Digging In: Poetry as a critical life-saving tool

September 30, 2016

“What is poetry if it doesn't save us?”

Jen Coleman is the author of "Psalms for Dogs and Sorcerers" (Trembling Pillow Press, 2013) and "We Denizens" (Furniture Press, 2016). Her first book was selected by Dara Wier for the Bob Kaufmann book award. Jen grew up in St. Louis Park, MN and earned a B.A. in theater from Beloit College and an M.F.A. in creative writing from George Mason University. Before settling into her 20-year career in environmental advocacy, Jen was a theater electrician, school bus driver, janitor, factory worker and gas station attendant. Currently, she is the health outreach director at Oregon Environmental Council.

Poetry. We all know what it is. Poetry is Hallmark cards, wedding speeches, English class assignments. But you might actually have the experience, in looking for the right wedding poem, that it is hard to find something that doesn’t have an inappropriately dark turn for such an auspicious occasion. Because poetry can certainly be light-hearted romance, it can also be really brutal. It’s digging in. It’s taking to the trenches of human experience and eating voraciously from all life offers. It’s asking the question that the poet Czeslaw Milosz asked in 1945, after an entire generation of young people were slaughtered in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: “What is poetry that does not save nations or people? Today, in the “anthropocene” – a geological age distinguished by the inescapable mark of human activity on the environment – we really do have to consider what it will take to save life as we know it. Does “digging in” to the challenge with poetry have a chance at building solutions? In this hybrid talk-performance I will posit that poetry may be among the critical tools in our life-saving tool kit.