Keeping poetry outside the comfort zone

A poem is an active, not a contemplative, entity - it should channel disobedience

I have been a vegan and pacifist for over 25 years, an anarchist for 30 years and a poet since I was a small child. Over a lifetime of writing, these four factors have interwoven into an "activist poetics" in which I practice "linguistic disobedience" in the hope of bringing about positive social, ethical and political change. "Linguistic disobedience" is pushing language to work both in unexpected ways and outside the expected poetic modes of the officially sanctioned.

Is there such a thing as "officially sanctioned" verse? Yes, there is. It's poetry that passes through newspapers, schools, bookshops and even the net, without causing discomfort in the reader and publisher, student or teacher; without prompting questions about the problems of the environment in which we read, and the poem was created.

"Linguistic disobedience" might be achieved in many ways: by speaking out of turn, by disrupting syntax and "meaning", and by offering comparisons between disparate things. It might be a case of the poem acting as "witness", a recording of what's normally "unseen", ignored or denied. It can be subtle -- using allusion and slight shifts from convention -- and it can be volatile -- from agitprop to rants.

An activist ecological poem might offer a glimpse of deep natural beauty that is nonetheless necessarily "disrupted" by the highly disturbing reality of species loss, deforestation or, say, the ecological implications of buying the latest flat-screen television technology. That beauty exists at all in a damaged world is to be celebrated, but our appreciation of it comes so often at a cost that we don't always register. We must be conscious of its vulnerability.

I am trying to write a poetry of cause and effect, of the interconnectedness of things, of awareness that our actions have consequences. I have spent a life enjoying the sublimity of a golden wheatcrop on the verge of harvest -- the smell is intoxicating and the play of light and shadow as a breeze ripples across the full ears of wheat gives the illusion of being at sea. Because of this, many of my inland Australian images are evocations of the ocean. And the dry air, coupled with massive skies, enhances the image. But the reality of such farming is horrifying.

Whether it's York gum and jam tree habitat around where we live, or salmon gum further east, or any other flora and fauna-rich ecologies, so much was cleared on a vast scale to make room for crops grown in heavily chemically-fertilised poor-quality soil. The run-off into river systems (when there's adequate rain -- vegetation loss has reduced rainfall even further) means nitrogen build-up, which is toxic to river-life.

Then there's the scourge of salinity (ironically, the salt can be quite beautiful in itself, though it means death for most plants), spreading because the natural water pumps -- trees -- are no longer there, and the salt is leached to the surface. The poisons used in farm-monocultures, and the loss of native wildlife, are constants. But the irony that such appreciations of beauty carry for me, as part of a colonising culture, is that each vast wheat paddock means the dispossession of the indigenous people (the Nyungar, Yamatji and Wongi) from whom the 'wheatbelt' land was stolen.

My primary focus has been the ecological, writing out of the Western Australian wheatbelt about specific land degradation and damaging farming practices, but in the context of ecological concerns that are international (I coined a term, "international regionalism" -- opening international lines of communication while respecting and valuing the local) and especially in the context of dispossession of indigenous peoples and their loss of rights "over" land. I have lived for many years in the US and UK, as well as in rural Western Australia, and have created a comparative poetics that, while concentrating on the local, tries to bring into play experience (and witness) in other geographies.

I try not to write poems of propaganda (though I have written 'rants'!), but ones whose subject matter and language will draw the reader into considering "issues" without being instructed what to think. Readers are a poem's creators in so many ways, and use the signs as they will. But employing language in unexpected and "disobedient" ways can jar readers into different modes of consideration, to reflect not only on the themes but on what poetry actually means.

I have used poetry in many protests, sometimes effectively, other times not. I once literally (if temporarily) stopped bulldozers knocking down bushland for a development while reading out poems... I have long used poems to highlight animal rights issues, and wrote poems during the many anti-nuclear campaigns that took place in the port of Fremantle during the Reagan era.

Poems can express "extreme feelings" and still work against violence; this is what most appeals to me about the medium. In recent years, I have been using poems in campaigning against the death sentence around the world.

