Inextricably Interwoven: Talking to Brenda Iijima

By Andy Fitch

Amid a recent stretch of ominous, climate-change inflected environmental disasters, and amid an ongoing history of environmental imperialism intensifying the impact of such disasters upon communities of color, economically marginalized communities, and interspecies communities, it feels especially pertinent to return to Nightboat Books’s )((ECO (LANG) (UAGE (READER), edited by Brenda Iijima. Iijima’s public engagements occur at intersections of, and amid mutations of: poetry, animal studies, ecological sociology, histories of activism, and submerged social histories. She is the author of seven collections of poetry, and numerous chapbooks and artist’s books. Her most recent book, Remembering Animals, was published by Nightboat in 2016. Iijima is the editor of Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, located in Brooklyn.

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ANDY FITCH: Your preface introduces this collection as a “think-tank forum — hopefully opening up and furthering intense discussions around the issues presented…all the diversified, contending, interlocking issues extending in every direction,” then thanks the reader for participating. More broadly, could you trace the lived and living history of this project? What about the 2006 Segue panel that you and Evelyn Reilly hosted clarified your sense that a book-length anthology might best extend that panel’s momentum? What performative modes did your initial panelists adopt, and have those made their way into this print text? How did Nightboat and Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs end up coming together to serve as joint publishers? How have you or others placed the )((ECO (LANG) (UAGE (READER)) amid subsequent critical discussions since publication? Have developments in environmental politics and/or ecopoetics within the last decade affirmed and/or altered your sense of which interventions matter most in these fields? Most basically, could you begin to answer your preface’s concluding question: “How will we continue to read and write ecological engagement”?

BRENDA IIJIMA: Thanks for the great constellation of questions, Andy. It feels timely to renew thinking around the confluence of energy represented by the )((ECO (LANG) (UAGE (READER), and to reconsider the material conditions and urges that led Evelyn and I to host that forum at Segue back in 2006, and then move towards assembling a collection of essays pressurizing the themes initiated at that forum into a deeper space of contemplation. As I sit down to address your questions, I am reflecting on the experience of participating in SUNY-Buffalo’s “(The Next) 25 Years” conference that was held nearly a year ago. In many ways the conference resembled a larger evocation of the panel that Evelyn and I hosted at Segue, now a fleeting decade ago. Poets convening together to weigh in on how the impact of global climate change, the contingent forces of late-stage neoliberal capitalist exploit, hyper technologies, colonialism, imperialism, racism and sexism, etcetera, effect our social continuum and participation with language, and thus, with the entire eco-cultural sphere: lived life — and what this means for expressive future existence.

As human animals we are always inside language and ecology as all-encompassing spheres of participatory reality. The experience of thinking and feeling through crisis and conundrum (and bonding in necessity is crucial), the exigencies of our times are overwhelming. Gathering collectively to instigate change is our baseline organizational strategy. #NoDAPL, Black Lives Matter, 350.org., the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, and many other activist collectives are demonstrating outrage, demanding justice, and insisting on swift and radical transformation. Every day it becomes clearer how the ecological crisis is adversely affecting billions of people and other animals. Its rapid escalation is cannily apparent. Places are fast becoming unlivable, uninhabitable. One hundred or more species die out on any given day.

When Evelyn and I hosted that initial gathering as part of the Segue Reading Series, we felt a provocative stimulation around an emergent condition that was and is, to some extent, beyond imaginative capacity — namely global climate change and the attendant extinction phenomenon. Around that time, social theorists (Silvia Federici and Peter Linebaugh among them) were reintroducing and conventionalizing the commons as a mandate of civic space, in response to the increased militarization of the nation state, the economic and political precarity of social-welfare systems, and the tensions brought on by ecological disaster — underscoring how these forces disproportionately threaten people of color, women, and the economically disenfranchised (i.e., most of us in varying degrees). What is conceptualized as “common,” “natural,” and “free” has been codified by the violence of racism, colonial imperialism, classism, and sexism. Any discussion of the commons is fraught with how entitlement and access play out. These timely and pivotal discussions got us thinking about how it might be possible to frame ideation in a different sort of forum, as a way to be generatively operative along many vectors and engage durational thinking. Presenting essays by poets contending with these issues seemed a necessary goal.

