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The Pedagogical Potential of the Eco-Epic

What resources can literature from the past offer when confronting the urgent present-moment reality of climate crisis? What function should the humanities classroom serve when the future of human life seems increasingly precarious? Anne Raine’s post, “Modernism, Eco-anxiety, and the Climate Crisis,” helped catalyze these questions for me by challenging us “to find ways to make climate change our job.” I’ve been trying to figure out how to meet this challenge in a course I’m teaching on literature and climate justice. The class is framed by Rob Nixon, Amitav Ghosh, and others who elaborate the difficulties we face in fathoming the scale and pace of environmental destruction.[1] As Nixon observes, we ignore the “slow violence” of climate change in favor of what is “highly visible . . . event focused, time bound, and body bound” (Slow Violence 3). He looks to literature that makes slow violence imaginatively arresting enough that it might captivate our “flickering attention” (6). Yet if literary fiction offers solutions to our shallow, dispersed attention, it also compounds the problem. Ghosh in part attributes our widespread and inadequate climate response to “the grid of literary forms and conventions that came to shape the narrative imagination in precisely the period when the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere was rewriting the destiny of the earth” (Great Derangement 7). For Ghosh, the genre of literary realism hones our focus on individual rather than collective plights and leaves little room for catastrophe in its commitment to the quotidian. Yet Ghosh, like Nixon, remains invested in the power of literature to retrain our attention—to move us from individualist myopia towards thinking and acting collectively in the face of ecological calamity.

While Nixon continues to seek “collective fictions” in the novel, Ghosh suggests that the epic may provide a better literary form for activating communal responses to “aggregate” experiences (Great Derangement 87, 77). As Ghosh observes, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Ramayana, and folk epics of the Sundarbans offer powerful visions of “collective transformation”; epic journeys and battles “range over eons and epochs,” entwining human fates and “nonhuman agency” across the longue durée (78, 59, 64). My class picks up from Ghosh, investigating what a contemporary climate epic might look and sound like. We’ve identified various epic elements across our reading list—in anti-pastoral elegies, in the modernist “neo-epic,” in rewritings of Medea, in the multigenerational sweep of eco-sci-fi series, and in epic theater dramatizing glacial melt. However, so far only one work we’ve read presents as a fully realized contemporary climate epic: a four-volume poem cycle by the Indigenous poet Tommy Pico, who declares that his tetralogy is rooted in three influences: “the epic tradition of A. R. Ammons, ancient Kumeyaay Bird Songs, and Beyoncé’s visual albums” (fig. 1).[2]

Tommy Pico. Image courtesy of Tommy Pico.
Fig. 1. Tommy Pico. Image courtesy of Tommy Pico.

IRL (2016), Nature Poem (2017), Junk (2018), and Feed (2019) follow the poetic persona of Teebs, a young American “NDN weirdo,” who is trying “to square two identities that don’t fit together well: being a poor, queer kid from the rez, and being a pleasure-seeking, technology-addicted New Yorker who would rather chase the boys he meets on apps than think about centuries of pain passed from one generation to another.”

Like Teebs, Pico moved to Brooklyn from the Viejas Reservation of the Kumeyaay Nation, where he grew up in what is now known as San Diego Country. He has spent long swaths of the last five years on tour, performing at literary festivals, conferences, and campuses. With touring canceled over the past year, he was available to virtually visit classrooms like mine. In conversation with Pico before his Zoom session with my students, I outlined a conventional format, proposing he give a mini lecture on ecopoetics, read some poems, field some questions. Pico suggested he might aim for something more hands-on, which meant, it turns out, teaching us to write climate epics of our own.

Everyday Epics

In Ammons’s “modernist ecopoetics” Pico finds a model for rooting the global and temporal scale of climate catastrophe in the daily minutiae of lived experience. Pico recalls how his first instalment in the Teebs tetralogy emerged from a Brooklyn Poets workshop, which invited participants to respond to Ammons’s Tape for the Turn of the Year (1965).

Portrait of A. R. Ammons. Photographer and date unknown.
Fig. 2. Portrait of A. R. Ammons. Photographer and date unknown.

