Ecobardic Awen by Anthony Nanson

(This is the final guest entry of this week and, rather excitingly, it was written by Anthony Nanson of Fire Springs. This was originally a talk presented in Black Books Cafe, Stroud, 31 October 2013. Enjoy!)

For the purposes of celebrating ten years of Awen Publications, I’d like to talk about one of Awen’s most widely read publications and its relationship with other Awen books. An Ecobardic Manifesto (2008) was co-authored by the five members of Fire Springs,1 partly as a mission statement for our activities as a team of performers and writers, but more importantly to promote the emergence of a new paradigm in the arts; an approach to the arts which is responsive to the circumstances of our time in history: centrally, the global ecological crisis, but also ‘the overwhelming colonisation of culture by capitalist commodification; the exhaustion of postmodernism as a source of creativity; the strain and opportunity of unprecedented interpenetration of cultures from different parts of the globe; the intensifying polarisation between religious fundamentalism and secular materialism at the expense of more nuanced perspectives, and the escalation of international politics towards the violent pursuit of self-interest at a time when the ecological crisis demands whole-hearted international cooperation’ (pp. 4–5).

The Awen books published before the manifesto were already consistent with this aim, and Kevan Manwaring, being one of the manifesto’s authors, adopted it as an extended mission statement for Awen’s ongoing activities. In this talk I aim to illustrate the main points of the manifesto by reference to various other Awen publications, though I won’t have time to refer to all thirty of them.

Although the manifesto takes the ecological crisis to be the pivotal reason for producing ecobardic art, this doesn’t mean that all ecobardic art must be about the ecological crisis. Concomitant with the needs of our time is art that ‘celebrates and scrutinises the natural world and cultivates a love for and sense of connection with landscapes and living creatures’; ‘promotes ecological sustainable ways of living’; ‘promotes peace and understanding among people and nations, and social justice that is at the same time environmental justice and preserves a place for wildness in the world’; and ‘honours the sensuality of the body, the flourishing of the psyche, and the limitless possibilities of the imagination’ (p. 7). Such aims are pursued, for example, in the quest for healing, the reproach of injustice, the sensual connectedness with everything around us, to be found in Mary Palmer’s poetry in Iona (2008) and Tidal Shift (2009); in the inward journeys of spiritual development accomplished through outward journeys into remote places in Jay Ramsay’s Places of Truth (2009); in the sacred empowerment of women in diverse cultures around the world in Karola Renard’s The Firekeeper’s Daughter (2011). Direct responses to ecological crisis may be seen in poems by Karen Eberhardt-Shelton, Rose Flint, and Irina Kuzminsky in the Awen anthology Soul of the Earth (2010) and in stories and essays by Anthony Nanson in Exotic Excursions (2008) and Words of Re-enchantment (2011).

Drawing upon ancient and modern bardic tradition in the British Isles, the manifesto develops five core principles, intended not as a prescriptive checklist but as stimuli to the pathways of inspiration. Firstly, to connect with one’s roots in time and place while celebrating the diversity of other cultures and traditions. Evoking or cultivating the spirit of place is central to Richard Selby’s celebration of Romney Marsh in The Fifth Quarter (2008), to Palmer’s Iona, and to Ramsay’s Places of Truth. In all these works, too, there’s a negotiation between knowledge of the past and consciousness of the present moment of being. Manwaring’s novel The Long Woman (2004) deploys a character who is both a railway surveyor and an antiquarian as a means to render into narrative the ancient sacred landscape of southern England.

Secondly, ecobardic art dares to discern and critique in order to provide cultural leadership amidst today’s flood tide of useless information. The exactingly pared down language of Gabriel Bradford Millar’s poems in Crackle of Almonds (2012), in which every word is handpicked to maximise impact, is perfectly constructed to speak in vatic challenge to our follies and conceits. In the ‘Hospital Heaven’ section of Tidal Shift, Palmer devastatingly confronts us with the suffering of the sick. She also – like Ramsay and many other contributors to Soul of the Earth (2010) – draws attention in spiritual terms to what really matters, in our individual lives and in the world around us.

