Each year our Pavilion Poetry students assist with the publishing of our new collections, dedicating their time to an individual poet. In this interview, Joseph Jackson talks with author Jemma Borg about her new collection, Wilder (Pavilion Poetry, 2022) – you can also listen to Jemma’s responses below.
Wilder is concerned with nature and the natural world. Do you view the natural world as sublime and powerful or vulnerable and in jeopardy?
I think it’s all of these things, paradoxically. But first, you know, I think we have to be careful about using the terms nature and the natural world as if they don’t include us humans. The very notion of separation is a deep-rooted error. And that’s one of the things I wanted to think about in Wilder. If you listen to the French philosopher Bruno Latour (you can see him on YouTube), he talks about how humans aren’t living on our planet or looking down on it from somewhere else – as though we were observers watching a kind of wildlife documentary – but inside it. Humans are embedded within what we call the world, and I think it’s this sense of entanglement which is really interesting. Life, the story of DNA through evolution, is tenacious, an immense imperative, relentless, but it’s also very sensitive. Just as the planet’s weather systems are the famous butterfly’s wings flapping in one place, causing a hurricane elsewhere. So what I think is vulnerable and in jeopardy is the specific world that we have now, these species which exists now together, including us. We only have to look at the history of life to see that most species and ways of being have gone extinct as conditions changed over time. The Earth as a dynamic system is powerful and unlikely to be destroyed as such, although that’s certainly not impossible. But the current planetary ecosystem may change dramatically through climate change, and we may not be there to see it, along with the many other species that we have made extinct through our actions or lack of restraint.
How important do you think it is that ecopoetry is political? Would you consider Wilder a political collection?
I wonder what it is we consider to be political. Is it political to notice, to pay attention, to celebrate and to acknowledge despair and darkness, to acknowledge that what goes on seemingly around us does actually affect us and is also happening to us and through us? And that that challenges us to transformation personally and collectively. Ecopoetry is a relatively new label designed to represent a distinction between modern approaches and what’s been historically called nature poetry. I think perhaps what has really changed is that we know that what we love is being lost, that we are looking at a world – and the Arctic is a good example – that’s unlikely to exist in its current form in the near future. And to know this challenges us to examine how we live and seeps into the products of our educated imaginations, poems and art. But then perhaps poetry has always made this challenge by fortifying the obstinate and, by implication, authentic centres of ourselves, as Elaine Feinstein had it in her poem ‘Muse’.
I don’t think anyone wants a didactic poetry, but I wonder at the ability of what we might call close attention to lead us to stories from the edges of protest, born out of a rich sense of entanglement and perhaps to a more radical sense of what is possible. Gary Snyder, who wrote The Practice of the Wild, said that time spent in wilderness teaches us about who we are, who we want to be and what happiness really is. Perspective, in other words, and he sees that as a moral education, being close to the world teaches you principles such as humility and restraint. Obviously, in the modern world, many of us can’t access wilderness. But I think if we understand our own nature as wild and animal, then we can still access these things. Is Wilder political? It’s definitely in favour of personal transformation, I think. And what is personal is the place we begin changing what is political, as it has been said by others. I’m interested in what holds us back from such transformation and what promotes it.
At points in the collection, like in ‘San Pedro’, nature seems to almost transcend the human experience. How do I characterize the relationship between humans and nature?
We are in deep relationship, I think, in a deep entanglement whether we realize it or not. There are times when it becomes clearer, times like birth and death, when you’ll return to the visceral and bodily qualities of being a human animal. But there’s also a sense in which we can recognize ourselves in other beings, in the things growing around us, not to anthropomorphise those things but to recognize that what we often think of as uniquely human qualities such as intelligence and language are already present or inherent in the world around us, part of that enlarging of our empathy that the moral philosopher Mary Midgley considered so important.
