Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 192: The Climate Imaginary: Beneath the Poetry, the Barricade — with Stephen Collis

Speakers: Kathy Feng, Samantha Walters, Am Johal, Stephen Collis

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Kathy Feng 00:14
Welcome to ‘The Climate Imaginary,’ a Below the Radar series. As we navigate our future within the ongoing climate emergency, we seek different frameworks to help guide our learning and our actions. In this series, we bring together guests from across artistic and academic disciplines to speak about their approaches to working in solidarity amidst the climate crisis. We feature conversations that range from the unique power of creative works to mobilize people, to the importance of collaboration and interdependence across fields.

Samantha Walters 00:51
Hello listeners! I’m Sam with Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. On this episode of our Below the Radar series: The Climate Imaginary, our host Am Johal is joined by Stephen Collis, a writer and professor in the English department at Simon Fraser University. This episode is a special live event recording from SFU School for the Contemporary Art’s 2022 Re-orientation day on September 8th. The re-orientation day opened the school semester with events, discussions, and performances centred around the theme of climate change and contemporary art. Am and Stephen discuss the relationship between art and environmental activism, as well as some of the collaborative artistic efforts Stephen is involved with. Stephen also reads several of his poems throughout! Enjoy the episode!

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Am Johal  01:51
Welcome back. My name is Am Johal. I work here at SFU in community engagement. We've been running a podcast for the past three and a half years or so that comes out weekly. Has a number of students from School for the Contemporary arts who work on it on a weekly basis and really delighted to be involved in the reorientation day today. And lucky to have our guest with us, Steve Collis. I'm going to introduce him a little bit, but I'm gonna ask him to introduce himself a little bit further. Steve is the author of a dozen books of poetry, and prose, including 'The Commons' in 2008, the BC Book Prize winning 'On the Material' in 2010, 'Once in Blockadia' in 2016, and a number of other books. He's a professor in the English department here. Steve was also in the news quite a bit during environmental activism that was happening on the campus, particularly related to Burnaby Mountain where he was also arrested. Welcome, Steve.

Stephen Collis  02:45

Am Johal  02:47
Wonder if we can begin with you introducing yourself a little bit. There's of course, the paper bios and paragraphs. But I always like to ask that as the first question.

Stephen Collis  02:56
Good. Hi, everybody. I wasn't arrested. I was only, I was sued. Which in some ways was worse and probably better. But yeah, well, I was born on Saanich territory in Victoria. Grew up there. Actually went to Camosun College and did about a year of like, they have a wonderful—they had a wonderful, I don't know what's there now—year long foundations course or arts foundation course, which I loved. I went back and did it a second time, once I moved on to UVIC. But I still took this foundation course UVIC. Again, after two years still didn't really realize I wasn't really an artist. But just as a writer, I've always sort of borrowed things from art practice. And I learned really quickly what I wanted to write in was like an artist sketchbook. I didn't want lines, lines are horrible, I think if you're a writer. And I mean, I draw too and I'm as shitty a drawer as I was 30 years ago. But that idea of having like a daily practice, where you had a book you kept everything you're doing, working out all your ideas in. It's stuck with me from from those days. I eventually went to SFU. And then I've taught there since 2000. I live on Tsawwassen territory out near the ferries and mainly work on the Burnaby campus these days. Yeah, and I teach English and I write books of poetry mostly. Is that good?

Am Johal  04:13
Yeah, that's great. You know, the Yeah, that's great. You know, the the day today is about contemporary art and climate change. And there's lots of climate change conversations that go on in the university in various disciplines. But also kind of the urgency of political action and community organizing. Myself, I've worked in politics, have done community organizing, and there's certain methods and ways of working but this question of what does contemporary art and its' different disciplines have to say about climate change, I think is a really interesting question. When I was working on my own dissertation around climate change, it partly came out of the depression and exhaustions of working on various forms of organizing or politics in a way that were bringing back diminishing returns. And I'm wondering for you who's been involved directly with activism, but also as a, as a writer and a poet, how you consider these questions. But also, you know, there have probably been times in your life where you're more intensely involved in organizing than writing and how that played out for you in different times of your life and how you think about it now.

