When I began this column four years ago, climate change was still an unusual subject to find in most contemporary fiction. That has since changed. Today, writers of all kinds, including sci-fi and fantasy novelists, so-called “literary” novelists (I prefer the term “realist”), short-story writers, and poets, are publishing richly layered books and collections about climate change and its effects on people and the natural world.
Case in point: The poet Kathryn Smith, and her latest collection, Self-Portrait with Cephalopod. The collection is steeped in environmental awareness and brims with emotions of all kinds. Smith deftly balances despair with optimism, while tracking the larger changes of the planet and the smaller changes within ourselves. I spoke with Smith about why she decided to write about climate change and the role that poetry might play in bringing greater awareness to the problem.
Amy Brady: Your collection is very moving and elicits all kinds of feelings. But one theme holding all the way through is how humans are dealing with environmental collapse. Why did you make this a focus of your collection?
Kathryn Smith: In a way, the poems decided for me. As I gathered poems together to create this collection, it became clear that environmental collapse and human complicity were a central thread. It’s a topic that works its way into my poetry either implicitly or explicitly because I think a lot about it – about my role in speeding climate change and what I can and can’t do to mitigate my impact.
Amy Brady: One of my favorite poems in this collection is “Spell to Turn the World Around,” which features a narrator who collects birds, vows to use less water, and drives to the grave site of a firefighter who died on his way to extinguish wildfires. What inspired this particular poem?
Kathryn Smith: I live in Washington state, which has had severe wildfires the past several summers. 2015 was a particularly devastating year. That June was unseasonably hot, and trees started losing their leaves due to drought. The fires started early and didn’t let up. The air quality reached hazardous levels. The sky felt apocalyptic. At the time, I was working as a copy editor at The Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, and we were covering wildfires in the surrounding areas, so I felt acutely aware of the impact these fires were having on the region.
The firefighter mentioned in the poem was one of three who died that August in north-central Washington when fire overtook their vehicle. His name was Tom Zbyszewski. A couple of years earlier, he had won the regional Poetry Out Loud competition, a poetry recitation contest for high schoolers. I was a judge for the contest that year, which I’ve done several times, and the experience always makes me feel hopeful about the future – to see students dedicating their time and attention to poetry. I didn’t know Tom personally, but I remembered his performance. I started thinking about all the ways our lives, our actions, ripple out into the world – and about the ripple effects of natural and unnatural disasters.
As the title states, the poem is a sort of spell. In this poem, I think I’d define that as a feeble human grasping-at-straws attempt to change what’s too far gone to alter. Can we really reverse the effects of climate change? Are we willing to acknowledge the ways in which our human lives and actions create the very circumstances we mourn?
Amy Brady: Your collection evokes some dark images, but it maintains a thread of optimism. Can you talk about your artistic choice to maintain that emotional balance?
Kathryn Smith: I believe that poetry should tell the truth – hence the dark images. But I also believe that poetry is a way of presenting the world we want to see, of putting forth the world we hope for. A collection full of death and decay and environmental collapse and anxiety – that collection would be honest, but what would it leave you with? As a reader, I want to be asked to look unflinchingly at the world, and at myself, but I also want poems to offer me some glimmer of hope. So, I wanted to give readers that, too.
Amy Brady: Are you personally optimistic about the future?
Kathryn Smith: I try to be. Maintaining a level of hope is a survival tactic to some degree. If I’m going to be here, if I’m going to live on this planet as it’s dying, I have to believe that the future isn’t entirely bleak. I have to keep looking to the rivers that return to their original course when dams are removed, the fish that come back from the brink of extinction. My optimism comes not so much from what I have the power to do to reverse environmental destruction, but from the earth’s ability to heal, its resilience.
Amy Brady: What role, if any, do you think poetry plays in our wider discourse on or understanding of climate change? What do you hope readers take away from your collection?
Kathryn Smith: Poetry, like other art forms, provides a new way of seeing, of conceptualizing. Some people are moved by images, some people are moved by data, some people are moved by words. The discourse on climate change – or any topic – needs to happen on multiple levels, in every possible form, if as many of us as possible are going to participate in that discourse.
As for what I hope readers take away from the collection – I feel a lot of despair about my role in environmental collapse, and I try to approach that as honestly as possible in the poems. I want this collection to provide some sense of solidarity for readers who also feel that despair.
Amy Brady: Are there other poets or writers who are thinking about the climate crisis that you’d recommend to fans of your work?
Kathryn Smith: There are so many – and so many I haven’t read as well. Taneum Bambrick’s Vantage, Ellen Welcker’s Ram Hands, and Rebecca Dunham’s Cold Pastoral are three poetry collections that, in very different ways, look human complicity in ecological devastation straight in the face.
Amy Brady: What’s next for you?
Kathryn Smith: I do various types of visual poetry, and I’ve been working at getting more of that out into the world. I have collage poems in the recent issue of Permafrost magazine, and pieces that combine found text with handmade ink forthcoming in Fugue and a new literary journal called Brink. Those pieces have been easier for me to work on during the pandemic – work that doesn’t rely solely on words. There will be new poems, too, at some point, but right now I’m giving my brain the time and space to process in different ways.
Self-Portrait with Cephalopod, by Kathryn Smith, (Milkweed Editions).
From the YCC Editor: This is Amy Brady’s final column for the Chicago Review of Books and re-posted here at Yale Climate Connections. A popular column with YCC readers, her interviews with contemporary writers have become a staple that will be greatly missed.
Reprinted with permission of Amy Brady and Chicago Review of Books, a Yale Climate Connections content-sharing partner.