Reading Focus is a new interview series at Atticus Review where we cover an emerging reading series anywhere in the world for its efforts toward keeping reading culture kicking. If you run one such reading series and wish to be covered, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The reading series that a city fosters speak greatly to the city’s writing culture. And for that reason, there are so many reading series in New York City that you would be hard pressed to find an evening without a literary event — open mics, curated readings, author readings followed by book discussion — if you ever find yourself here. The city has writers, people willing to step out and support their writing, and bars, lounges, and cafes that are open to creating space for these events.
But the number of events alone do not do any justice to the literary community of New York. Where discourse is essential to political engagement, strong intentionality is the backbone to literature that can move, question, and challenge established structures. Poet Kwame Opoku-Duku’s burgeoning series, Dear Ocean, hopes to engage with the urgent topic of climate change, by inviting writers to read work that tackles the subject with no apologies. Kwame, too, is a writer who approaches his work with sensitive care, whose words have the power to shift space, to turn whatever room he is in warm with knowledge. So it’s only fitting that he helms Dear Ocean with the wonderful people over at the Humans Impact Institute, which made its debut this past Saturday.
Atticus Review had a chat with Kwame about the discussion he hopes the series inspires, the writers he would like to feature, and the urgency of preserving the climate in our writing.
How did this project come together?
This was a true collaboration from the start with the Human Impacts Institute. Creating a reading series was something the Unbnd Collective had been wanting to do for a while now, and we were just kind of looking for the right opportunity to present itself. I had a previous working relationship with the Human Impacts Institute as a teaching artist, doing climate change-inspired poetry workshops for young people, from elementary school through high school, and creating a reading series had been an idea on the back burner. Then they invited me to be one of their artist residents for this year and provided this beautiful space at the Williamsburg Public Library where we could put on readings. And the rest, as they say, is history!
Why did you choose to curate a series centering climate change?
First, climate change is such an urgent issue, and I knew there were a lot of poets who were not only writing about the effects of climate change on their communities, but also who were expressing their concerns about climate change and the destruction of the environment via social media. And I thought creating a reading series that centers climate change and the environment might be a way I could contribute to building and mobilizing a community, and a way to highlight the voices of people being affected by climate change.
How essential or helpful has the Human Impacts Institute been to the series?
The Human Impacts Institute has been an amazing partner in this venture! Tara Deporte, who is the founder and executive director, is such a brilliant person and artist, and her guidance has been fundamental in this whole process. She’s someone who recognizes the power of art and building community. Right now the Human Impacts Institute has twenty artists-in-residence who are all using their craft to raise awareness about this crucial issue. Some of us are working out of their hub at the Williamsburg Public Library, and others are working on Governors Island, which is called the House of Solutions! And it’s a very grounding presence to have access to their level of expertise, as well as their energy.
How can literature address climate change or alternatively, how does climate change affect the literary landscape?
That’s a really good question! I think as writers, we tend to be fueled by our obsessions, and more and more, I’m starting to see work being produced by younger people of all backgrounds about climate change because it’s this thing that is weighing over their future. And they haven’t given up yet, like a lot of people from older generations have. They don’t have the ability to say Well, we’ve had our time. The world is doomed. And what I loved about our first lineup is that everyone engaged climate change in a way that was unique to them and their experience. And unfortunately, the more urgent the issue becomes, the more it will become an obsession for everybody.
Talk to us about the readers for your first reading: how did the lineup come to be?
I was so hype to be able to put together our first lineup! It was a combination of putting out feelers via social media to see who was producing work about climate change in New York City and strong-arming my amazingly talented friends into reading. But it all came together pretty naturally.
What do you ask of them prior to the reading? How intentional do you want them to be with the work they choose to share?
The only thing we really ask is that the work be related to climate change, and that it doesn’t suggest there’s nothing that can be done to combat it. There are a lot of ways to engage the issue, so I’m not looking to restrict anyone’s entry point into talking about it.
As a writer, reader and curator, do you believe that a reading series can inspire a shift in dialogue?
I don’t know if Dear Ocean will necessarily inspire a shift, but I hope that it provides a space to amplify the voices that already exist. And hopefully through that, we’ll be able to connect more people who care about the issue, and to inspire people to mobilize and act.
If climate change is an urgent, necessary issue to tackle, if the world is deteriorating at an alarming rate, what role can writers play in preservation and documentation of what’s remaining? What do you make of writing that doesn’t engage with such urgency?
Like I was saying before, I think every writer needs the space to engage with climate change on their level. For some people it might be elegy. For others, it might be a fire and brimstone call to action. For some people, it might be that sense of documenting or creating an archive. I do think there is work that is unhelpful, particularly work that acknowledges climate change and then is like but I just look so fly in this SUV, but otherwise I think it’s valuable to hear everyone out!
What kind of work would you recommend as essential reading for those hoping to use literature to inspire conversation on climate change?
Some poets who inspired me directly are Terisa Siagatonu and Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, and there are also some really good anthologies, including Big Energy Poets: Ecopoetry Thinks Climate Change, and What Nature from the Boston Review.
Who are the writers you would love to feature on the lineup?
Honestly, both of our first two lineups are absolute dream lineups, so really, I’ll just say that I’m so excited for the response thus far, and I can’t wait to see what lies in the future for Dear Ocean!
If a writer would like to approach you for the reading series, how can they go about submitting their work?
They can submit 3-5 poems to email@example.com, and I’ll try to get back as soon as possible.
Kwame Opoku-Duku is a Ghanaian-American poet and fiction writer. His work appears in The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Kenyon Review, BOMB, The Literary Review, The Massachusetts Review, and other journals. Kwame lives in New York City, where he is a teaching artist and the curator of Dear Ocean, and along with the poet Karisma Price, he is a founding member of the Unbnd Collective. His debut chapbook, The Unbnd Verses, was selected for the 2018-2019 Glass Poetry Press chapbook series.