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Local ties to nature revealed in ecopoetry PhD

Poet, PhD graduate and farmer Janet Newman explored the 'nature' of local voices in ecopoetry in her doctoral thesis.

Poets have been writing about nature for millenia, evoking its power and beauty, its metaphors for the human condition. The era of climate change crises and biodiversity loss has spawned a new twist in the nature poetry genre – ecopoetry. 

Horowhenua-based farmer, poet and Massey University graduate Janet Newman explored local versions of this new global poetry trend for her doctoral thesis, titled Imagining Ecologies: Traditions of Ecopoetry in Aotearoa New Zealand, and discovered that New Zealand writers are re-defining it.

Ms Newman, who graduates this week at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences' ceremony with a Doctor of Philosophy in English, wanted to find out more about ecopoetry in New Zealand – even though the term is not widely used here. She says European settler and Indigenous perspectives on nature have forged a specifically Kiwi version of ecopoetry.

Ecopoetry blends ecology with poetry and is, she says, the term given to; “new nature poetry written in opposition to human denigration of nature. It arose from the mid-twentieth-century environmental movement during a time of protest and political activism. 

She says ecopoetry, which emerged in the 1990s, “empathises with the natural world and relates different ways of conceiving the relationships between nature and culture.”

While there is not a single definition of ecopoetry that all critics agree upon, most definitions concur that “ecopoetry portrays nature with humility rather than a sense of superiority or domination.”

“Ecopoetry neither subjugates nor idealizes nature,” says Ms Newman, whose main supervisor was Professor Bryan Walpert with co-supervisor Associate Professor Ingrid Horrocks. It is viewed by some as an offshoot (pardon the pun) of nature poetry, and by others as a separate field. Either way, it “values nature not as a resource for human exploitation but rather as an interconnected part of human life.”

Poet and doctoral graduate Janet Newman on her Horowhenua farm (photo/Melissa Maguire Photography)

New Zealand's ecopoets

New Zealand literature is inevitably awash with nature poetry – often in the tradition of romanticising the grandeur and diversity of our unique landscapes. This includes more recent poems that serve as vehicles to express environmental activism, messages and causes. “Ecopoetry has its genesis in a desire for poetry to act as a catalyst for social action towards political change in order to protect the environment from further human degradation,” writes Ms Newman.

She chose three contemporary poets as the focus of her research, on the basis that each had a significant body of work offering various examples of local ecopoetry, although none of them identify specifically as being an ‘ecopoet’ and not all of their work falls within this field.

South Island poet Brian Turner, Ngāpuhi poet and academic Robert Sullivan and Whanganui-based poet Airini Beautrais together; “reveal changing and uniquely New Zealand ecopoetical responses to cultural and ecological tensions here,” Ms Newman writes.

In her exploration of Aotearoa’s ecopoetry traditions, Ms Newman said she hadn’t expected to find that they are so distinctive and completely unique. “They are characterised by tension between European and Māori perspectives of how we look at the landscape.”

That local perspective – specifically the tension between European notions of ecology and belonging, and Māori embodiment of culture in nature – is important, “because that challenges the way ecopoetry is viewed by critics in the US and UK who have a tendency to globalise their definitions of ecopoetry, and by doing so, characterise it as  Eurocentric. 

“They [critics] do that by saying ‘nature is that place we can go to away from the urban world’, or saying it’s a separate place. In New Zealand – especially from a Māori perspective – it is completely foreign to say that.”

PhD graduate Janet Newman discovered her love of books growing up on a farm (photo/Melissa Maguire Photography) 

Rural landscape - nature constructed

Ms Newman laughingly describes herself as a ‘weird farmer poet’ – farming and writing poetry are not typically associated. “There seems to be a gap in New Zealand poetry about farming in the 21st century, within an approach that recognises that the land is colonially violated, while at the same time sensing a connection to it.”

She discovered a love of poetry early in life, despite the incongruity. “Growing up on a farm and you’re sitting around reading a book – there’s that look, like ‘you’re not doing anything!”

After working as a print journalist, she undertook creative writing papers at Victoria and Massey Universities and started seriously writing poetry. Hers often portrays her rural environment and the beef farm she runs part-time. A collection of original poems is part of her thesis and will be published as a separate collection next year, including a series about her late father, titled ‘Tender.’

Is poetry about farming a niche branch of ecopoetry? She says her writing expresses her awareness of the rural landscape as a constructed entity, rather than as part of nature or the wilderness. Drenching, dehorning, loading animals on trucks to be sent to the slaughterhouse are part of the reality. And the contention of being a farmer is that; “you’re always in the land, relating to the land, caring for land – but it has been violently changed. You’re caring for animals but you’re taking them to slaughter. How do you deal with these conflicting things you are doing and the emotions?”

While aiming to convey the reality of farm life and “how things really are”, she is also concerned about “how we can be more sensitive and respectful towards animals.”

Part of her doctoral research focused on studying ecopoetry anthologies published in the UK and US. So far, there is no anthology of New Zealand ecopoetry – and that could well be her next project. Ms Newman suspects that there will be a more ecopoetry written as awareness of climate change impacts and degradation of the environment is at the forefront of our minds.

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