Stephen Collis  05:20
Sure, and I can, I guess I can do a little bit of a trajectory, maybe, with that. But I think at the moment I started writing and making art in some way was also a moment in which I was worried about things or interested in things around the world and thought... gotta do something. So in the late 80s, on Vancouver Island, lot of stuff around old growth forests, and people had just discovered a place called the Carmanah Valley—Walbran— Carmanah Walbran Valley. And that there were big trees there. And so I got involved with the group that was building trails so people could access it and actually go see what was there. And then that led into just sort of campaigning to try and preserve that. But what I found myself doing immediately was like, probably the first poems I'm writing are poems saying "don't cut down trees." That I'm making, like little posters with like doodles and proclamations and poems on them and going around and sticking them on lampposts and things like that so I think that conjunction of some kind of art making and feeling connected or feeling you need to engage with something that was going on in the world that troubled you—a world where those things came together to me like they originate together as it were. So I never thought, it was never like, 'oh, I'm making art and oh, now I'm worried about this political thing. Maybe I should apply my art to that,' or the other way around. They just sort of were together. And as times go on, I think—as time has gone on—I think other things I've done in my life, like oh, I don't know, getting a graduate degree and teaching at a university just sort of fit into that same process or practice. Like I've always not sort of made distinctions. That sketchbook is a good metaphor of that again, I mean, I might draft notes toward a, you know, academic essay I'm writing or might be notes toward, 'oh, I've got to write a press release for this group, I'm actually organizing a campaign with politically' or a poem, or whatever. But it's all going into the same place and I try and think of it all as the same kind of work and try not to make separations as much as I can. Probably don't, I haven't done my academic career really good that way, maybe, good service. But that's OK, I don't care too much about that. It's just a good job.

From early on, I'm sure idealistically and as young person, I thought, 'Oh, this art-making I'm doing, this writing will help save trees or change the world. And then over time, you get a little more experiences and I started thinking, really, it's got nothing to do with that at all. The writing, necessarily. At some point you got to put the writing down and stack chairs or, you know, help carry things or be a body in the street and hold a sign or, you know, help elders onto a stage and off again, or whatever the work might be, that the writing doesn't seem to have any kind of... it's not got a privileged position. In that kind of work. You're... as a writer in any kind of social movement or social justice phenomenon, a writer has, I think, no more important a role than the person who's really good at making stew and has the wherewithal to produce a massive pot of stew and go 'look, everybody, I made this vegan stew for the for the meeting, we're having' like, 'great, I wrote a poem'. But you know, neither is really that much more important than the other as I saw it. And now I think that this side where I'm now, I'm much more interested in the kind of dialectical relationship, I guess, between what you might do individually, in my case with words, and what activities I might be engaged with with other people out in the world. And how they sort of feed one into the other. Without feeling like 'oh, no, this one's more important, I gotta go here. Oh, no, no, that one's more important better go over there'. Am I answering any kind of a question?

Am Johal  08:44
Yeah, for sure.

Stephen Collis  08:46
I'm not so sure.

Am Johal  08:47
There's so many environmental organizations that I'm on the list of, I'm sure many of you in the room are as well. You know, David Suzuki Foundation, Dogwood. These are all organizations doing great work, I donate money to them, I received their email blasts in the inbox. And there's something, you know, they tell you what to do, they tell you what's wrong, they tell you when you ought to be outraged. And there's something about it, that gives you something very practical to do. But at the same time, there's something about it that's kind of disempowering. In the sense that the conversations already happened, the decisions already made in terms of what's of importance. And in some sense, there's limitations of that form of invite, as important it is, it's the only way—it's not the only way of working. And we're all people with different stories, different ways of interacting in the world. And if we're talking about a big collective problem of climate change, of climate emergency, we all have to see ourselves inside of what to do. And that form of campaigning doesn't always do that. In some sense, whatever artistic practice might be, that there's other ways of opening up an imaginary, or a way of working to interact with that question. And I'm wondering, for you, at least in terms of your poetry and writing, what parts of it it's opened up for you that activism doesn't or can't do? Or what kind of energy does it give you in terms of interacting with those questions in the world?