Poets take the pulse of social and ecological reality. Poetry has amazing capacity in its elasticity. As an agile medium, poetry documents transformation, and magnifies how meanings are codified and suspended in language. It felt significant to widen our discussions after the initial panel event, and to draw many more participants, so we organized engagement in book form. Calling on poets to speak to the situation of vast ecological disturbance, in all its complexity, brings together forms of recognition through language that poets are particularly attuned to — the sensitive, sometimes submerged nuances.

The )((ECO (LANG) (UAGE (READER)) took a significant amount of time to come together, and in that time there were many personal challenges for both of us: health crises, care-giving for elderly parents, and other emergencies. Life intensified. We held out for essays and this took time. We had discussions about inclusion and exclusion, centers and peripheries, topic issues and tangential straying. A decided goal at the onset of the project was to take the discussion beyond poets who were previously identified as “eco poets” — though the collection does include several poets who were already very much engaged with ecological concerns. The contributions from the original panel are included in the reader, with changes that arose from editorial input and revision. The texture of the panel’s collective voicing is sometimes apparent and sometimes subsumed into individual texts. Ed Roberson participated in the panel but unfortunately didn’t end up submitting his piece for inclusion in the reader.

A book of essays is compact and easily distributed — thus a great portable prompt for discussion and action. We hoped to connect poets while also extending the reach out beyond poetry worlds altogether. Feedback has come from all over. It is a motley, textured collection and I think readers are drawn in by the polyvalent registers of the book, the many distinct voices and voicings. In this way, the collection realized something very pertinent and special — that it takes a multi-tonal gathering to begin to unpack the reality of our historical moment as it cascades into disasters of a scale that defy understanding, as well as to stimulate the recognition that disaster is already so much a part of the fraught history of human animal life. The )((ECO (LANG) (UAGE (READER)) is one version of a gathering — an attempt at paying close attention to the perceptive valences that ripple through social fabric.

Nightboat really rescued the project at a critical time. At one point Evelyn stepped away from the project and I was trying to imagine how to publish (as both publisher and editor) such a hulking text with Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs. The means and the platforms for distribution were lacking on my part. Stephen Motika is amazingly tuned into projects that incubate along the sidelines. He’d occasionally query how the reader was coming together. Then, what seemed like out of the blue, but really wasn’t because Stephen had been paying attention to the project for probably a year, he offered to publish the collection jointly. This gave the project a major infusion of energy. Books like the )((ECO (LANG) (UAGE (READER)) come out of long-term relationships. It was my first experience of bringing together a large collection of writings, and the editing, feedback, and designing of the book was participatory in ways I hadn’t imagined. This process involved hands-on, totally engaged, calibrated social relationships, deep feelings and an ethical motivation.

The )((ECO (LANG) (UAGE (READER)) is often paired with Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille T. Dungy, and with The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral, edited by Joshua Corey and G.C. Waldrep. These various settings in which the book becomes a focus of study have compelled divergent readings. The book is generative as a gateway, a flashpoint, a bellwether — it relies on interconnection to set thought processes in motion. Initially I hoped the book would engage activism more frontally, but, for various reasons, our initial prompt didn’t accentuate this aspect. The reader, as is, performs a different function — to refocus perception, to resituate how we think of language as a conveyor of meanings (one that permeates environment and deeply impacts place), and as a connective tool in a time of upheaval and transformation. Out of these readings and intersections activist energies are inspired. The reader opens up a matrix that includes how understandings about species, race, gender, class, and ecosystem intersect. The book arose outside of the academy, in a participatory spirit. It has found its way into academic settings, where I receive the most feedback. It is heartening to hear the various ways in which the reader has been approached — too various to comment on. Rhetorically, sonically, psychically, and materially it presents broad and subtle insights. Each essay is varied and distinct thematically, and also texturally, experientially.

Then in terms of your question’s final parts: I feel uneasy responding to what matters most — lives are inextricably interwoven, impacting each other directly and subtly. Sentient life is a precarious communal reality, greatly exacerbated by a president who doesn’t give any credence to environmental duress, and by a system that holds profit as its number one goal.

