2013-08-02 / News

Environmental Poetry Is Inspired by Mackinac Island, Lenfestey Says

By Stephanie Fortino


Poet James Lenfestey, a summer Mackinac Island resident, will discuss his newest collection of poetry called “Earth in Anger: Twenty-five Poems of Love and Despair for Planet Earth” at the Friday, August 9, installment of the Mackinac Island Public Library Author Series at 4 p.m. The poet is pictured Thursday, July 25, holding a copy of the collection with Haldimand Bay and Round Island in the background. Poet James Lenfestey, a summer Mackinac Island resident, will discuss his newest collection of poetry called “Earth in Anger: Twenty-five Poems of Love and Despair for Planet Earth” at the Friday, August 9, installment of the Mackinac Island Public Library Author Series at 4 p.m. The poet is pictured Thursday, July 25, holding a copy of the collection with Haldimand Bay and Round Island in the background. James Lenfestey’s newest book, “Earth in Anger: Twentyfive Poems of Love and Despair for Planet Earth,” will be the topic at the Mackinac Island Public Library Summer Author Series Friday, August 9, at 4 p.m. Almost all of the collection was written on Mackinac Island, and many pieces, Mr. Lenfestey said, capture Island landscapes, animals, and pastimes.

“Inexplicably, the title to Pablo Neruda’s book popped into my mind,” said Mr. Lenfestey of the collection’s concept and title. It is “a very famous book of love poems called ‘Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair,’ and these were poems to women, of course, to his wife. And I had this idea: I wonder if I have 20 love poems and a song of despair for our beloved planet earth.”

Obviously he did, and the compilation includes many he already had written.

“They come together in a wonderful arc,” he added, explaining that “Earth in Anger” begins with an invocation, builds to its emotional climax with long, questioning pieces, and ends with a coda.

Mr. Lenfestey and his wife, Susan, live in Minneapolis and own a cottage on Mackinac Island’s East Bluff. He covered environmental issues at the Minneapolis Star Tribune for 45 years, he said, 25 of those years reporting on climate change. Retired for 10 years, he spends a third of his time writing poetry, a third as an environmental activist, and a third with his family and six grandchildren.

The switch from journalist to poet provided Mr. Lenfestey with a change of audience, but this most recent book draws on his journalism career to create a collection unlike his previous publications.

“Journalism cares about a wide audience,” he said. “Poets, in the end, cannot, but what makes this book different from my others is its sense of urgency.”

The 25 poems in “Earth in Anger” highlight the contrasting moods of love for the Earth and despair in its current condition.

“The despair behind the book comes from my 25 years as a journalist covering the findings and growing alarms of climate scientists, their call for urgent action, countered by a wellfunded propaganda campaign to create doubt in the public mind,” he continued. “We are in a war to preserve a climate in place since the dawn of civilization, and we are losing.”

But being a poet, he also draws upon the emotions he feels in his connection to the natural world.

“The love comes from listening for the voices of the voiceless, the forgotten sturgeon, the birds calling and insects buzzing around us. How do we fit in with their ancient stories?” he asked.

In much of Mr. Lenfestey’s poetry, he observes natural landscapes or animals and explores how they reflect him and all humans, including one piece titled “Eagle at 8 a.m.” which also contains Biblical references. Other selections contain elements of other poets, such as Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, and Robert Bly. In the preface of the book, Mr. Lenfestey quotes William Butler Yeats, noting, “Earth in Anger” teeters on the line between rhetoric and poetry, to Mr. Lenfestey, an important distinction.

“The risk here is rhetoric,” he writes. “As Yeats said, ‘Out of a quarrel with others we make rhetoric, of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.’”

The difference between the two forms, rhetoric and poetry, is like the distinction between two parts of his life, Mr. Lenfestey said. Rhetoric, like journalism, is the process of creating fact-based opinions, while poetry allows a writer to expand beyond those opinions to use human emotion to elicit reader response.

“That’s the poet’s job, to get an emotional impact. They are surprisingly different worlds,” he noted.

When on Mackinac Island, Mr. Lenfestey writes poetry on his porch while watching the sun as it rises over Lake Huron. That spot, he said, is his favorite place to write on the Island, and he cherishes the beauty and calm of the Island as he wakes up, “usually around first light, when the bats bang and scritch on the screen returning from their night’s work to their home behind our shutters.”

Mr. Lenfestey enjoys swimming, and notes that 75 feet out from the water plant, on the Island’s east side, “you can dive in off the boulders.” The last poem in the book was inspired by the water, where life originates, both in the literal evolutionary sense, he says, and in the metaphorical sense of the womb, “whose salinity almost exactly mirrors that of the sea.”

In addition to the author series, Mr. Lenfestey holds weekly classes, or what he calls “secular sermons,” Wednesday mornings as the poet in residence at Grand Hotel. His next two books in the works include “Seeking the Cave,” which explores his sense of connection with 9th-century Chinese poet Han-Shan, and “If Bees are Few: a Hive of Bee Poems,” an anthology of poems about the insect that is threatened with extinction by Earth’s changing climate.

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