The urgency of the climate emergency is explored by Canadian poet Talya Rubin. Iceland Is Melting and So Are You (Book Hug, 2021), offers recognition of, and salve for, the vast mysteries of the natural world, our human interior, and the relationship between the two.
In these poems, human and wild meet in everyday encounters: the melting of ice sheets and fathoming ecological disaster while listening to news reports on the radio; moments of childhood ice skating and unrequited love alongside geological formations and weather patterns. Underlying the collection is a mild sense of absurdity, one that mirrors our existential plight of continuing on in the face of what feels like impossibility.
This work asks us to consider what we have kept frozen and unexamined within us and—in doing so—recognize the complex grief and wonder we face in considering the end of the human epoch.
It’s not poetry’s job to save the planet. However, altering societal bias, ignorance, or showing new ways of learning, appreciating the world around us is probably the responsibility of the artist. It sounds like something Oscar Wilde would say. It turns out Wilde said this instead, among other things. “The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.” and “Bad people are, from the point of view of art, fascinating studies.” A bounty of research must have took place to blend the personal with the scientific. Can you tell us about the process of putting together this collection? Was it always going to be a collection completely dedicated to the internal / externalization of our planet, our minds, our relationship with nature?
The collection sort of sprang to life from an encounter I had with a young boy in Newfoundland. I had gone to Corner Brook to do a reading from my first book at the Grenfell campus of Memorial University through their English department. One of the professors had offered to take me out to dinner while I was there and when I got into her car, her young son, who was maybe 11 at the time, was quietly weeping in the back seat. She told me they had heard a report on the CBC about Iceland rising as its glaciers were melting. It was an indicator of a great deal of deglaciation and a direct result of human-induced climate change. The grief that this young person was able to express truly struck me. It made me reflect on my own relationship to the environment and all the losses we are experiencing and whether I was really feeling them. I think in some way I have been an environmentalist since I was a child. I joined Greenpeace with my allowance money at age 8. I was always going on marches and became a vegan and used to do a radio sequence on a children’s program on air about saving the whales. But now, here I was as an adult, wondering what had happened to my feelings. Then I read an article about coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. That had been one of the most vivid places I had ever visited in my life. And the image of it bleaching just destroyed me, struck me down literally. I couldn’t get up from my kitchen floor for a while. And I knew I had to write about this and explore this in poetry – my own relationship to the climate emergency, this lack of feeling we are all experiencing in the face of the enormity of it. I was very interested in news stories and our interpretation of what we are losing through fact that possibly alienates us, and how poetry could bridge facts and transform them into something that could touch feeling.
You are currently in Australia but call Montreal home. Everyone has a COVID-19 story and geographic displacement and rearrangements and all the usual jars of pickles that come with why they live somewhere. So, why are you in Australia?
Well, my displacement geographically came long before COVID, actually. Although with the pandemic I got stuck in Perth for 2.5 years, as the borders were shut even to the rest of Australia, so that certainly accentuated the distance and divide. I came to Australia when I was 24. I was travelling around the world, and I just fell in love with Melbourne and had the strangest sense of being arrested, almost glued to the spot when I got there. I had this feeling I could not leave that place. So, I stayed. A year into it I met the man who is now my husband, so that may have been part of this directive to stay put. It was very unusual. I’ve been in Australia on and off for twenty years and I’m now a citizen and our son was born in Sydney. But Montreal is always home on a deep level. My parents still live there and most of my extended family, and there is a mythology to the streets and atmosphere of Montreal that will always run through my veins.
What is the longest amount of time you’ve worked on a single piece of writing? (What was it, describe it a bit, etc., significance if any of working on it so long, how did it change?)
At one point, in my early twenties, I wrote a collection of prose poems that reflected an experience I had of living on the Greek island of Santorini in a small village called Finikia. It was one of the most transformative, significant experiences of my life and the poems sat with me for quite a while and morphed into many forms. I series of poems won the Bronwen Wallace award, and then I kept re-shaping them. I adapted them into a solo theatre work called Ariadne’s Thread that I toured to festivals in Australia and Canada, and at one point I was asked by ABC radio (Australia) to adapt and perform the work as a radio play. A good friend of mine who is a bookbinder made them into a chapbook that she hand-bound. And then I finally ended up writing an entire collection, my first collection of poetry, around some of the themes that were present in that series of poems. Those Greek poems made it into the book that was published in 2015, Leaving the Island. I have never sat with a set of words for as long or had them affect so many parts of my life so profoundly. It was possibly a mirroring of how enormous that experience they were attempting to reflect actually was. Maybe they were alchemical in some way and kept shape-shifting. They certainly defined a large part of my life.
It’s impossible to ignore the devastation and anxiety our treatment of the earth has caused. The inner child question is this: how can poetry influence social change?
