Philip Metres is the author of Pictures at an Exhibition (2016), Sand Opera (2015), and To See the Earth (2008). A two-time recipient of the NEA and the Arab American Book Award, he is professor of English at John Carroll University. His poem “Personal Climate Change” can be found here. It appears in the May/June 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Personal Climate Change”?
Reading it again, I find this poem a bit of a mystery. I recall hearing a classroom lecture by my colleague Jean Feerick that highlighted ecological motifs in Shakespeare poems, and some of the language filtered through whatever else was humming in head—particularly, the “midlife” moment, in which everything you thought was stable and certain no longer feels stable or certain. The midlife moment rhymes, in some weird way, with our ecological crisis, in which the former “balance” (however fictional) is thrown off. I’m thinking in particular of Bill McKibben’s Eaarth, which posits that we need to let go of the very idea of “earth” as we knew it, that it actually needs another name. Hence, eaarth.
This poem seems to work both to show the climate itself as an organism and the organism of a human being as a type of climate. Do you think of these comparisons work as elevations of both the human and the earth, encouraging your readers to see them in something beyond their literal bodies? Or does this comparison work more to ground both the earthly and the bodily in an underlying commonality?
One hopes that if we were to think of ourselves as earthly, as earth, and the earth as an organism (Turtle Island), as ourselves, we might heal the primal subject-object split that marks Western philosophy and much modern thinking—where we see the earth simply as a resource to be exploited. But the poem is as much about the moment of uncertainty, when everything shifts. This is weird, but for a long time I thought that “firmament” meant “earth,” when it actually means the sky—since the ancient Biblical notion was that the sky was capped by a solid dome.
You include the line “Bare ruined choirs” in your poem, which also appears in Shakespeare’s Sonnet LXXIII. Is this line, as you use it in your poem, meant to evoke a sense of decay and a feeling of how impending mortality can heighten affection, as it does in the sonnet? If you intend to use it differently, how might it work in a new way given the context which surrounds it?
I love it when a reader makes me think about the poem differently. Poems should be smarter than their author. I like your reading quite a bit. If I could push it the opposite direction as well, perhaps our beloved old poems aren’t enough either for what we are facing. We need a new language for our new moment.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
I’m always hesitant to give advice unless I know well whom I’m advising. It can so easily be misunderstood, or taken wrongly. As Adrienne Rich once wrote, “everything we write / will be used against us / or against those we love. / These are the terms, / take them or leave them. Poetry never stood a chance / of standing outside history.” Still, this is something. When I was re-reading an old college journal I wrote this to myself, in the middle of struggling with my senior honors project, a collection of poems: “I also feel that the coming task will be somewhat daunting and a little scary, and I just don’t know what to expect. I ought to let things flow and not punish myself like I do.”
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I’ll share two things I hope to complete this summer, in the hopes that my sharing them publicly commits me to them.
First, The Flaming Hair of Fate and Other Russian Tales is a memoir that braids two narratives: the story of my year living in Russia and studying Russian poetry during its most tumultuous year transitioning to a capitalist economy; and the story of traveling in America on a reading tour with Sergey Gandlevsky, a celebrated Russian poet who speaks no English, and who once used my visit to his dacha as the basis for the visit of a fictional American son described in his novel [Illegible].
Second, building on the experimental work of Sand Opera (2015)—which sets in counterpoint the experience of becoming a father on the homefront and the War on Terror abroad—Shrapnel Maps (a collection of poems) investigates and dramatizes the political, personal, and historical wounds at the core of the conflict in the so-called Holy Land, in Israel/Palestine.