Panel 6: Art and Poetry



Panel 6: Art and Poetry

Creek Walking Dialogue: Art and Environmental Activism

Brogan Bunt, Lucas Ihlein, Kim Williams, University of Wollongong

This video captures a collaborative effort to explore the role of art in both local and global environmental issues. Through a creek walk that engages both the environment and community members, the authors hope to assess the efficacy of their project and reinvigorate dialogue of art and environmental issues (more).

As climate changes I order a salad’: contemporary poetry and the strange times of climate change

Sam Solnick, University of Liverpool

To fully understand climate change and its implications requires negotiating different spans and moments of time, something that poetry is particularly well suited to. This talk looks at some of the most interesting ways that contemporary poets have considered the relationships between time, technology and poetic form in an era of climate crisis (more).

Teaching the Anthropocene with Graphic Novels

Laura Perry, University of Wisconsin, Madison

This presentation analyzes the potential graphic novels have to explore ecological questions in the classroom. Through readings of two contemporary texts, the talk will show how graphic novels can encourage readers to notice nonhuman presences within narratives and foster discussions of environmental and temporal phenomena that extend beyond human perspectives

Q & A

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24 replies
  1. Sam Solnick says:

    Many thanks for watching – I look forward to any feedback, questions, comments, excoriations etc. and I will do my best to get back to you as soon as I can.

    All best,

    • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:


      Terrific talk!

      Your conclusion regarding the power of poetry (starting around minute 15) is not only inspiring, but a wonderful and concise articulation of what poetry has to offer in the current CC discussion. Speaking as an ecocritic who often works with poetry, this is really important, as most people on the street (and probably most scholars too) have no idea of the worth of poetry here, and much less of the worth of the field of eco-poetics.

      Since a range of folks, some of them from outside of academia and many from outside of our field, may happen upon your talk here, could you articulate the value of poetry and its study in a few sentences, drawing from your conclusion, if you like? It just strikes me an an important thing to see written out.


      • Sam Solnick says:

        Thanks Ken. That’s kind of you to say. And yikes! ‘articulate the value of poetry and its study in a few sentences’: better academics have spent books trying and failing to do that. But am happy to set out where I am coming from in this paper and hopefully it might serve as a springboard for discussion about the importance of poetry and, more broadly, the arts on this panel.

        Short answer:
        I guess that in the video’s conclusion I am riffing on Auden’s famous statement that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ but rather that it is a ‘way of happening’. For the most part I am dubious about a cause/effect model where reading a poem somehow inspires someone to fly less, recycle more, save the earth (or in Auden’s example, take up arms against the English). That’s a fairly simplistic and instrumentalist argument about what art does. It is much more interesting to think of poetry as facilitating different sorts of engagement with our world in its manifold complexities: as enabling different types of interaction, focus, critical examination (and yes…of course poems can inspire or provoke outrage too.) In fact, instead of ‘way of happening’ we might say ‘ways of experiencing’ or ‘ways of exploring’ or ‘a different form of cognition’. It is not about ‘sending a message’ but about the process of being forced to work through, for example, philosophical concepts, unexamined clichés, everyday experience, political discourses, scientific metaphors, and ephemeral desires in a quite focused and concentrated way. Seeing how they interact and how they inform and deform each other. Or to put it another way: thinking in, or with, or through poetry as well as ‘about poetry’.

        Slightly longer answer:

        Thinking about climate change and its impacts involves thinking about data, scale, despair, nutrition and food distribution, methane, responsibility, disease, the unborn, cynicism, the stock market, one’s own emissions, etc etc. There are multiple ways of addressing these issues. Poetry remains a powerful, if perennially marginal, means of engagement. That might mean (going back to my paper) poetry like Spahr/Clover’s or Tiplady’s which questions how digital technology (mis)shapes our engagement with environmental issues, or someone like Jorie Graham who tries to find a formal way of rendering that ‘tipping point’ between hope and despair in the face of the future; or – and Ken, this is where I am sure you as a Renaissance scholar have much more to say than me – it might entail thinking about the architecture and evolution of our concepts of ‘nature’ or ecology via older texts (texts which are always being reinvented and revisited in new and exiting ways by poets and critics alike). It might involve poetry about something wholly unconnected to climate change.

