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A poet's letter to Derek Walcott (1930-2017)

Saint Lucian poet and playwright Derek Walcott died on 17 March 2017.

Dear Professor Walcott,

I almost saw you once. I went to the Southbank Centre in London to hear you read during my last year as an undergraduate, when I’d spent a week curled up with Omeros, your (very) loose interpretation of Homer’s two classics, trying to work out why the narrative of a place I didn’t know, seen through the eyes of a man I had little in common with (I’m sorry, but I was on Ruth Padel’s side), had me so tightly in its grasp.

I wasn’t sure yet about your grandiosity, your women always sleeping or washing or leaving, the poem’s veering sidetracks into European cities and 19th century Native American activism.

But I was held by your meter, lulling and challenging as an ocean – and by your lines, each cutting and independent as a ray of light. I was held by the metaphors you layered onto and onto a single thing until it held a whole culture, a whole mind, a whole view of human-ness. You did this, looking at the sea and at white egrets, sea-grapes, herons and the moon, for sixty-five years.

(And I’d loved the Omeros moment when the narrator-you met Homer, and admitted you never actually read the Odyssey, “Not all the way through.” As a magpie reared on overview – a term on medieval literature, a compilation of New Orleans jazz, a Malaysian taster platter – I got that.)

But it was April 2010: a volcano had erupted in Iceland, shutting down air traffic over Europe. I remember being annoyed, even angry, but also a little relieved. Part of me wanted to keep your poems in my own imagination, your metre in my internal voice.

I think you’d understand that. After all, you were the poet who claimed that each sitting-down to write was a renewal of anonymity.

And you were the creole writer who liked to flourish the roots of things – from Africa to Europe, childhood to Homer, Creole to Latin, black painter father to white grandfather who burned himself alive - and then pull them away, more and more roots until your poetry strained with the effort of containing everything, and became something new.

Perhaps every poem is as creole as a human, gathering in everything seen and felt, and becoming something not stable enough to be copied. Or perhaps I loved Omeros’ swelling waves because I was falling in love with London’s créolité and yearning for my mother’s creole country at the same time. You championed créolité, working against the British fantasy of benign empire and Aimé Césaire’s négritude to insist that your island was its own place, not a displaced Africa or Europe – and that being one of the first to write it was a privilege, not a lack.

Since 1992, St Lucia has the greatest number of Nobel winners per capita: two. Sir Arthur Lewis created economic development plans for former colonies; you ran theatre companies, insisted on your right to English and French and Creole and anything else you knew, and with a small band of peers created written Caribbean literature, and with it the 20th century. You were the Crusoe of your long poem “Crusoe’s Journal,” sitting on an island and naming things until they were yours.

You also told us, in Crusoe’s voice, that “to change your language you must change your life.”

Professor Walcott, I think my own island is dying. England is hankering for a time before you could speak, Scotland ponders the unitedness of the kingdom, and voices all over the world insist that places and people can only be one thing or another. I worry that these times will undo the 20th century, will send professors and poets back to their small islands, and then leave those islands to drown.

You say most modern poetry could fit in parentheses. I’m going to take that as a challenge. You explained how grandiosity is part of performance, how those we talk to deserve a show, not a whisper, and I want to be as bold as you: the fourteen-year-old boy, black in 1944, Methodist in a country of Catholics, whose first local publication was an epic denunciation, in Miltonic blank verse, of the priesthood.

When new worries keep washing up like waves, different yet the same each time, it’s easy to panic that there’s nothing we can do. But as you witnessed your time, and helped shape it, I promise to witness mine – and to try.

Colette Sensier

Colette Sensier is a British poet based in New Orleans. A winner of the Tower, Foyle and Peterloo poetry prizes, her latest poetry collection is Skinless (Eyewear Publishing).

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Donald Trump wants to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency - can he?

"Epa, Epa, Eeeepaaaaa" – Grampa Simpson.

 

There have been countless jokes about US President Donald Trump’s aversion to academic work, with many comparing him to an infant. The Daily Show created a browser extension aptly named “Make Trump Tweets Eight Again” that converts the font of Potus’ tweets to crayon scrawlings. Indeed, it is absurd that – even without the childish font – one particular bill that was introduced within the first month of Trump taking office looked just as puerile. Proposed by Matt Gaetz, a Republican who had been in Congress for barely a month, “H.R. 861” was only one sentence long:

“The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018”.

If this seems like a stunt, that is because Gaetz is unlikely to actually achieve his stated aim. Drafting such a short bill without any co-sponsors – and leaving it to a novice Congressman to present – is hardly the best strategy to ensure a bill will pass. 

Still, Republicans' distrust for environmental protections is well-known - long-running cartoon show The Simpsons even did a send up of the Epa where the agency had its own private army. So what else makes H.R. 861 implausible?

Well, the 10-word-long statement neglects to address the fact that many federal environmental laws assume the existence of or defer to the Epa. In the event that the Epa was abolished, all of these laws – from the 1946 Atomic Energy Act to the 2016 Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – would need to be amended. Preferably, a way of doing this would be included in the bill itself.

Additionally, for the bill to be accepted in the Senate there would have to be eight Democratic senators who agreed with its premise. This is an awkward demand when not even all Republicans back Trump. The man Trum appointed to the helm of the Epa, Scott Pruitt, is particularly divisive because of his long opposition to the agency. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said that she was hostile to the appointment of a man who was “so manifestly opposed to the mission of the agency” that he had sued the Epa 14 times. Polls from 2016 and 2017 suggests that most Americans would be also be opposed to the agency’s termination.

But if Trump is incapable of entirely eliminating the Epa, he has other ways of rendering it futile. In January, Potus banned the Epa and National Park Services from “providing updates on social media or to reporters”, and this Friday, Trump plans to “switch off” the government’s largest citizen-linked data site – the Epa’s Open Data Web Service. This is vital not just for storing and displaying information on climate change, but also as an accessible way of civilians viewing details of local environmental changes – such as chemical spills. Given the administration’s recent announcement of his intention to repeal existing safeguards, such as those to stabilise the climate and protect the environment, defunding this public data tool is possibly an attempt to decrease awareness of Trump’s forthcoming actions.

There was also a recent update to the webpage of the Epa's Office of Science and Technology, which saw all references to “science-based” work removed, in favour of an emphasis on “national economically and technologically achievable standards”. 

Trump’s reshuffle of the Epa's priorities puts the onus on economic activity at the expense of public health and environmental safety. Pruitt, who is also eager to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, spoke in an interview of his desire to “exit” the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. He was led to this conclusion because of his belief that the agreement means “contracting our economy to serve and really satisfy Europe, and China, and India”.

 

Rather than outright closure of the Epa, its influence and funding are being leached away. H.R. 861 might be a subtle version of one of Potus’ Twitter taunts – empty and outrageous – but it is by no means the only way to drastically alter the Epa’s landscape. With Pruitt as Epa Administrator, the organisation may become a caricature of itself – as in The Simpsons Movie. Let us hope that the #resistance movements started by “Rogue” Epa and National Parks social media accounts are able to stave off the vultures until there is “Hope” once more.

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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