A retired Pasadena City College English professor, Robert Savino Oventile can often be found hiking in Eaton Canyon. He’s been writing poems about the canyon, and several have appeared in the “Trail Magic” pages of the MyEatonCanyon.com Web site.
Local News Pasadena invited Oventile to talk about poetry, and the conversation branched out to encompass the topics of global warming and the sustainability efforts Pasadena City College is undertaking.
Oventile’s poetry has appeared in The New Delta Review, Upstairs at Duroc, The Denver Quarterly and Ballast, among other journals. He is coauthor (with Sandy Florian) of Sophia Lethe Talks Doxodox Down (Atmosphere, 2021).
Q. What’s the first poem you ever wrote?
A. The first poem I ever wrote was about dinosaurs. I believe I was eight or nine years old. I cannot remember the title, but I remember being proud to have used the word “saurian” in the poem. I mailed it to the journal Poetry to be considered for publication. I have yet to hear back from them.
Q. How do your Eaton Canyon poems capture a “sense of place” regarding this canyon so many Pasadena residents visit?
A. About a “sense of place,” I think anyone familiar with Eaton Canyon will recognize in my poems elements of the canyon. These prose poems each found a start during a hike in Eaton Canyon. In the canyon, I will see, or hear, or smell, or think something, and a poem has its start. I love Eaton Canyon, and my poetry is tied to that place that I have been visiting ever since I can remember. One of my earliest memories is of standing on the bridge in the canyon and listening to the clunking and thudding sound of the boulders being driven down the canyon by the 1969 flood waters.
Q. Do you consider these poems “nature poems,” and if so, do they address the current ecological crisis brought on by global warming?
A. Over the last few years, reading works by ecological thinkers such as the anthropologist Bruno Latour (author of Facing Gaia) and the philosopher Timothy Morton (author of The Ecological Thought), I have become convinced that nature is gone. But that’s a good thing to realize!
If the word “nature” means in part “unmodified by people,” then nature is gone, if we’re talking about Earth’s thin habitable surface layer, the “critical zone,” where living things exist. Virtually everywhere, the critical zone evidences human impacts, especially impacts of industrial civilization. Think of the microplastics that exist throughout the oceans and that are at this very moment coursing through you and me.
Furthermore, Latour points out that the word “nature” implies a passive and timeless background against which, in the foreground, the history of civilization takes place. But with global warming, that “background” is newly showing itself to be, not timeless, but changing and historical as well. “Nature,” specifically what scientists call the Earth system, has a history. Earth system science studies this history: the atmosphere, hydrosphere (lakes, oceans, rivers), cryosphere (glaciers and polar ice caps), geosphere (Earth’s crust, rocks, soils) and biosphere (life forms) in their complex planet-wide interactions over geological time scales.
And, Latour notes, that supposed “background” is charging into the foreground, showing itself to be quite active and game to disrupt severely the very fossil-fueled civilization that riled it up! In this activity, the Earth system is exiting one geological epoch, the Holocene (the last 11,700 or so years), and entering a new one, the Anthropocene, the starting point of which geologists are in the process of officially determining. In the history of the Earth system, the Holocene was a sweet spot for Homo sapiens.
Finally, was nature there anyway in the “first” place? My reading of Paulette F. C. Steeves’ The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere has taught me that the notion “unmodified by people” was key to the history of settler colonialism. European colonizers arriving in what are now often called the Americas invoked a version of the terra nullius (nobody’s land) doctrine to justify European states’ territorial claims as being legitimate because no one owned the land: the Americas were “nature” just sitting there waiting for someone to own them. The westward expansion of the United States invoked a similar logic, along with the “Manifest Destiny” claim. In these contexts, the terra nullius doctrine both erases the indigenous presence and delegitimates indigenous land claims by making European, and now United States, ownership notions the sole criteria of legitimacy. Just to provoke even myself a bit further, having read Steeves, I realize that one could say: “‘Nature’ was a settler-colonial project.”
So, for reasons tied to the intersecting histories of people and of the Earth system, I would be uncomfortable thinking of the prose poems I write about Eaton Canyon as “nature poems.” Rather than “nature poems,” I am more comfortable calling them “regional Earth-system poems,” or even better: “poems of the Holocene-Anthropocene transition.”
The Holocene-Anthropocene transition is quite an exciting time to be alive. Many, many species are up against the wall, and time is running out fast. Environmentally, the Holocene was generally a pretty good time for Homo sapiens. Absent cutting fossil-fuel use, what, in half by 2030 and down to pretty much zero by 2050, the Anthropocene promises to be a very bad time for many, many life forms, including people. So these are revolutionary times, one way or another. I’d say it’s time to move fast and make things, big decarbonizing things on a planetary scale. As my wife sometimes hears me ranting, “Do the Things!”
