Writers urged by ex-poet laureate to defend wildlife

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The demilitarized zone separating the Koreas seems an unlikely literary metaphor, but it set the direction of Chatham University's first international writers' conference last weekend.

Making the relationship was Robert Hass, ex-poet laureate whose keynote talk Saturday morning kicked off "Bridges to Other Worlds," a two-day session with writers from the Middle East, South America and the Caribbean.

Hass, a poet who writes about the natural world, sees this strip of uninhabited real estate, where wildlife now flourishes in the absence of human occupation, as a symbol of the Earth's plight today.

"Only in one of the most militarized and dangerous places in the world can endangered species find a haven," pointed out Hass, referring to several species of cranes now living there.

"If peace ever comes to the DMZ, commercial development's bound to start and these ancient birds will again be threatened," he said.

He claimed that there has been little if no news reporting on the plight of these cranes and other animals as he made his case for international literature as an effective way to send out warnings.

"How do writers, teachers and scholars make the argument" that major changes are required to stop the steady extinction of wildlife?" he asked.

"How do you make the case that polar bears, eels, albatrosses, cranes have the right to exist" rather than accept their demise?"

Hass invoked the name of Rachel Carson, one of Chatham's best-known graduates when it was called the Pennsylvania College for Women. "It was the imagination of writers like Carson who started us on the path to protecting the Earth," said Hass, citing the first efforts in the 1970s after her major book, "Silent Spring."

Other writers need to join in to "educate us to the places where we are and where we live. If we writers can understand the problem, how do we get local people to understand it?"

"When I heard people at the Republican National Convention gleefully shouting, 'Drill, baby, drill' to get every last drop of oil, I thought the motto really was 'Abort, baby, abort,' " he said.

"There's something wrong with the American moral imagination to support this drive for oil in the face of the facts. It's still an uphill battle to get people to accept evolution."

Addressing that problem is the writer's role, Hass insisted.

"Literature is one way to make a connection to our personal lives, to get to the depths of our human experience and that's where the best writing lies. It's not by rising to the challenges of the world, but using our own voices."

Emily Dickinson, a poet of little experience in the larger world, is Hass' example of how the imagination can create a vision of that world:

There's a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons --
That oppresses, like the Heft
of Cathedral Tunes --

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us --
We can find no scar.
But internal difference,
Where meanings, are --

None may teach it -- Any --
'Tis the Seal Despair --
Sent us of the Air --

When it comes, the Landscape listens --
Shadows -- hold their breath --

When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death --

"This is the understanding of the creative nature of life in the variations of the world," said Hass, who was joined by poet Naomi Shibab Nye in a poetry reading Saturday.

The conference concluded Sunday with a 5 p.m. reading by Brazilian writer Astrid Cabral and translator of Portuguese and Spanish poets, Alexis Levitin.

Breathing in Braddock

It's hard to escape the effects of industrial pollution when visiting Braddock, especially when the reading venue is across the street from the Edgar Thomson Works of U.S. Steel.

Yet, it was a refreshing fall evening Saturday for a quartet of writers provided by the Gist Street Reading Series as the borough unveiled a wood-burning community bread oven.

As overhead cranes clanged and mill whistles sounded, Gist's own Sherrie Flick and Nancy Krygowski were joined by husband and wife John McNally and Amy Knox Brown, here from North Carolina.

The reading was in a common room of sorts of a former convent and grade school connected with St. Michael's Catholic Church and now in the hands of Mayor John Fetterman and his brigade of Braddock renewal activists.

Holes had been punched in the plaster walls revealing wood lath and the original tin ceiling was crisscrossed with wires and peeling pipes, like a scene out of Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic novel "The Road."

The mood was cheery and communal, however, the readings lively and humorous, and the white smoke from the mill's stacks indicated that people were still working.

Outside in a vacant lot, knots of people huddled around the new oven in the night chill, waiting for bits of hot thin-crust pizza.

Contact book editor Bob Hoover at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.


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