        I am not signalling out poetry for special status. In much of what I have written above you could replace the word ‘poetry’ with ‘literature’ or ‘the arts’. That being said, there is something about the density of poetry, the way it brings both thought and affect into play in a concentrated way, that makes it such an interesting and significant way of exploring concepts and consciousness. It provides a space in which to test and contest our key concepts because the interaction between reader and poem is undetermined and unpredictable. I suppose lots of us are used to the process of resisting the Sparknotes tyranny of students asking ‘yes but what does it mean?’ I sometimes tell them that ‘how does it mean?’ is a better question. When we have different ways of happening (and different types of poetry work in very diverse ways) different stuff happens.

        The depressing and dangerous denial/avoidance/downplaying of climate change requires (demands?) us to engage with the quantitative: with algorithms, parts-per-million calculations, ‘predicted costs’ and beyond that, with the way politicians count votes, campaign managers court retweets and so on. Nevertheless, an important dimension of engaging with the impacts of climate change also involves negotiating the incalculable, the qualitative (including justice, complicity, compassion, the feeling of paralysed uncertainty one gets when one realises the limits of one’s knowledge or agency, guilt, apathy, outrage). This is one area where ‘the arts’ come in (to their own).

        I’ve typed more than I intended. And I certainly don’t mean the above to sound prescriptive – it’s really me ruminating on where I am coming from in the paper. It’d be great to hear how the other panellists (or, given the nature of this conference, anyone in the digital audience) engage with this persistent, niggling question about ‘demonstrable effect’ of the arts in the face of an issue as large and all-subsuming as climate change. For example: Brogan, Lucas, and Kim, would you say that, for you, walking the creeks functions as a means to disrupt/interrupt the everyday experience of space and therefore is approaching similar issues from a different angle? Laura, do you think there can be some useful comparisons between the representation visual time you were talking about in graphic novels and what happens in lyric poetry?

        • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:


          Wow, I really did expect just a few sentences.

          Apologies for throwing down the gauntlet – but well said indeed.

          Actually, now that I read your reply over again, I am not sorry at all! You make a wonderful, and wonderfully accessible, case for the value of poetry in the CC discussion. Given the nature of our theme, this is really what this conference is all about.

          By the way, I could not help but notice the copy of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics that features prominently behind you in your talk, and for which I coincidentally wrote the entry on “nature.” I accepted the assignment assuming it would be a cinch, since, broadly speaking, most of my teaching and research is focused on nature and our enmeshed relationship to it. I soon realized, however, that, even though just 5000 words, it was going to be one of the most difficult things that I would ever write. This was because, to use your concise formulation, I was “forced to work through, for example, philosophical concepts, unexamined clichés, everyday experience, political discourses, scientific metaphors, and ephemeral desires in a quite focused and concentrated way.” Turning in on what I knew, I soon realized just how much I did not know.

          I also very much like your reformulation of Auden’s pithy maxim into “‘ways of experiencing’ or ‘ways of exploring’ or ‘a different form of cognition,'” which you later, if I am connecting the dots correctly, call a “means of engagement” with the world. I suspect that many people imagine poetry as some sort of intellectual disengagement from the world, rather than a direct experience of it. However, you rightly make clear that it can be – as well as encourage us to do – just the opposite.


        • Laura Perry, University of Wisconsin, Madison says:

          Hi Sam,
          Short answer – yes! In some ways, graphic novels are misleadingly named, as many of them arguably have more (formally) in common with poetry, where the white space and visual arrangement of text is sometimes as significant to the representational project as the textual content. McGuire’s Here, for instance, though it contains almost no dialogue or textual content of any kind, is organized such that repetition, disjuncture, and detail are the primary modes of meaning-making — qualities that Here shares with most poetic projects. Whether lyric poetry, particularly, is adept at representing visual time is something I’ll have to think more about.
          But your point via Auden, from your response above as well as your video, that poetry is less about sending a message and more about “working through” and “happening” — this seems especially relevant and convincing to me in an ecocritical context.
          Glad to virtually share a panel with you.

