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Research Spotlight: Zoë Brigley Thompson

February 12, 2021

Research Spotlight: Zoë Brigley Thompson

Black, white and red illustration
Assistant Professor Zoë Brigley Thompson sits in front of a teal background

Each month, the Communications Team reaches out to members of the Department of English faculty and asks them to elaborate on a current research or creative project they are working on or have recently completed. For this month, we asked Assistant Professor Zoë Brigley Thompson about her poetry and its relation to ecojustice.

In your own words, as the expert that you are, can you provide an overview of your project?

I have always been interested in anti-violence advocacy and research, but more recently I have been intrigued by ecojustice campaigns. Ecojustice activists are more aware of how social problems and exploitation of the environment are related. For example, oil pipelines that run through indigenous land not only pollute the natural environment, but also ruin the resources that native communities rely on. Building on green spaces in urban environments often happens concurrently with gentrification, which forces poor communities out of their old neighborhoods. 

I have two projects that I am working on in relation to these ideas. One is a special issue of the UK-based poetry magazine, Magma Poetry, on the topic of “Dwelling,” and the other is a poetry anthology, 100 Poems to Save the Earth.  

In the journal, we have some great writing from UK writers like Bhanu Kapil, Roger Robinson and Karen McCarthy Woolf. Also, back in September we brought together a group of U.S. poets with environmental scientists here at The Ohio State University. Their conversation about ecologies and the pandemic inspired poems to be published in the special journal issue, including work by our own Kathy Fagan, Columbus poets Ruth Awad and Khaty Xiong, as well New York writer Rosebud Ben-Oni. We’ll be having some launch events in late spring/early summer, so look out for those. 

100 Poems to Save the Earth is a deliberately provocative title, because it is extremely urgent that we do everything we can to stop the climate crisis from worsening. It might seem impractical to think that poetry can have a role in this, but let me persuade you. First, the poems included combat misinformation, as there is still disbelief about climate change in some quarters. Second, they combat fear. It’s understandable that we might feel overwhelmed by the climate crisis, but poems can help us process that so we can act. Third, they offer a sense of collective hope. Altogether we have some great poets in the anthology from the U.K., the U.S., Ireland and elsewhere, including David Baker, Camille T. Dungy, Ross Gay, Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Carl Phillips.

Now, could you shorten this description into one sentence that uses accessible language?

Rather than one sentence, how about two questions? How can poetry offer a vehicle for harnessing both social justice movements and environmental campaigns? How can these movements work together to respond to issues like institutional racism, global capitalism, climate disaster and mass extinction? 

In what ways is your research significant? 

If there is one thing that will define human lives and human futures, it is the imminent threat of climate disaster, and in the context of the global pandemic, the urgency is clear. We should be questioning the role of human beings in creating conditions for pandemics to happen. Addressing that means rejecting racist narratives about the virus’s origins and looking closely at what corporations are doing to animal habitats and the environment. We might also scrutinize how ill-prepared governments are in preparing a response to these disaster events and how it is often those with fewest privileges who are most ill-provided for.

The pandemic has also forced us during lockdowns and quarantines to really inhabit and recognize everyday instances of the more-than-human. We cannot seek spectacular nature sites in the same way, but instead must inhabit our backyards and neighborhoods. Poetry might offer another narrative which changes our attitude to the more-than-human, so that we value it again. What we need is a sea change in how we view nature, so that we dwell with it rather than possessing it, owning it or always harnessing it. 

Poems around these subjects are not just being written by white, straight men. There are some very interesting poems being written right now by poets with disabilities, for example. They haven’t been thought of as environmental poems in the past, because they are not necessarily about climbing mountains or striding through natural environments (see Jillian Weise on this), but they are valuable and offer unique and important insights.

Are you working with any colleagues or collaborators?

I’m working with Welsh poet Kristian Evans and the Scottish poet Rob Mackenzie. 

Is the project being funded or supported by any individuals or organizations that you would like to acknowledge?

I received an $18,000 grant from the Arts Council of England for the special Magma Poetry journal issue, as well as funds from The Ohio State University Global Arts + Humanities Discovery Theme. 100 Poems to Save the Earth has been generously funded by an award from the Welsh Books Council.

Where do you see this project going in the future?

In the editing process for the journal and anthology, I have read so many poems on dwelling and the environment. I’m thinking now about my own creative work and wondering how I can develop what I have already written about violence, trauma and healing in the context of the other-than-human and nature. I’m more convinced than ever that solving social justice issues is key if humans are to stop getting in the way of the environment healing. 

What's next for you? What would you like to work on once this project is completed?

I have an idea down the road to create an anthology of love poetry for a time of climate crisis, because it also seems clear to me that it is an ethos of love, compassion, tenderness and care that will enable us to keep working towards averting or slowing down the climate crisis. I am publishing a chapbook of poems in October 2021 titled Into Eros, which focuses particularly on nature, trauma, healing and love.

My other goals for this year are working on a monograph and continuing my role as lead editor for the edited volume, The Bloomsbury Companion to Contemporary Poetry in Ireland and the U.K. I’ll be working on finishing the monograph, which brings together all my anti-violence research, the title being Beyond the Symbolic Rape. The study looks at how all too often sexual violence is used in narratives in the media, on screen and on the page as a shorthand or symbol for ideas that male writers and directors want to express, but in doing so, they fail to register the trauma or impact of the event for those targeted. 

The Bloomsbury volume seeks to represent contemporary poetry in Ireland and the U.K. by undoing false divisions between supposed mainstream and innovative poetries, page and performance poetries, and by mapping the interconnections between poetries across this archipelago. In most companions like this, a majority of the essay writers when you scan the contents page will be white men in privileged academic positions. We are actively seeking a diversity of voices, and rather than having separate sections (on poets and race for example), we want the essay writers to include women poets, people of the global majority, LGBTQ+ poets and other writers who have been routinely sidelined as a matter of course.  We seek to embrace the boundary-crossing in how poetries and poems develop and interact, refusing easy categorization. 

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