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FES conference keynote addresses contemporary environmental literature

FES conference keynote addresses contemporary environmental literature

Canadian poet Brian Bartlett told the audience at the three-day Green Words/Green Worlds: Environmental Poetry & Environmental Politics conference that Facebook is a new forum for environmental poetry.

Bartlett identified a gap in the online realm, arguing that a need existed for a digital “nature calendar”. He is currently constructing a collection of 365 short prose pieces – one piece for each day of the year – which he is posting to Facebook where hopes to include something of the “natural” world into the social networking sphere.

Right: From left, poets and keynote speakers Brian Bartlett, Armand Garnet Ruffi and Rita Wong discuss issues in contemporary environmental literature

The purpose of the Green Words/Green Worlds: Environmental Poetry & Environmental Politics conference, which took place at Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel in late October, was to examine the relationship between literature and environmental politics in Canada. A keynote panel featuring prominent Canadian poets Bartlett, Armand Garnet Ruffo and Rita Wong opened the conference presented by the Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES).

FES Professor Cate Sandilands, the Canada Research Chair for Sustainability & Culture, introduced the three speakers. Making reference to Bartlett’s essay, Sandilands addressed the tension between “savouring and saving the world.” This idea became a unifying thread amongst the three speakers, who offered additional insights on environmental literature today.

Bartlett recounted the challenges of mastering the 420 character limit for Facebook wallposts. He read a selection of his Facebook poetry to the audience and addressed the feeling of being torn between sensuous desires for the earth and a motivation to “save the world”. This tension between desire and concern, he noted, could be fused into a unified way of looking at the environment through literature. Grounding one’s passion for the earth in the earth itself was a concept that Bartlett emphasized throughout his presentation.

Left: A member of the audience addresses the speakers during the keynote Q&A period at the Gladstone Hotel

Native Canadian poet Armand Garnet Ruffo also spoke, drawing attention to the Anishinabe land that the Gladstone Hotel was built upon. This acknowledgement, later echoed by Wong, served to remind the audience of the choice involved in deciding which stories one shares, and ultimately sustains. The dominant narrative portrays the Gladstone Hotel being situated on private property, while Ruffo’s “alternate narrative” frames the venue as residing on Mississauga Anishinabe soil.

“So much of our lives are spent in narrative…we use narrative to explain our existence and our place in the world,” Ruffo pointed out. He stated that stories are now more important than ever, as a new story can change the way one approaches the environment. Ruffo called for more stories to encourage empathy, suggesting that one should approach a narrative by asking: “is this a story for me?”

Wong, whose environmental justice poetry has been considered a kind of literary activism, seeks to uncover environmental racism rooted in fact, exploring these issues through her poetry.

Central to Wong’s presentation was an exploration of water as a metaphor and a material reality that connects people. Those who live downstream, for example, know something of those upstream. Wong argued that watersheds can teach a lot about our environment and communities, as they are “to the land what the voice is to the body.” She coined this idea as “watershed wisdom”.

The panel concluded with a Q&A period and a discussion of how we embrace the more challenging stories of today’s environment. Wong urged that people find joy in what they do, suggesting that writers should embrace both the beauty and the despair inherent to environmental stories. Ruffo concluded, “We are tearing up the earth and the tar sands because we have told ourselves the wrong stories…we have told ourselves that oil is more important than blood.” Creating literature mindful of the environmental context, to correct these “wrong stories”, was a strategy that the keynote speakers promoted throughout the evening.

Submitted to YFile by Mike Young, FES communications graduate assistant

Republished courtesy of YFile– York University’s daily e-bulletin.