Stephen Collis  10:14
You mean, the writing what the writing does for..? Yeah, um... those things you described, I do those things, too. And I find them kind of unsatisfactory, you know, kind of I know, kind of frustratingly, like, 'oh, I guess I'll sign your petition'. I mean, whereas I think working with communities has always felt a little more like you're actually accomplishing something, maybe. So I've tended to privilege—when I've had the capacity—to go to meetings and actively engage other people who are working together on some sort of project over just donating or signing. Even though I'm always donating and signing things as well. I mean, I think, you know, I'll use a metaphor. If you see a nail sticking up out of a piece of wood, and you look around, someone should tap that in. If you look at your art practice as a hammer, are you a hammer? That's probably not a good question to ask your art practice. It's probably not a hammer. But it's probably a great way for thinking about the relationship between all these things: between nails, and boards, and hammers, and bodies that might swing hammers. And this metaphor is getting way too elaborate. You're probably all totally lost. And you know, where the wood and the nails came from, you know, how the hammer was manufactured, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I think that's what art making is for. And so sometimes, I think, I mean, I personally I think other people too need that kind of theoretical layer. Or atmosphere around the things we're doing. And I think that's what art is great for, is thinking through those relationships, ultimately, between things in the world—you being a thing—the things out there: communities, rainforests, climates. All these things we're entangled and embedded in. I think having an art practice, whatever it is, is a great way for thinking through those relationships. Whether it's sometimes a good tool to grab a hold of, I'm not sure. But nonetheless, we seem to expect and want it to be a part of this. So if you're sitting down to like organize a political event or something; we're gonna have a rally, and we need speakers, and we need this person, with this person with that... Inevitably, the one- that seems, in my experience, that you want some cultural aspects that, you know. Who's going to sing a song or read a poem, or these kind of things that start on people's minds, or how we go about this. Even at meetings I've been at, you know, would you please read a poem in order to... So we want that other layer or that other atmosphere involved in what we're doing? And I think, again, if you go to your art practice thing, are you the tool I need right now, probably the wrong way to go about it. But nonetheless, it's it comes up. I mean, you get asked to sort of engage with it that way and I've always appreciated that.

Am Johal  13:02
Since you brought it up, would you be willing to read something?

Stephen Collis  13:04
Sure, sure. And also just thinking through this, I get asked to talk a lot about the relationship between art and activism, which can be frustrating in some ways, like, can I talk about something else, you know? I talk a lot about that maybe I should talk about something different once. But also, I think it's a never ending problem. There's no simple solution to what that relationship is or is about. But the poem I'm going to read comes out of 2014 and stuff happening on Burnaby Mountain. At least I was reading it a lot then. And actually, the instigation for this poem is a talk that happened in this very theatre. Bifo Berardi? Remember when he was here? It was ages ago, and this... When was it? 

Am Johal  13:40

Stephen Collis  13:41
Is that when he was here? Yeah. So must have written that poem, right around that time, too. And so he had a book out around then. He had a book out called the 'The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance'. And as a poet, I looked at  that title and whent 'finance! Interesting. I've never thought of finance when I thought of poetry before, what's he got to say?' On the back of the book is just like a little quote, in which I'm not gonna remember exactly what that quote says, but it says something like, you know, "poetry is gonna save us from capitalism". So already, I'm like, oh okay, good, good. Keep going. How's that? How's that gonna happen? And he says something like- the phrase I'll remember is he says that because poetry returns us to the sensuous body of language. That oh, that's... I like that phrase. I'm not sure sure I believe him, but I like the phrase. So that phrase is built into this poem repeatedly, amongst other things, and it kind of- the poem just wound up leading to a sort of a statement. A poetics, I guess, a statement about art and activism ultimately. So maybe it's a good one to read.

