26 Voices for Change

photo of the poetry anthology, 26 Voices for Change
A copy of the anthology 26 Voices for Change

On Friday I took part in the launch of 26 Voices for Change, a new anthology of work by Cornwall-based writers responding to the climate and ecological emergency.

Held in the splendid new performance space at The Cornish Bank in Falmouth as part of the Falmouth Book Festival, the event showcased an incredible diversity of talent, from celebrated poets such as Penelope Shuttle, to the award-winning non-fiction author Philip Marsden, to fresh new voices such as Morag Smith and Kerry Vincent.

What unites us all is a sense of horror at the catastrophe that’s unfolding in front of our eyes, and at the pathetic excuses of politicians for their failure to take anything like the action needed to address it.

Our responses ranged from highly-charged rage to lyrical melancholy, with everything from ribald humour to Beat surrealism in between.

Paul Farmer channelled the voice of a protester being arrested by police on a bridge over the A30 while a cavalcade of world leaders’ motorcades passes beneath on the way to the G7 in Carbis Bay, “an interminable convoy of the glorious chauffeured”.

Former commercial fisherman Des Hannigan recalled the great shoals of mackerel that attracted ruthlessly predatory factory trawlers to Falmouth Bay in the 1970s:

Once we shot our gear, our nets and chains,
We gorged on gluttony and gain,
We sang in our bloodied choirs without shame…

Philip Marsden described watching the decline of the oak trees that line the creeks of the Carrick Roads:

Every summer now there are fallers. I see them on the shoreline, in the side creeks – oaks hundreds of years old tumbled to the mud. For the first days their leaves remain green, firm in the nutrients that still seep along ancient limbs. But in time they begin to brown at the edges and flop and wither…

Andrew Fentham’s found poem ‘Danny the Degenerate’ drew on the language of weather forecasting to bring dark humour to the terrifying spectacle of a tropical storm developing into a hurricane:

A satellite image overlaid
with rain rates
shows Danny’s extent – a 3D rendering
shows Danny is still in the process
of becoming organized…

MCMC Spoken (AKA Megan Chapman, co-editor of the beautifully-produced pocketbook with Mac Dunlop) gave us the numbed mindset of the keyboard warrior:

Out of body out of my mind detached
I have no real interest but I like share
Post, retweet, watch, judge follow, please like this
I care…

Kerry Vincent, the mother of nine children, reflected poignantly on the cloth nappies her mum gave her for her babies, but which she never used:

I see my little eight-year-old, his faced etched with emotion,
Drawing pictures of sealife suffocating in our oceans…

The nappies? We still have them! Those baby things you save,
My mother now not with us – I use them to clean her grave.

Mac Dunlop’s half-sung ‘Humanities (His)tories’ contained an urgent instruction that leaders in Glasgow would do well to bear in mind:

in case of emergency
break with the past

Penelope Shuttle haunting ‘dust’ was a meditation on the detritus left behind by a collapsing civilisation:

The Saharan sand-plume
desert dust            dirt
hot ash        silt and clay
smoke of the burning ground
dust      soot      ashes
drifting particles of cremated remains…

My own contribution to the book was a shanty, ‘Keep it in the Ground’, to the tune of ‘Fire in the Hold’. I wrote it for a protest at the time of the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009, and it’s dismaying that our situation now is a great deal worse than it was then:

Fire in the forests, floods in the towns
The temperature is rising so keep it in the ground
Ground, ground, keep it in the ground
You can keep your oil and coal boys
Keep it in the ground.

Rosie Hadden’s ‘Searching for the Marsh Fritillary’ described how she sows wildflowers in the hope of providing more favourable habitat for this now vanishingly-rare butterfly:

I scatter Devil’s-bit Scabious in autumn
plant plugs of seedlings in spring
invoke the absent one in prayer and dream…

Rosie had brought along packets of seed for anyone who wanted to join her in trying to stem the seemingly inexorable erasure of insect life from our landscape – a small but beautifully practical gesture of resistance and regeneration.

Can words be anything more than empty gestures in the face of the horror we now face? It’s an impossible question to answer, but just about all human action starts with words in one form or another, whether these are in the form of political speeches or scientific papers. Awareness of the threat to the natural world from pollution was revolutionised by the words of Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, in the 1960s.

I’m going to be in Glasgow for some of COP26 and will be taking some of these books with me. Not that they will have any impact on the outcome of the conference. But all of the 26 voices in the book feel that we have a duty, at the very least, to bear witness in our words.

We will be uploading a selection of recordings of the poets and their work on our dedicated Countdown to COP26 page. Look out for them!

26 Voices for Change is available at the price of £6.00 from Rubicund Books.