Reflections on Earthsong: Science-inspired poetry at COP26 

Photo of the panel at the COP26 event.

Dr Robin Lamboll is a Research Associate in Climate Science and Policy at Imperial’s Centre for Environmental Policy and a member of the Grantham Institute Mitigation Team. Robin’s research focuses on what humans emit into our atmosphere and what we can do about it. In this blog, Robin discusses poetry, climate change and what it takes to put together a multilingual science-poetry event at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP26).

COP26 brought scientists, politicians, leaders and activists from around the world together to take action against climate change. It’s important to present a wide variety of voices at these events, highlighting both the human lives and the science involved. Therefore, the Grantham Institute and Poets for the Planet put together a multilingual science-poetry tour-de-force, with live performances and videos played at COP26.

Poets for the Planet, a poetry/activist movement that I’ve been involved with for some time, was discussing ideas for an international-level event at the UN conference on climate change (COP26) in Glasgow. Their suggestions reminded me of two poetry events that had a huge impact on my life: firstly, the World Cup of Poetry, a competition where poets from around the world congregate in Paris to perform, each in their own language, for the approval of judges; secondly, the science-poetry collaboration Experimental Words, where poets had conversed with scientists and written poems together. Could we have an event somewhere between these events, with an international and interdisciplinary spirit applied to climate change? We could collaborate with the ever-enthusiastic members of the Grantham Institute to help supply the scientists.

Poets for the Planet were very excited by the suggestion and made an action team to put the event together, featuring a wide variety of poetic styles: Ian McLachlan, primarily a page poet; Debra Watson, a performer specialising in one-on-one performances; Susie Campbell, an experimental poet and poetic researcher; and myself, with a background in slam poetry. This ensured a wide variety of styles in the resulting showcase.

Gathering voices from across the globe

We had to make difficult choices about the range of poets we should invite to take part. Should we think by country or by language group? Should we target countries with higher greenhouse gas emissions, which therefore hold more responsibility for climate change, or those who are impacted more by climate change? We finally decided on a compromise list of languages, including all six UN official languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish), plus Scots and Italian, as the conference took place in Scotland, in partnership with Italy. We also wanted representation of the three largest polluting nations (China, the United States and India), as well as voices from the United Kingdom that could easier make it to live performances. Between the organisers, we found talented, nature-concerned poets who wrote in most of these languages as well as a few extra spectacular poets.

Next, we set up workshops where the poets could meet with climate change researchers. We invited a few more poets to take part than we could fit in the final performance, not knowing exactly how long the poems were going to be. We also tried to find researchers who could communicate in our chosen languages, though in the end most of the conversations were in English. Our expert poets described the one-hour exchanges as “inspiring”, “really valuable”, and wished they were longer.

Pulling everything  together 

When we received the final set of poems, many of them were not about the scientist’s research at all, but reflections on the exchange, or the emotions it brought up. For instance, the opening work we chose was Jacqueline Saphra’s portrait of a scientist weighed down by her calculations – humanising the daily struggle of handling dire projections. The work of Brazilian writer Pieta Poeta featured climate science, but also went beyond it. In his poem, reworking a classic work of Brazilian literature, Vidas Secas (Dry Lives), he discusses both the impacts of climate change on a deprived region and how the people who live there are left out of processes like COP26:

“Brazil is discussed at many gatherings as if it were a land without people.// An important forest over here,// A rich southeast there… and that’s it”.

We asked for original text, English translations and videos from all performers. Due to COVID-19 we weren’t sure whether there would be a live event or if it would have to take place online. As it turned out, there unfortunately were several people who had to drop out due to COVID-19 or travel problems. Fortunately, we could replace all but one of the performers at COP26 with their video.

When we received the videos, we knew they were good even before we saw the translations. I was particularly spellbound by Venezuelan-American poet Santiago Acosta’s video, and began sharing it others before I knew what it was saying. I was happily surprised by the emotional spectrum on display: climate change is quite a grim topic, so I was glad to see some more inspirational stories of climate activism (literally in the case of Hindi poet Annsh Chawla and metaphorically for Italian poet Luca Bernardini) as well as a surreal comedic song by Russian poet Anton Trubaïchuk.

Preparing for the show

Subtitling poems in languages you don’t speak is a painful process, made harder by the decision to include the text in both English and the original language, which most subtitling programs cannot cope with. We watched the videos over and over, line-by-line, comparing the spoken words, original text and various translations. We had poetic translations (usually provided by the poets) but had to compare these to Google and deep machine translations to sync up the literal meaning of sublines and the sounds of the poems. As we did, we gained new appreciations for the poems’ subtleties. I also just love seeing how different ideas are expressed in different languages, and hope that the audience also caught glimpses of this in the multilingual subtitles. I wonder how often the audience will notice the cracks in the translations, places where the ineffability of reality projects differently in different tongues. I wonder how many such cracks and references I still don’t see, even after so many viewings.

Picture of the COP26 event taken behind the audience.

The big event

Finally, the event was put together. We had the first show at the Great Exhibition Road Festival, where a London (and online) audience saw the performance and gave feedback, which was largely positive, except that people wanted to know more about the poets they were watching. We’d squeeze in a 5-second introduction for each poet at COP26, though mostly we restricted ourselves to referencing them in the pre-show advertising.

COP26 itself was a scene of chaos – being on the first public day of the event, there were train problems, ticket issues and widespread COVID-19 problems, meaning many audience members were delayed and two poets didn’t make it. Fortunately, the poets who did make it were there on time, and the event itself was mostly unaffected. The audience response was overwhelmingly positive. We had good attendance both at the live event (socially distanced) and online, and were invited to screen poems at later side-events. We had an audience request for the poems to be published, which Atmos magazine had already offered to do for some poems, and most of them are also available on the Poets for the Planet website.

Left wanting more

Did it directly contribute to the outcomes of COP26, which managed to deliver more effective promises than any COP to date and yet still fell woefully short of what is required? No. As ever, poetry is more about reflection and symbolism than changing the world. Its work is slow and indirect; it provides lenses, not matches. But we’ve definitely inspired more people to write poems about climate change. And I think the people who left the show saw the world a little differently than when they came in.

Leave a Reply