More poets than ever are addressing climate change in their work. Fossils in the Making by Kristin George Bagdanov is one recent collection to take up the subject. With glistening intelligence and sensitivity to the natural world, Bagdanov has crafted poems that inspire thoughtful reflection as well as trepidation about the future of the planet. Her work is formally inventive but also deeply familiar in that the ecological destruction the poems describe is now everywhere.
I recently spoke with Bagdanov about what inspired Fossils in the Making, her thoughts on climate change more generally, and the role that poetry might play in a world beset with climate catastrophe.
Amy Brady: There’s an environmental or ecological urgency throughout the collection. What draws you to this subject as a poet?
Kristin George Bagdanov: I’m not sure I’m drawn to this subject so much as I am drawn by it. I grew up in the suburbs of Orange County, CA: tract homes, over-watered lawns, swimming pools, and SUVs – all of which communicated anything but ecological urgency. I often felt out of place or rather in no place at all, as each strip mall and fast-food chain felt like copies without an original – sprawl with no center. It wasn’t until I moved away that I gained a sense of ecological consciousness and could see how that environment formed in me a crisis that I was trying to solve through poetry.
Poems became a way of situating myself in my environment, reconstructing my relationships to people and things that had always felt distant. I live each day with acute environmental anxiety and guilt, as I think many people do – guilty for being an American, for having grown up in the suburbs, for having already consumed much of the future, for knowing that my life depends on the exploitation of others and the exhaustion of resources. Poetry is a place where I try to hold all of these contradicting emotions and experiences next to one another, a fraught ecology that is both urgent and emergent.
Amy Brady: Are you concerned about environmental issues beyond what you write about here?
Kristin George Bagdanov: I’m not sure I actually write about any environmental issues, per se. I think there are a lot of concerns and anxieties that populate the book: oil spills, plastic gyres, erosion, pesticides, extinction, exploitation, but I resist framing these as issues, because I am often suspicious of the discourse of environmentalism. I’m wary of how such rhetoric can flatten or reduce conditions and phenomena into singular issues: the way individuals are made to feel guilty for their consumer habits while little attention is paid to the large-scale environmental damage inflicted by corporations; or the way certain charismatic species become the mascots for climate change (such as the polar bear), inscribing hierarchies of value that ecological thinking should try to deconstruct.
In my critical work, I write about different forms of nuclear power: waste, weapons, radiation, uranium, fallout, etc. and have learned that the separation of these interconnected forms into singular causes often leads to more harm than good. So, I guess I will say I’m not so much trying to articulate specific environmental issues as I am trying to measure crisis as it unfolds through my own body and its relation to other bodies. Sometimes this process crystallizes into a recognizable category or issue; sometimes it emerges as a thing still yet to be named.
Amy Brady: The words “body” and “bodies” appear throughout the collection, sometimes referring to human bodies, sometimes to animal bodies, sometimes to non-sentient bodies like the sea or even the earth. The effect is deeply moving, sometimes chilling. What are you hoping your readers take away from this repetition?
Kristin George Bagdanov: There are 103 “body” / “bodies” in this collection, to be exact. This repetition belies the fact that the first title of this book was “Being a Body,” though that ultimately felt too generic to encapsulate the direction in which the collection was moving. I think of the book as unfolding according to a logic of decomposition, emphasizing the “composition” part of this process – how do our bodies compose the world, how are bodies composites of other bodies, how does one’s interaction with other beings and things compose what we think of as the “self”? If there is anything a reader might derive from this collection, I hope it is an attunement to encounter: the ways in which our shifting relations and conditions inscribe one’s body and worry its boundaries. The residue of encounter might be a fossil or fossil fuel, depending on how we approach that interaction.
Amy Brady: The titles of the sections of your collection – proofs, wager, remains – are suggestive of scientific concepts as well as poetic metaphors. Are you trying to evoke the scientific with these poems? If so, to what end?