        • Julia Tanner, Harvard University says:

          Hi Sam,

          Thanks so much for a brilliant talk. Sorry I’m catching this conversation right at the end of the conference, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading the discussion you’ve had so far, particularly your defence of poetry.

          I thought the range of poets you brought together was both enjoyable and generative. Linking this to a comment you made in the discussion about the way poetry ‘brings both thought and affect into play in a concentrated way,’ I was wondering what your thoughts are about the ways that different forms of poetry – for example, Jorie Graham’s lyrics and Juliana Spahr’s language poetry – combine affect and cognition in their works. Does one form emphasise one over the other, or do both work to show how cognition and affect are intertwined, just in different ways?

          Thanks again for a great conversation.

          All best,

            • Sam Solnick says:

              …but in essence yes, you’ve pretty much covered in in your final line. Intertwined in different ways for different readers and readings. IOW a poem’s form helps generate and organise the reader’s responses to climate change whether that means thinking about scale, politics, complicity or whatever.

  2. Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:

    Brogan, Lucas, and Kim,

    Your talk is stunning, seriously! As I noted in a comment for the Q&A on the opening remarks, your presentation “should cause us all to reconsider just what a conference talk can be.”

    Partly because of this conference, I have recently been thinking about the genre of the conference paper. When I entered this profession (which wasn’t really that long ago, as it is a second career for me), standing at the podium and reading a paper was the norm. The growth of PowerPoint and Prezi presentations was welcome, as it made it possible to add a range of media to the mix.

    While making my way through the conference presentations, it became clear that both approaches can translate well to prerecorded talks. Chris Robertson’s talk on Panel 14, which is 16 minutes of him speaking on screen, is simple – and simply terrific. Alternately, John Ryan’s PowerPoint presentation on critical plant studies and CC discourse on Panel 13 wonderfully makes his point by way of some truly striking plant photos. And the hybrid speaking/visual presentations, such as Danen Poley’s on Panel 2, where the image of him speaking is onscreen among the visuals that he has selected, is also wonderful. (Incidentally, I mention these three because they came to mind first – there are many more diverse and fascinating presentations at the conference.)

    But what you three did by actually filming a mini-documentary changes the channel on conference talks.

    So, to finally(!) get to my questions, what prompted you to take this approach? Did you first imagine this differently: i.e. as a more conventional conference talk? How difficult was this to do? To ask this another way, did one of more of you already have a background in media production? Regarding the difficulty, I am assuming that it must’ve taken quite a while to produce. Consequently, did it take considerably more time to produce this talk than would have been expended on an average PowerPoint?

    Apologies for the long comment and rapid-fire questions, as well as the fact that I haven’t yet actually commented on your terrific content (to which I will get back– I promise)!


    • Lucas Ihlein, University of Wollongong says:

      hi Ken, thanks for your generous response.

      First of all, we were keen to take part in a conference that didn’t involve flying. Clearly, being co-present in physical space is one of the main advantages of conferences, but there have been so many that we’ve travelled to and felt that the expenditure of carbon versus the benefit of ‘being there’ was not worth it. (This is a dilemma that I’ve previously explored in my own art projects, such as Environmental Audit.)

      Speaking of “being there” – when we started discussion about how to approach the 15 minute video format for this conference, we turned over the options (speaking directly to camera like a newsreader, or simulating a slideshow presentation with a voiceover etc) but we felt that the audience might best get the “feeling” of being there with our project if we were to take you on a walk with us using moving image. That’s what prompted the idea of taking a camera crew with us along Bellambi Creek.

      We also have pragmatics in mind – the video that we’ve made here can fold back into our overarching project, and circulate beyond this conference, perhaps in gallery exhibitions, and certainly on our own Walking Upstream website. We would regard this video as a hybrid between a conference presentation and an artwork in its own right.

      From a practical perspective – all of us teach or have taught media arts and digital media at University of Wollongong, and we have a pool of talented recent graduates from this program in our network. We look for opportunities to give them small jobs like this. In this case, the film was shot by UOW alumni Geordie McAleer, and edited (according to our instructions) by Morgan Way and Sam Doyon of Way Ward Films. We paid them for their labour – so this is a factor to consider – but the cost of production was much less than, say, a flight from Sydney to California.

