Margaret Gibson edits a new collection of eco-focused poems by Nutmeg authors
When Margaret Gibson was named Connecticut Poet Laureate in 2019, one of her high-priority initiatives was the "Green Cafes" poetry series consisting of ongoing outdoor readings by various poets across the state — all focused on environmental concerns.
Before the program could get properly underway, COVID-19 hit and temporarily forced cancellation of the events. The series did debut last October, and hopes are that a regular schedule will resume later in the spring. In the meantime, Gibson had all along envisioned a published compilation of the poetry written for and in the spirit of "Green Cafes," and she continued to work on that over the past several months.
The result is an anthology called "Waking Up to the Earth — Connecticut Poets in a Time of Global Climate Crisis," which was published Thursday by West Hartford's Grayson Books, a small press regarded for its poetry. The compilation includes works by 63 Nutmeg State writers addressing their relationships with and feelings for Mother Earth, and the styles, concepts, language, and imagery in the book are astonishing in diversity, focus, and compassion.
Don't forget the planet
Along with COVID to distract from climate crisis, it's also true that the divisive election campaign has obsessed the public over the last two years. Although Gibson, who lives in Preston, has long been a climate activist, the "Waking Up to the Earth" project was also a way to allow poets to redirect at least some focus from current events — and hopefully engage readers in a similar fashion.
"The poems in 'Waking Up to the Earth' are written by Connecticut poets who are waking up and paying closer attention to the earth," says Gibson, who edited the book and contributed a poem called "Irrevocable." "Why do we need to wake up? The earth is in crisis, and therefore so are we ... Although we call the earth our 'mother,' humans have a history of not paying attention to the very earth that supports life. We think we're separate from the natural world and ignore it. We actively interrupt ecosystems and do harm. Or we focus on other 'human' crises. Climate crisis IS human crisis."
Gibson says she had plenty of help shaping the manuscript beyond just assembling a vast collection. She credits first readers David K. Leff and outgoing New London poet laureate Rhonda M. Ward along with advisors Nessy Reyna and former Connecticut poet laureate Marilyn Nelson.
"Waking Up to the Earth" was funded by a grant to Gibson by the Academy of American Poets, and Gibson also says the book would never have happened without the efforts of Grayson Books publisher Ginny Connors.
As a co-founder of the Connecticut Coalition of Poets Laureate, Connors met Gibson shortly after the latter was inaugurated. Soon thereafter, the two discussed some of Gibson's ideas including the importance of climate change. And while the country seemed particularly divided and angry with the looming presidential election — and then with COVID — both women thought an environmental focus was more important than ever.
"People in the arts, including poetry, are not disengaged from the world," Connors says. "On the contrary, their ability to focus attentively on various aspects of the world is part of their work as poets and artists. The pandemic put a damper on Margaret's Green Café series, but her idea of a book of poems by Connecticut poets writing about the natural world and our connections and concerns was something that could be accomplished. And as the owner of a small poetry press, I was pleased to help with the publishing of the book."
Reading through the book, the reader can't help but be amazed by how nature is critically imperiled, but also by the variety of ways the natural world has impacted each of these writers. Given the poets' gifts, it's particularly moving how beautifully and, at times, wittily they describe experiences with favorite places or events that epitomize and personalize their connections to earth.
Just as significantly, reading "Waking Up to the Earth" can provoke a sense of alarm or even guilt if, indeed, other events happening simultaneously have diverted individual or mass attention from the ecological danger. Or maybe there's an element of not wanting to know.
"Why don't we pay attention to climate crisis?" Gibson asks. "Perhaps because it's too overwhelming. The consequences of climate crisis are unthinkable, beyond what we can imagine. Even though we can now see ice melting, oceans rising, forests burning, we hesitate to think long-range to the full extent of consequences. Denial plays a big part here."
But, Gibson adds, "'Waking Up to Earth' offers poems by poets who are paying attention, finding connection, and warning of the danger. And any anthology is a collection of individual and varied voices. In 'Waking Up to the Earth,' there are voices that praise, raise question, grieve, warn ... There are humorous voices as well."
In assembling and structuring the collection, Gibson and Connors sent out "a call" to poets statewide. One-hundred-eighty-six poets each submitted three poems from which the running list was assembled. Gibson says she arranged the anthology by poem rather than author — and ended up with a "trail map" of work that explores specific themes that become clear as the reader goes through a collection as seemingly diverse as nature itself.
Jose B. Gonzalez, a native of El Salvador who grew up in New London, lives in Quaker Hill and is a highly regarded poet as well as a government professor at the United States Coast Guard Academy. He provided two poems for the book, "A Cliché in the Projects" and "And Then I Read About."
As an artist who writes about the lives of Latinos, Gonzalez says he is particularly aware that droughts and hurricanes in Central American countries, for example, have forced those who rely on agriculture to find other means to support themselves. Many of those individuals wind up with no choice other than to travel and immigrate north.
"The predictions are dire," Gonzalez says. "Even though this anthology is by Connecticut poets, it provides a global awareness of issues that affect all, including Latinos. The poems express an awareness of a climate crisis that extends beyond our country, and they remind us that climates do not see borders. I am proud to be amongst a group of writers who value the air we all breathe and who write so beautifully about our world."
Christie Max Williams, a Mystic poet/actor who for several years ran the acclaimed Arts Café Mystic poetry/music programs, also contributed to the collection with "Rock Me Mama." A piece written a few years back for an earlier green poetry event at New London's Hygienic Art and later revised for the collection, it evocatively captures three distinct and varied experiences with wildlife in the author's life: as a fisherman in Alaska, and a pair of vastly different experiences while working as a staffer with the National Audubon Society.
"I first learned of 'Waking Up to the Earth' from Margaret and was subsequently invited by Grayson Books to submit 'Rock Me Mama' for the anthology," Williams says. "What an honor to be among so many of the accomplished poets who I had the privilege of presenting at The Arts Café Mystic.
"More importantly, I was deeply gratified to participate with my friends and colleagues in an urgent expression of our collective concern for the future of our planetary ecosystem."
As vaccinations increase and the anticipation of a return to proverbial normalcy ratchets up, there is hope the outdoor Green Cafes events will begin to pop up. In the meantime, Zoom readings in celebration of "Wake Up to the Earth" are being scheduled across the state — each featuring different poets from the anthology. In southeastern Connecticut, one is scheduled April 11 at the Stonington Free Library with more to be announced.
Gibson and Connors hope the book will be adopted by schools and workshops in both literature and environmental courses of study.
"This is not a coffee table book," Gibson says. "It's meant to be read again and again. It's a wake-up call. It's a book that says, 'And all this beauty can be lost, can be trashed, can be destroyed.' This book is a shout out; a love song to earth."
To see and hear
What: Margaret Gibson and contributing poets in virtual readings from the "Wake Up to the Earth" compilation sponsored by Stonington Free Library
When: 5-6 p.m. April 11
Where: via Zoom
How much: free; registration required