Wordsworth wrote of "emotion recollected in tranquillity". While admiring and understanding him, I've tried to create my poems in situ, outside tranquillity, in the location of the damage that's being done (by land-clearers, rally organisers, the military, miners etc). A poem is an active, not a contemplative, entity for me, and the writing process not merely a retrospective consideration.

I often call on childhood experience of being on the farm, or staying in mining towns with my father, but never intending nostalgia. Memory belongs to the "now", and the poet has a responsibility to link the two, to bring positive change and confront the damages done.

ALAMY
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Putting the “savage” back in Sauvignon Blanc

This grape is so easily recognised that it might as well wear a name tag, but many varieties are brasher and bolder than you'd expect.

I was once the life’s companion of a man who was incapable of remembering names. This should have bothered him but he’d grown used to it, while I never could. At gatherings, I would launch myself at strangers, piercing the chatter with monikers to pre-empt his failure to introduce me. I was fairly sure that it was the other person’s name he couldn’t remember but I couldn’t discount the possibility that he had forgotten mine, too.

In wine, the equivalent of my bellowing is Sauvignon Blanc. This grape is so easily recognised that it might as well wear a name tag: it tastes of grass, gooseberry, asparagus and, occasionally, cats’ pee. The popularity of its New Zealand incarnation is probably partly a result of that cosy familiarity – which is ironic, given that “Sauvignon”, harking back to its evolution from wild grapes in France, comes from the French for “savage”. Never mind: evolved it has. “Wine is the most civilised thing we have in this world,” wrote the 16th-century author Rabelais, and he was born in the Touraine, where the gently citrusy Sauvignon makes an excellent aperitif, so he should know.

New World Sauvignons are often brasher and bolshier. It is likely that Rabelais’s two best-known heroes – Gargantua, who is born yelling, “Drink! Drink! Drink!” and whose name means “What a big gullet you have”, and Pantagruel, or “thirsting for everything” – would have preferred them to the Touraines. They work well with spice and aromatics, as Asian-fusion chefs have noticed, while the most elegant Loire Sauvignons, Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé, make fine matches for grilled white fish or guacamole – in fact, almost anything enhanced by lemon. In Bordeaux, where whites principally blend Sauvignon and Sémillon, the excellent Dourthe is entirely the former; 9,000 miles away in Western Australia, Larry Cherubino makes a rounded Sauvignon in a similar style.

Many variations but one distinctive flavour profile – so I thought I was safe asking my best friend, an unrepentant wine ignoramus, whether she liked Sauvignon. Her shrug spurred an impromptu tasting: Guy Allion’s quaffable Le Haut Perron Thésée 2014, from Rabelais’s Touraine; a Henri Bourgeois Pouilly-Fumé Jeunes Vignes; and Greywacke Wild Sauvignon from Kevin Judd. Judd, who was largely responsible for making New Zealand whites famous when he worked for Cloudy Bay, is now putting the savage back in Sauvignon using naturally occurring (“wild”) yeasts that make the wine rich and slightly smoky but are not, by his own admission, terribly easy to control. This was the most expensive wine (£28, although the Wine Society sells it for £21.50) and my friend loved it.

She had expected to prefer the French wines, on the slightly dubious basis that she is Old World: of Anglo-Danish stock, with a passion for Italy. Yet only familiarity will tell you what you like. This is why bars with long lists of wines by the glass provide the best introduction. A favourite of mine is Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, a Covent Garden joint run by two women, the sommelier Julia Oudill and the chef Ilaria Zamperlin. If the menu – scallops with Worcestershire sauce, croque-madame with truffled ham and quail egg – is delicious, the wine list is fabulous, with at least ten whites and ten reds at 125ml, with prices ascending into the stratosphere but starting at £6.

There are usually a couple of French Sauvignons, although many bottles still don’t name the grapes and the winemaker Didier Dagueneau (the “wild man of Pouilly”), whose wines feature here, preferred the old Sauvignon name Blanc Fumé. Thank goodness Sauvignon, despite its reputed savagery, has the manners to introduce itself so promptly: one sip, and you can move on to the congenial task of getting to know one another.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war