In a recent email exchange with American poet EC Hansen, author of a
new cli fi epic poem title "THE EPIC OF CLAIR," I asked the
Baltimore-based writer a few questions about the poem, how he wrote
it, genres, movies and more. Below are excerpts from his part of the
conversation, with headers by this blogger:
What the poem is about:
"' 'The Epic of Clair' imagines what would have happened if oil collapsed in
2008 along with banking and real estate. In the October before the
election of that year, when another Great Depression seemed imminent, I
started to wonder, "So what really would happen if banks completely
collapsed? Certainly things will go to hell for some time, but might there
be an upswing nobody in the media is mentioning?" And then the BP Gulf oil
spill of 2010 furthered my wondering. I kept hearing that oil companies
were taking greater and greater risks to reach usable crude.
''Signs suggested that we really had entered dangerous new territory. Oil
needed to end, but what then? In the book, I had to insist on a certain
realism with myself. No doubt, the end of oil would trigger conflicts on
the local level like we saw shortly after Hurricane Sandy. I reasoned that
the suburbs, so enormously dependent on roads, big stores, and corporations
would fare the worst. But, paradoxically, inner cities actually might do
better if a collectivist economy developed around backyard gardens, barter,
and civility to neighbors.
''My main character, Clair, is an anxious fifteen-year old girl who can't get
to school anymore because her father, a teacher, is unable to drive across
the Twin Cities without affordable gas. Only the rich have reserves to
horde. But Clair's mother, who used to be under-employed, is a master
gardener, and she actually does well in the new vegetable-trade
economy. When it appears that cities might reap the promise of paradise in
the old Persian sense, the suburbs invade for food.
''Recently, an older black woman at a book festival in
Baltimore was intrigued by the premise of The Epic of Clair, and she read
through several pages. She looked up and said, "Yep. People are going to
wonder, 'Where's the food? Where's the peanut butter?'"
''The epic form happened on its own. I started writing the book as a novel,
and the pace felt plodding and diary-like. I happened to be reading The
Odyssey at the time to my twelve-year-old son, and it struck me how the
poetic lines just rolled along. So then I tried a draft in iambic
pentameter, which indeed flew like a ship in a gale. The book began to
write itself. Interestingly, the ten-beat meter started to steer the story
on its own; everybody thinks I wrote an epic poem strictly as a nod to the
past, but the remarkable thing is that the form had its own hand in the
narrative. At the same time, the epic poem does seem relevant as a form
because in ancient times it belonged to bards who were telling the
community stories they really needed to hear for survival. Stories about
enormous forces, like the gods, like runaway weather, which the people
could not control. Massive issues require an epic form, not the quiet,
confiding, diary-like voice implied by prose novels. I talked about the
form in an interview which aired Oct. 3, on Baltimore
Public Radio WYPR's program, The Signal.''
The poet's writing background:
''I have a MFA in creative writing from Hamline University in St. Paul.
Mostly, I wrote traditional, personal, one-page poems, and, yes, some sold
to magazines. But I also studied with Carol Bly, the author of Changing
the Bully Who Rules the World; she believed that writers should put moral
concern at the heart of their work. Lots of people thought she was too
dogmatic as a teacher and an artist, but Carol struck me as the most
daring, powerful thinker I had ever met. She reached back to writers like
Tolstoy, who did not set his beliefs aside when he wrote. I have been
deeply concerned about climate change since the late nineties. So, using a
line of reasoning from Carol Bly, I asked myself, "What is the book I most
desperately wish to see on store shelves but never manage to find?" That
is the book I wrote. ''The Epic of Clair'' addresses, as honestly as possible,
my deepest worries, beliefs, and hopes.
''My favorite writers are Bly, her ex-husband Robert Bly, Linda Gregg, Jack
Gilbert, Barry Lopez, Thomas McGrath, Mary Ruefle, Hesse, Paul Celan.
Gutsy poets and writers who didn't care what the mainstream media thought,
who lived their lives and wrote books at once painful, gorgeous, and true.
I just finished a young-adult book called ''The Children of the King'' by Sonya
Hartnett, which I loved; it's beautifully written, charming, and morally
intelligent in ways that only young-adult titles dare to be. Also, I plan
to study C.G. Jung's writings until I dry into dust; after all, he knew a
big change was on the horizon, and in ''The Red Book'', during his darkest
personal crisis, he spoke to his dead for answers.''
Marketing and distributing a cli fi poetry book:
''I wrote setting aside all judgment about the book's marketability. I wrote
with blind faith and, frankly, to save myself from despair, which spiralled
at its worse into symptomatic vertigo. But then, after drafting the
manuscript over two years, I began to send it out. Big agents and
publishers wouldn't touch it. Who has heard of a best-selling epic poem?
Yet I found a small indie publisher in Spokane Washington, Ilium Press,
which had published two epics and a first-rate historical novel. The book
was released on Oct. 7. I've been trying to build a readership through word of
mouth; the big reviewing magazines either ignore the book or don't get its
premise. Some encouragement came from the success of ''The Wake'' by Paul
Kingsnorth, who is one of the Dark Mountain Group writers. His book was
crowd-funded but then long-listed for the Booker Prize. So anything can
"Readers have said the book is a breath of
fresh air and surprisingly hopeful, in spite of the fears it raises. ''The
Secret of the Golden Flower'' says don't worry about success and just try to
collect one's heart, so I'm trying to follow that old Taoist
advice but falling short, daily.
A cli fi poem:
''Somebody who heard the book's premise, I think an English professor at
Goucher College in Towson, Maryland, said, "You're book's cli-fi!" The
term caught my attention because it suggests a whole new genre is required
to capture artistic work aimed at the enormity of climate problems facing
human beings. It has an urgency unimaginable in a lot, though not all, of
traditional sci-fi, in Asimov's robots.''
Readings, promotions, a book tour:
the big publishers, mostly. I did speak and read from the book at
the Baltimore Book Festival, and I was at the Rain Taxi Book
Festival in the Twin Cities. People are pretty startled by how
easily the iambic pentameter rolls along; they hear "epic" and think of
ninth-grade English class.''
"Only Lovers Left Alive" is a favorite cli fi movie:
''Jim Jarmusch made such a beautiful, timely movie in "Only Lovers Left
Alive." At the heart is the despair of Adam, played by Tom Hiddleston, who
sees how humankind is ruining the planet. His wife, played by Tilda Swinton,
points out that when southern cities burn in the future, Detroit on its
lake will become a mecca. But their failing supply of blood symbolizes how
thirsty all of us are going to get.
On the word "vampire" never used throughout the film:
''Yes. As a friend of mine, musician Bob Keal of Small Sur said, "It's a
vampire movie for people who aren't into vampires." LOL''