(I wrote this introduction for a series of a dozen sonnets I've collected into an art book that is one of the solstice books i've produced over the years. I post these sonnets on FaceBook and Instagram. The title of this post and of the solstice book is from Babylon 5, Season 2: The Coming of Shadows, Babylon 5 (1993-1998), created by J. Michael Straczynski)
Grace Paley, who I was lucky to see read her poetry a few times in the later years of her life, in her wonderful poem Responsibility, exhorts poets to step into the fires of social change. The poem is loaded with advice but one passage serves, for me, as a good explanation of why I have composed these dozen sonnets to activists:
It is the responsibility of the poet to stand on street corners
giving out poems and beautifully written leaflets
also leaflets they can hardly bear to look at
because of the screaming rhetoric
My other inspiration for these poems is Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, as timeless a work as there is. I noticed some years ago that this book had spawned its own subgenre of "letters to a young ____." Almost none of these works are true correspondence though they are epistolary writing (and i love the letter form, for sure). But Rilke's example is that of correspondence (written over several years) responding to a 19-year-old officer cadet who was asking for advice (and to which Rilke initially responded with "Nobody can advise you and help you..." He then goes on, nonetheless, to give advice). All to say that the letter-form for my project seemed beyond me. Which is when I thought of composing poems. Poems that would at least be worthy of my Aunt Margaret's attention. For I make no claims that these sonnets are good poems though i've tried to craft them well. I can hear my late Aunt Margaret, high pitched voice and Scots accent, responding to several of my poems with, "Well, that's rubbish." But a couple of poems elicited, "That's quite good. I like that one." Higher praise doesn't exist. And in the hopes that at least a few of these poems might have earned my Aunt Margaret's praise had she lived to hear them, I offer this set of advice poems which are as much musing as exhortation.
I do ask myself why I feel compelled to offer advice. Well, even while the future remains unwritten, the path of the unfolding and quickening climate catastrophe that is upon us all seems ever more bleak. Though I remain stubbornly hopeful. I have spent a lifetime reading of possible futures - dystopian, utopian, apocalyptic, and everything in between - in order to imagine what might lie ahead and what choices now should be made to find our way to a healthy and vibrant and just world. I have imagined myself every kind of hero, every kind of victim, and several kinds of villain. I have fantasized about being the last of humanity and the first of a new civilization that rises from the ashes. I have made lists of what one should have to hand should civilization collapse unexpectedly. And i've imagined where I would like to live in a post-apocalypse, assuming it was livable. But I have also wept for the imagined losses that are, in fact, unimaginable.
Thus have I spent my adult life to this point practicing popular education because I believe that the creativity, critical mindedness, kindness, humility, passion, love and courage that is at the heart of this practice (praxis, for you theory nerds) is what is most missing from movements for positive and necessarily radical social change. Popular education recognizes that all processes of change are, at their core, about learning. And that that learning has to be collective - that there is, in a sense, no such thing as an individual learner. As Paulo Freire writes, "...no one teaches another, nor is anyone self-taught. People teach each other, mediated by the world." I have spent over 40 years forging a popular education praxis that is anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-colonial; that is defiant but also playful and committed to emancipation of the oppressed and the sovereignty of those who have suffered much. Popular education understands that everything in our world is interconnected and that while human communities and civilization are amazing things, they are not the centre of creation but rather only one kind of participant in the abundance of life on planet earth. And unwittingly or not, we have taken more than our share and continue to wreak havoc on both human and non-human life. Now we are in a race with our selfish nature with only a matter of years ahead of us before our course is irreversible (optimistically speaking). Whether we overcome our narrow self-interest to learn and grow into a more mature and just understanding of life on this planet has, I believe, everything to do with how we practice learning.
I am, by nature, hopeful and thus always deeply committed to ensuring the most positive outcome from the many challenges we must confront in the coming decades. Nonetheless, my energy flags at times and I feel discouragement and even despair begin to well up. But I have always taken such moments as opportunities for learning and growth (and writing poems). I was surprised and heartened recently upon reading a 2019 op-ed piece by archaeologist Chris Begley who teaches wilderness survival, something that would seem, on its face, is increasingly important for any who plan to live into the late 21st century. But, perhaps counterintuitively, he writes:
"While the wilderness survival skills certainly can’t hurt, it will be empathy, generosity, and courage that we need to survive. Kindness and fairness will be more valuable than any survival skill. Then as now, social and leadership skills will be valued. We will have to work together. We will have to grow food, educate ourselves, and give people a reason to persevere. The needs will be enormous, and we cannot run away from that. Humans evolved attributes such as generosity, altruism, and cooperation because we need them to survive."
My hope is fuelled by the recently published The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Wengrow and the late David Graeber which tells a startlingly original account of human civilization that supports Begley's advice and also creates the basis for thinking much more radically and hopefully for our future. The history that most of us have been taught is one that, not surprisingly for some of us, has served certain narrow interests at the expense of those of the majority of humanity and the vast majority of non-human life on this planet. We need better history. And Graeber and Wengrow have given us a must-read text for the sake of our survival.
My hope is strengthened even more by the work of Octavia Butler whose Parable of the Sower I have recently re-read so that I may marvel once again at her imagination and prescience. It is a searing read, complicated and nuanced, but one that is filled with hope and courage. Each of her works points us towards the courage and imagination that we need now. And I have re-read Rilke. In fact I'm always re-reading everything I've read my whole life, re-reading being a joy second only to the joy of reading. I'm currently reading to Taliesen the Pern novels of Anne McCaffrey. How I loved these as a teen. And what a joy to rediscover them with Taliesen. I know now that I did not appreciate, as a teen, the complexity of the social relationships McCaffrey describes in her novels. But something seeped through. And that something is what I've also found in the words of a wilderness survival teacher/archaeologist, of writers like Octavia Butler, in the poetry and thought of Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldua, the philosophy of Maria Lugones, the art of dian marino and Corita Kent, and so many others.
Cooperate or die (and be forgotten). Perhaps it is as simple as that. But to cooperate we must participate with all life. And, as Alice Walker says, “We live in the best of all times ... [because] there’s so much to do!” Thus we must decolonize our politics, our economics, our social relationships. We must learn to use less stuff. We must work to restore what we have so casually destroyed. We must learn better to be humble and loving. For the world will shrug us off and carry on as it can - if wounded and ailing. But it will recover. Human civilization may not.
So, here are a few poems with a few things that i've learned and which I hope contain a few things with which you might connect.