The strange irony is that the human animal population is exploding while there is a major extinction event unfolding, and all other animals are in jeopardy. Human animals will not survive as a solitary presence on Earth. There is something terribly amiss with this logic of reproduction, and prioritizing human life at the expense of everyone else is genocidal. Establishing mutual aid for human animals, all other animals, and ecosystems is what needs to happen immediately.

And within the human community, wealth inequity and resource disparity is accelerating — and soon there will be genetically modified humans (in addition to a genetically modified food crop) to complicate matters.

This situation at hand urges that we resort to the most direct and obvious interventions in real time, in our immediate present. Change relies on adjusting perception to eventuate action, sensitivity, respect, and trust within the intimacies of community and locality.

The last 10 years have demonstrated how critically necessary potent gestures of attention and refusal are. Laws have been passed in the last months that make it prohibitive to protest. Recently, North Dakota introduced a bill that would allow motorists to run over and kill any protester obstructing a highway, as long as the driver wasn’t acting intentionally. In Minnesota, a House committee approved legislation that would increase penalties and charge demonstrators the cost of policing protests. We wouldn’t be facing this crisis of annihilation if forms of power hadn’t hardened around capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy — forces of white supremacy and state brutality operate with a total disregard for anything that isn’t profit driven and beneficial to the ruling class. How to put into place a system that doesn’t destroy life as its premise? As scholar Che Gossett states, “the necropolitical enterprise of the prison industrial complex isn’t broken, it’s designed to destroy life. We need abolition, NOW.” An industrial prison system persists as a centerpiece of our nation state, and the perpetuation of ongoing wars worldwide is our foreign policy. As a nation, we haven’t resolved the genocidal legacy of settler colonialist land-grabbing and weaponized cultural transformation. Our attentions have to shift toward envisioning a system of interrelation that isn’t anthropocentric, so that “universal Man” is no longer center, and “nature” is no longer peripheral — that which is subjugated, disposed of, and outside of concern. As Rinaldo Walcott suggests, “a new opening up and opening out of the category of human, meant to recuperate a different kind of planetary life.”

In 2010, Tunisian street vender Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi’s integral act of self-immolation became the symbol for the Arab Spring uprising, and in so many significant ways recalibrated movements in North America, inspiring collective organizing to shape a platform for a more just eco-social world. Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and current iterations of ecological activism could be seen in many ways as a response to and expansion of Arab Spring mandates. So I think of Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi’s actions and how they catalyzed collective uprising.

The pressures on all living beings in a precarious ecosystem are mounting, and resistance is taking many forms. According to The Guardian, more than 300,000 farmers have killed themselves in India since 1995, partially in response to Monsanto’s impact and the hardship of growing crops amidst drought caused by climate change. These dire yet decisive acts speak to the fraught circumstances of an eco-social crisis that is met with cynicism by those in power. The 2016 murder of environmental activist Berta Cáceres, leader of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), is evidence of a reactionary and violent backlash against the call for provocative change. She is one of many indigenous activists murdered in the last decade as intermeshed crises are exacerbated. Collective resistance against the Keystone Pipeline has been heartening as are the fervent unending protests against Canadian tar sands development. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement to support the rights of Palestinians gains momentum as does the Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement. Political, economic, environmental, racial, and sexual struggle persist simultaneously. West Oakland’s resounding decision to prohibit shipping and handling of coal, the stand-up against fracking — there are so many compelling narratives that bring attention to the urgent dedication of living beings all over the globe.

As my daily experience is made complex by interspecies communication, I’m convinced trees and all flora and also all other animals are signaling an alarm as well as a collaborative invitation to live differently. So the discussions and responses (language immersion, including poetry) that develop in the face of living within the timeframe of massive extinction, a toxified planet, an emergent climate disaster, economic instability, endless war and displacements, include everything pertinent to living and nonliving — thus shifting focus and challenging the foundations of human exceptionalism. Humanity is often self-centered, refuses biocultural input from other animals, other life forms, from the earth itself as a living, breathing entity.