Ammons composed his epic of the everyday through a month-long process of recording daily observations on a single roll of adding-machine tape (fig. 2). He self-consciously places Tape in dialogue with classical epic traditions through invocations of the Muse, relentless cataloging, and an Odyssean search for home. However, Ammons inverts heroizing hierarchies by displacing dramatic conquests with what Stanley Cavell describes as a “quest of the ordinary.” In Pico as in Ammons, this inversion requires an ongoing commitment to creatively attending to the prosaics of daily life. As Andrew Epstein has recently shown, Ammons’s investment in the everyday and his model of attention owes an important debt to William James.[3] In The Principles of Psychology (1890), James establishes the inherently selective and partial nature of attention. The mechanism of selection is our primary defense against distraction, allowing us to focus on relevant stimuli and filter out the rest: “without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos” (James, Principles 402). However, when James explores the pedagogical implications of selective attention in his Talks to Teachers and Students (1900), he worries about what might be missed on account of “defective training” (216). “We are trained,” he observes, “to seek the choice, the rare, the exquisite exclusively, and to overlook the common” (257). Too often, this training renders us “stone-blind and insensible” toward “creatures and people different from ourselves” (257, 228). Yet we might begin to retrain our attention, James suggests, through poetry that instills “the individual fact and moment…with absolute radiance.”

Ammons commits to this Jamesian project of attention training with an opening call for a “new / order” of poetry that rejects hierarchy or teleology and emerges instead from “the random & / nondescript.”[4] With his signature use of colons, Ammons seeks “connect and connect and connect,” finally merging with “coming & / going common life” (lines 6202-3). Pico follows Ammon’s practice of radical inclusivity; both poems afford epic radiance to the mundane details of day-to-day existence—lunches of hot dogs and baked beans or chicken fingers, snatches of small talk or excerpts from text threads, weather reports and news headlines. These quotidian facts and moments often arrive in an unrelenting rush that eschews end-stops in favor of enjambed contiguity. However, where Ammons’s expanded field of attention unfolds the here-and-now of straight cis white suburban domesticity, Pico’s ongoing moments of living and writing are adhered to the past by “a sticky kind of ancestral sadness, bein a NDN person in occupied America.”[5] For Pico, registering “the common” means confronting legacies of conquest, racism, exploitation, and resource extraction that live close to the bone. Food rarely nourishes and family gatherings are mostly funerals for friends and relatives lost to addiction, suicide, and diseases endemic to poverty and malnutrition. The weather backdrops these deaths, while foregrounding ecological collapse. If Ammons’s everyday epic reveals how “the world is so interpenetrated,” Pico’s interpenetrating connections form an ensnaring web of dispossession, disenfranchisement and destruction:

it seems foolish to discuss nature w/o talking about endemic poverty

which seems foolish to discuss w/o talking about corporations given

human agency which seems foolish to discuss w/o talking about

colonialism which seems foolish to discuss w/o talking about misogyny (12)

Through their shared practices of everyday attention, Ammons and Pico become similarly attuned to environmental degradation, as their epic accruals of private detail inevitably knit with broader ecologies of consumption, conservation, and waste. Ammons explicitly describes his 1993 tour de force, Garbage, in those terms, while Pico’s Nature Poem hinges on the following line: “now I read a lot of Garbage / by A. R. Ammons / the old mysteries avail themselves of technique” (14) (fig. 3). The “old mysteries” invoke Pico’s second epic influence—Kumeyaay Bird Songs—an ancient teaching tradition animated by new methods through Pico’s reading of Ammons.

Tommy Pico, Nature Poem (Tin House Books, 2017).
Fig. 3. Tommy Pico, Nature Poem (Tin House Books, 2017). Image courtesy of the Tommy Pico.

Pico finds a formal means of reviving his epic inheritance in what I describe as Ammons’s “telescopic technique”—his method of making planetary registers of spatial and temporal experience more tangibly and immediately felt. Two kinds of telescoping move in lockstep, anchoring planetary as well as poetic abstractions in lived experience. First there’s a rapid move from geophysical and astrophysical space-time to the scale of human mortality. Ammons ranges across “10,000 years” of planetary upheaval—volcanos erupting and cooling, forests growing and drowning, glaciers melting and breaking—in repeated attempts to square “geologic times” with our “ephemeral” lives: “how strange / we are here” (lines 171, 162, 180, 178–79).[6] Pico opens Nature Poem in interstellar space-time:

The stars are dying

like always, and far away, like what you see looking up is a death knell

from light, right? Light

years. (1)

He then zooms in “close” to the “sea stars on the Pacific coast.” Here too, he confronts “massive deaths”:

Their little

arms lesion and knot and pull away

the insides spill into the ocean. Massive deaths. When I try to sleep I

think about orange cliffs, bare of orange stars. Knotted, glut (1).

