In this episode of the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast, novelist and journalist Nathaniel Rich and poet and activist Juliana Spahr discuss writing about climate change and ecological destruction with hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell. In part one, Rich discusses the history and craft behind his groundbreaking New York Times Magazine article “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.” In the show’s second half, Spahr talks about her recent Harper’s poem “A Destruction Story,” Trump’s use of poetry in his recent rallies, and the purpose of ecopoetics.
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Readings for the Episode
“Losing Earth,” Odds Against Tomorrow, and King Zeno by Nathaniel Rich · The Jasons: The Secret History of Science’s Postwar Elite by Ann Finkbeiner · In Cold Blood by Truman Capote · The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe · John Adams by David McCullough · Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo · Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee · Nathaniel Rich’s Energy Gang podcast interview · “A Destruction Story” and “Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache” by Juliana Spahr · Turtle Island by Gary Snyder
PART ONE “It Needs to Become a Moral Issue” Nathaniel Rich on how to make an abstract, global problem feel personal and intimate
V.V. Ganeshananthan: You spent two years doing the reporting for this piece, which began with what I understand was a fairly broad mandate from the Pulitzer Center and from your editors, and then you narrowed things all the way down to these very specific characters, these very specific conversations, this very specific time. And, when I think about climate change, I think—I hope like a lot of other people, but also, maybe we can get over this—I feel overwhelmed by just the sheer amount of information. And to translate this science into things that connect with people and to narrow it down to this period, how much work did that take? How did you reach the idea that these were the people that you wanted to write about, when it seems like you could’ve written about so many other things?
Nathaniel Rich: Yeah, I mean actually those few things are very much connected. I feel like, yes, the subject is enormous and complex and all of that. However, the way we’ve been talking about the subject and also the basic terms of it—the paralysis that’s set in, really by 1990, essentially when the piece ends—that has largely not changed too significantly. I mean, you’ve seen, beginning in 1989, 1990, the oil and gas industry closes ranks, they start the beginning of what will become a massive disinformation campaign, propaganda campaign, buying off scientists, buying off politicians, buying off the Republican Party. The Republican Party itself closes ranks to the point where it embraces this sort of clownish fantasy of denialism, and that continues to this day.
Of course now the Party is even beyond the industry in its public statements about the matter—they’re more radical. Exxon doesn’t dare deny climate change anymore, publicly. And then you’ve had these environmental groups that have been working very diligently since then, and the technology has continued. . . Certainly there have been huge advances, and I think political opinion has been changing, especially more recently. And you have these sort of toothless treaties that have come up every number of years through the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] process. But the basic narrative, the terms of the narrative, have really been set for about thirty years. Which is maybe part of why it feels somewhat overwhelming. It seems like this stasis.
What going back before this period allowed was to go further, and go beneath the political fight, and the industry story, into what I hoped would be a broader human story about how our species is dealing with this existential threat. So it was very important for me to keep it within the period, to write it as a historical narrative, so that you don’t have the voice of the present coming in and saying, you know, “Little did they know that this would all be for naught,” or anything like that, or “Exxon would soon develop. . . ” That’s a testament, also, to the dedication of the Times, to staying with this vision, but I also felt narratively that you would lose the entire thing—you would essentially crush the dramatic tension—if you ever departed from the period.
So then, once we had the period, it was a matter of figuring out what are the crucial milestones, what are the events, and who were the main players. And, somewhat conveniently—not perfectly, I mean if it was a novel I would’ve changed things around a little bit more—but basically you have a couple prominent figures, Rafe Pomerance and Jim Hansen, who follow the issue through the entire decade, and then various other figures come in and out as it goes along. But that part of it was sort of a mechanical question of, you know, if you want to write about, say, the Toronto climate conference, you need to follow a person, one of the characters has to be there. So it was trying to figure out, well, who was at the conference, who am I writing. . . So that kind of thing was more of a mechanical puzzle. But the basic conceit was that if you go back to this period it allows for a much broader reckoning with the problem.
Whitney Terrell: The reason Sugi and I are asking you about the structuring of this, and the use of characters, is that this is Lit Hub, and we have a lot of listeners who are either writers or want to be writers. And you wrote a really interesting essay around the time that Odds Against Tomorrow came out saying that, while nonfiction writers do a good job of writing facts about climate change, you wanted to use fiction to write about what it was doing to our hearts. But the way you talk about this piece, and the way I think this piece uses character—and some of the literary nonfiction techniques that were developed by writers like John McPhee—is what makes the story stick. That it is Pomerance, and we get the family life of Hansen in certain ways. Is that a deliberate choice on your part?
NR: Yeah. I believe fundamentally in the power of narrative to open up a more profound consideration of our greatest social or public problems. And I think the way it does that is by placing these problems, these vast overwhelming problems, into intimate, personal terms. And I do think novels are the ideal form for this because the novel can take you into the character’s deepest thoughts and inner life, and a novel can track that exchange. It has to take place in every one of us, between the social issues of the day and our innermost selves. With narrative nonfiction, you can attempt the same thing. And I think, in its best form, you can achieve a similar result. But there are also limits to how far you can go. You can ask a person, as a reporter, what he or she was thinking in a certain moment, or what was going on in your life at this time. And you can do that pretty deeply if they’re willing to participate. But it’s more difficult to create a full portrait of their inner life.
