Archive for August, 2023

Getting the news from poems

Tuesday, August 15th, 2023

How strange it feels to have a book of poems come out at a moment when it’s ’newsy’.

“A fate for fire” is the long opening long poem in Knife on Snow. I started writing it after the Fort McMurray fire, seven years ago now, and worked on it for a year or two after that when we had a stretch of really smoky summers out here in western Canada. But then, summers seemed to go back to something more “normal” while the process of editing and publishing the whole collection wound along. 

I began to worry the poem would seem almost melodramatic, especially as the dislocation of the McMurray year faded. It seemed on its way to becoming a “remember-when” tale, rather than the urgent trigger that compelled the poem, which had sent me thinking about the long history of humans and fire.

Then the book was launched. Just at the point when forest fires flared again west of my city, Edmonton. Towns were evacuated and re-evacuated, highways were closed, smoke choked our sky. When I flew back from doing some launch-readings in Vancouver and Victoria, the plane crested the Rocky Mountains and floated over a brown fog that covered all of central Alberta, smearing the countryside below into sepia. In the weeks after, more fires erupted right across the country. That thick smoke became an immediate experience for millions, not just here, but also in cities from Toronto and Ottawa to New York and all the way down the U.S. eastern seaboard.  

And now, as I post this blog item, the city of Yellowknife is evacuating and long lines of vehicles are setting out to drive hours and hours to safety on a single highway out, while homes are burning in Kelowna.

Would it be weird to say that I was slightly relieved, even as I was appalled by the extent of this year’s fires?  I wasn’t just making this up!

This city where I live isn’t generally close to epicentres of power or news.  But we lie close to the southern edge of Canada’s boreal forest—a circumpolar biome wreathing the globe, through Canada to Scandinavia, Siberia and on to the eastern edge of Eurasia. It’s massively important to Earth’s climate systems, and increasingly vulnerable to fire. We seriously need to pay attention to it—though even to people living here, the boreal generally seems like a vague forest presence, ‘up there’ and limitless.

This all has me thinking about the relationship between poetry and current events. When I began writing, I felt as though writing about current events was somehow off limits, as if the spectre of editorializing was too slippery a slope to step on. Poetry belonged to the internal life of the poet or playing with language. This was nonsense, of course—poets have spoken in public voices as well as private ones throughout the history of literature, as do the voices from slam stages today. Still, I open relatively few books of poetry that comment directly about what’s happening in today’s news.  

Nevertheless, there is a function that poets share with news reporters: we bring things to the world’s attention.  Not that poets worry about ‘breaking’ news like a one-time egg for an omelette. Nor do we pile in to cover a story and then have to leave it because the public gets bored and loses interest. Our reporting job is to attend and convey the world’s complexity and nuance, paying attention in a patient way and communicating the news of issues and events that matter to us. 

“It is difficult / to get the news from poems” wrote William Carlos Williams in the mid-1950s at a time when he was going through deep personal angst, surrounded by a world gripped by nuclear fears and “Reds-under-the-bed” paranoia that affected his own career. In response, I’d say that poems are inextricably linked to the times in which they’re created, especially our own fraught period of conflict and climate distress. So they can’t help but bring us the news of what it’s like to be here. 

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