Friday, December 2, 2022

Q&A with James Sherry



James Sherry is the author of the new book Selfie: Poetry, Social Change, and Ecological Connection. His many other books include The Oligarch. A poet, he is the editor of Roof Books and the founder of the Segue Foundation. He lives in New York City.


Q: What inspired you to write Selfie?

A: I’ve been writing about poetry and ecology for more than 30 years starting with Our Nuclear Heritage published in 1991. Selfie was started seven years ago as a way to extend the reach of ecopoetics beyond the English department and into other realms.


My process has been less about inspiration and more carefully negotiating how to cross boundaries with poetry in the same way ecology includes studies of climate, animal psychology, daily habits, governance of corporations and nations, and finally adaptation to new conditions as ecosystems change or fail altogether.


Treating poetry and poetics as a kind of activism goes against the grain of both mainstream poetry and experimental writing. I have made few friends with my insistence on both writing verses with climate policy and developing social structure with bad grammar.


The lack of agreement in pronouns—he, she, they—helps society to include non-standard behaviors. We cannot protect our world without breaking down barriers. We cannot reduce emissions without changing how we think about ourselves.


Even science understands environment inconsistently depending on which ecosystems are studied. Darwin’s focus on the “entangled bank” of tropical abundance fashioned evolution through competition. Kropotkin’s assessment of the sparser cold climates produced an ecology based on “mutual aid.”


I’m interested in how the methods of experimental poetry open the possibility of reconciling divergent logics about how our world operates.


Q: You write, “But why and how would changes in language help slow global warming? How can poetry read by so few people affect the monstrous scale of global processes?” Can you say more about this?


A: I’ve asked two different questions requiring different answers: we must change our language that focuses self-interest on benefiting primarily the individual, corporations as profit machines for owners, and nations as vying with other nations for resources. This change is already occurring.

And I observed as I wrote that Selfie is less concerned with the ways poetry alone influences people to change how they think about their surroundings and more focused on how poetry interacts with other disciplines, ways of writing and thinking, and the social/environmental context that we all share.


Selfie hopes to use poetry to demonstrate how connection works even through this most solitary of arts. Of course, poetry has some influence, but in this age of digital media focused on images, poetry remains weakly connected to mainstream culture. Oddly, poetry’s underground condition in popular culture frees it to be what is wants to be rather than what the accountants and investors want it to be.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: I hesitate to tell the whole story about the title, but this is the story. It’s easy to say that the main title Selfie arose from the realization that I have no choice to write from my own point of view and that my own point of view includes that background of my selfie, where I am, who I’m with, and the light and weather around me.

The sticky part was the subtitle. The publisher asked that the subtitle be optimized for search engines since Palgrave is selling the book by chapters as well as a whole. That meant that I changed the subtitle from Poetry & Ecology to Poetry, Social Change & Ecological Connection, which is actually more descriptive.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: I hope that different readers will take different directions after reading Selfie. If I think about the different people who reviewed or blurbed the book, each took a different tack.


 The ecologist and musician David Rothenberg in his review wanted, like you, to know how poetry can “solve the titanic problem of global climate change.” The poet Will Alexander decided that Selfie was, “A stunning range of psychic value not as doppelganger or estrangement this writing specifies poetic lingual experience in depth.” And so on. I want readers to see themselves in Selfie


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Right now I’m compiling a selected writing that I hope will be published in 2024. Rereading my work starting in the 1970s I’m trying to see if I’ve been one person or many. And the answer is yes.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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