 Stephen Collis  14:40
Come the revolution / we will the revolution / we will return to the revolution / return to the sensuous body of language / come the revolution / we will return to the / sensuous body and / sound will propel us / through the barricades of others the revolution / through the barricades of otherness / and come as mere sparks will / spark us come the revolution anew / and we will the revolution come anew / and irony will no longer bind us / the sensuous body of language lift us / fringe to feather to fold us / the sensuous body of our methods / singletogetherness / and come the revolution / we will have time / the revolutionary time / to live the silent lives of animals / the revolutionary animals we have lost / that is animals we have killed / the extinctions corrupt economies / come the revolution throwing / throwing off sparks and new economies and / sound will propel us through the revolution sensuous / the animals we are sensuous as climates / as producers and consumers / as time and sound and / the sensuous body of language / will come the revolution when / banks will have shaken / banks shaken to shivers / shivers come the revolution / all fossils fuel for their own revolution / will come and walking as sound / through sensuous bodies formed we will walk / through an endless park / sensuous a park will walk from each of our abilities / to each of our needs / through sound the revolution / come sensuous come stroll / come the revolution we will / roll through bird song and / singular birches come / the transformations of home and together / the revolution this ecos will echo the /sensuous body I speak of / as system as living fabric come / together the revolution through this other’s / effulgence so others / other species climates come the revolution / we will echo new limits we will / wrap self-governance in limits in species in webs / wrap the sensuous body in webs / of human tongue and animal revolution / self-governance in bios in animal / wrap sound all lifted to be level / to small habitations and habits to be level / as animal and sound and sensuous bodies / small hearths of animals own / all of us all animals not owning joining / come the revolution we will / come to be animal to be sound / sing the revolution we will / sing the swords out of songs / sing swords into songs / songs through flowers through fields / sing bees through these fields / sing carbon out of atmospheres / sing chemicals out of oceans / sing economies incapacities even / sing balance sing home sustainable / sing sustainable come sound / sensuous bodies sustainable / sing songs of the absence of oil and death in the oceans // unsustainable // of tanks and guns and airstrikes // unsustainable // of endless colonial occupations // unsustainable // profit motive and equity investments // unsustainable // sing come the revolution / sing a jubilee for all the revolution / sing come hammer come storm / the revolution will come and we will / as animals as sensuous bodies / begin to be born  Come the revolution / shit will no longer be fucked up and bullshit / and that which is loving in our hands / will touch that which is loving in each and every others’ hands / and while reading this poem / still won’t be the same / as storming a bank oil refinery or a parliament / you may yet be reading this poem / to a room full of people with whom you will presently / be storming a bank oil refinery or a parliament 

Thank you.

Am Johal  17:55
Thank you. Thanks.

Stephen Collis  18:01
I didn't used to have to have glasses on or good lighting to read that. But now I do.

Am Johal  18:06
Thank you so much. That was wonderful to listen to.

Stephen Collis  18:10
So if I can just, you know, add on that. So you know, is the poem a revolution or any artwork? No, but context, right? What's the context in? I think really matters. It's also about performance ultimately, you know, WH Auden, a famous English poet once said, poetry makes nothing happen. And that gets brought up and quoted a lot when people say 'oh politics and art well, it doesn't make anything happen. Well, what's the what's the point of it in in a political context?' But I love another critic, what's his name Austen, JL Austin? Published a book called 'How to Do Things with Words'. And he would- in which he writes about performativity. And he's, you know, the famous examples are, you know, "I know pronounce you husband and husband" or, you know, "I hear by", you know, oh, "long live the king" since today, the Queen died. And so you know, when these kinds of vocalizations that supposedly have legal, real world impact, but just by their being performed. But I think art can do a lot in that kind of— especially there's a lot of performance people probably here—in that performative sense. So I think it's really important what art can do.