Thirdly, ecobardic art respects and engages with one’s audience as a creative partner. Nearly all of Awen’s authors are spoken-word performers as well as writers, so they’re familiar in a very immediate way with the dynamics of engaging with an audience; they know that literary art is not just about self-expression. One person who attended the launch of Soul of the Earth in Bath Waterstones, herself a veteran poet and the local representative of the Poetry Society, said that that evening of readings and recitations of poems in the book, by their authors, was ‘the best poetry reading I’ve ever been to’. Many of Manwaring’s poems in Green Fire (2004), and ones by Flint and Jehanne Mehta in Soul of the Earth, have an incantatory quality that lends them to use in ritual practices in which everyone present is an active participant. But the quality of engagement carries over into the written word, too, in for example Millar’s provocative voice that communicates to the reader, ‘I am talking to you;’ in Palmer’s unflinching descriptions that demand an emotional response; in Manwaring’s outdoor epiphanies in many poems in Immanent Moments (2010) which galvanise in the reader a desire to experience comparable moments of aliveness – and thereby secondarily invoke a desire for beautiful places to be preserved in which such experiences are possible.

Such desire for the preservation of beauty in the physical world links to the fourth ecobardic principle, of cultivating the appreciation of beauty through well-wrought craft. The magnificent aesthetic beauty of Jeremy Hooker’s contributions to Soul of the Earth evokes an ‘ecopoetic’ appreciative experience – to use Jonathan Bate’s term – of the places he’s writing about, and hence not only a desire to experience them or places like them, but also a self-transcending desire for these places to exist for their own sake. Manwaring’s poem ‘Breaking Light’ in the same anthology conflates feelings towards a lover’s beauty with feelings towards nature’s beauty and by doing so mobilises – as the sensuality of Palmer’s writing does too – an erotic energy in our appreciation of the natural world.

Implicit in the entirety of Soul of the Earth as an ‘ecospiritual’ anthology is the fifth ecobardic principle, of re-enchanting nature and existence as filled with significance. Here the manifesto acknowledges the continuing importance of the romantic current in the arts, and challenges the adequacy of purely materialist responses to the ecological crisis. In nearly all the work I’ve mentioned today there is a reaching beyond the mundane world at the same time as a cherishing of that world. The poems in Ramsay’s Places of Truth not only celebrate the places they address, but enchant them with enhanced subjective meaning that points towards some kind of Platonic greater reality. For Palmer, the island of Iona is a ‘thin place’ studded with half-open doors to a divine source of inspiration, healing, and hope. The story of The Long Woman mediates explicitly between this present world and whatever lies beyond the threshold of death. The dialectic between embracing what’s present to our senses and seeking what our imagination perceives beyond is one of the paradoxical tensions that the manifesto argues has to be held. Another is the tension between art that serves a social or moral purpose and art that succeeds aesthetically as art. In neither case, and in many comparable quandaries, will it do to accept one pole and deny the other. It’s both–and, not either–or.

One other example of such a dialectic is that – elaborated by Lewis Hyde – between ‘gift exchange’, wherein an artist’s authentic vocation is exercised, and ‘trade exchange’, whereby artists enter their work into the arena of commerce in order to seek an audience and a living. For literary art, publishing is the cutting edge of this most testing of dialectics. Honour is due to Awen, its proprietor, authors, editors, illustrators, and designers, for taking the risks and paying the costs these past ten years to place ecobardic literature in a competitive marketplace that is of course dominated by the very forces of capitalist commodification that An Ecobardic Manifesto seeks to resist.  

1 Anthony Nanson, Kevan Manwaring, David Metcalfe, Kirsty Hartsiotis, Richard Selby.

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