Our two teachers at Ty Newydd--Robert Minhinnick and Jay Griffiths--offered us welcome reminders about what makes good writing and new ways to think and write about a world suffering from climate change.
Minhinnick's and Griffiths' work and teaching:
Minhinnick has made a lifetime commitment to both climate activism and poetry. He has been called "the leading Welsh poet of his generation." You can hear some of his poems here
and at other sites online. He has also published essays and, more recently, fiction. In his teaching, he emphasized such fundamentals as including detail, the more particular the better, making full use of our memories, and letting strong diction stand alone, without modifiers.
Griffiths is better known in the U.S., partly because of her columns in the magazine Orion.
Her book Wild: An Elemental Journey
(not to be confused with Cheryl Strayed's Wild)
is a memoir about visiting some of the last wild places on earth and an argument for leaving them that way. Some of her other works: A Sideways Look at Time,
about the modern child's need to meet nature unmediated. A paperback version of Kith will be published soon in the U.S as A Country Called Childhood: Children and the Exuberant World.
Her teaching of fundamentals centered on point of view--how what is seen changes according to who is seeing it--and on something she calls a work-in-development's arrowhead,
where its focus is, where it is tending. The arrowhead of A Sideways Look at Time,
for example, was the "politics of time." Jay wrote those words on an index card. In fiction, she said, finding the arrowhead is easier. What does the protagonist want? What obstacles are in the way of her getting it?
In putting together a book of poetry, Minhinnick said, one keeps in mind a theme or controlling idea. He prefers individual poems, however, to avoid summing up, to gesture toward continuing.
Writerly intention and tone when climate change is the subject:
Griffiths led a discussion suggested by something one of us had said (it wasn't me--I'm not this smart), that climate-change writing, climate-change art, is the opposite of art about war. War poetry is a poetry of reproach, she said. It looks backwards.
Must climate change art look forward?
Minhinnick stressed that the earth, and even late-arriving humans, have already experienced climate change more than once. The difference this time, Griffiths argued, is that the climate change has been caused by us. It's anthropogenic. (Minhinnick: "That may be, but I don't want to see the word anthropogenic in a poem!")
Should art about climate change also be about reproach?
One of the roles of being a writer is being a messenger, said Griffiths.
Minhinnick reminded us of Auden's "September 1, 1939," which asserts that all a poet can do is warn: "All I have is a voice/To undo the folded lie." What we write about should contain an element of warning, Minhinnick added, just as long as it's not black and white, as long as it's not telegraphed.
I'm not sure which teacher offered the following, but I think it was Griffiths in the first case and Minhinnick in the second.
Writers need to distinguish between the fire in the belly that makes us want to get something across because people need to hear it, and the fire in the belly that makes us want to say something because we
want to, or need to.
It is always easier to change someone’s mind in the dark. When light is shined brightly on particular readers, they tend to hide.
Beliefs about climate change:
I figured you would be curious about this.
Griffiths holds that we in the West will face trouble due to climate, but that an "honest calmness" is justified. We have the means to temper climate effects, unlike the poor inhabitants of countries like Bangladesh. Griffiths acknowledges the injustice of this: the West is largely responsible for climate change while the whole world suffers from it.
Minhinnick is optimistic, period. He offers no argument for his optimism beyond his resilient nature. I feel now that he might justifiably have quoted the last lines of "September 1, 1939":
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
(My own views about climate change haven't altered much over the last couple of years. I believe climate change is accelerating toward catastrophe, and that few if any human beings will survive. If we act to minimize the damage, we'll have to do it soon. We know enough to move forward right now. More science may be helpful, but what is required is something else--a capacity for love and courage that might emerge from new stories, new art, and a new humility about our species.)
I learned almost as much from my fellow students as from my teachers about indirect approaches to writing about climate change. And I'd like to share Griffith's wisdom about my own sketchy thoughts about a book to come.