What exactly is “eco-poetry”? It’s a question that even the people writing in the genre debate. While some “eco” writers train their gaze strictly on the natural world, contemporary eco-poets are increasingly exploring writing that refuses to ignore human impact on the places we inhabit and visit. In anticipation of next Saturday’s Earth Day Eco-Poetry Event at the Talbot County Free Library, Salisbury-based poet and The Shore Poetry editor John A. Nieves explains the genre for us.
JN: We started the journal about five years ago because we wanted something that would press on the in-between-ness of contemporary poetry, to create a way to try to understand the way things interact when they’re never quite done with the reaction they’re having. We wanted to focus on places that are constantly being redefined, that never settle—and “the shore” seemed like the perfect expression of that, since it’s constantly building, receding, always in motion. All three of the founders also have a connection to the Eastern Shore, so that also made the shore-relatedness of the idea special for us.
KF: How do you pick the poems that appear in your journal?
JN: We received more than ten thousand submissions last year, from more than 50 countries and we only publish a small amount—50 poems per issue, publishing four issues a year. So it’s a very small percentage. My co-editors, Emma DePanise and Caroline Chavatel, and I read everything, and we only take things that we unanimously support.
KF: Though you’re based in Salisbury, you connect with writers and readers all over the world. Do you think that has to do with your mission of thinking about place in the liminal and transient way you describe?
JN: I think so. People everywhere understand that the world is always changing. Some writers are working in a domestic space where they may not have the freedoms of speech we have, and we platform a lot of that writing. Some writers are writing from literal warzones, others are just going about lives very different than those we often live in the US. We want those ideas of living to have voice and to blend and bend and react with one another.
KF: How does place—and perhaps also the idea that place is transient—relate to what we call “eco-poetry”?
JN: The way I’ve been thinking about that lately is that eco-poetry is poetry of the environment, but the environment is place—and the way people interact with place is important to eco-poetry. Also important is the way we understand place and its value. Sometimes that’s an environmental value, but sometimes it’s much more than that. There’s an emotional investment in a plant, right? Not just the hope for its health. We can’t just understand the science of place, we also have to understand the emotional investment, because without the emotions, the science will never matter.
KF: How would you define the difference between eco-poetry and environmental poetry?
JN: Environmental poetry is fundamentally concerned with the environment and its survival, which is really important. But eco-poetry, I think, takes that a step further and tries to understand a specific place, and the way the environment interacts with it. We are part of the environment. Eco-poetry doesn’t try to hide that. Even the artificial things that we put together and that can damage so much of the world are now part of that environment, whether we like it or not. Eco-poetry deals with that fact and what it means for a given place. We are parts of a system. Eco-poetry acknowledges that system-ness.
KF: The Shore Poetry has curated an eco-poetry Earth Day reading at the Talbot County Free Library. Can you tell us a little about some of the poets you and the other Shore editors selected to participate in this reading?
We thought it was really important for the work that would be read to interact with this area, so we asked people who are close to the Eastern Shore and know this environment. We have some incredible poets coming: Catherine Pierce, Jane Satterfield, Ned Balbo, Lindsey Lusby, Christine Spillson. And we also have a bunch of new and upcoming poets who are really getting their work out in the world, like Sarah Brockhaus, Summer Smith, Siobhan Jean-Charles, Shannon Ryan. So there’s going to be a lot of energy! We’ll be seeing the gradient of poetry from the very new to the established, all very much alive and engaging with the Earth Day themes.
Join the Talbot County Free Library, Shore Lit, and The Shore Poetry for a special eco-poetry reading on Earth Day, Saturday, April 22, in celebration of National Poetry Month. Fifteen poets with personal ties to the Eastern Shore will read original poems related to the themes of place, liminality, and human interaction with the environment. The event is free and open to the public. Light refreshments will follow the reading, giving attendees a chance to engage with the poets and editors and speak to them about their work. Reservations are not required.
Easton-based Kerry Folan is an Assistant Professor at George Mason University. She is also the founder and director of Shore Lit, an organization that aims to bring literary events to the rural Eastern Shore of Maryland. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in the Baltimore Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Washington Post, and other noted publications.
John A. Nieves is a poet, teacher and scholar. He is Associate Professor of English at Salisbury University in Maryland and recipient of the 2020 Distinguished Faculty Award. He is one of the co-editors of The Shore Poetry. He received his PhD from the University of Missouri and his MA from the University of South Florida. His poems have appeared in many national journals and have won numerous awards. His first book, Curio, won the 13th Annual Elixir Press Poetry Awards Judge’s Prize.