Eating is Poetic

I am a poet, but I make my living as journalist, and I write predominantly about food. Sometimes these endeavors are in conflict. In my poetry, I focus primarily on environmental degradation, on humans’ problematic relationship with the planet, on “Western” culture’s Cartesian insistence that we are other than the Earth, that we are special, separate, above it all, and that it is our right to exploit every other thing on this orbiting rock we share. In my books, New Jersey and The Bottom, I have examined our abuse of the earth and the oceans, in our desire for more, more, more. I argue for a collapse of the Cartesian split, for a re-merging of human consciousness with the planet, and a healing of the divide so that the planet, and hopefully us upon it, can survive. My poetry has been deeply environmentalist and political.

That has not always been the case in my food writing. Often our exploitative practices happen around the very thing I address in my journalism: food. The food writing I have done has oftentimes been about cultural identity, as I travel around the world meeting with chefs, farmers, producers, and home cooks, and learning about their backgrounds, their lives, and their work. But the publications I have written for have not always addressed the hierarchies and exploitations of labor and natural resources involved in food production and consumption. Traditionally, these publications have been designed so as not to inconvenience readers in their pursuit of vicarious or (through recipes) actual culinary pleasure.

In the past several years, however, there’s been a shift in food writing toward acknowledgement of the political, social, racialist, globalist, environmental hierarchies of food production. The #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, the emergence of immigrant voices and identity politics in food, the regenerative and biodynamic farm movements, farm workers’ and food factory workers’ rights campaigns, and the deepening conversations around climate change have transformed the type of journalism we do around food. This is particularly the case in the context of Covid-19, as the pandemic has surfaced hierarchies of hunger and abundance, and has bared the fragility of our problematic food system and the dining, distribution, and other industries that have grown up around it. No one—not food writers, not our readers, and certainly not our subjects—can ignore how deeply political food is, and how very much it is part of our exploitation of each other and our environment.

For the past year, the artist residency program Residency Unlimited has been addressing these issues, through a Covid-safe, virtual residency program called “Thinking Food Futures.” As a co-organizer and presenter for Thinking Food Futures, I have been able to bring all my current reporting on the plight of small producers, on earth-friendly farming, on issues of racial justice in the food world, and more to discussions about the future of food.

I can see the immediate impact of my journalism on these issues, as the things I report on get talked about more broadly, or to bring it right down to earth, as a small farmer I highlighted gets a needed economic boost in sales from readers of my stories. But where my poetry is concerned, it has led me back to a question I have often had about poetry: What are its uses?

I believe that poetry is meant to witness. It is a chronicle of our times from a deeply personal perspective, which is the perspective that must matter if we are to reinsert the human into the natural world, heal the Cartesian split, and rectify a consciousness that has caused so much damage. We must take personal stock, speak our experiences, accept personal responsibility, honor each others’ experiences, and together, find new, healthier paths.

So when Residency Unlimited invited me to curate an event for Thinking Food Futures’ final symposium, which is happening this weekend, and which you can attend online, I turned to poetry.

I believe that, while food is political, it is also deeply personal. It is about survival and hunger, pleasure and fulfillment, work and family and community and self. It implicates mind, body, and soul in the broader hierarchies of economy, society, and resource extraction. At the base of it all is personhood. There is no better way to center the person in the discussion than poetry.

Through a series of poet/videographer collaborations from around the world, my collaborators and I will be bringing attendees a meeting of the personal, political, and artistic around food. The four poetry video works in the hour will be introduced by the artists and followed by a moderated panel discussion between the artists and the audience.

We hope you will join because, we believe, poetry and art are useful as we reimagine our relationship to each other and the planet.

Betsy Andrews, poet and journalist

Here is the information to attend:

Eating is Poetic: An Hour of Visual Poetry 
When: Dec 13, 2020 01:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)

Please click the link below to join the webinar:
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