How the Poet Confronts Climate Change by Amanda Anastasi

‘Is writing about climate change difficult?’ Fellow poets have often asked me this question, with the implication that it must be limiting to intentionally write on a single theme across a three-year residency. Other times, the questioner is referring to the depressing nature of the topic of climate change and the perceived challenge of confronting such a subject repeatedly. Whether you are writing about the climate crisis or COVID-19 or the Ukraine War or some other pressing issue that has the ability to deeply sadden you about the world you live in, there are a few components I consider vital to this practice.

For me, the subject of climate change does not feel like an imposition on my writing. If it did, my residency at the Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub would be a poor fit. My time at the Hub has involved viewing confronting climate change statistics, talking with scientists, watching disturbing footage of natural disasters, and researching species and habitats that have been affected by the climate crisis in dire ways. There is grief and sadness involved; a sense of urgency and frustration that can easily give way to anxiety. I have undertaken this residency with self-care in mind – having breaks when needed and engaging myself in unrelated work during this time so that my head is not always filled with climate stories of loss and suffering.

I have been writing about the clash between humans and nature well before my residency at Monash. In fact, I was encouraged to apply for the residency after a member of the Hub happened to hear me read at a poetry event in 2019. I have always found the area of climate change rich with poetic imagery and nuance and always have, though I cannot pinpoint precisely why my poetry repeatedly returns to the subject. It could be my deeply rooted appreciation for the natural world that my father instilled in me as a child or my fascination with the human/nature discord and its poetic possibilities; a discord I know will never be resolved or rectified even in a best-case future scenario.

Poetry is an emotional and intellectual exploration for me that does not seek to dictate or attain certainty. I like to think that my poetry contains more questions than answers, and I aim to impress images and lines on the memory that cannot easily be shaken. To do that, I feel that the poem must disturb or unnerve the reader slightly, whilst also striking a deep chord within them. When a reader quotes or references a one-line poem of mine that they read a year or so ago and it has stayed with them, I feel that my work is almost done.

Poetry is a unifier in its ability to hone in on a particular moment or place in time in a clear and accurate way. It is unique in the way it can hold up a mirror to new and confronting realities, and reflect anxieties and concerns particular to the time in which it is written. Poetry and science are natural bedfellows, as they are both concerned with observational detail and unconcerned with opinion. Poetry provides the additional emotional, human element and a meeting of image and storytelling in a way that enables emotional relatability. Add to this the power of storytelling to influence in a subtle but sure way – sometimes more effectively than a political oration or a scientific report.

Among my completed poems for the Hub are 60 one-line poems and several longer-form poems, including a series of futuristic poems set in each of the four seasons and poetic snapshots of the lives of some of Australia’s critically endangered species. Some poems are set in a future time and others are written in response to current events. A large portion of my poems were written during the 2020 bushfire crisis while it was happening, and I was asked to write a series of one-line poems about the disaster within a matter of weeks. My preference for short, clear messaging and the combination of poetry with pictorial images is much aligned with the strategy of the Hub to present bite-sized information that everyday people can engage with. As a poet who works well under pressure, these bushfire crisis poems are among those I am most proud of and include one-line poems that summarise climate frontline stories in the fewest words. Among them:

The koala that survives cannot find a leaf.

The beachgoers wear blankets and masks.

I have just returned from a Nielma Sidney Travel Grant to the Great Barrier Reef, funded by Writers Victoria. Many of us are aware of the coral bleaching events that have plagued the reef over the past few years. While there lately has been an increase in coral cover, these regrown areas are highly vulnerable and less diverse. The act of immersing myself in a place of simultaneous extreme beauty and devastation comes at a fitting time. Following the passing away of my beloved father three months ago, a creative spirit who painted in bright and unrestrained colour, my writing at the reef has been infused with memories of him. My grieving has given me a deeper understanding of loss, impermanence, and the care and compassion with which we must offer all living things.

For me, climate change has always been intensely personal. Lately, I am seeing it become more so for other artists as the months and years of insufficient action go on. When we write about a current issue, the poems are really always about us. When approaching a poem about climate change, the poet must first be personally struck by an image or story to be in a position to even begin to write about it. By all means, ‘write what you know’ but more importantly, write what tears you up. Write the poem that it scares you to write.

There was a time when I was one of the few poets writing about climate change. Now, many other poets have joined me as climate anxiety has become prevalent and as the issue has increasingly dominated the public discourse. We live in a time like no other and the great and irresistible challenge for me is in finding new words to adequately document and express it. Write bravely. Write as though there is little time left to say it and, surely, you cannot go wrong.

Read a review of Anastasi’s The Inheritors on Westerly.

Order The Inheritors from Black Pepper Publishing.

Writer bio:

Amanda Anastasi, Image by: Frank Lardo

Amanda Anastasi is a Melbourne poet and author of The Inheritors (Black Pepper, 2021). She is currently Poet in Residence at the Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub where she writes the stories of the climate crisis, and has just completed a Neilma Sidney Literary Travel Grant from Writers Victoria to write about the Great Barrier Reef. Amanda’s poetry is featured in Best Australian Science Writing 2021 and 2022, The Massachusetts Review, and Griffith Review, among other local and international journals.

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