In some ways, I feel like it can’t, and that maybe it is not the role of poetry to perform a social function on a large-scale level. I think poetry speaks intimately to the human soul, to the inner world of a person. I like to think it can affect individuals, one by one, in the quiet of their rooms as they read the words that can sometimes rearrange atoms and possibly even change our outlook on the world through subtle shifts and nudges. I never set out for this book to change things from a climate perspective on a societal level. I wrote it as a reckoning with myself and my own inability to feel and grieve and hoped it could then have a flow-on affect for others. I do think that art can make us more supple, more alive, more open to feeling and understanding what is truly going on around us and to us and because of us. And if words can bring us more to life and into our lives and ourselves, then we are possibly more able to take action and stand up for change and shift the way we live.
If you could read one poem to the whole world from your book, which one would it be and why?
I think it would be ‘The Whale Had Swallowed Plastic’. It is truly a performative poem, and it packs a punch. It is probably the poem with the strongest message and drive in the book in a certain way, and reads best when read out loud. I worked hard to get it to sit on the page and translate as a written poem, but it truly is a performance poem and when I have read it aloud it has affected people emotionally, so having the opportunity to read that to a wide audience would probably have the most impact in terms of what this book is trying to communicate.
What words of encouragement would you give a young poet desperate to publish their first book?
Honour the work and be patient, everything takes time and things will come at the right time. I think it’s important to keep honing poems, keep submitting to presses and to magazines and to competitions, it will eventually get noticed and the work will pay off. It took a while for me to get a first collection out into the world. I was doing lots of other things around the edges, but when it happened it was like everything fell into place and made sense. I didn’t try and submit the manuscript to lots of places, I was approached by a press in the end, which was very pleasantly surprising. I had just finished a manuscript through the MFA program at UBC, so the timing worked, and it was simply the right moment. Before that, I had just been writing and writing and submitting poems and working away at it. Put the words and the work first, the world will follow.
Some lines fit perfectly like cats on a rug “the trimline a boundary between” reads and feels as clean and clear cut as the image it describes. How long do you work on the sound of your poems?
I think sound is the thing that comes first for me with poetry. I work very much with an inner ear and the sounds come almost intuitively. That’s usually when I know I’m writing a poem that’s working is that sound is driving the line in some way. I then go back and shape language and edit and rework and reorder lines and sometimes do major rewrites, but sound feels like the thing that is non-negotiable. It arrives at the beginning in tandem with the ideas and images. Almost like sound is what births a poem into being.
“Doing sweet things humans / do in the dead centre of their lives / when this road is all that matters / and loneliness is at least / a good arms’ length away.”
When I read this, for some reason, I pictured those gorgeous photos of barren lands beside these stretches of highway. These photos appear in art books about hiking and camping for weeks on end and in ads for Range Rovers. But reading the lines and imagining the wind and the loneliness and the sun and the road, it felt like a perfect caption for a big sprawling and beautifully sad image. Not that I’m saying your poetry reminds me of car ads. It doesn’t. Because the writing in car commercials is garbage and inconsequential. This line I’ve isolated positions the reader, and more effectively NOT the “I” poet voice – in this netherworld between doing sweet human things and the colossal crush of loneliness, all within the tornado of our life on this big earth. Can you talk about how you thought of the people in your poems?
I think the poems are often reaching to bridge or highlight contradictions. We know we are killing the planet with fossil fuels, yet we drive cars. And when we are on the open road or in a vehicle of our own, we often feel this great sense of freedom and agency, when really, we are contributing to enormous destruction and to our own demise. I think the human in these poems is a wrestling and reckoning with our own contradictions, the absurdity of what it even means to be human in what feels like end times of our own making. There is a sweetness and a beauty and poignancy to existing as a human on the earth right now, and there is a madness and a total sense of denial to it too. I wanted to capture that when I was wrestling with the humans in the poems, to do both, celebrate the frailty, and magnificence of being human, and allow for our flaws, our lack of acceptance of reality, this balancing on a knife’s edge of celebrating life at the same time as we are destroying it.
About the Author
Talya Rubin is a poet and performance maker. Her poetry won the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. In 2011, she was short-listed for the Montreal International Poetry Prize and the Winston Descant/Collins prize for Best Canadian poem. And in 2019 she had a poem on the CBC Poetry Prize long list. Talya won the Battle of the Bards at Harbourfront, Toronto and was invited to attend IFOA (International Festival of Authors) in 2015. Her first book of poetry, Leaving the Island, was published with Vehicule Press in April 2015. Talya holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC and currently lives in Fremantle, Western Australia with her husband and young son. She also runs an interdisciplinary performance company, Too Close to the Sun and has toured her work to Arts House, Performance Space, Brisbane Powerhouse, Brisbane Festival, Vitalstatistix, UNO festival, Summerworks, Wildside and Theatre La Chapelle. Talya has taught workshops at Sydney University, McGill University, NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Arts), AFTRS (Australian Film Television and Radio School) and the Darlinghurst Theatre and has been on a jury committee for the CBC Poetry Prize in Canada and the Montreal International Poetry Prize. Her second book of poetry entitled, Iceland is Melting and So Are You was published by Book*hug press in October 2021.