What Sparks Poetry

Ecopoetry Now

What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature that explores experiences and ideas that spark the writing of new poems.

In Ecopoetry Now, invited poets engage in an ecopoetic conversation across borders. In poems and poetics statements, their work describes important local differences, including bioregion and language, as well as a shared concern for the Earth. We hope to highlight poetry’s integral role in creating and sustaining a broadly ecological imagination that is most alive when biologically, culturally, and linguistically diverse.

Evelyn Reilly on “Having Broken, Are”

“Having Broken, Are” is the title poem of a new book of mine, written in the days when both the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests were at their peak and I was attempting to find some words for our state of dread and grief, which also, surprisingly, had moments of exhilaration as well. Later, when I thought of using this title for the entire book, I feared it might be too cryptic and austere. But when I saw it reproduced in large type on a proposed design for the cover, I began to see that it was actually a poem in and of itself:



The space between the words “Broken” and “ARE” now seemed to be the space I had been inhabiting as a poet for a long time, in which melting glaciers, fires, floods and resulting social dislocations were occurring side by side, as always, with daily life. As much as this place of being, of our communal ARE, was filled with grief, I also felt that it could be, and in fact needed to be, one of beauty and connection too.

I live in New York City and also down a dirt road in the country, and that dual existence is part of the “reality” of both the title poem and the poem sequences that make up most of this book. I put “reality” in quotation marks because all poems, I believe, are attempts to channel what Sun RA (who is also an interlocutor in this book) calls the “impossible possible,” which is both a reality and not. Seeking possible words for impossible possibilities I take as one of poetry’s tasks. And this poem and book of poems represent another attempt and another failure at that.

Just before the pandemic hit, I was working on an essay-poem I was going to read at the upcoming New Orleans Poetry Festival, which eventually also made it into this book. I was thinking about what it means to talk about the environmental within the urban, and specifically what it means to do so in an important center of American culture that has been the site of much environmental injustice as well. I had come upon some very beautiful historical maps of the Mississippi River, created by Harold Fisk in 1944, each one showing a section of the river and its meanders, or changes in course, over thousands of years. I began to think that the concept of meander might point toward a poetics not only suitable to this particular place, but generally to the place between “brokenness” and “are,” where we all more or less live.

A meander. An apparently aimless walk. A subsidiary path that wanders off the primary one. A new turn or winding of a river or stream, which retains, however, traces of previous flows or channels.

Thus might a poem diverge from an intended direction or general flow, to test out one or more alternative directions, or, as I tried to articulate it in my essay-poem, become an experiment:

. . . that might be useful

especially in the current flow of events

of which I am trying to trace the meanders

yes, like a river, which, like a poem,

is both material embodiment

and energetics of connection

a means by which to discover

an effective affective position

having to feel our way forward

and test the conditions

of a new meander

that might even lead

to a change in course

The poetry festival was cancelled, then re-instated as a zoom event a few months later. Now, in 2024, it’s about to be held in person for the second time since then. I would have liked to attend this congenial gathering, but a number of things precluded that and instead I am preparing for Spring in the country where my partner and I have become cultivators of a native meadow. As anyone who has attempted such a thing knows, it’s a project that progresses with many deviations from what you originally thought would be the path forward, requiring adaptation and experimentation all along the way. After three years of looking like it might be a dismal failure, in the fourth a dense field of multi-species flowering emerged. And while it has been gratifying to see it full of insects and bees, we have been too late, I fear, to help the butterflies, which seem to have almost entirely disappeared.


Books for further reading:

On the Nature of Things by Lucretius

What Is Extinction?: A Natural and Cultural History of Last Animals by Joshua Schuster

Selfie: Poetry, Social Change & Ecological Connection by James Sherry

Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World by Londa Schiebinger

Writing Prompt

Try to find language or several different languages for a possibility that is impossible, but that nonetheless can be imagined.

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Color headshot of a smiling Evelyn Reilly

Evelyn Reilly

Evelyn Reilly is a New York-based poet, scholar, and environmentalist. Her books include Styrofoam, Apocalypso and Echolocation, published by Roof Books, and Having Broken, Are from BlazeVOX. Styrofoam is widely read and written about as an example of ecopoetics and avant-garde experimentation. John Ashbery described Styrofoam as a “wonderful, mad, challenging itinerary” that might show us “how to go about living in what Evelyn Reilly defines as ‘our infinite plasticity prosperity plenitude and still have room for poetry.'” Starting out as a scientist, Reilly got a degree in zoology at U.C. Berkeley and then worked in research labs while becoming a poet and writer. She has been a writer and exhibit developer for numerous museums and is also a member of the Steering Committee of the climate activist group 350NYC.