Humans haven’t come from somewhere else, from somewhere that isn’t nature. We are produced by a particular set of conditions on this planet and are simply currently very successful. The San Pedro Cactus is considered by those who use it for medicinal purposes as an intelligence that can be met and encountered as such. Indeed, many healing plants are considered to have this special kind of knowing, special in that it isn’t human, but is older and certainly wiser. Medicinal plants are like elders.
There’s already a lot of interest in the use of psychedelics in some areas of conventional medicine. The experiences such plants grant are transcending of the individual human perspective, and that is part of the healing function. But, you know, as Rebecca Solnit says, “never to get lost is not to live”. And I wanted to write as much about getting lost wildering as about something transcendent. And being lost is the first step, maybe in transformation, that we find being in that condition of uncertainty so uncomfortable.
How do you think your backgrounds in academia and science have shaped your poetry and approach to writing?
I think common to both science and poetry is an interest in discovery. I like the idea of doing experiments in my writing, using techniques like collage that introduce randomness into the process and that remove the anxious self that can get in the way of following a thread in a creative way. It’s also about putting lots of different texts in a pot and mixing them together to see what happens, and this kind of mirrors evolution in the sense that that works on randomly occurring genetic changes. Science can give you more subject matter to explore, especially in my field of biology, that’s more easily accessible to the layman than other areas of science. But it’s probably the long view it has been more important to me as a writer. When you look at life, you’re looking over billions of years and it really questions the importance of humans. We are more likely to be a relatively brief episode in the history of this planet than not. And everything is connected, not in a mystical sense, but in a very material sense: we all have the same DNA, the same matter asks in the simplest organisms, and we are living in interdependent ways we still don’t fully appreciate.
The other way in which science has possibly influenced me is to do with scientific language, which has a particular flavour rooted in rhetoric and clear exposition. Scientific texts are very hypotactic, using long sentences hinged on propositions and conjunctions, used in the pursuit of absolute exactness. In comparison, its parataxis that is more familiar to modern poetry perhaps, with an emphasis on ways of linking phrases and images, or juxtaposing them with the aim of deepening meaning. Funnily enough, T.S. Eliot thought that whereas poetry wasn’t readily translatable in any simple way, that science was because it tries to have one meaning not many meanings at once. But one of the challenges for translating science is hypotaxis, which can be hard to carry across into other languages. The only truly translatable language, perhaps, is maths. One of the poets I liked early on was Elizabeth Bishop, who is a good example of an exact poet, although she wasn’t a scientist, and the metaphysical poets too – their conceits read almost like scientific theories at times.
There’s an element of intertextuality to your collection, using ekphrastic poems and referencing numerous poets, artists and musicians. Do you view your poetry as ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, the culmination of your inspirations?
I think this is about connectivity, even if it feels sometimes that we’re speaking to ourselves and a vast silence, we are never speaking in a vacuum. I think the spirit of art is conversation. This is also true of science as it happens, where making references to previous work is considered a necessary part of making your own contribution. And it makes for a much richer existence and art to try and be part of a response to interact, to locate ourselves within and outside traditions, and so also to benefit from the permission that art gives. Identifying sympathies between ideas, images across time and cultures also comes from the activity of listening, which is so much what writing is about, it seems to me. The more we are willing to listen, the more there is to hear – the inner voice of the imagination as well as the quieter, more subtle sounds around us that exist in the complexity of the world. The more we listen, the more we know it’s true that maybe there are no original thoughts. There is only the reinterpretation of the same things of the same principles that matter of the elemental things like love, the things that are with us at our deathbed when everything else is stripped away.
Jemma Borg won the inaugural Ginkgo Prize in 2018 and The Rialto/RSPB Nature and Place Competition in 2017. Recent publications include the TLS, The Poetry Review and Oxford Poetry, and anthologies such as Out of Time (Valley Press 2021) and Places of Poetry (Oneworld 2020), and her first collection, The illuminated world (Eyewear, 2014), won the Fledgling Award and the New Writing Ventures Award for Poetry. She was a zoologist and evolutionary geneticist before working in scientific research management in the voluntary sector and in science publishing.