PART TWO “Impossible to Ignore” Juliana Spahr on “The Snake,” depicting Trump, and ecopoetics
Whitney Terrell: Your poem [“A Destruction Story”] brings together a lot of stuff we’ve talked about on this show over the last year, really, including the wall. It’s a really amazing piece. When did you start thinking about putting this together? Were you working on the animals and the idea of the wall first and then heard President Trump talking about this poem that he gives at his rallies [“The Snake”], or was it the other way around?
Juliana Spahr: Well, I was working on the animals and the nation-state and I was thinking about the wall a lot—mainly because the wall would have this huge, obviously ecological impact. And there had been some attention in the media to the little jaguar called “El Jefe,” which I think might be one of the few jaguars that has come back into the United States from Mexico. The wall would be built through his territory, in some sense. So he was kind of, again—what do they call it—the charismatic megafauna that people were interested in at the time. So I was thinking on that. At the same time, I heard Trump do that poem, which I became interested in because it’s a poem, and because one of the things that was repeatedly said about Trump was that he’s anti-literature, and that literature is liberal—and yet the poem seemed to be playing really well. He was doing it again and again.
I was at the same time reading some on the Blackstone Rangers for a scholarly book that I’ve been working on with a couple of other people, about national funding of community arts projects. And it was that weird moment of overlap that you sort of fall into—
JS: I realized it was an Oscar Brown song that he was using, and that Oscar Brown had had this weird other history in the 60s and 70s around doing community art that was supposed to make sure that the Blackstone Rangers weren’t going to meet up with the Black Panthers and riot. I mean, that was the literal intention of a lot of that funding. Which is tied again to that overlap—what is the role of art in the national arena?
V.V. Ganeshananthan: That’s so interesting. I think as primarily a prose writer, I was so struck by [“A Destruction Story”], how it handles time and space, and also just struck by Trump’s presence, for the reasons that you say—people describe him as anti-art. I think I’ve gone to some pains, probably, to largely not watch his rallies. And so I’m like, “Oh, Trump is going and reading a poem?” And then this poem travels through time.
So many fiction writers I know tend to write about events so long after they happen. And so to see Trump in a piece of art—I was curious about how you thought about handling him. This poem has a lot of names. When I think about writing about Trump I think . . . he’s such a known character. How does he take things over? What is his role in the natural environment?
JS: You might be saying something about the difference between poetry and the novel, in which there’s not an occasional novel, but there is a tradition of an occasional poem.
JS: Which probably has a lot to do with the shortness of the poem. It can be published quicker, and doesn’t require the amount of time to write that the novel does. And it might just be something as simple as that. I’m not sure I would write a novel that had a Trump in it.
JS: But I don’t write novels that much anyways.
VVG: Right. I always want to think of Trump as—and of course, this is a fantasy—I would like to confine him to the smallest amount of time possible. And in this poem you tell a long story, and he’s in it. He’s part of this big history. And he’s in the same poem as Aesop. When you think about constructing him as a character in the poem, or as a persona in the poem, how do you think about depicting him?
JS: When you were like, “I try to think about Trump as little as possible”—I do also. One of my constant jokes . . . is that it’s really a terrible time to be an anarchist who’s become addicted to understanding electoral politics. I feel like I originally became an anarchist so I could stop thinking about the terribleness of US electoral politics, and yet I’ve been kind of sucked in, in this moment. And there are all these specific stories I could tell about that . . . about Trump in part as an antagonism to the classic electoral system. So it’s kind of interesting watching the train wreck that’s not a train wreck. The complications become really interesting to me, although I’m deeply annoyed at my interest in it.
JS: I want to go back. I can’t wait till he gets out of office so I can go back to ignoring all those horrible people.
VVG: [laughs] That sounds very familiar.
WT: One of the things you’re involved with is ecopoetics . . . As we were reading about ecopoetics and getting ready to talk to you, I realized there’s a lot of debate about the definition of what ecopoetics is, and the inaugural issue of ecopoetics. You described it as “a house making.” Maybe you could expand on that definition a bit for our listeners and tell us how ecopoetics—what makes it, and how does it use form?
JS: Yeah, there’s a debate—I think it might be as many as 15 years old now—that kind of still goes on. There’s this very long tradition of nature poetry that’s actually a really significant part of the content of poetry. There’s a lot of poetry about nature and there’s a lot of poetry about love—and then there’s some other poetry, some poetry about some other stuff.
JS: A lot of the early poems, depending on various cultures, were often lists of animals or lists of things that humans interacted with and could eat—the chant often does that. And the nature poem moved into the kind of lyric Western tradition in some way.
JS: Yeah, exactly. It was often quiet, it was “recollected in tranquility.” And then around the early 2000s there started to be what felt like almost a parody of a discussion, in which, “Mary Oliver was a nature poet and she was bad because she privileged the human, and it was not systemic, and it celebrated nature, it didn’t discuss its destruction.” And at that point, a lot of people that had long thought of themselves as avant-garde or experimental poets began to think about what it would mean to use the forms of modernism, which were very much about urban culture and not about the natural world, to talk more about the natural world more systemically. And that got the term “ecopoetics.” And there’s something about that that’s stuck. There’s been a lot of systemic, experimental writing about ecological destruction—as you would expect, because we’re at a time in which we can very literally see ecological destruction in a way that we might have been able to ignore it in the past. It’s become kind of impossible to ignore.
Transcribed by Stephen Paur and Kelsey Beck