      Timewise, I don’t think this took much more time than a standard “essay” with powerpoint accompaniment.

      The stages went something like this:

      initial meeting with Brogan, Kim, Lucas, Geordie, Sam and Morgan to plot out what the options were for the film production (1 hour);
      meeting at Bellambi Creek 9am one Friday morning – walking up the creek, with the film crew accompanying us (about 4 hours);
      Sam, Morgan and Geordie piece together a rough cut of the video at approximately the correct length (not sure exactly how long);
      drafting of the voiceover script via google docs collaborative document – the script is designed to loosely fit over the rough cut video (Lucas Kim and Brogan, on average each about 2-3 hours);
      recording of the voiceover script with the film crew in Brogan’s office (about 2 hours);
      editing together the voice and video (not sure how long this took – will have to check in with the film crew and Kim);
      final checks and edit adjustments, text credits etc and uploading the files (probably another 2 hours?)

    • Brogan Bunt, University of Wollongong says:

      Hi Ken,

      Sorry for the very slow reply!

      I guess we strayed a bit from our original idea, which was to stage a plein air dialogue on issue surrounding our work. The plan was to walk along one of our creeks, occasionally stopping to engage in Socratic style dialoge. Quickly realised that this was impractical – we’d have to involve a film crew for at least a day and would require a careful multi-camera approach. Instead we decided to just film one of our walks and overlay sections of spoken material from each of our perspectives. This meant that only a few hours of single camera filming was needed. We enlisted two former students to help us out. Sam and Morgan run a small local video production company, Wayward Films, and were happy to assist.

      They followed us on the walk for few hours and somehow managed to edit together 12 minutes of usable footage. A bit of slow motion required to make this happen, but we weren’t fussy. Actually it was nice to be freed from the ordinary restrictions of putting together a more formal documentary. Knowing that we were targeting a conference format, it seemed ok for things to be less tightly composed.

      Then it was simply a matter of recording our individual spoken sections and placing them as voice-over on the image track. That took an hour of recording and then a couple more hours editing.

      So altogether it only took 1 or 2 days to get the thing done. We wish we had better ambient sound, but oh well…

      Very pleased that it worked well in this context. We were keen to provide a more intimate sense of our local environment and creek-walking activities. Without you all flying here to join us on a walk, and contributing further to carbon impact, the video seemed the best way of communicating our activities.

  3. Samuel Fardoe, Curtin University (Formerly) says:

    Brogan, Lucas & Kim,

    Fantastic presentation! I particularly like your use of silence and felt that the content and method of presentation was poetic and contextual at the same time with a sound message. I like your approach as “curious amateurs” – I feel this is a valid approach to unpick the issues – which need to be identified before they can be solved. Your presentation reminded me of my childhood and following a local creek with a friend in Roleystone (Perth hills). We had no idea where the creek led to but felt drawn to follow it as far as we could and enjoy the journey.

    I have a sense that i will remember your presentation for some time.

    • Lucas Ihlein, University of Wollongong says:

      Thanks Sam.
      Actually we have formed a (dis)organisation called ICWaN (International Creek Walking Network) – you could be our inaugural Western Australian member!

  4. Jessica George, Indiana University-Bloomington says:

    Thank you all for another wonderful panel!

    Brogan, Lucas, & Kim – Your presentation seemed to me in part a reflection of global climate change upon bioregion. I was wondering to what extent bioregionalism informs your work? (I’m thinking especially of the term as explored in the collection _The Bioregional Imagination_ published by UGA Press in 2012). Also, you assert that you see your work as less about “construction and/or making things,” but (expanding upon the bioregionalism idea) I was wondering if you see this piece as a map of sorts and how that relates to the issue of construction and creation that you address.

    Sam – I was really interested in the way you explored temporal elements of digital rhetorics (hashtags, tweets, etc.) alongside poetry. As someone who teaches #clifi to college freshmen, I was wondering: what are the most important distinctions (if any) you see between poetry and fiction’s modes of representing “the strange times” of the Anthropocene?

