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Poetry & the River: EcoPoetry and Lewis MacAdams

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This week L.A. Letters unpacks a new anthology on ecopoetry and examines the illustrious career of the poet-activist Lewis MacAdams, co-founder of the Friends of the Los Angeles River. MacAdams is one of the most authentic and effective ecopoets writing in America; his track record with the Friends of the Los Angeles River speaks for itself. Many forget that the significant restorative elements occurring with the river began with poetry in 1986. Before explicating MacAdams, there's also much to be said about ecopoetics and the new book, "The Ecopoetry Anthology," published by Trinity University Press in April 2013.

In a previous column, I covered "Red Start: An EcoPoetics" by Forrest Gander and John Kinsella. If that book is a manifesto of the ecopoetry movement, this landmark new collection is, as Rebecca Solnit calls it, "an encyclopedia." Edited by Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street, it features over 200 poets and over 300 poems to culminate into almost 600 pages of ecopoetry from the last 150 years. In the Editor's Preface, it states, "this poetry addresses contemporary problems and issues in ways that are ecocentric and that respect the integrity of the other-than-human world. It challenges the belief that we are meant to have dominion over nature and is skeptical of a hyperrationality that would separate mind from body--and earth and its creatures from human beings--and that would give preeminence to fantasies of control."

Walt Whitman is the first poet presented in the anthology. An early section of precursors to ecopoetry establishes the timeline and shows the evolution towards ecopoetry. The well-researched Introduction by Robert Hass traces the history of ecopoetry, dating back over 400 years to the poetry of John Donne. Hass reminds the reader that although the encroachment of technology and pollution are more serious than ever today, the conflict between nature, man, the machine, and garden has been a timeless struggle.


Hass lucidly traces the connection between modernism and ecology dating back to John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin, Carl Linnaeus, Walt Whitman and the rise of Science in the 19th century, connecting the thread to T.S. Eliot. Hass writes, "the most influential American poems, Whitman's 'Song of Myself' and Eliot's 'The Wasteland' are both rooted in vegetation myth. Whitman's poem is a celebration of an endlessly renewable, deeply democratic power in the natural world, and Eliot's a portrait of the failure of nature in an urban world of spiritual drought and sexuality gone wrong."

Hass also briefly discusses other important nature and conservation books, like "A Sand County Almanac" written by Aldo Leopold in 1949 about the degradation of forests and rangelands in the American Southwest after several generations of being overgrazed and overlogged. Hass calls "Sand County" "perhaps the most influential volume of nature writing since Thoreau's "Walden" and John Muir's' "The Mountains of California," noting that the work "moved ecology onto the literary agenda just as ecology was entering the popular consciousness as a deceptively simple proposition: everything is connected to everything else."

Also in 1949, T.S. Eliot published his final version of "Four Quartets." To this Hass writes, "it is interesting to notice that while Eliot was describing a spiritual wasteland in London, Leopold was documenting a historical one on the American West."

By the mid-20th Century, urbanization really picked up all over America. When the highway system was being built, poets like Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder began writing about the forests, mountains, and the preservation of the natural ecology in a rapidly industrializing world. By the mid-1970s, Snyder won the Pulitzer Prize for his groundbreaking book of ecopoetry, "Turtle Island," and environmentalism was becoming a much bigger part of popular cultural and the collective consciousness.

Co-Editor Laura-Gray Street writes in her Introduction an important consideration: "In a sense, poetry has always been ecopoetry, in that the origins of poetry are embedded in the natural world and poetry has traditionally foregrounded nature in a way that drama and fiction have not [...] ecopoetry isn't just any poetry garnished with birds or trees; it is a kind of a paradigm shift." Street characterizes ecopoetry as "a way of thinking."