In the last decade there has been attuned thinking and discussion about reconceptualizing how living mutually as a diversified multispecies continuum is possible. Eduardo Kohn, Anna Tsing, Ursula Heise, Anna Breytenbach, Donna Haraway, Colin Dayan, Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, Deborah Bird Rose, Thom van Dooren, Matthew Chrulew, Vinciane Despret, and Diana Beresford-Kroeger come immediately to mind. They are not poets, yet they think poetically, as they break out of compartmentalized modes of cognition, and begin to decenter the human (universal Man as envisioned from the Enlightenment to the present) as the ultimate rational agent who remakes the world in his image. Hierarchies of “objective” rationality lead to blind spots, such as the condition of human supremacy and its delusions. The signifier “animal” is considered unintelligent, unfeeling, lacking agency, lacking language, technologies, and deprived of an interior “self.” Furthermore, the animal is understood as an expendable resource. Recognition is critical — to undo the damage that Akira Lippitt writes about when stating: “the effort to define the human being has usually required a preliminary gesture of exclusion: a rhetorical animal sacrifice. The presence of the animal must first be extinguished for the human being to reappear.” Relearning is mandatory (and here I am conscious of my subject-position as white person who lives in relative safety in a resource-consuming cultural milieu: this message is for persons who were born with privileges based on skin tone and/or nation), as is tuning into ethnocultural knowledges that have insights beyond what our limited Western scope permits to see and know. Obliviousness precipitates oblivion. Industrial farming, industrial warring, industrial incarceration, industrial education — deadly enterprises. Thinking about infrastructures of care, being gentle with one another, about feeling and crying, about grief and about rage holding information and power and about that sliding motion between the two and the recuperative force of care that we all need to nourish and sustain resistance and radicalism.

Primed perhaps by your preface’s open-ended conclusions, and by the wide-ranging applications you have provided here, I particularly appreciate the different types of edge effect occurring on a formal or rhetorical level throughout this collection. Your co-dependent, rhizomatically produced exchange with Tyrone Williams, for instance, with its many nuanced qualifications, its reluctance to offer any fixed, easily extractable answers, models an interrelational subjecthood likewise manifest in Leslie Scalapino’s haibun pacing, in Julie Patton’s eco-alphabetical (also Pictures movement-esque) photo sequence, in Catriona Mortmer-Sandilands’ Walter Benjamin-inflected “reconnaissance mission.” Structure, syntax, medium, idiom often seem in this book to provide as persuasive a model as does any argument-driven prose. In each case, I as reader feel myself drawn into a generative mode of experiential engagement, one much more exploratory than the preservatory discourses that might have shaped most eco-writing just a generation prior. Could you talk about the )((ECO (LANG) (UAGE (READER))’s approach to promoting biodiversity, new speciation, and how this might register at what you describe as “microlevels, in body-brain, (a semi-autonomous system contained in a helmet of skull and skin that filters, links, agitates) — creative, aware, proactive — changeable — attuned to the surrounding environment where it submerges with the political, the social, the emotional, the local”? And maybe we also could discuss the various units parsed and recombined in this book’s very title. How does the )((ECO (LANG) (UAGE (READER)) extend and/or depart from, for example, the presumed comprehensive survey offered by most anthological “readers”?

Thanks — a generative read, Andy.

These discussions don’t illustrate the world. They hallucinate reality. Eco-reality is always already a collaborative endeavor. In myriad ways the essays are interactive, responsive. The essays, interviews, photos, and collages cause a commotion of attention, swerves, transformations. And echoing Deleuze and Guattari’s sense of immersiveness (readers with texts, texts with readers): “even when they have roots, there is always an outside where they form a rhizome with something else — with the wind, an animal, human beings.” Root words, conceptualizations, bodies, histories, the terms of engagement…

The themes at hand deal with disturbed formations. Unruly discourse is an agitant that challenges commodified modes of communication. Texts can fortify and/or challenge our ideologies. Legacy is passed down via syntax and diction, structures of thinking — acts of language that regulate the world.

As the world is made increasingly monolithic, genericized by market demands, it is crucial to nurture diversity. And I’m not so much thinking about categorizations of identity here. What I’m advocating is a changeable dynamics where constant transformation is recognized as the basis of life — an understanding and encouragement of how durational experience shapes us collectively, individually, and on the micro-cellular level (and how this pertains to how we engage our psychic-historical-futuristic continuum, to how we promote an epigenetic conception of what it means to co-exist). Our bodies transform. Preoccupations, interactions, and connections are constantly morphing. Reality is a various, shape-shifting proliferation.

