When I got home, I threw my laptop open and saw Niamh Campbell’s article in The Bel Tel and a disturbing photo… A thick blanket of green sludge was suffocating the lough’s surface. Animals poisoned. Undrinkable water from the source of 40% of NI’s drinking water. A devastating video of a dead swan with its neck bent, head-faced down, in toxic, blue-green algae. Under the video it said, ‘Stormont inaction has been deemed central to many of the problems now facing the lough – one of Europe’s largest waterways – and environmentalists are insisting that authorities’ refusal to regulate polluters has led to current crisis’. They are now having a ‘Wake for Lough Neagh’, where mourners are encouraged to ‘wear black’ and bring ‘lots of Artwork and Creativity’ to ‘keep it alive and help it to get better’. Issues such as this, is why I am compelled to engage with such ecological disturbances, through poetics. It’s also interesting that art and creativity is called upon when coping with environmental bereavements such as this.
It can be difficult striking a balance with poetry activism: the fine line between presenting an image or striking a chord, (without sounding preachy or like you’re stuffing an agenda down people’s throats) and trying not to be too sentimental. Depicting scenes/images rather than over-explaining, gives a voice to the voiceless, whether that’s animal cruelty, human rights breaches, or challenging the anthropocentricity that separates the human and non-human worlds… look where that got us! For me, ecopoetry became my activism and comes from a place of empathy.
Over the past four years, I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with organisations who’ve commissioned poetry films, centring around the climate emergency and issues such as displacement, migration and COVID. These were daunting issues to write about, and in one meeting I attended about the climate crisis, there was scientific data presented,stats, politics and policies, and phrases like ‘Net Zero’ and carbon emissions, ping-ponging across the table. Imposter syndrome overload! Ahhhh! On the walk home, I thought, what can poetry do? What point is there if governments aren’t doing enough anyway? I strolled up Royal Avenue and imagined City Hall submerged under water, ivy dismantling The Albert Clock as the bridge beside The Big Fish collapses and is washed-out past The SSE Arena, in ruin. Amidst feelings of doomism and eco-anxiety, there was a phrase that repeated in my head (albeit a little cliché), Emily Dickinson’s ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –’ and reminded myself that these organisations chose poetry to send this message.
For this reason, I have spoken to three, inspirational people I greatly admire and asked them their views on poetry and the role it has within activism, starting with Dr Mary Montague; a published poet, nature writer, and biologist who beautifully describes how ‘poetry is about being human…Never before have we encountered climatic change that is as a result of anthropogenic activity. However, I think poetry’s role is the same role it has always played throughout human history. To guide us to wisdom’.
I was really interested in how biology and poetry worked together and if this was a help or was a hinderance. Mary replied saying that ‘being a biologist and being a poet are deeply connected… Being a biologist perhaps most profoundly impacts my poetry in giving me access to a perspective that is not anthropocentric. Of course, as Mary Oliver put it, we all love our own selves best, but I am grateful to know deep in my bones that we are such a young species. And also that we are one of “endless forms most beautiful (that) … have been and are being evolved”, as Charles Darwin put it’. Mary also explains that ‘for our species, our ability to recognise limits in terms of what the planet can sustain is a form of maturity that acknowledges our dependence and interconnectedness. But we are really behaving like an invasive species, which has no adaptive constraints on its proliferation in a novel environment’.
However, sometimes raising awareness and challenging what has been allowed to happen for decades, can be difficult. Jacinta Hamley, a representative of The Green Party, founder of Climate Craic and a leader in Northern Ireland’s first climate festival, does this in an innovative/creative way! I asked Jacinta why she decided to include poetry in the festivals. She replied: ‘to explore as many creative outlets as possible. The same way not every sustainable solution will resonate with every individual, or not every role in shaping the world will be the same. Not every form of art will resonate, but bringing that ecosystem of artists together will offer as many opportunities to inspire people as possible.’ I admire Jacinta’s love for activism and collective relationships; she says art is ‘magical’, and we must ‘keep creating and sharing… we all have a role in making the world a better place. Lean into yours as a changemaker, a storyteller, a creative carer’. A quote she often references is by Toni Cade Bambara: ‘The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible’.
And with the spark of standing up for what you believe in, I spoke with Emma McAleer; a member of Save Our Sperrins (an environmental group campaigning against a goldmine in the Sperrins Mountains, an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). Emma and others from a number of campaigns are, ‘ planning a large art exhibition that will be based in Belfast in November to celebrate the power of community and environmental activism here’. Emma is adamant that, ‘The arts have a major role to play in allowing communities and individuals to voice their concerns and worries about their local areas and environment, be that through written word, illustration, street art – using creative methods as your voice is really powerful’. Emma also quoted Seamus Heaney and reminisced how she, ‘still remembers the heaviness of Opened Ground in her school backpack and sent through these lines of his:
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
‘Blackberry Picking’ – Seamus Heaney
Emma also believes in the power of people! She expresses how, ‘in the current climate of NI with the instability of having no government, communities are taking on themselves the fight for environmental justice. Poetry and the written word are great tools of expression to demand change and protection for our environment here. There is a powerful wave of activism happening in and across communities, with people supporting each other, wanting to help and make a difference… Community is power’.
To say I am inspired by these three activists is an understatement and reaffirms my belief that poetry can strike the heart with emotion and can bring about change by seeing the world in a different way – by telling it ‘slant’. Mary Montague believes that, ‘the arts are crucial in this fight, because they remind us of who we are’, and if we are here, with people who care and who want change to happen, who show kindness and have empathy for the voiceless, there is always hope.