The life story

Poem by Mat Osmond, picture by Kate Walters: from their illustrated poetry collaboration The Black Madonna’s Song (Atlantic Press 2021).

An interview with the online student journal Falwriting. We spoke about what it means to address biospheric collapse within a neoliberal university system, what art and poetry bring to that predicament, and what collaboration might have to do with ecological recovery.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what made you choose the path you are on? 

 I studied Fine Art as an undergraduate and for a number of years thereafter I focussed solely on drawing and painting. Later I turned towards Authorial Illustration –  which means word and picture poems, in my case – as a better name for what I’d been doing along all along.  

What made you passionate about environmentalism, and in what ways does your work tackle the lack of sustainability in our culture?  

 When I joined Falmouth University in 2010 my role included working on the MA Art & Environment, a pioneering educational experiment which ran at Falmouth until 2015. Having been aware of the ecological crisis since my undergraduate days, that five-year period was pivotal for me. It involved an intense process of discovery with and alongside MA students – many of whom arrived with far deeper understandings of the radical unsustainability of our dominant culture than I had. I’ve written about those years recently here

Do you also address issues like climate change in your teaching? 

What does it mean to address an ongoing mass extinction (in which runaway global heating is merely one lethal thread) in our learning and teaching? That’s become the central question underlying pretty much everything I do, I think. Most of us find ourselves embedded in unfathomable levels of systemic denial. This is certainly overwhelmingly true of our current Higher Education system, with its hard-wired neoliberal narrative that UK Universities are offering their ‘customers’ educational products adequate to the needs of the moment, as we face the accelerating collapse of Earth’s life systems. There are some great courses here at Falmouth offering creative responses to these large-scale changes and what their students are innovating shouldn’t be minimised, but to frame any of these institutions as offering a proportionate and workable remedy to mass-extinction, as our governments knowingly throw the young and all of us into the fire, surely amounts to a kind of gaslighting? ‘Politics denial’ is a good term for this kind of ingrained systemic dishonesty – much more insidious and widespread than climate denial now: the misguided and misguiding fantasy that market forces and eco-savvy business acumen will somehow produce a proportionate last-minute intervention.  

I made a decision in 2015 that I’d never again give a lecture that spoke as if this crisis didn’t exist. But what does ‘addressing it’ actually mean in a School of Writing or Art? Are we all making work – or giving lectures – just to shout the bad news at each other over and over until all of us are equally paralysed by grief and dread? What reservoirs of courage, repair or even humour do art, poetry and storytelling bring to this crisis? I‘ve met a good number of ex-students now who’s response has been to drop out of HE education altogether to focus on civil resistance. I’ve great respect for all they’re doing – networks like XR, Just Stop Oil, Animal Rebellion and their allies are a crucial part of this situation now. But in terms of giving up on education, we’re in an emergency with no end-point in sight, one that will increasingly define and alter all of our lives one way or another – and in navigating these too-big-to-see changes we surely need art and poetry now more than ever? Not simply to jolt each other awake, though a poem may do that very well, but to reimagine who and what we are, and where the inevitable unravelling of this deadly form culture leaves us. What such unravelling might make possible, even, that didn’t seem possible before. Anyway, that’s why I’m still here going on about art and poetry alongside actively supporting these civil resistance campaigns. I’ve recently begun a practice-based creative writing PhD that attempts to open up this question, as here

How do you see the relationship between writing and illustration?  

 I think that relationship’s never reducible to one version of events, but my own experience of combining words and pictures is that the presence of words tends to inflect our reading of pictures rather more than the other way around. The core of illustration for me is a process of interpretation – not in terms of decoding or analysis but in the sense that a symphony or a film or a novel may interpret another work by creating something new in conversation with it. In this sense, all of our historical art galleries are perhaps predominantly halls of illustration? To my ear this word names a process much older than the more recent and unstable cultural construct, Fine Art.  

Would you like to see more collaboration between writing and illustration students throughout the university? If so, how would you see that coming about?  

 Very much so. I think collaboration’s often what produces people’s best work. Both of my most recent books have been picture-poem collaborations. Sometimes I encounter writers who assume that illustration’s always a matter of the artist responding to a given written text – to writing that’s enhanced rather than fundamentally steered by their visual embellishment of it. That’s fine of course, plenty of wonderful illustration does exactly this – but I’ve been lucky enough to work with many MA students whose work has gone well beyond these traditional settings, with image-and-word collaborations emerging as an entwined call-and-response flow of thought. It still amazes me how rich and unpredictable this collaborative process can be. 

This might feel like we’ve walked away from the climate and ecological crisis to consider questions that are only about art and writing, but I think that’s anything but true. Whatever else we can say about biospheric collapse, perhaps we might agree that none of us have the answer to this predicament – or at least, none of our answers are in themselves ‘up to the job’. We not only can’t solve this crisis on our own, we’ll never even see the whole of it on our own. So whatever valuable responses we come up with here will be a chorus of voices learning from each other, or nothing. Collaboration’s a good name for how the life story works in us and through us, as Ursula Le Guin might put it. It’s how life systems work. 

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