It was a happy occurrence that most poets didn’t feel inclined to write rationalist, explanatory, linear texts. There are very few thesis statements and proofs involved in the book. Instead, the capacity to conjugate is heightened. Genres draw from each other. Areas of study intersect. Confluences occur. Anna Tsing describes her book The Mushroom at the End of the World as “an open-ended assemblage, not a logical machine.” That type of assemblage takes place in the reader. Intimacy and sensitivity are a tendency among the texts.

One book that has been a guide for me is Ken Saro-Wiwa’s A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary. Saro-Wiwa organized the Ogoni people of the Niger Delta in their environmental struggles against the Shell Oil Corporation and the military government of Nigeria. Saro-Wiwa brought world-wide attention to the social and environmental degradation of the Ogoni people and their ecosystem — through his tireless activism, which took form in multiple genres and modes of delivery including poetry, speeches, letters, diaries, memoirs, screenplays, editorials, and legal briefs. His multivalenced work demonstrates the potency of activist texts. A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary testifies, documents, and organizes the world to recognize the exploitation of the Ogoni land and people. Saro-Wiwa’s book brings postcolonial struggle and environmental justice together in a persuasive way.

The title of the reader is complicated and chunky, to signal dissonance and much happening possibility. Emergence-emergency. The parentheses do the job of activating intervals, interludes, and afterthoughts, breaking up syntactic construction. They suggest that ideation might stray from normative pathways. Thought bubbles, thought streams, pools and oceans of thought! I contemplated having a title that would consume the entire cover of the book, but that proved to be prohibitive — how could the book be listed? The bane of cataloging! The title was a subtle resistance to the demand for recognition, favoring the errant, the nondisclosure — a form of ecological persistence.

In terms of intertextual and intersectional authorial and activist engagements, Jonathan Skinner’s piece draws upon Gilles Clemént’s detection of a provisional, pioneering third estate growing among the margins, but also upon Stephen Meyer’s call to protect “broad ecosystem functions and processes in a dynamic environment rather than species-specific needs.” Again, those poles of the composite and of the singular, along with that fertile interstitial sensibility somewhere between, all help me to spatialize the porous parameters of this anthology. Or when Marcella Durand presents “the relationship of the observer to the observed” as a problem that has persisted through “various manifestations as pastoral poetry, nature poetry, and its latest incarnation as ecological/environmental poetry,” not long after Tracie Morris has declared that “The tension between issues of rights and sacrifice, the experience of day-to-day living, and themes of metaconsciousness, is no more apparent than in the consideration of race and the environment,” I once more feel this overall collection reaching both towards a broader phenomenology of historically/environmentally determined reading practices, and towards a mapping of lived microspecificities (with questions of place, race, class, physical ableism quite pertinent among them). At the same time, I (perhaps wrongly) think of anthologies, more so than individually authored books, as often pitched to quite particular audiences and communities — sometimes helping in fact to create these emergent communities. So could you continue to describe the types of cultural ecosystems that you see the )((ECO (LANG) (UAGE (READER)) seeking to engage, foster, protect, preserve, hybridize, overcome?

This historical moment requires full-fledged collective action in the face of totalizing systems of destruction. We (human animals) have compiled a mighty record of harm. It appears human activity has written an obituary for most life forms, with tipping points giving way to annihilation. Empire building and colonial appropriation strangulate a sustainable matrix. Unfortunately, this is not hyperbolic rhetoric.

The point of the book is to compel readings across experiences — to make connections, forge solidarities, as well as to complicate conceptions of ecological life in all the forms that writing opens up and brings access to. Monolithic thinking is dangerous.

Language is a common denominator, a somatic tool shared in sentience. So the book is a body of expression that anyone can partake in, if they have a copy. At this point it is out of my hands as to how it circulates and how its generativities are shared.

Each piece’s deliberation is an invitation to rethink a relation, to grow among the book’s budding relations. The book refuses a correct approach. There are leaping-off points to outlying readings and engagements. Tracing the pathways of each contributor’s sources brings forth myriad tangential connections and provocations. The book is a stimulant. It capaciously exceeds the boundaries of genre and subject. I choose here not to bring in specific or precise details from each poet’s contributions because I think the real strength is the conglomerative quality of multiplicity, and how tonalities and utterances stream: together, distinctly — punctuating contemplation.

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