    Relatedly, you address the issue of what poetry (and tweets, thinkpieces, etc.) can or cannot “do” (this comes at the Labeouf point in your discussion :). For me, one productive result (I hope) of teaching clifi has been my students’ thoughtful discussion and engagement of representations of time and scale, even if the novels or films we discuss aren’t having an immediate effect on my students’ (and my own) behaviors. To quote your comment from above, I’m wondering if you see exploring poetry’s “way of happening” as “making something happen” — or is that just the optimist in me?

    Laura – Great talk! I was wondering if you could share some of the challenges that you’ve faced while teaching about the temporal and spatial scales of the Anthropocene? Do you start with a definition of Anthropocene before jumping into the graphic novels, or do you use the graphic novels as a starting point?

    • Sam Solnick says:

      Hiya Jessica.
      Thanks for the questions.
      I wouldn’t want to posit hard and fast distinctions between poetry and fiction in terms of thinking about temporality and climate change. I suppose most obviously poetry has time built into it (in terms of metre/rhythm/lineation). I guess too that poetry’s (generally) greater density means that it can move between different timeframes in a more rapid and often more complex way than most ClFi.
      Of course anything that creates a productive space within the classroom is great…and, like you, I have had some great classes teaching CliFi, but I do think that there is a risk that certain kinds of novels come to dominate UG courses on ecocriticism/Anthropocene/climate change. And yes, I do believe sometimes the poetry’s ways of happening make something happen, but you cannot legislate what that will be in advance.

      One has to be optimistic at least sometimes.
      All best,

    • Brogan Bunt, University of Wollongong says:

      Hi Jessica,

      Thanks for the suggested reference – will follow up on the bioregionalism discussion.

      We’ve tended not to conceive the project in terms of any strict notion of bioregion. If we explore the Illawarra region creeks it is because this is where we happen to live. Our work is focused on the potential for socially engaged art practice to mobilise responses to local environment. Nevertheless issues of bioregional identity do constantly crop up, so I suspect that we will have to think more carefully about our responsibility to represent and advocate for the local bioregion.

      We are definitely interested in working with other groups in other regions involved in similar kinds of practice, so maybe some kind of map is possible – but I’m thinking initially of a social map of artistic practices more than a bio-geographical one.


    • Laura Perry, University of Wisconsin, Madison says:

      Dear Jessica,
      Thanks for your question, and for taking the time to visit our panel — and apologies for the long delay in my response. I’ve found that many students come to the classroom with prior knowledge about climate change, environmentalism, and the Anthropocene, so beginning by drawing out that wealth of hidden info is often a great place to start. But beyond that initial Q&A, I find it useful to approach each text we read as a distinct object with its own internal logics, shaped by but not inseparable from our own narratives about the Anthropocene. In other words, how climate change works might not be how it works in the graphic novel we’re reading. Part of the task of reading a text is trying to understand how time and space work in the narrative (and reading graphic novels, scifi, clifi, and ecocrit particularly, as these novels often mess with time and space). If we assume we know what the Anthropocene is, we might miss the critical intervention that a text or a writer is making in this established narrative. So, a short answer, I start with the graphic novels!

      You mention in your response that you teach clifi in introductory courses as well — I’d love to turn the question around and ask you about some of your challenges and successes you’ve had. Are there texts you find particularly useful? Have you ever used a graphic novel to explore these questions?

      Thanks again,

      • Matthew Fledderjohann, University of Wisconsin, Madison says:

        Hello, Laura,
        Just a quick comment about other ways of accessing visual representations of how we fit in relation to time and space. I’ve found Anders Nilsen’s “Me and the Universe” (published in the New York Times in 2014) to be a really productive text to look at with my students. I’ve used it to talk about ontology and multimodal forms of making an argument. And while it doesn’t have much to do with slow violence or focus overtly on the Anthropocene, I think it might pair nicely with Here. Thank you for bringing that graphic novel to my attention.

        • Laura Perry, University of Wisconsin, Madison says:

          Hi Matthew (hello also from UW!)
          Thanks for that link. It reminds me of another digital project I’ve used to teach visual thinking and environment in the past — “The Scale of the Universe” available at

  5. John Ryan, University of Western Australia says:

    Thanks all for your terrific presentations!

