November 30, 2022
James Sherry’s newest critical study, SELFIE: Poetry, Social Change, & Ecological Connection, continues his immersive and insightful journey into the field of Environmental Poetics, and just as his earlier work, Oops! Environmental Poetics (BlazeVOX, 2013), is a fascinating read for poets and anyone who cares about eco-poetics, eco-criticism, and the role of poetry within a world assailed by the effects of global warming. SELFIE makes use of Sherry’s experience as a poet, critic, editor, publisher, translator, citizen and human being, to reflect eclectically on practical ways in which poetry changes ‘how we think about language, ourselves, our societies, and our surroundings,’ and whether ultimately this can slow global warming. Sherry invites us to consider, ‘How can poetry, read by so few people, affect the monstrous scale of global process?’ (14)
This is not a book about self-reckoning and chastisement following the ravishes of a global pandemic—but one of rationalized hope, of practical faith in alternative ways of being and becoming, based on evaluations of hard fact and the inherent power of language. That is, not poetic language as a class of its own wherein the poet is at once glorified and cast aside as socially and ecologically irrelevant—but one where poetries truly connect with social structures and environment ecosystems in fascinating and powerful ways. Not all cultures and geographies are equally responsible for climate change, not least because Sherry attributes the alarming rise in temperatures to six main industrial polluters. Against cynicism and discouragement, however, Selfie proposes that ‘[w]e are not helpless cogs but change the world as we reorient our ways of using language as well as building our surroundings.’ (279). He admits that the scale of the climatic cataclysm is ‘big and difficult but not inconceivable’. (287) For this reason, it would be much more viable for us to transform ourselves than to have to change in unforeseeable ways.
This isn’t a sit-back-in-the-passenger’s-seat read. Sherry’s fluid, erudite mind draws freely from multiple fields of thought: language theory, philosophy, social and environmental science, anthropology, technology, culture theory, politics, poetry and publishing in order to query all the connectives in the environmental model he proposes at the beginning of the book. The work itself is composed of three main sections—Multidirectional Writing, Perspectives on Combining, Connections Below Form in Poetry and Biology. Each consists of six to seven chapters where linear forms of reading give way to networks (NOT webs) of thought, reflection, statement, proposition, multiple exemplification, reiteration, re-contextualization, restatement.
The text fittingly plays itself in many styles—incorporating abstracts, summary, argumentation, bullet points, diagrams, poetry from a wide range of sources, note-form italicized text, as well as a world of examples and clarifications, switching easily between the serious, the playful – ‘singing a song of myselfie’ (69), and the poetic:
Adapt, the verb,
combines with a subject,
also with time: ‘adapt now!”
Subjects imply no rigid states
Readers coming to this text must cast away the myths of binaries and individualism, as well as any humanist, essentialist notions of self and other, in order to engage in the concept of self as a multifold, interdependent, composite ecosystem in a state of flux, and the selfie as image which connects this plural self with whatever lies within it and outside it.
You out there!
Me, yes, me. Me
Are we and us
And I am we, too,
A this and a that.
Those a they
And thus, an I, they
That is an I. (53-4)
Socialism and idealized traditional relationships with the natural world are not less inadequate as models of future behavior, than capitalist frameworks which exploit natural resources. The proposed environmental model must comprise self, society, surroundings and, most importantly, interior and exterior connectors.
Sherry’s predilection is for language writing and for experimental and avant-garde poetry because they tend to include ‘both personal perspectives and the relations between individuals and society,’ unlike eco-poetry and eco-poetics, which ‘are more directly and transparently concerned with environment’ (19-20); for the former, the need to change perspective is much more urgent and plausible than for the latter. ‘Without extension into the other [disciplines], eco-poetry can be no more than description with predictable effects on herds of cud chewers.’ (370) Which means that you might take issue with Sherry’s viewpoint concerning what kind of poetry is ineffectual in changing the climate of thought; for instance, when he takes conceptual and ekphrastic poetry to task for drawing from one source and ‘inhibit[ing] change’ (172), or when he argues that mere description of place fossilizes preconceived notions and traditional schemas of thought. Perhaps one could argue that any poem that is unable to move beyond the original painting/sculpture/moment in time is problematic even without the index of climatic pressure. Or again, there are instances where the author, speaking of himself as editor, makes statements which can be problematic if considered from a reader’s perspective: ‘I insist on a constraint that even when writing is semantically difficult, the writer’s intention must be comprehensible, or no one will read the poetry’ (176).
Yet, given faith in readers’ ability to persevere with a poetic text even when it is syntactically and semantically challenging, how does experimental and language-centered writing change individual and group biases? Pronouns, nouns, verbs, connectives, metaphors, synecdoche, metonymy and syntax all play an important role. Environmental grammar, for instance, emphasizes connectives like ‘and’, ‘so’ and ‘for’, instead of ‘or’, ‘nor’, ‘but’, and ‘yet’. Environmental writing can set itself the task of ‘writing with the biosphere’ instead of merely representing it, thus ‘using its methods through multiple strategies that encourage individuals and groups to adjust behaviour and viewpoint’(76). In one of the most interesting chapters, Sherry demonstrates how metaphor, which is both material and conceptual, can act as a method ‘for scaling meaning across networks,’ influencing the ‘climate of thought,’ exactly because as he amply demonstrates, language and biosphere operate in similar ways (268): ‘Metaphors are more than terminology and figures of speech. They are physical correspondences that travel ecological networks carrying meaning and ontology, connect A to B, love to bees, and so on’(288). In nature, too, things often resemble each other, like wings on birds and bats, the function of feet and flippers, or how a tree may signify food and shelter to other species.
One key question that Selfie asks is whether poets can go beyond ‘understanding poetry as only an expression of self and society’(81). In Sherry’s view, self-expressive language cannot contribute to the alleviation of global warming because it encourages social fragmentation, which is why complex, problematic structures and diction can perform better by deliberately making reading more challenging so that writing would not merely be seen as a form of communication. What he invites us to ponder is the effectiveness of poetic methods that model ecological processes, including non-standard syntax, non-linearity, non-standard vocabulary, format changes, fragmented sentences, as well as the appropriation of science, linguistics and philosophy.
The scope is to scale upwards to an environmental model where self and the individual poem are perhaps less important than poetries as a whole—that marvelous network of poets, readers, publishers, editors, distributors. There is an urgent call for the dissemination of different kinds of poetries at all levels: in print, online, via criticism, and in public readings. The underlying principle is a community of infinite connections where monologic, binary thought gives way to the plurality that defines us, which is why I feel, on a personal level, that Sherry’s book is also a call for a more altruistic form of creativity, one that recognizes that to bring something into being, one has to consciously connect with one’s society and surroundings—perhaps not merely with poets with whom one shares an artistic affinity, but with the borderlands which link to other poetic groups, where differences merge and where we can muster enough agency to bring change through collaborative practices.
Finding linguistic ways to adapt to the current climate crisis is on the one hand, an acknowledgement of poetry’s unmistakable political role, and on the other hand, an act of faith in its ability to influence readership so as to bring about the mechanisms that will ultimately inspire crisis mitigation and context-dependent solutions. Perhaps you’ll find fault with Sherry’s probabilistic approach, or you might no longer have the energy to conceive of climate change as a form of reversible damage, but the author has painstakingly demonstrated how the connections that govern our environment and our biosphere are in fact replicated in our bodies and societies, which is why ‘changing how we think about ourselves remains critical to slowing climate change’(196).