Am Johal  19:15
One of the questions I was going to ask you about just you know, being embedded in social movements, being involved with communities in your own activism, it to some degree, in some ways, you could think of it as a kind of collaborative process. And being at a school where interdisciplinarity and collaboration is really emphasized; music, theatre, visual art, dance, all of these things, that the collaborative process takes on different forms, depending on who you're working with the kind of forms that it takes. And you've been involved in a number of collaborative projects, including the refugee tales project, but wondering if you can speak to how you approach collaboration, but also, if you could speak specifically to the Refugee Tales Project as well.

Stephen Collis  19:55
Sure, yeah, it's always collaborative and kind of that's how I see that kind of work again, is that, you know, just sitting alone in your studio or at a desk making something are you- is that political? Might become in the right context. But I do love working with communities. Maybe worth mentioning, probably the first one I felt really I got really involved with was around this building. It's naming Goldcorp centre, which caught a lot of faculty and people at SFU off guard when this was suddenly announced in September 2010, that this new building for an art school we're getting was going to have that company's name on it. I began organizing around that time with a group called Mining Justice Alliance. A lot of displaced Latin American people, people who came from countries in which Goldcorp, world's second largest gold mining company, was active in their communities, was not a friendly presence. In fact, you know, people whose relatives had died and whose local environments had been destroyed by this company's activities. So that was the first real kind of community and what a beautiful community to be be engaged with, people from all over a variety of Latin American countries who were here in Vancouver. Canada is host to... what is it, 75% of the world's mining industry are based in Canada, many of them right here in Vancouver. Okay, there's that. You know, Occupy Vancouver came close on the heels of that and the Olympics too actually in 2010. And I think we probably were both at various rallies around that time. And then Occupy Vancouver and the the part of Occupy Vancouver I got really involved with was called. We were like  the climate justice little committee or something like that. And that stayed active for years actually organizing around climate change, and especially the Enbridge pipeline in those days, and then eventually, suddenly, lo and behold, you started hearing about the Kinder Morgan pipeline coming right through Burnaby Mountain where they're preparing to do that work right now. So I feel like I've  moved through a series of different separate communities.

In 2015, I was invited to go to England to write a story in a storytelling walking project around immigration detention. So the UK has a practice of indefinite detention. Many countries everywhere in Europe, even the US, have a limit on how long you can actually arrest and hold on to someone under suspicion that that person is an "illegal immigrant", or [referring to finger quotes] I'll always do this around that word. You know, I think you can hold some for maybe 90 days in the US and then you've either gotta let them out and stay or deport them. In Europe, it's 28 days. In the UK, Canada and Australia, there is no limit. You could hold someone under immigration suspicions literally indefinitely. With no recourse to the law, you just lock them up. Happens to people for months, for years. A lot of the people I know it's, you know, at least a decade of a life where you don't have any status, you can't work and you get re arrested all the time. And re-detained in a detention center, usually at an airport. There's a huge one at Gatwick Airport outside of London. Where you think every day, 'they're going to put me on a plane and send me back to the place I fled from where they were going to kill me', for whatever reason, but- and those reasons often do track back indirectly to climate change, actually, to crises spawned by longtime droughts in East Africa, Middle East, et cetera. So these are some of those vulnerable people on the whole planet. And there's a, you know, a couple 100 People only in Canada a year that wind up in that situation, because we have an agreement with the US where we tend to send people back to the US. If you're going to sneak into Canada, most people do it across a border, a land border between us and United States. Not too many people wander across the Arctic, or row a boat to Canada. So what happens is because of an agreement we have we send them all back to the United States. But in the UK, they have 25,000 people a year are locked up in indefinite detention. So there's a project there to support these people, tell their stories, because people don't tend to know about it. And the inspiration was Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, this medieval poem about people on a pilgrimage together, telling all their life stories to each other. So we walk with these people for a week in England every year, and we tell their life stories, or, increasingly they tell their own life story. That involves every night music, dance, and poetry and stories being told in a different community town somewhere in England that we walked into. The wonderful thing about England is you can walk from town to town, it's hard to do here. So that started in 2015 and I've just been going, I just got hooked, was like this was an amazing community. And I just go back every year, a couple times a year, and we continue to do this work together. It's got different aspects. We  do. We have online events, especially since the pandemic. I'm going there in a few weeks, because I've co-written a report, the government was doing their own sort of status report on immigration detention, it's going to be totally bogus. So as a community, we did our own grassroots report, relying on the reports of people with lived experience of immigration detention, and we produce their own report, and it's online. And we're actually going to Parliament in the UK in a couple of weeks to present it and talk about it there.

