Interview: Erik Kennedy talks about No Other Place to Stand
Erik Kennedy is the author of Another Beautiful Day Indoors and There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime which was shortlisted for best book of poems at the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. He lives in Ōtautahi Christchurch and talks to NZ Booklovers about No Other Place to Stand, which he helped edit.
Tell us a little about No Other Place to Stand.
This is the first book to survey the explosion of climate emergency poetry that’s coming out of Aotearoa and the Pacific. Climate change is the most important issue of our time, so it’s no surprise that basically every poet is engaging with it in one way or another. One of the strengths of poetry is that, because it’s often a concise artform, writers can respond to events in the world on a timescale of days instead of years. Poetry can be used as a tool for news and culture analysis, and many of the contributors to this book respond to specific events, like the horrifying Australian bushfires of 2019–20. But poetry also offers the reflective space needed for writers to articulate their growing dread, their anger and their sadness, their resistance to defeatism. We editors wish this book didn’t have to exist, but we’re convinced that it’s beautiful.
How did this anthology come about?
All four of us editors—me, Jordan Hamel, Rebecca Hawkes, and Essa Ranapiri—noticed, late in 2019, that there was an awful lot of climate poetry being produced in our local scenes, across Aotearoa, and in anglophone poetry generally. Something was going on. At the same time, I personally had begun to get very involved in disruptive climate activism, and I was wondering if there was a way I could bring my activism and my literary work together in a real-world project. An anthology seemed like one possibility. When the four of us had initial discussions, I think we all realised that we each had something unique to offer, with our different networks and enthusiasms; we could do more than just make a book—we could make a damned good book. That gave us the confidence to pitch it, and luckily AUP were keen. Also, speaking personally, I’m not sure I could have lived with myself if I hadn’t tried to make a book like this happen. This is not a time for passivity. Our title, No Other Place to Stand, sets out the stakes: this book is ultimately a defence of the only place we have to live.
How did you choose the different writers in the book?
We knew we wanted the communities who are being most affected by climate change to have a strong voice in this book. Chief among these are young people (who will live most of their lives in a world getting empirically more chaotic and dangerous year after year) and Indigenous peoples, who are already more likely to live in or come from places destroyed by extractive industries or threatened by sea level rise. We put out public submission calls and extended lots of invitations to submit to make sure that people knew about the project. Climate change is affecting absolutely everyone, so it was important to reach out to as many writers as possible. Heck, I’d be interested in a climate change poem from an ExxonMobil exec, if it was good. (Spoiler alert: we do not have such a poem.) In the end, it was agony actually making the selections, because we had far more material than we could fit between two covers. I think what a lot of the poems we selected have in common is an underlying urgency that’s hard to quantify but impossible to miss.
Who are some of the writers that are featured?
We’ve got poets laureate and members of the old guard of Aotearoa letters, like David Eggleton, Selina Tusitala Marsh, James Norcliffe, Vaughan Rapatahana, and Dinah Hawken. We’ve got a great selection of writers who’ve distinguished themselves through performance, like Dominic Hoey, Jessie Fenton, Danielle O’Halloran-Thyne, Karlo Mila, and Te Kahu Rolleston. We have some stone-cold classics from young poets you may not know and established poets you didn’t think wrote poems like that. We also have an afterword from Rod Carr, chair of He Pou a Rangi Climate Change Commission, because we understand that literature and policymaking have to coexist. The more poets understand about power, and the more that powerful people understand about poetry, the better off we’ll all be.
If you had to choose a favourite piece, what would it be and why?
A devilish, which-is-your-favourite-child sort of question! Tusiata Avia’s ‘Jacinda Ardern goes to the Pacific Forum in Tuvalu and my family colonises her house’ delivers every bit of gleeful mischief promised by the title. Victor Billot’s long poem ‘How good is this?’, about the record-breaking Australian bushfires, told by a poetic version of Scott Morrison himself, is also unmissable.
If there was a soundtrack to accompany the book, name a song or two that you would include.
Think eerie minimalist orchestral music—accented with field recordings of industrial sounds, animal noises, and disorienting street chatter—alternating with hyperpop earworms.
What is your favourite book you have read this year, and why?
For the purposes of this discussion, maybe The Nation of Plants, by Stefano Mancuso? It’s a book that upends some assumptions about who is actually ruling the earth. (Did you think it was humans, you species chauvinist? ‘Well, you were wrong. The Nation of Plants is the only, true and eternal planetary power. Without plants, animals would not exist; life itself, perhaps, would not exist on our planet, and, if it did, it would be something terribly different.’) If we ever needed a reminder about the interconnectedness of all living things, now is the time.
What is next on your agenda?
All the editors have their own books of poems out this year! So we’ve all been busy. But, on the other hand, that means we’re all starting new manuscripts and seeing what works and what doesn’t in our poetic practices. Exciting! Jordan is leaving Aotearoa for a bit to take up a Fulbright at the University of Michigan. I spent some time occupying a coal mine in Southland in May; maybe more of that sort of carry-on on the horizon for me. Essa is PhDing, and Rebecca is a painter as well as a poetry powerhouse. I just have this strong hunch, though, that climate change is not going anywhere (even a book as good as this one might not solve it all), so expect to see more from all of us in the climate space. Alas.
Auckland University Press