Insomnia and Activism


John Kinsella, whose poem “Graphology Survival 16: phasmid in the cold firebox ” appears in Volume 70, Number 1, discusses his new poetry collection, Insomnia.


Can you tell me the story of this book? When did you start working on it? What were some of your preoccupations as you were writing it?


It was made out of six years’ worth of poems that were all, in one way or another, concerned with ways of seeing, experiencing, and advocating for the natural world.


Is there a poem you feel is a good representative of the collection as a whole, or do you have a current favorite? Can you describe one of those poems?


The key to the collection is ‘The Bulldozer Poem’ written as an act of pacifist to the rapacity of a highway development through unique and sacred bushland. The poem has had various modes of presentation, from sites of literal protest to publication in various forms—but this is where it sits in conversation with a wide variety of other engagements, often in very different ways, with the question of environmental damage and the responsibility of the poet-activist.


I’m curious about some logistics: How did you come up with the title? How about the ordering of the book—its organization, or choosing the first poem or the last poem? What about the cover art?


I have suffered from insomnia for most of my life and have learnt to use my ‘wakefulness’ for activist purposes. But I am also interested in what is lost as much as what is gained through insomnia, so often the poems in this book consider contradiction and what kind of ‘language’ comes out of the tension between wakefulness and sleep (in its many versions).

Insomnia also works as a metaphor, even comment, about an anxiety around the failure to act with commitment to the environmental crisis that is enveloping us all, and to which many of us are ‘contributing’ in various ways. The pandemic is devastating and has caused untold distress, harm, and deaths, but we still hope it will pass and that most people will survive it. But the damage to the biosphere will keep going with no ‘cure’ possible unless many of us dramatically change how we live. A healthy biosphere is essential to the health of all life. In this, ‘insomnia’ is a kind of paradox.

The book slips between Western Australia, rural southwest Ireland, back to wheatbelt Western Australia, then to Rome, and finally into a spatial engagement with Emily Brontë’s poetry and also into the effect acts of translation/versions have on an environmentally active poetics. With Insomnia, I have tried to nuance my language and allow shifts in ways of seeing to occur in considering ‘place’, ecology, ecosystems, activism vs. ‘aesthetics’ (which I so often question and contest), and questions around where the ‘self’ sits in terms of issues of commitment.


What was the process of finding the right publisher like?


I am fortunate in having long-term committed publishers in Picador for the UK publication, and WW Norton for the American and Australian publication.


What has it been like to release a book during a pandemic? I’m sure that’s been challenging in a lot of ways. Have you found anything surprising about the way you’ve been able to connect with readers?


It is obviously difficult, but I strongly believe the book has to serve the well-being and intactness of people before (if ever) it does anything for me. Being so concerned with ecological, animal rights, and how we can (or can’t) articulate the problem of perceiving and acting, how we can act empathetically, as well as how we can question the ‘nature of art’, especially poetry, it’s also saturated with nature, and a ‘celebration’ of the natural world.


What are you excited about related to the book or your own work? Is there anything special you’re working on now or next?


I feel the book has something to say and attempts to say it in ways that might offer ‘alternative’ approaches to pressing issues. But it can also be an ‘angry’ book, without doubt, and that confronts me as much as anyone else. Yes, always working…on a series of longer poems at the moment.

John Kinsella’s new book of poetry is Insomnia (W. W. Norton, 2020). He is a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University, and emeritus professor of literature and environment at Curtin University, Western Australia.