Denise O’Hagan interviews British Eco-Poet Helen Moore

Helen Moore

Helen Moore is an award-winning British ecopoet and socially engaged artist currently based in Sydney. She has published three poetry collections, Hedge Fund and Other Living Margins(Shearsman Books, 2012), ECOZOA (Permanent Publications, 2015), acclaimed by John Kinsella as ‘a milestone in the journey of ecopoetics’, and in 2019, The Mother Country (Awen Publications), exploring British colonial history and themes of personal, social and ecological dispossession. A collaborative bilingual Italian-English work, INTATTO.INTACT: Ecopoesia.Ecopoetry, featuring Helen’s work was published by La Vita Felice in 2017, and in 2018 Helen gave the annual INSPIRE lecture at the Hay Book Festival, based on her award-winning essay ‘Is love the answer?’ Helen regularly reads her work at literary and environmental events, facilitates ecopoetry workshops in schools and universities, and leads nature-based writing retreats.
You can learn more about Helen and her work at: www.helenmoorepoet.com


Denise: When didyou start writing, and what first drew you to poetry?

Helen: Poetry began early in my life, even as I was learning to talk, through my enthusiasm for creating streams of sing-song nonsensical rhyme. This no doubt grew out of an awareness of language and poetry in the family, and my grandmother often recited poems she’d learnt by heart. At primary school my teacher, the aptly named Mrs Friend encouraged my poems and accompanying drawings and, at the age of 11, I was awarded second place in a national short story competition for young people. I won £100, which of course was a big deal at such a young age, and attended a fancy award event in London. Nevertheless parental expectation was that I should pursue a more ‘respectable’ career, which would offer me financial security. I resisted this pressure, studying literature and languages at university, and at the tender age of 20 decided to be a writer. Throughout my twenties I was quite focused on prose and it was only in my early 30s that I came to understand that my preferred mode was poetry. I like the compression and craft involved, and as my interests range widely, I found I could shift my focus through writing different poems. Also I could fit poetry around paid work and community activism, both of which absorbed a lot of my time.    

Denise: You define yourself as an ecopoet – and thus a representative of a relatively new genre of poetry. How would you define ecopoetry?

Helen: I define it aspoetry written with the consciousness of our interdependence with all beings – and not just the so-called charismatic megafauna, I mean Flies, Slugs and Earthworms too!  I follow William Blake’s sense that everything that lives is holy, and for that reason I want raise all other-than-human beings from the margins to which much of contemporary Western culture has relegated them. Ecopoetry is also written from a deep sense of the particularities of place, and awareness of the ecological crisis we face. It’s an evolving practice, although I’ve found it helpful to identify and explore four major themes in my own work. These are: (re)connection with Nature – celebrating beauty, diversity and the miracle of Life; witnessing social injustice and ecocide, which are of course intertwined; resistance, speaking truth to power; and (re)visioning Earth-centric ways of living and being. The latter is based on rewilding and regenerating, and advocating for a future Ecozoic Era, where we live in harmony with the Earth as our community. Each theme is a portal through which ecopoetry can be developed, although of course they’re all intertwined. 

Denise: Is there one particular aspect of ecopoetry to which you find yourself returning?

Helen: Witnessing ecocide and learning to feel and express grief are practices to which I regularly return, as the desecration of our planet is on such a vast scale. I don’t want to numb my responses, yet at the same time I need to sustain my psycho-emotional health, and so ways to express and move through grief towards action are important. In recent years I’ve also become conscious of the need for decolonising in this work (i.e. becoming aware of colonial legacies and the intersection of social and ecological injustice issues), and this was an aspect of my most recent book, The Mother Country. At the moment I’m engaged with connecting to an expanded sense of ‘home’, particularly body and planet. Also on a more personal level, having recently left the UK and the deep familiarity I have with Nature and place there, I’m opening myself to a sense of Australia, and more locally Sydney, as home. And yet the climate crisis is biting deeply in this continent, with increased drought and bushfires, escalating temperatures. Living with the consciousness that our collective home is in great peril, and that the future is deeply uncertain, provides me with an opportunity to be more present in the here and now, and to develop and express a stronger heart-mind connection with myself and all beings. 

Denise: What, or who, is your main inspiration behind writing?

Helen: The miracle of Earth-life. Here we are living in (yes, in!) this extraordinary 4.6 billion year-old self-regulating super-organism to which I sometimes refer as Gaia, after James Lovelock (and Ancient Greek mythology), and which has evolved to support a dazzling array of life-forms. This awareness I find to be a constant source of inspiration! I’m also deeply inspired by the notion that we can choose to become cells in Gaia’s immune system, rising in defense of Life. And regardless of whether or not we’ll ultimately be successful, taking action is our best way to stay sane and to give more positive outcomes our best shot. I remember years ago an established (white, male) poet telling me in a workshop that ‘There’s nothing new to write about Nature’, that all the poets of the past had already written everything that could possibly be said. I believe I’ve spent the last 15 years proving him wrong!

Denise: Which other poets have exerted the most influence over you? 

