“The planet’s on fucking fire.” That’s how popular scientist Bill Nye described the Earth’s existential dilemma on a recent episode of the HBO satirical news show This Week Tonight with John Oliver. Where the current, ongoing, global climate emergency is concerned, Nye is certainly not the only figure to express alarm. In a furious speech to the United Nations in New York City on September 23, sixteen-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg denounced world leaders who are sitting on their hands as rising temperatures threaten the future of human life on the planet: “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”
Notwithstanding the increasing sense of urgency on the part of an ever larger segment of the worldwide population, entrenched special interests wielding power and – not incidentally – enormous tranches of wealth continue to ensure that the political will to enact legislation capable of curtailing the climate catastrophe remains untapped.
Canadian poet and editor Kathryn Mockler is among those dismayed by the lack of attention being paid to the crisis. Over the summer, Mockler joined the global organization Extinction Rebellion and participated in a Toronto protest that saw a group of poets perform work intended to bring focus to the emergency. The lineup for that September 7 event included eight poets: Margaret Christakos, Adam Giles, Catherine Graham, Hege Jakobsen Lepri, Khashayar Mohammadi, Terese Mason Pierre, Rasqira Revulva, and Todd Westcott.
Graham, Mohammadi, and Revulva have since joined Mockler, and a group of other writers, artists, and filmmakers, as part of the editorial team for Watch Your Head, an online anthology dedicated to the climate crisis. A volunteer-run advocacy journal meant to heighten awareness about climate and the need for immediate action to address the situation globally, Watch Your Head will comprise poetry, visual art, film, and other media. “I really leapt before I looked with this,” Mockler told Quill & Quire. “With all the pressure of the climate strikes and everything, I just wanted to get something out there.”
Currently, the site features poetry alongside videos from the Extinction Rebellion protest in Toronto. In a poem titled “We Will Tell Them of Our Dominion,” Pierre highlights the consequences of prior unwillingness to address the problem: “We will tell them of undulating obituaries / We will tell them of backroom deals, of slow-moving cogs.” Pierre’s defiance and determination show through in the repeated, incantatory formula that begins each line and come to a head in the final stanzas, which foresee a better future for the planet and our species: “We will tell them we refined our brains / We will tell them the sun is everything / We will tell them we were sorry.”
Pierre’s evident optimism is central to Mockler’s entire project. In “Beached Poem,” Shazia Hafiz Ramji concludes, “The water holds both / light and grit in the body that is // the vestigial shore, the smooth current.” And Christakos finishes her contribution, “WHETHER THE HEAVENS BREAK,” with a rousing call to action: “WE WANT TO BE AWAKE // SO WAKE UP // CAN WE WAKE UP // LET’S WAKE UP.”
The importance of taking action accounts for the reason poet Hoa Nguyen accepted Mockler’s invitation to participate on the editorial team for Watch Your Head. “I’ve long been compelled toward environmental issues including their intersection with class and structural racism,” Nguyen says. “When Mockler invited me to join as an editor or adviser, I said I’m in.” Nguyen also sees the project as a way to tap into a community of artists and enable a sense of purpose through unity: “Poetry is a practice that includes organizing and collaborating with other poets, including ways to celebrate and activate poetry that impact beyond the page and reader, time or place.”
Nguyen’s focus on connections between various structural inequities and the ways they combine to allow injustice around the subject of climate is also apparent in Graham’s poem “Intersections”: “All parts have a line / with never end.” That poem closes on a note of contingency that tilts in the direction of the practical action and increased awareness Watch Your Head intends to promote: “The sound of absence is your boat / coming in. The work is in the meadow. // It’s hard to put the past in a safe place. / Some see eyes, if not birds.”