Q. What is the relation of poetry to these revolutionary times?
A. For me, here’s where a British poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), comes into play. He wrote the following in his essay “A Defence of Poetry”: “Poets are […] the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.” There’s everything of the present, all the existing coordinates of our lives. For Shelley, poetry’s specific trait is its ability to register futurity’s shadows. These are not shadows of any specific future, but the shadows of futurity: indeterminate futural openings that allow determinate futures to arrive. These shadows are incomputable in terms of the present, including the present political coordinates of whatever kind. A leaflet arguing for dropping fossil fuels and shifting to renewables is directly political and highly necessary. A poem lets futurity flicker across our horizons to open our horizons. And thank the muses for that! If all our thinking were a function of the present, we’d be sunk. That is, without imagination, without poetry and the arts generally, we’re sunk.
Q. In the US, the greatest concentrations of people living on quite limited means, near or below the Federal poverty line, are in cities. That said, those of us in Southern California are blessed: if you live in Lynwood, or Pacoima, downtown LA or Compton or Carson, you can still get to beaches and mountains relatively easily. In Detroit, in the Bronx, in Philly… not so much. With this in mind, “eco” poetry – I reference Mary Oliver – of past generations may evidence (white) privilege. So how do we inspire readers who are not of the leisure class, who may never see Yellowstone or Yosemite or the Grand Canyon or Monument Valley, to care about the Earth more, in this time of climate change?
A. Do the Things! Here’s a thing to do — as we rapidly phase out fossil-fueled commercial aviation, both passenger and freight, we build solar-powered trains with lines featuring wildlife underpasses and overpasses that connect major cities with each other and with the national parks. And we’ll make visiting said parks a constitutional right, so that any ticket for a ride on these trains that includes a one or more day stop at a national park is free. The national parks will need upgraded infrastructure to handle the increased number of visitors.
Care for the Earth is a default setting of personhood. If you enjoy breathing oxygen, then, knowingly or unknowingly, you care for the Earth. As Earth system scientists have demonstrated, the presence in Earth’s atmosphere of sufficient oxygen to keep people alive, not to mention many other living things, is a function of life’s role in the Earth system. Here again, the relation to poetry is indirect. Poetry has the potential to open readers to futurity, to feel and think outside the existing coordinates. Then it is up to readers to choose which determinate future they may want to fight for. In realizing that you do indeed care for the Earth, meaning that you care for a configuration of the Earth system habitable for the life form you are, you will most likely want to fight for that configuration to continue to exist.
Q. Talk about teaching English at PCC. What are your conclusions about Millennials?
A. Millennials rock. Teaching writing and literature at PCC was a wonderful experience. I learned a great deal in developing each course and from my students, and the students were very impressive. But what future are those students facing? During my last few semesters at PCC, I co-chaired the campus-wide Sustainability Standing Committee, which advises PCC’s College Council regarding campus-wide sustainability issues. Among the questions we addressed on the committee was this: to what extent do PCC’s day-to-day operations and curriculum assume a fossil-fueled future? To the extent that they do assume a fossil-fueled future, PCC is the enemy, and not the friend, of its students and their futures. At least that was my claim. I’m glad to say that my colleagues and I on the committee developed quite strong recommendations regarding sustainability in three aspects: Regulatory, Civic Engagement and Curriculum that, in January 2022, the College Council adopted by a unanimous vote. Now, writing sustainability recommendations is one thing and implementing them is another. PCC is making some progress toward implementation, but there is much work left to do, and that effort needs to speed up. And I’m hoping that, in PCC’s current process to hire a new permanent Superintendent/President, the hiring committee will require any incoming Superintendent/President, as a condition of employment, to commit to the full and rapid implementation of the College-Council approved sustainability goals.
Q. What are you reading now?
A. I’m rereading Sandy Florian’s novella Boxing the Compass, a work sounding the depths of the personal and planetary mourning global warming has brought and will bring. I’m about to read climate scientist Michael Mann’s The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet. And I’m continuing to read Jeannette L. Clariond’s poetry collection Image of Absence.
Q. One more question — what’s your advice to poets, aspiring or otherwise?
A. Gather the most challenging poems you love the most, read them, reread them, think about them, reread them, think about them, and become as close to them as you can over the course of many years. Listen to your muse.