    Sam, sorry if I missed this, but what is the significance of the title line if your talk, ‘as climate changes I order a salad’? Is that extracted from one of the poems? I understand its relationship to time, but just curious about its origin – thank you!


    • Sam Solnick says:

      Hello John, yes, your suspicions are right, it is from the Jonty Tiplady poem that I analyse in the video (I don’t have the poem to hand but I believe that it is the first line)

  6. Jessica Jones, Duke University says:

    Dear Lucas, Kim and Brogan

    I really enjoyed your walking presentation!
    It is striking how from the creek or something like the micro you move to the macro, and back again. As you say, you don’t go in a previously informed, book influenced kind of way, you go in with your feet in a way, to learn from the environment. It strikes me of being in the spirit of Smithson’s call to move away from idealism as a starting place, in the essay you cite — “Our land ethic, especially in that never-never land called the ‘art world’ has become clouded with abstractions and concepts.” The “authentic artist…cannot ignore the contradictions that inhabit our landscapes.”…As you say this leads to some false conclusions, but it allows you I think to observe and produce a kind of knowledge that makes a kind of living sense in your presentation.
    I also can really see how your work is picking up on as you say the meditative part of Smithson’s work, that in spite of the massiveness of his projects, his moving of the land, there is was also his own journey and his own searching for a different relation to the natural world I think through art. That essay of Smithson’s walking in Central Park has always struck me as well — That dialectics of the landscape which he mentions and you do as well is something that I think could be very productive — because to me it is a way of rethinking the human relation to the natural world — it is not the natural world as what humans negate to make culture, like in a more traditional dialectics, but humans as part of the natural world, shaped by and shaping, something like that — It seems as though in your comments on the creek and its surrounds as ‘sculptural dance’ between humans and the natural world that there is something of this idea of an art or a human that is in the world in this way, does not pretend to be — never pretended to be — autonomous in relation to it. Like a park as an artwork really. To me this seems a bit different than perspectives like the anthropocene, which, as I understand it (although I could be vulgarzing it a bit), are concerned to measure the human impact on the world, but are still understanding the human in this kind of negating relation to the world, which is slightly different than the one you seem to be positing here. In the way perhaps that a sculptural dance is different than a sculpture… Yet you still have the idea of the footprint or impact, without the negation, which I also really like, or find productive. Anyway, many of these ideas are there in your presentation, but the rethinking of the human-natural relation through art strikes me as complex and without a lot of current vocabulary to discuss it, so I wondered if you had other thoughts on it — I wonder what you all make of the anthropocene for example, if you find it to be a useful concept, if it something you’ve even considered, or if you’ve thought about the concept of the ecological footprint in the terms of this different kind of sculptural dance that you’re theorizing and enacting in the video?
    Thanks again for sharing this work!

  7. Brogan Bunt, University of Wollongong says:

    Hi Jessica,

    Thanks so much for your comments. I wish I had time to respond properly, but am heading away from computers for 12 days this morning. I know that sounds dramatic, but it really isn’t – just a long walk that I’ve planned for ages.

    I guess I spent many years in a very bookish mode – and still am fairly bookish, but also very interested now in the texture of everyday life, more lived dimensions of experience (and in their curious relation to more general orders of phenomena). I have not read deeply on the anthropocene, but of am aware of the main strands of debate. It has always seemed useful to me because it positions a limit on the human. We are geological, biosphere period of the Earth. We are here for a while, make an awkward impression and are gone. The other thing that I like about the concept is the sense of relating geological time to human time. We are now in the current global ecological crisis, and at all kinds of local levels, able to experience temporal change at a larger scale than we have ever been able to do in the past.

    At the same time I very much take your point that it is not so much about humans externally making an impact on the Earth. We are embedded and embroiled in all aspects of the process.

    Thanks again!


    • Sheryl-Ann, University of California, Davis says:

      @Brogan + Lucas and Kim,
      Just a quick thanks for inviting us into your creek walk, and for the reminder that socially-engaged art + just getting to know a place don’t have to be two separate things. Also for all the foraging inspiration.

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