Kristin George Bagdanov: I think that, climate-change deniers aside, most people accept the fact that scientific disciplines can tell us something true about the world. There’s an unquestioned belief in scientific objectivity, faith in its ability to impartially apprehend “reality.” I think people are generally more skeptical of the claim that art can tell us something true and necessary about reality as well. However, scientific instruments are still mediating objects constructed by humans, and the knowledge they produce must be supplemented with other ways of knowing, as the sciences do not have privileged access to what is “real.” Throughout the collection, I’m interested in exploring the relationship between scientific “objectivity” and lyric “subjectivity” and the places where these methods of knowing contradict and supplement each other. I’m also interested in what a poem itself proves, if anything. Is a poem a proof of thought? The residue of experience? Can its figures and forms manifest what is intangible, unconscious, ungraspable? Or does it merely prove, again and again, the failure of language to close the gap between the world and our own bodies?
Despite this potential failure, the three sections in the collection try to measure and register the intersecting and recursive forms of crisis – feedback loops that accrete and confound linear, logical forms. The collection tracks these different phases of crisis by tending to how relations between bodies change as those bodies and the world they have produced de- and re-compose. Formally, this decay is demonstrated through the progression from “Proofs” to “Wagers” to “Remains.”
The second section only comprises language that has already appeared in the first section – words that have already been “proven.” “Wagers” is what remains when those proofs fail to resolve. This eleven-page poem repeats itself over and over again, reframing perspectives and conditions only to produce yet another problem to be solved, even as it becomes clear that the window for remediation is closing. The section ends by considering these new conditions, the conditional tense of regret, in which each action is marked by “would have” and “should have.” The final section, “Remains,” is both a memorial and an effort to address what has proliferated across the collection. Ultimately the collection does not conclude or resolve but becomes itself a record of encounter as it ends with the singular “o,” the final echo of its own utterance as well as the lyric invocation to begin, perhaps, again.
Amy Brady: As climate change continues to wreak havoc on the planet, what role, if any, might poetry play? Can it show or teach us something that reportage or scientific reports can not?
Kristin George Bagdanov: This is an important and difficult question, as it essentially asks: can poetry make anything happen? Must it always apologize for not being the thing itself, always one step away from direct action? One part of me says: poetry isn’t going to save the planet. Another part of me says: Allen Ginsberg used a poem as his “script” when occupying the train tracks outside of the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant in 1978, helping to temporarily halt one tiny aspect of the nuclear-military-industrial complex. Another part of me says: poems pull water from air we thought was dry.
Poems can address, manifest, and interpellate, but their language cannot be severed from the material world – the body of the poet who produced them, yes, but also the institutions and conditions that shaped the poet and the world she is trying to record. I’m interested in the worlds that poems generate, the records they offer us, which like an ice core or Geiger counter might tell us something true about the world that helps us organize bodies and actions in the present. But I’m also interested in what they don’t reveal to us – the symbols and figures that cannot be fully grasped in the present and so become an address to the future, to those who might respond to our shared conditions in the symbols of their own making.
Amy Brady: The title of your collection – Fossils in the Making – could suggest a civilization chugging along toward a catastrophic end. Are you hopeful for the future? Or are you despairing?
Kristin George Bagdanov: I think of my title as working in two ways. One speaks to how we are all in the process of decomposing, which is itself an act of composition, of becoming new forms through our relationships with other bodies and things. The question that remains is what type of fossils will we become? What is the residue of my relationship with animals, plants, engines, computers, food, etc.? Nuclear waste, plastics, and carbon dioxide all become traces that will persist for thousands of years, marking the future with our present. They are products of living and its uneven distribution of resources. They are evidence of endless desire and consumption. However, I also think of “making” as the etymological root of “poiesis” – that poems are always in the making but never made in so far as they continue to transform through their interactions with bodies and minds and worlds. And in terms of the choice between hope and despair, I think those are indeed the limits of the spectrum between which I oscillate, unable to rest fully at either end because to do so would be to accept these current conditions as made, rather than tending to the process of their making.
Fossils in the Making, by Kristin George Bagdanov, Black Ocean, published April 1, 2019.
Kristin George Bagdanov earned her M.F.A. in poetry from Colorado State University and is currently a PhD candidate in English Literature at U.C. Davis. Her poetry collection, Fossils in the Making, was published in April 2019 by Black Ocean. Her chapbook Diurne, which won the 2019 Sunken Garden Poetry Prize, is forthcoming from Tupelo Press in 2019. She is the poetry editor of Ruminate Magazine.
Reprinted with permission of Amy Brady and Chicago Review of Books, a Yale Climate Connections content-sharing partner.