Among the 200 poets in the anthology there are many that would not be ordinarily considered ecopoets so to speak, but going back to what Street wrote above, almost all poets at one time or another have addressed nature. This is why the anthology not only includes obvious ecopoets like Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, Robinson Jeffers, Robert Frost, Forrest Gander and Kenneth Rexroth, but also less likely choices like Rae Armantrout, Hart Crane, Jimmy Santiago Baca and Langston Hughes. Perhaps the greatest value of the book is the sheer number of poems in it and the comprehensive scope. Scholars and environmental activists should appreciate the consolidation of what Rebecca Solnit characterizes as a gathering of "places, species, but also passions, ideas, rays of light, and barrels of poison." Undoubtedly, this book will be useful for an interdisciplinary audience, especially environmental studies, history, geography, ecology, cultural studies as well traditional scholars of English. It may even make a few eco-activists appreciate poetry more.

The L.A. River as it runs through Downtown L.A. | Photo by Justin Cram/KCET Departures
The L.A. River as it runs through Downtown L.A. | Photo by Justin Cram/KCET Departures

Ironically, one of the only ecopoets in America that has ever actually changed any public policy with his own ecopoetry is not published in the anthology. Lewis MacAdams co-founded the Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) in 1986 with a poetry performance next to the river that was disparaged and panned by the Los Angeles Times. "With friends like Lewis Macadams, the Los Angeles River doesn't need any enemies," their writer quipped after the original debut. The early reaction against his efforts to restore the river only seemed to galvanize MacAdams to push harder.

Within a few years of establishing FoLAR the organization had several hundred members and had started to affect policy in regards to the river. Now, almost three decades after FoLAR began, several new parks have been built along the river and a few sections have been restored to the natural habitat. Though there's much more work to be done, FoLAR has accomplished an impressive record and it all started from MacAdams ecopoetry during Reagan's presidency.

Many policymakers and Angelenos know MacAdams as the public face of FoLAR and not as a poet. As decorated as his time with FoLAR has been, he's had a distinguished poetry career dating back to his early 20s. Born in 1943, MacAdams grew up in Dallas, Texas before attending Princeton, from which he graduated in 1966. While at Princeton he worked on the small literary magazine, Mother. Along the way he traveled to New York City, where he befriended Gregory Corso and met poets like Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara and Amiri Baraka. Soon he was attending graduate school in Buffalo, where he studied with Robert Creeley and befriended Duncan McNaughton. He spent his time going back and forth between Buffalo and the Lower East Side in Manhattan where he attended the St. Marks Poetry Project. The dynamic space was a mecca for post beat, New York School poets like Ron Padgett, Anne Waldman, Ted Berrigan, Lewis Warsh, Tom Clark, Jim Carroll, John Ashberry, Ed Sanders, among many others. In 1970 Ron Padgett and David Shapiro edited "An Anthology of New York Poets," that was published by Random House. MacAdams had 13 poems included in the work, as many as heavyweights like Frank O'Hara, Clark Coolidge and Aram Saroyan.

In 1970 MacAdams moved to Bolinas, California, just north of San Francisco. An oil spill a few hundred yards off shore shortly after MacAdams arrived proved to be a life changing moment. MacAdams told me a few years ago that over a 24-hour period of mobilizing and organizing, he and "a couple thousand hippies stopped oil from entering the lagoon." Small victories like these intertwined with literary ambitions. Dating back to at least the Summer of Love in 1967, Bolinas became a mecca for poets and counterculture types because despite the off the grid location, it is still very close to San Francisco. MacAdams read often at the San Francisco Poetry Center during the '70s and went back and forth between the city and Bolinas. Reminiscing about the era, MacAdams says, "I was living three or four days a week in a hog barn and the rest of the week sleeping on a couch in the Poetry Center. I was going to Poetry events almost every day in the late '70s."

In the audio slideshow below Lewis MacAdams reads from "The River: Books One, Two & Three," from Departures: L.A. River.

MacAdams moved to L.A. in 1980 during the explosion of Punk Rock and performance art. "People were so out there doing work in the beyond space," he says. He had done some similar work in Bolinas, but didn't see it so conceptually. "I did this piece in Bolinas right before I came to L.A.; there was this little vacant lot right in the middle of town that the owner a real old guy tried to burn down. We all called it Burnt Park. He tried to kill himself and his wife. It always gave off a real terrible vibe, of despair and broken hearts. So I ate a bunch of the dirt and rechristened it Birth Park. I didn't do it for entertainment. I really believed in that sense of performance. I never heard of performance art until I came to L.A. It wasn't until I got here that people said you're a performance artist."

