Victoria Alonso stands outside the New School auditorium where she rehearsed her climate change poem before final auditions for “Climate Speaks,” a social justice spoken word program, in New York City, United States on May 11, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kate Ryan
“The icecaps are melting to blue – but don’t you know that affects us too?” recited Jordan Sanchez, rehearsing her lines outside the New York City auditorium where she would later deliver them on stage.
“I see myself holding my daughter named Love and I see her first breaths being contaminated with pollutants,” declaimed Otaniyuwa Ehue, 18, another participant in the climate change-inspired poetry competition. “Maybe I won’t have a daughter.”
Like Sanchez and Ehue, scores of teenagers have been writing poems about global warming in a bid to perform them this June in one of New York City’s legendary venues, The Apollo Theater.
In a process mildly evocative of the American Idol TV singing competition, the 20 poets in the making paced on a wooden stage at The New School, a university, wringing their hands with nerves at a rehearsal for the semi-final this month.
Participating in the “Climate Speaks” competition is Sanchez’s way of joining a wider movement of worldwide youths, demanding ramped-up action on climate change – some skipping school to protest on Fridays and other filing lawsuits.
“Protesting is fun, but it’s not for everyone,” said the 17-year-old high-school senior.
“For me, a lot of my activism is through my poetry and through performing as a member of a socially-conscious theater company.”
The idea for “Climate Speaks” originated from students in a design competition last year who overwhelmingly used spoken word to express their views on global warming, said Miranda Massie, one of the organizers in her role as head of The Climate Museum.
Since opening more than a year ago, the museum has combined climate change and art, rather than focusing on science and policy debates, as a way to mobilize people, said Massie.
“The most important thing we can do to spark climate action is to reach people emotionally,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
But building stage presence to achieve that has been a challenge, said Victoria Alonso, who had never performed publicly before.
Two months of drilling on enunciation, rehearsals followed by feedback, and repeating her poem in front of a mirror “a million times” just about did the trick, she said.
“It’s like a steep hill – not quite a mountain but like a hill,” said Alonso, 17. “Practice makes perfect.”
After a pizza lunch, she took to the stage to recite her poem, a snapshot of Earth’s devastation from the distant perspective of the moon, gazing confidently at the audience.
“They set fire to the seas, and they burn their fossils to make fuels,” she said, standing under a red-painted arch framing the stage. “I feel like I am the only witness to this silent extinction.”
The students clicked their fingers in appreciation – snap, snap, snap – a poetry tradition dating back to the 1950s and 1960s beatnik poets, an American literary movement.
Cherrye Davis, one of two trainers helping the young poets learn how to deliver their work to an audience, advised Alonso to keep her hands low for most of the poem as an exercise.
“If it moves you entirely and you can’t imagine saying another word without moving your hands – ‘fire’ or ‘Earth’ – then you have to raise them again,” she said.
RIFFING ON REEFS
In the last five years, poets have increasingly used their medium to grapple with the climate crisis, said Tyler Meier, who heads the University of Arizona Poetry Center, which convened a climate change and poetry series in 2017.
“There’s certainly a surge of interest,” he said. “Poets are excited to talk about the issues of the day and to use poetry as a way to think through and respond, and imagine both the problems and also what comes after the problems.”
But for some writers, even words no longer suffice.
The world is currently on a path to exceeding an agreed goal to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) above pre-industrial times, threatening more extreme weather and loss of species, a landmark science report said late last year.
At Cornell University, comparative literature professor Karen Pinkus, who used to teach a course called “Humans and Climate Change,” expressed doubt about whether “traditional literary language or narrative” could help.
“Even if they might make people feel better for a time. There simply isn’t time,” she said.
Sylvi Stein, 16, a high-school sophomore wearing a checked shirt who modestly performed her poem about a dream, said she did not know whether her art would make a difference.
“The Great Barrier Reef is dead. This is what my mother says to me as she drops the groceries on the table,” went the poem, which Stein said derived from a real-life conversation about the Australian coral reef at risk from warming seas.
Her mother had not particularly engaged with climate change, except for the news about the world’s largest reef, which recently prompted her ominous announcement, said Stein.
The following week she found out she had made the cut to perform at The Apollo in front of up to 1,400 people.
“Maybe it will make my mom more aware that I care about these things,” she said.
By Sebastien Malo