On April 20, the day the Deep-water Horizon oil-drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, poet Heidi Lynn Staples was busy planning an ecopoetics panel for the 2011 Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference. But when she learned the extent of the disaster, the Florida native, whose poems often reflect her deep connection to the natural environment of her childhood home, quickly switched gears and started planning an event that would respond to the disaster. "I just got hit with it, consumed by it," she says, "and I wanted to turn that into something positive, because the grief was just completely overwhelming."
Initially she hoped to bring together poets with Gulf Coast roots for a reading at the AWP conference. In her search for participants, Staples contacted New York City–based writer and Georgia native Amy King. King felt passionate about contributing in some way, and, as the two brainstormed, a project more expansive than a reading began to take shape. "We wanted to respond in a way that wasn't situating us—as poets—as impotent witnesses in front of the TV or the radio," King says. "And poems really can do a lot of different things: They can lament, ask for help, talk politics, cry out, and bear witness from perspectives you don't normally get from the mainstream media."
The result is Poets for Living Waters (poetsforlivingwaters.com), an online poetry forum featuring works written in response to the disaster—as well as poems more broadly "in support of living waters"—solicited via an open call for submissions sent out in May. Shortly after the launch of the Web site, which also links to informational and activist resources, Staples and King started receiving several hundred poems a week and the site itself was attracting more than 1,500 daily visitors. "The response was really intense," says Staples, who had anticipated publishing only about a hundred poems, but instead opted to give more poems space in an inclusive "open mike" section of the site. "We couldn't imagine shutting anyone down." (Poets may submit work via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
"People talk about poets as a tribe," Staples says, "and I think [creating the site] was as if we were calling out, saying, ‘This is happening! What can we do? Let's gather!'—as if the screen were the fire we're now all gathered around." Contributors to the site include poets Sharon Mesmer, Alicia Ostriker, Kristin Prevallet, Evie Shockley, Ron Silliman, and Franz Wright.
King and Staples modeled their group after Poets Against War, a popular Web site established in January 2003 that solicits and anthologizes poems protesting war, though Staples and King wanted Poets for Living Waters to be "for" something, rather than "against." Yet "people are sending in a lot of work reflecting anger and grief about what's happened," Staples says. Even so, the two poets believe such emotion is simply part of the process of mobilizing the community. "It's something we need to do," King says. "This is why we have ceremonies, this is why we have funerals. If you don't have that moment when you're articulating horror and grief and anger, how can you begin to respond?"
On June 8, in observation of the second annual United Nations World Oceans Day, Poets for Living Waters gave contributors an opportunity to have their voices be heard rather than simply read on the screen: King and Staples organized their first "action"—a string of readings in locations across the country, including New Orleans, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Tallahassee, Florida. Since those readings, the group has begun to connect with other interested groups to establish more off-line responses to the crisis. (Later this year, for instance, indie publisher Grey Book Press plans to release an anthology based on poems read at the June 8 event in Tallahassee, where the press is located. The book will be sold at readings and activist events to raise funds for Save Our Shores! Florida, a grassroots organization devoted to marine conservation. A print anthology of contributions to the Poets for Living Waters site is also in the works.)
In coastal communities directly affected by the oil spill, Poets for Living Waters is working with poets Michael Hoerman and Stephen Gros to organize the Gulf Coast Poetry Tour, which will include readings in various cities, from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to Mobile, Alabama. The first event will be held in Houston, Texas, on September 14, to coincide with the second anniversary of Hurricane Ike. And in New Orleans the group is collaborating with poet Martha Serpas, who teaches creative writing at the University of Houston and also works as a trauma chaplain, to provide poetry-therapy workshops to individuals affected by the catastrophe.
In New York City, Poets for Living Waters contributors and New Orleans natives Tonya Foster and Nicole Cooley are planning a series of events, tentatively titled The Gulf Coast: In the Aftermath, to be held later this year at the City University of New York Graduate Center in Manhattan. And next February, during the AWP conference in Washington, D.C., Staples plans to host the tribute reading she'd originally envisioned at an off-site venue.
"Self expression, listening, and distributing ideas are all indeed actions," Staples wrote on the Poets for Living Waters site in response to one reader's uncertainty about how poetry could actively respond to tragedy. "One typically may not think of them as such because they are quite miniature in scale. A poem is more like plankton than like a vigilante. Whoever thinks of plankton as particularly active? But did you know that within plankton are the seeds of the clouds? Poets are cultivating new climates for change."
Shell Fischer is a freelance writer based in Winchester, Virginia. The initial chapter of her first novel, "The Joy of Mom," received the 2009 Bronx Center for the Arts Chapter One Award.