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.

Oliver Baez Bendorf on “I Want Biodegradable Sex”

    “In every living thing is stuff that once was rock

    In blood the minerals
    of the rock.”

                                                      —Lorine Niedecker, “Lake Superior”

    “what I take from the earth, I give back—”

                                                      —Ai, “Cuba, 1962”

There are fungi that extract what’s living and useful out of what’s dead. Sweet potatoes grow from whatever’s in the soil around them. The stranger who takes “my” parking spot at the grocery store is at least partially made from stardust.

I am often suggesting to students that when it comes to style, we each have a “terroir”— a particular flavor made up of the unique places and vocabularies that we have absorbed. Those registers that, in a unique combination, make us distinct.

In this way you don’t really need to worry about cultivating a style beyond practicing being present in your life and taking it in, languages and everything that touches you.

But the thing is that terroir is not only style. It is substance. It is not even quite right to say that it is also substance. It is exactly that, substance. It’s the matter we are made of. Terroir is what you write and how you write it. The goal is to write what only you could.

I worry that this is too individualistic. I am (or we were?) sitting in a white-queer-owned coffee shop on territory of the Arapaho people when someone I recently met told me that the Russian language has become less communal over time. He tells me this while tapping the palms of his hands, which are partly stardust, emphatically on the tabletop, made of fake wood. That he learned Russian when it was still a language of “we” and that this dates him when he speaks it. For example the difference between “I know how to build a table” and “It’s possible that we can build a table.” I’m saying the difference is not only in style, not only syntax, but substance.

And what words to take and give back, and how, is an ethical question as well as an aesthetic one. You can bring any person, place or thing you come from into a poem. Doesn’t mean you should.

This thing I’m calling “terroir” is touched by climate, which continues to change. And change touches us all, but unevenly, some sooner and some later, some more and some less.

You don’t have to do anything extra though. Language comes in and it leaves. I/we pass it around like particles, small poetry aerosols, floating across the air, written through a bodily process. There is no other public, there is only what happens between us.

Writing Prompt

Today, give attention to your surroundings. What materials, what words do you notice? Maybe a billboard or sign you haven’t before, what strikes you, what’s there? Try being present for even brief moments of exchanging words with other beings. Do you briefly curse the raccoon that got into the trash again, for example? That seems worthy of your attention today. How does it feel to know that you are of the earth, part of what surrounds and touches every other being you encounter? Take stock, take care, take words, take note. Then: write a poem that gives it all back.

Oliver Baez Bendorf

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Oliver Baez Bendorf

Oliver Baez Bendorf is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Consider the Rooster, forthcoming from Nightboat Books in 2024, and Advantages of Being Evergreen and The Spectral Wilderness. He has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and The Publishing Triangle. Born and raised in Iowa, he now lives in Colorado.