Next, both poets move to ground abstract poetic quandaries in physicality. Ammons tries to trade “verbal complexity” for a “hard-clear surface,” yet finally fails to find firm footing in anything like the solid transparency of the material world (lines 194, 200). Ultimately, he can’t convince himself that the deep, fluid “motions / and intermotions” of the planet are, after all, where we live every day (lines 203–4). When, on the next page, he begins the telescopic process again, Ammons invokes “the Indians” as a category that might help close to bridge the gap between “10,000 yrs.” and our lives: “ten thousand years: how / many Indians is that” (lines 236, 207, 222–23). There’s a lot that could be said about this move, which Ammons makes repeatedly. Here I’ll just observe that Pico’s refrain—“I can’t write a nature poem”—refuses the essentializing imperative Ammons summons when he conflates earth-time with “the Indians.” Yet despite Ammons’s implication in the “noble savage / narrative,” he does provide Pico with a model for embodied poetic investigation:

. . . I feel fine, in the sense

that I feel very thin—I been doin Tracy Anderson DVD workouts on

YouTube, keeping my arms fit and strong. She says reach, like you are

being pulled apart

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I can’t write a nature poem

bc it’s fodder for the noble savage

narrative. I wd slap a tree across the face,

I say to my audience. (1–2)

This telescopic movement turns both poets back on their present-moment scenes of writing—scenes that unite everyday and ecological thinking. Whereas Ammons’s scene reveals a solitary writing self, an isolated first person, for Pico the act of writing is profoundly communal: “My throat is full of survivors” (55). He asks: “Who is the ‘I’ but its inheritances” (43). Chief among these inheritances is the Kumeyaay tradition of Bird Song.

Bird Song

By applying Ammons’s telescopic technique to this tradition, Pico moves between modern and ancient ecological epics, and in the process composes the first new Bird Songs in several hundred years. Bird Song cycles have played a powerful pedagogical role for Kumeyaay peoples over millennia, preserving and transmitting practices of mutual responsibility among the earth’s coinhabitants. Through dusk-until-dawn performances, bird singers act as educators and guides who open a temporal portal connecting the present to a mythic time prior to the separation of the human and more-than-human world. To inhabit the Bird Song’s temporality is to renew the ethic of reciprocity underpinning mutually beneficial land practices that have sustained the community for thousands of years. In short, Bird Songs manifest and cultivate the collective and chronological imagination—precisely the imaginative powers most needed in the context of climate crisis. However, as Pico suggests, Bird Songs are on the brink of extinction, now sung mostly at funerals.

One of the few living bird singers is Pico’s father, who served for decades as Viejas Tribal Chairman. As Pico explains, the Chairman’s son is traditionally tasked with travelling beyond ancestral lands to gather new experiences and ways of knowing, returning to the community equipped with new teachings. Pico’s claim to this pedagogical mission is reinforced by another birthright: his traditional name is the Kumeyaay word for bird song. Pico commits to regenerating the tradition he was born into when he starts the anti-racist, queer-positive Birdsong Collective and Micropress in Brooklyn in 2008 (fig. 4).

Birdsong Collective art
Fig. 4. Birdsong Collective art. Image courtesy of Tommy Pico.

In the decade since, he has continued to develop immersive, embodied, community-building practices of poetry and song, pedagogy and performance—all aimed towards social and environmental justice. Pico brought this collectivizing approach to art and activism to my class. He both modelled and enacted an action-oriented community of practice by teaching us his technique for creating a kind of archive of the everyday—compiling words and phrases from news and weather reports, what we’re eating, watching, listening to, talking or texting about. This archive became the basis of a collective compositional practice. Remarkably, just a single session of this communal practice spurred students to undertake a range of community-building initiatives that will long outlive our course.


Notes

[1] Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2017). Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).

[2] Regrettably, I won’t have room in this post to discuss Beyoncé’s epic influence on Pico.

[3] Andrew Epstein, Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 117–25. I am indebted to Epstein’s indispensable book for my reading of Ammons’s long poems as everyday epics that cultivate a Jamesian model of attention.

[4] A. R. Ammons, Tape for the Turn of the Year (New York: Norton, 1994), e-book, lines 567–70.

[5] Tommy Pico, Nature Poem (Portland, OR: Tin House Books, 2017), 37.

[6] I’ve selected a representative Ammons passage from Tape instead of Garbage to show how Ammons’s telescopic technique spans his decades-long project of writing epics of the everyday. The passage I quote from is also one of the most compressed examples I could find; more often, Ammons’s recursive mind-loops unfold over many pages.