Helen: The American Beat Poets, in particular Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. Opening the collected works of Ginsberg in the early nineties blew me away, put me in touch with the radical edges that poetry could embrace. And Snyder’s ecopoetry has been a guiding light for many years. I’m a massive fan of his world-view, the perennial wisdom shaping his poetry, and regularly return to drink from the source through books such as Earth House Hold (1969) and The Real Work: Interviews & Talks 1964-1979.  And there are many other poets from whom I’ve imbibed deeply too, including Rumi, Blake, Rilke, Shelley, Neruda, Yeats, Patrick Kavanagh, Francis Ponge, Kathleen Raine, Robert Bly, Denise Levertov, Carolyn Forché, Heathcote Williams and Alice Oswald. Niall McDevitt, a London-based Dublin poet, whom I knew personally for some years, was a great influence when I’d just found my voice, and I’m grateful for his encouragement to take my poetry seriously. I admired how edgily political his own work can be and our connection influenced my first collection, Hedge Fund and Other Living Margins, which came out in 2012.  I also want to honour my friend, the late Jay Ramsay, a British poet and psychotherapist, who championed the need for spiritual vision in contemporary poetry. He co-edited (with Andrew Harvey) Diamond Cutters: Visionary Poets in America, Britain and Oceania, an anthology which came out in 2016 and includes a couple of my poems. 

Denise: When you’ve finished writing a poem, what is your editing and reviewing process?

Helen: My process is organic and unique to every poem, as of course every poem’s unique! Some poems come out quite well-formed and need only a few further tweaks, but others can take months, even years to fully complete. Putting work away for a while always helps, so that when I review it there’s distance, fresh eyes. I always read my work aloud to hear how it sounds, and like to share new poems with poet-friends, whose opinions I trust. Obviously, there’s the process of sending work out to journals etc., and this can provide an opportunity for further editing and refining – there’s nothing like the prospect of an editor’s eye to help raise the bar! But even after a poem’s been published, it may still undergo revision. Bringing out a collection of poems provides the final opportunity to get them right, and with my most recent collection I was grateful for a fruitful exchange with my editor and publisher, Anthony Nanson of Awen Publications, a fine writer himself. 

Denise: Do you have a particular writing routine? How do you balance work and personal time?

Helen: Again this is quite organic, and flows around what else is going on in my life, although I’m quite self-disciplined at carving out regular time for work. I’m not a highly prolific writer, and have never been a workaholic; I know the importance of time for self-care, and have daily practices of yoga and meditation. I also attend weekly dance classes; plus I enjoy gardening, walking, cycling and swimming.  Friends and community are highly important to me, so time to connect is essential, along with regularly giving back to the Earth – at the moment through regular conservation work/bushcare in the Canada Bay area of Sydney, which simultaneously nurtures and inspires me.

Denise: What books are you currently reading?

Helen: I’ve just reviewedNaomi Foyle’s new collection Adamantine, so its powerful energy is still with me, and next I’m excited to write about Anne Casey’s out of emptied cups, which is one of the most soulful poetry collections I’ve encountered in a long while. Plus I’ve just begun reading Anne Elvey’s beautiful new collection, on arrivals of breath, from which I literally just heard her read when she launched it here in Sydney. So lots of wonderful women poets at the moment!  Plus I’m dipping into The Sufi Book of Life by Neil Douglas-Klotz a lot just now; and slowly working through Clive James’ translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.  There are always various threads to my reading, which is most often poetry and non-fiction – with the latter I’m regularly consulting various ID guides to Australian flora at the moment, also books about wild foods/bush tucker, including The Oldest Foods on Earth by John Newton, a fascinating book.

Denise: You’ve published three poetry books, as well as numerous essays and short stories, and are a regular speaker at literary events. What effect does this engagement have on your creativity? 

Helen: Generally I find this engagement stimulating – I remember coming out of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment conference at Sheffield-Hallam University in 2017 quite literally buzzing – the high I felt at delivering a seminar and poetry reading there was intense, and it was several hours before I began to feel grounded again! Recently I toured the UK with my new book, taking three months to travel between Scotland and England, with various launches, conferences and writing retreats along the way. This took a toll on my creativity, partly just being on the road for so long, but it was also a very special experience, something I’d always dreamed of doing – and there were some epic train journeys on which I did get some new writing done. The personal aspect of The Mother Country meant that sometimes it felt hard to find the strength to read to my audiences, as some of the poems involve quite a baring of the soul. However, I believe it’s so important to share our vulnerability as writers. It’s only through reading and hearing about the inner world of others that we understand our shared humanity, and become more connected with the vast sea of experience. In fact I was massively heartened by people’s responses, particularly from the daughters of similarly difficult mothers, who thanked me for articulating experiences that resonated with their own lives. That’s the greatest reward for a writer – seeing how our work has touched others’ lives.

Denise: What role do you feel ecopoetry does, or should, play in our society?

Helen: At the moment there’s so much denial in privileged Western societies about the ecological crisis we collectively face, and therefore such a need for poets to write and speak about what’s going on. Also to help others come to terms with their grief; but also to help them see with new eyes, to awake to the miracle of Life and to perceive a vision of how we can respond. This is what the American eco-theologian Thomas Berry calls ‘The Great Work’.  

Denise: Lastly, what advice would you offer to aspiring poets, eco- or otherwise, out there?

Helen: Don’t get too caught up with what or how you perceive it’s currently fashionable to write. Find your authentic voice. Be conscious of the degree of self-censure you bring to your writing (which aspects of yourself/life may feel taboo to explore/write about) and go fear-wards! Snyder says that as poets we must be willing to explore the darkest, scariest places inside ourselves. But this also needs to be balanced with cultivating and connecting with our heart-mind, our gratitude, our love. People are hungry for authentic, fully ensouled poetry!

Thank you!

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