator, and English professors Katie Peterson and Margaret Ronda.

Even though the whole event was organized around this rough idea of an “ecopoetics,” that is, a genre of poetry concerned with environmental and environmentalist issues, the validity of the term itself was up for debate.

Reilly does believe that poetry can have a role in how we think about and interact with nature. “If poetry can alter the imaginative processes… it would have a meaningful alteration on this thing we live in with all these other species,” she says.

Yet she is wary and almost disheartened by the prospect of an “ecopoetics” as a genre. This feeling lies in the fear that if ecological thinking remains a niche interest, if environmentalism doesn’t touch every part of our lives and literature, then, “we’re screwed,” as Reilly succinctly put it.

Reilly introduced her poetry by briefly giving some theoretical background for how she views her work and the idea of “ecopoetics” more generally. She explained that a substantial amount of poetry seems focused on attempts to transcend the material world; her poetry, in contrast, is purposefully “deeply embedded in a materiality.”

In her previous works, Apocalypso (2012) and Styrofoam (2009), Reilly has employed her background in biology to explore issues such as diversity, waste, ecological apocalypse, and, perhaps unexpectedly, humor. But for Reilly, laughter is a necessary part of ecopoetics. In writing Apocalypso, the working title she gave the piece was Apocalypse. But in wondering “where’s the joy?”, Reilly began researching the emotions and practices of calypso music and changed the title to Apocalypso.

Part of an ecopoetics is, seemingly, an ability to see oneself as permeable and connected to a multiplicity of environments. Margaret Ronda noted, in one of her questions, Reilly’s connections with the work of Walt Whitman in that respect. “I still have that childhood feeling of permeability,” Reilly explained.

Reilly’s work and the lively discussion it provoked was an exciting reminder of the significant, but specific, role that the humanities have to play in changing our attitudes toward the environment. The fact that the discussion never truly answered the question “Is ‘Eco’ a Poetics?” indicates how fruitful and necessary the inquiry truly is.

– Katja Jylkka, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in English