Interview by Zoë Brigley
“[As] poets we track and witness what is happening all around the world as pollution and extinction becomes not a prediction for the future, but the very place we live in”
We need more giraffes, more anteaters, more insects in their myriad forms. We need more gorillas, and orangs happy to eat using their feet. We need more lions, snow leopards, golden panthers, otters, field mice, curlews, snipe, cuckoos. We don’t need more rats, we have far too many, both four-legged and two legged. We need more octopi, more whales, many more dolphins, snakes of all kinds in their slitheriness, we need more zebras, more penguins, more golden eagles, puffins, fulmars and herring gulls. Above all, we need more elephants.
I love the mingling of humour and gravity in your writing, as it is often playfully serious and seriously playful. Do you think that is a fair characterisation?
The imagination is a mercurial being, and has many faces and many voices; when writing, yes, I often find myself combining the serious and the humorous, to avoid any danger of sounding preachy or polemical when on the fringes of activist writing. It is the far-right’s fascistic stance that squeezes all humour out of life. But humour, as we know, is a serious business!!
I need to be serious and yet move or dance around that seriousness with a lightness of approach, so that the poem becomes, I hope, not wrenched with preaching but drawing on many aspects of response to find a completeness.
It is a true matter that elephants are ten years away to extinction; to enact the comedy of demanding more animals of all kinds doesn’t pare away the seriousness of the matter but re-shapes it into a more approachable prospect.
The Divine Comedy isn’t full of jokes, but there’s mordant irony and gut- wrenching exaggeration, I’m thinking particularly of the Valley of Thieves, a canto I particularly love. We take our cue from the great writers, who were not always straight-faced.
I try to get the balance, where humour doesn’t diminish the poem’s being, but adds nuance. I want to point out the extraordinary vitality and variety of the creaturely lives we share this planet with, the planet we have almost destroyed with human greed. I have a lot of sympathy with Lovelock’s Gaia Theory,
where he suggests that the planet can and will survive anything, including nuclear holocaust, because Earth is a young planet, and can regenerate and begin all over again.
I enjoy the sustained attention to the more-than-human here and the critique of humans “We don’t need any more rats, / we’ve got far too many, / both four-legged and two legged.” Much of your work has been focussed on ecological crisis recently. How did that come about?
Our historic moment in human life on this planet could not be more imperilled. To find a comedic tone at times is also a survival skill for a poet. Like many of my fellow poets, I find myself writing to the ecological crisis, almost against my will. But it is the overarching dilemma of our lives, and as poets we track and witness what is happening all around the world as pollution and extinction becomes not a prediction for the future, but the very place we live in.
By the end, I almost feel like this a kind of spell to make a different world, to will it into being. Might one of the jobs of poetry be to remind us to stay awake, to stay active and engaged?
We, humans, are the problem. Get rid of us and things will be fine. The planet is trying to be rid of us, the most recent pandemic is evidence of that. I have a fatalist’s view. I believe human beings were/are thr guardians of the planet. We have failed, miserably, and so perhaps we don’t deserve to survive. Minus us, animal and plant life would/will flourish. I realise that this may not be a popular viewpoint. And I hope very much to be proved wrong. In the meantime, let language be a spell, let language use its energy to conjure up new reflections, new ethics, new empathy, and new actions to bring us back from the cliff edge of extinction.
Language is under constant assault: from fake news, political falsehoods, social manipulation, from corporate and bureaucratic jargon, and the corrupted speech of capitalism. The poet’s role is to hold the line against the desecration of language, and make our poetry a conduit for reality.
Lyricism, respect for the manifold ways of being human, humour in poetry all work towards this conduit for reality. Working with language is liberating, it is fun! The imagination offers limitless possibilities, for change, for healing, for redress, for celebration. Via the imagination, we sustain the positive against the negative culture around us, which seeks to diminish the individual’s experience. All these ideas and hopes feed into my poems. We need more animals, we need more poetry. Reading poetry also, of course, nourishes my life, my spirit.
Penelope Shuttle (she/her) lives in Cornwall. Her thirteen collection, Lyonesse, was published in 2021 by Bloodaxe Books, and was long-listed for the Laurel Prize. Her next publication will be a pamphlet titled Noah, due from Broken Sleep Books in December 2021. She is President of the Falmouth Poetry Group.
Follow her on Twitter @penelopeshuttle, Instagram @shuttlepenelope, and visit her website www.penelopeshuttle.co.uk
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