For the past year I have been an itinerant teacher, crisscrossing New York’s lower Hudson Valley and leading the Floodwaters Workshops, a series of ecopoetry programs at sites of flooding and flood risk in Westchester County. The workshops bring poetry into the local conversation about climate—an ongoing, fraught, live conversation about everything from sump pumps in the basement to our place in the galaxy. At each location, from urban schoolyard to estuary to oak forest, we read and write ecopoems—poems that are engaged, in myriad ways, with environmental vulnerability and degradation, with ecosystems and their interdependence, with global warming and the climate crisis. My hope is that these hours of reading and writing poems together, considering their prismatic layers of perception and insight, can help us cope with the impact climate change has on our lives. Poems can sharpen our thinking, deepen our recognition of the nonhuman, and hold a complex mix of anxiety, confusion, reverence, yearning, regret, and grief. But most of the workshops have taken place in high schools, with sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, which means my audience is immediately skeptical of this claim. The kids don’t mince words: What is even the point of this?

To have an answer for them, I pass out copies of Rajiv Mohabir’s “Why Whales Are Back in New York City.” The poem begins with a remarkable sighting—“After a century, humpbacks migrate / again to Queens”—then unfolds in layers of place, crisis, and exaltation. Mohabir starts by telling us that the whales left these waters because of pollution, especially “polychlorinated- / biphenyl-dumping into the Hudson.” Wait, are we in chemistry class? The texture and strangeness of this mouthful of words leads us to curiosity about “menhaden,” which turn out to be the small silver fish that the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) killed off, leaving the whales without an adequate food supply. Menhaden are a keystone species in the river ecology, foragers of algae and fodder for species higher up the food chain. The kids look a little puzzled. Here is poetry that talks about ecosystems alongside “grace, dark bodies of song.” Then Mohabir gives an instruction: “Hold your breath. Submerge. / A black fluke silhouetted / against the Manhattan skyline.” I draw a whale’s tail on the whiteboard. The kids frown but keep watching. 

Then Mohabir pivots: “Now ICE beats doors / down on Liberty Avenue / to deport.” Now I have their attention. This is Ossining, Mount Vernon, Yonkers, New Rochelle. Many of these students live in immigrant communities where waves of ICE raids have happened in recent memory. We keep reading and look up things as we go: It turns out that a stretch of Liberty Avenue in Queens is known as Little Guyana, and Mohabir mentions Singh’s, a restaurant there that serves Trinidadian roti. We note the hours; you could probably go there tonight if you want. The details start to sound familiar—we find Guyana on the map and talk about how South Asian immigrants landed in the southern Caribbean, then brought that cultural synthesis to New York. We work our way through this specificity of place. 

This is not what most students expect from a poem. So much lyric poetry, past and present, concerns itself with questions of Who am I? What is my identity and my story? What is my place in the universe? Often these are the same questions that adults are demanding these kids answer about themselves. They are important questions, and staples of both poetry and college admissions essays, but I suggest to them that ecopoetry invites us to start from a different place—not Who am I? but Where am I? We follow Mohabir as he parses his specific location in natural, sociopolitical, and cultural geographies and places himself squarely there: “I sit alone on orange / A train seats….”

The kids squirm. What on earth do whales have to do with ICE and deportations? Why bring those two things into the same poem? Isn’t that, as they say, a little sus? Then Mohabir names white supremacy outright—“white supremacy gathers / at the sidewalks, flows down the streets”—before he invokes defiance and resistance: “Watch their false-god statues // prostrate to black and brown hands. / They won’t keep us out / though they send us back.” The poem becomes a rallying cry, a paean to survival: “Our songs will pierce the dark / fathoms.” We reread the final lines: “Behold the miracle: // what was once lost / now leaps before you.” I ask the class what the tone of the ending is, and someone answers quietly with a shrug: hope. The poem testifies to recovery and resilience. As the class concludes, we read Mohabir’s endnote, and the students nod: “How beautiful that the whales, once threatened by a fouled environment, retreated and come back now that the waters are cleaner; we have so much work to do.” With this injunction, our conversation turns to the future, to depleted resources and poisoned habitats, to rising temperatures and damaging storms. Climate change will force many more migrations, human and animal, imperiling the homes of countless beings. As the poem unfolds along accounts of migrations, it engenders a sense of grounded awareness of the intersections of human and natural ecologies and the prospect of their reconciliation.

Mohabir’s poem is one response to the changing climate, one tone, one episode of focused attention. Other ecopoems hit other notes and moods—including rage. The students are repeatedly drawn to Claire Hero’s “Fresh Kills,” a poem about the landfill on Staten Island that was once so large it was visible from space. We observe that the word kill sets up the expectation of violent predation, even while it carries the old Dutch word, embedded in many of our place names in this region, for a small stream. Hero laments that “Our kingdom is of trash,” then builds the momentum of incantation through repetition—“Out of alley and attic, out of sewer and sluice”—until the poem crescendos with outrage: “This mouth now waiting to howl.” Someone in the class reads the poem with ferocity, and the rest of the kids’ eyebrows go up. 

Or we turn to Fatimah Asghar’s provocative and insouciant poem “I Don’t Know What Will Kill Us First: The Race War or What We’ve Done to the Earth,” which ends with one friend reassuring another that the butterfly they kept in a jar “lived a long life.” I ask if anyone has ever kept an insect in a jar and how long it lived. What do we call that kind of insistence on the captive butterfly’s longevity? A voice from the back of the room gets it: denial. Climate change is in our backyards, and the kids know it. They also know that many of the political leaders who have the power to make decisions about their communities and their lives operate from a place of denial—denial of the climate realities that will alter and jeopardize the world these young people will inherit. 

These poems rivet our attention to the page, grounding us in the here and now of our reading and talking, reminding us of place and interrelationship. When the workshops allow time for extended meditations, we turn to the arguments and cadences of Natalie Diaz’s “The First Water Is the Body.” We succumb to it, reading it paragraph by paragraph in the round, so that each person in the room is waiting for the poem to come to them. One voice explains, “I mean river as a verb. A happening. It is moving within me right now.” A different voice picks up the thread with a tough request: “How can I translate—not in words but in belief—that a river is a body, as alive as you or I, that there can be no life without it?” We come around the room and end with Diaz’s terrifying and vital question: “Do you think the water will forget what we have done, what we continue to do?”

Reading ecopoems with high school students for a year showed me what they can say, be, and do. What is even the point of this? Poems open spaces for interrogation, for layers of curiosity, connection, recognition, lament. And they open spaces for complexity—the changing climate is complicated, the world we live in is complicated, and these kids’ lives are complicated. Poems can embrace that complexity in multiple and even contradictory layers—longing and panic, adoration and revulsion, hope and despair. If an ecopoem has the capacity to heal or uplift us, it does so through the acuity of its perception and the specificity of its grounding, its alert sensitivity to the intersecting forces that create where we are

Reprinted from the Fall-Winter 2023 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2023 by B.K. Fischer