My shoes aren't suited for walking fast, home's only minutes away ̶ I'm gripping a door-key in my hand when, out of a gateway, a shifting shadow, taller than me. Is it the man from the bar who lined up shots, a random stranger a rebuffed colleague ̶ maybe the ally of an ex who's picking up pace? What if he demands a light for a cigarette, asks directions. Now he's closing in calculations thud about my body. I've taken self-defence classes, my hair isn't long, blonde and in a ponytail. My throat tightens. I've no choice; I stop: face all the men who've ever thrown a woman to the ground.
Sally Flint, Virginia Baily and Mike Quille have edited a new anthology of various kinds of writing on the subject of the climate crisis and capitalism. It is free and downloadable below
In 2019 we challenged writers and artists to address the burning topic of the climate crisis and question its relationship with capitalism. In 2020 Covid–19 erupted and spread across the world.
The whole of this anthology has been assembled under the ongoing but ever-changing restrictions imposed by this pandemic, which has necessarily coloured the content in ways that we could not have foreseen when we put out the call for submissions.
Amongst other effects, the Covid lockdown made our world pause; it let the Earth breathe – albeit for a short time. It made us search for words that imagined a brighter, cleaner, greener future. At the same time it let climate concerns slip down the agenda, and in our sudden need for PPEs and facemasks made us forget our unkept promises about single use plastic. Ultimately though, its advent and its non-respect for borders, remind us of how we are all interconnected. The Coronavirus also inspired writers to show how health and wellbeing relate to eco-systems and the climate crisis. It was a logical step to link Climate Matters with the ‘Waking up to the plantetary health emergency’ conference at the University of Exeter and to have the publication of the anthology coincide with the start of this.
If the descent to extinction is ‘not a slippery slope, but a series of cliff edges, hitting different places at different times,’ as Alex Pigot of University College London, said in his study into the loss of biodiversity, (Nature, April 2020), then the pieces in this rich and varied collection can be said to fall into four main categories: the edge of the cliff; over the edge; the ledge on the cliff-face; stepping back from the edge.
The majority of the pieces fit into the first category. They constitute an attempt to articulate the status quo, to do that difficult thing of lifting the blinkers from our eyes and staring clear-sightedly at what is revealed about the state of our planet and its causes. They seek to counter the massive, wilful blind spot so arrestingly conjured in Bob Beagrie’s ‘Last Supper’ where the demented god in whose image we constantly re-fashion ourselves has ‘plucked out his own eyes so he shall not see our plight.’
This is the first hurdle, and it is difficult to surmount both because what clear vision affords us is terrifying and because we are in and of the system, the children of global capitalism, and not geared to view dispassionately the thing to which we belong.
Some writers shared a vision of going over the edge and explored various dystopian and / or post-apocalyptic futures in the brief last outbreath of humanity but, along the way there, breaking the fall, we came across a sort of ledge – the third category – where a seeming solution to some aspect of the crisis might give temporary respite and a sense that things might not really be as bad as we thought. For example, that technology will step in and save the day.
Few of the contributions in the collection come into the ‘stepping back from the edge’ category and no author claims to have the solution (unfortunately). Instead they offer a tentative hope that humankind will dare to change. As poet and Met Office scientist Natalie Garrett puts it: ‘We have got/ just one shot / Together we raise the bow /And hold our breath.’
The collection makes for sobering reading, but it is also beautiful, insightful, occasionally uplifting and leavened with humour, mainly of the gallows kind. And it is also necessary, because the first step to action is to seek the truth, not to flinch or seek token responses, not to close our eyes and turn away, not to shrug or be side-lined by despair or eco-terror, or the magnitude of the vested interests, including our own, at stake.
Greta Thunberg was right to excoriate the rich and powerful gathered at Davos earlier this year, for having done ‘basically nothing’ about the issue. But as we have seen throughout the pandemic, an economy geared to the maximisation of profits, and a state shaped to facilitate that goal, means that our society is poorly equipped to plan for an emergency at all, whether that be a health emergency or a climate emergency. Climate change and the coronavirus are hitting the poorest hardest, and capitalism is making things worse.
Climate Matters is a powerful expression of the inextricable connections between capitalism, Covid–19 and the climate crisis, and the need for a new, democratic and socialist vision of how we see our world and our place in it – a new definition of what constitutes a good life.
Through words, metaphors, images and scientific argument, this collection brings to life the nature of the cliff edge on which we teeter. It is the clamour of clear, resounding voices calling from that cliff top, saying that we need to act now and act fast, because our survival depends on it.
Sally Flint looks at the state of poetry, continuing the joint series with the Morning Star on the cultural fallout of Covid-19. The photo by Jasbat Malhi is of Dr. Rahat Indor performing in Tagore
History shows that catastrophes, conflicts, traumas and protests provoke poets to write, and that the most insightful poems survive because they contain a universal truth connected to the human condition. So how are poets dealing with disease, death and often contradictory political rhetoric in a world that has suddenly and unexpectedly locked-down our lives – a place where we’re clearly not ‘all in this together’?
However, as the virus spreads there are multiple windows opening, especially related to online technology. Poets are used to connecting things in their heads though, pinning down what Coleridge describes as a poem being, ‘the best words in the best order’; they are well practised in staying focused to search out and unravel the truth.