Kevin Opstedal is a poet and small press publisher that has been a fan of MacAdams since he first heard him perform a poem on KPFA Radio in 1978. Originally from Venice Beach, now based in Santa Cruz, Opstedal was visiting a friend in Half Moon Bay and they were listening to the radio when he heard MacAdams recite the poem, "News From Niman Farm." The next day he went into Coastside Books, a great small bookstore in Half Moon Bay, and found a book of MacAdams poems. A few years later they would become friends.

In 1986, Opstedal was writing a literary history of Bolinas from 1967 to 1980, and he interviewed MacAdams. They gradually began collaborating on publications. When MacAdams began writing his cycle of poems about the L.A. River, Opstedal started his own small publishing house, Blue Press. He says, "publishing Lewis MacAdams has been a personal mission of mine, to keep his work in print."

With all the accolades MacAdams has received for his activism, the cycle of poems about the L.A. River are equally worthy of praise. Published in 2005, the 75-page book, "The River: Books One, Two & Three" follows the form used by William Carlos Williams in his epic work, "Paterson." "The River" mixes personal reflection, river lore, and Los Angeles history, creating a narrative of pithy poems packed with vitality, insight and humor. Comprised of segmented short poems that make up one long poem, it can be read chronologically or out of order. Here are 9 lines that capture the verisimilitude,

At the opening of a new riverfront park
I talk to a kindly homeless man who
Wants to know the name of the duck
That looks like a chicken.
We all worship
The river in our own ways, some with stale tortillas
From the Salvation Army, others
With degrees in landscape architecture
From Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

MacAdams not only loves the river, he loves the citizens of Los Angeles. "I draw the portraits of the ones I serve," he writes. Kevin Opstedal says, "Lewis MacAdams is one of the most generous poets I know [...] I don't mean necessarily that he is a generous person, although he is indeed that, but it is the generosity within the poems themselves that is so remarkable to me [...] A true poet who, in the grip of the relentless absurdity and sublime beauty we all are heir to, lifts his head in song, like a redwing blackbird, because he has no other choice."

In the video below Lewis MacAdams recounts his poetry influences, along with a reading of his work. From Departures: L.A. River.

Fortunately, Opstedal has played a major role in keeping MacAdams poetry in circulation. Besides the work on Blue Press, in 2011 Opstedal edited MacAdams' "Dear Oxygen: New & Selected Poems from 1966 to 2011," for the University of New Orleans Press. The volume holds 45 years of MacAdams poems together in one collection, including all of his poems on the river.

Over the years MacAdams has written numerous cover stories for the LA Weekly, and he directed a documentary in the late '80s called, "What Happened to Kerouac." His prose book, "The Birth of the Cool," was one of the Los Angeles Times best nonfiction books of 2001. For the most part though, the last three decades of MacAdams life have been about the L.A. River. After having early success as a poet, he didn't pursue that path as much because he felt the work restoring the river was more important.

Last week I was at Taylor Yard along the L.A. River for La Gran Limpieza, the annual clean up effort. Among the dozens of couples and young volunteers, a group of 60 high school students arrived to help clean the river. All told a few thousand people across the city gathered at various sites to remove several tons of garbage. I showed MacAdams' book of river poems to some of the volunteers, and very few knew much about MacAdams and his poetry, but they were happily present trying to improve their city.

Perhaps Los Angeles is too far west for the poetry establishment to look too close, but either way, Lewis MacAdams' poetry has been a catalyst for a major environmental movement in one of the world's biggest cities. Whether or not he is in the new ecopoets anthology, he ranks as one of the world's leading ecopoets, based on the results of his work. Despite not including MacAdams, the new anthology is still very important for its great scope of work presented. This week L.A. Letters salutes these ecopoets and Lewis MacAdams, they are true game-changers in the landscape of L.A. Letters.

This Sunday, May 26 at 5pm at the Last Bookstore, Lewis MacAdams will be reading poems from "The River," along with Blue Press's Kevin Opstedal and a few other writers. His books will be available.

More video interviews with Lewis MacAdams can be found at Departures: L.A. River

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