Am Johal  24:56
I'm going to open it up to questions or comments shortly. But before we do that, I was gonna ask you to read one more piece if you're, if you're willing.

Stephen Collis  25:04
Sure. Why don't I read something shorter and even more climate change-y? That's the theme, right? It's right there. So this is like a prose poem from my more recent- most recent book, which is called 'A History of the Theories of Rain'. And it's kind of a climate change-y book, I guess, especially since it starts this way.  

So what will happen between this unusually rainless November and an unspecified but nearing future when it will have warmed however many degrees Celsius above this present stretching global mean / asking for a friend /  I feel tense give me a / tense such as actions that will be completed before some other event in the future / plot a line: A (present)—B (future) / and place the future perfect somewhere between those points / but who knows what ontological status B has now is the problem   If we don’t know where we are going how will we know when we’ve gone too far / #capitalism / to make our future perfect there must be a deadline we work towards / now to then / the breach coming between we choose I choose you I choose all of you let’s do this now and then   Say: we will always have been living in the future like this / say: we will have always been pondering the course of history unfolding / say: our descendants will have always been thinking / what were they thinking / when thinking about us in all those thoughtful days to come / but  The future is imperfect and tense / the deadlines will pass and still some will be dreaming states of continuity / I want to state some continuity / look at the climate and say / my grammar did this to me / my grammar and / my economy

Am Johal  27:01
I was just going to leave a little bit of room for either questions or comments or just things that have come up for you today. I think we've got some microphones I see Brady there, but you can just put your hand up and microphones just so everyone else can can hear you. I think we've got a comment right here up front here.

Stephen Collis  27:09
So in 2014, when I was sued and not arrested. So we had like a three day trial in this bizarre alienating courtroom in the Vancouver law courts. It was actually built for the Air India— for a terrorist case. So it's got like bulletproof glass between the, what do you call it the, not the audience, what are you gonna, anyway, the people sitting listening and watching and the lawyers and the important people on the other side of the glass. So over the other side of the glass there, the oil company's lawyers read poetry of mine, and then analyzed it. It's a very interesting moment. And one of the things that their lawyer said after reading this long quotation from me, said that, underneath the poetry or beneath the poetry is a description of how the barricade was made. All right,  

Beneath the poetry the barricade beneath sandstorms digital trading beneath our selves the ones we have been waiting for beneath our allies manufactured enemies beneath casual parks formal profits beneath the review process other possible futures beneath resignation new uplift beneath deals betrayal beneath the singularity of owning the multitude of needing beneath the human voice the systemic response beneath government real abstractions beneath a trial an error beneath graphed assessments the particularity of soils beneath media the feel of our hands beneath the outflow of resources the influx of commodities beneath the right to exclude the right not to be excluded beneath the drill platform the mountain beneath litigants lovers beneath the bees little rockets.

Am Johal  28:57
Thank you so much.

Stephen Collis  28:58
Thank you. Thanks, everybody.

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Samantha Walters 29:06
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. Thanks for listening to our conversation with Stephen Collis. Head to the show notes to check out the poems and resources mentioned in the show. We release episodes every Tuesday, so subscribe to Below the Radar on your podcasting app of choice to make sure you never miss an episode. Thanks again for listening! Tune in next week for the second episode of The Climate Imaginary with guest Kendra Fanconi!

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Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
November 01, 2022

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