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.

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.