For example, there are poets taking purposeful walks to scrutinise nearby cemeteries, researching past flu epidemics, noticing signs in newly barricaded shops, and empty public spaces. Poets are asking what matters most to friends and families, what ‘isolation’ means, and what Covid-19 is doing to the poor and BAME communities, imagining alternatives and what happens next for humanity as a whole.
As riots spread across the USA, and marches across other capital cities take off, it shows that while the proletariat can be contained by a life-threatening virus for the common good, they can’t be by the horrific murder of a black man by a policeman on the side of a road in Minnesota, witnessed on screens in homes around the world.
Poets are always on the lookout to connect narrative threads – as storytellers they are alert to ‘plot holes’, and can capture injustice in a few words. It’s why Jeremy Corbyn used poems to great effect, reading Wilfred Owens’ ‘Futility’ on Remembrance Day in 2015 and often quoting Shelley’s ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ to drive home a political message, for us to ‘to rise up like lions’. Poet Laureates Simon Armitage and Carol Anne Duffy are also showing showing that poetry is not about privilege or elitism.
Simon Armitage performing 'Lockdown'
We stand united on a precipice unlike any other time, where capitalism is exploiting but not providing for the many. There are new voices and imaginations needing to be heard, and brave new poetry editors who are poised to publish challenging writing. Spiteful, confusing tweets and blogs may come and go, but meaningful poems that reflect the strengths and vulnerabilities of the human condition have the potential to drive positive change and endure. Websites and publishers like Culture Matters can get key messages across quickly and effectively, just as a virus spreads.
Poets’ imaginations will be fired up as more stories emerge out of this pandemic, and political falsehoods will link in creative minds. We will be watching to see if the homeless are back on to the streets this time next year, if health and social care workers receive a pay rise, and whether the newly unemployed desperately chasing poorly paid and precarious jobs remain indebted to private landlords. While politicians and the press turn blind eyes, poets will continue to write and scrutinise the ‘new normal’ in a quest for the truth.
It seems few of us will see out this virus unscathed, but it’s the workers – especially the struggling, less well-off workers who need to be remembered and supported most by progressive politics and progressive political poetry.
Over a decade ago, in her poem ‘Indoors’, the late Eavan Boland writes, as if forecasting Covid-19:
So it was above our neighbourhood, the world straightening under wings, the noise of discord clearly audible, the hinterland reaching to the sea, its skin a map of wounds, its history a treatise of infections.
In a ‘second wave’ of Covid flooding the planet, poets will be peeling back the skin to see what lies beneath, to show among other things how politicians have handled this crisis – or washed their hands of it. As June Jordan said, ‘Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth.’ A body of politically driven and socially relevant poetry will surely grow out of this pandemic. It will continue to reach out in protest, anger, sadness and compassion, and touch even the hardest of rich and powerful capitalist hearts, so we can all move towards a greener, kinder, safer and more equal, truthful future.
Will post-pandemic poetry be like this? Steve Pottinger performing a recent poem of his.
'I owe them my life.' - Boris Johnson, thanking NHS staff.
It's early morning: no-one speaks. Not yet. Yellow's Orthopaedics, pink Paediatrics, purple Chemo ‒ not enough aqua for A&E, so there's a sharing out of ICU's blues.
They've sat with the dying beyond shifts, high-fived and hugged each other for the ventilated dads, mums, daughters, sons, brought back. Now, in handovers with bleary-eyed night-staff,
they dread further shortages coming. It'll take more than a pandemic to examine if the 'public purse', can pay those on 'the frontline' enough to 'put food on their tables', settle their debts.
Nurses always applaud patient recoveries, know sometimes it's a word, a touch, saves a life. It's not about colours. They know politicians who clapped loudly when blocking their pay rise. Some dream of a future government unmasked.
In 2020 we want to publish a collection of new writing by established and emerging writers that asks questions and offers insights into links between the climate crisis and capitalism. When readers finish the book – or even when they’re half-way through – we want them to move towards action! Now, before it’s too late.
This callout challenges writers and artists everywhere to address this burning topic, turn their attention and creativity to it and make their voices heard. Our aim is to bring together provocative poems, surprising stories, startling science writing and impactful images, which cross boundaries and help us step confidently and creatively into this next decade.
Topics might include: capitalism as a driving force behind climate change; the need to protect the poor; survival/extinction challenges; the role of women as eco-socialists; children’s fears for the future; and floods, metaphorical or actual. From dystopia to utopia, through linking art and science, we aim to capture some of the ways, big and small, in which the human race will need to unite politically and practically to transform our world, and move towards a better, safer future. Pieces may have been previously published, as long as they will contribute something fresh and intriguing to the anthology.
Poems – send up to three poems (Max 40 lines per poem)
Stories‒ send up to three stories of up to 3000 words each
Science writing – send up to three articles up to 3000 words each
Life Writing – up to 3000 words each
Images – send up to three images as jpegs
Deadline: 30 May 2020
Riptide Journal was co-founded in 2007 by Dr. Sally Flint and Dr. Virginia Baily, and originally published short stories as a way to champion the form. Over the years they have published stories, poems, life writing – and have worked with community projects on socially committed initiatives too. The journal is supported by the University of Exeter.