Take Back the Streets

Kim Goldberg sent us a poem recently. We published it. I asked her about the dedication, and we had the following conversation about her friend Howard Breen, and about art and activism.

Bethany Gibson: Can you tell me a little about “Dark Command,” the impetus for it, as well as the dedication?

Kim Goldberg: I wrote “Dark Command” on April 2, one day after my friend Howard Breen began his hunger strike in defence of British Columbia’s ancient forests. Astoundingly, these irreplaceable forests are still being logged and shipped overseas under the current government. Another BC eco-activist, Brent Eichler, started his hunger strike one week earlier than Howard.

Both men are still fasting as of today (April 21). Their sole demand is that BC’s Minister of Forests, Katrine Conroy, meet with them via Zoom to discuss forest policies. But so far Conroy and BC Premier John Horgan have been intransigent and are ignoring the hunger strikers and the request for a meeting. 

After weeks with no solid food, Howard told me that he and Brent are experiencing dizziness, weakness, and weight loss. Howard is also experiencing kidney pain, heart arrhythmia and palpitations, memory loss, tinnitus, inflammation, and more, as his body breaks down. When they stop taking fluids, which will be the next step, planned for Earth Day (April 22), they won’t have much time left.

It is unbelievable to me that the BC government would let these two men die rather than simply take a meeting. This recent Georgia Straight article describes the situation.

The meeting Howard is seeking would be a public and recorded meeting, and other prominent environmental and forest experts would be invited to participate. Apparently the BC government is not eager to sit in that spotlight.

Howard has been a passionate eco-warrior for decades. Since 2018, he has been arrested nearly thirty times for nonviolent direct action in defence of the planet. He is a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion Vancouver Island, and the more recent offshoot group Save Old Growth. Howard and other activists in Save Old Growth have been super-gluing themselves to the Trans-Canada Highway in various BC cities since January. 

So, this poem is inspired by Howard, and also references climate grief. In March, 2022, BC media began reporting on an uptick in attempted suicides over climate anxiety, triggered in part by last year’s heat dome, floods, and wildfires in the province. The heat dome alone claimed six hundred lives in BC, mostly senior citizens. Young people in particular don’t see how they will outlive the climate disasters that are already upon us and that will continue and worsen for decades to come. 

Howard, who is sixty-eight, has discussed his own feelings of climate anxiety and climate grief with me. So I knew that was somehow tied up in all this—his hunger strike, the risk to his own life—and it needed to find space in my poem. 

Howard was the first Canadian to apply for MAID (medical assistance in dying) for reasons of climate and nature anxiety. He wrote about that on Facebook on April 20, 2022, in what some might consider a suicide note. 

BG: I’m so sorry that Howard feels this is necessary, and also I understand why he does. We owe a debt to environmental activists who are exhausting themselves to this degree, and putting aside all other aspects of what their lives might otherwise be. The question very emphatically swings hard to why our governments are not doing what is necessary to prevent planetary breakdown, and in some cases are actively promoting destruction. I think a lot about activists, and I think about art and its own power to move, to inform, to move things ahead in a necessary way. 

Art is a kind of activism (more or less implicit, sometimes quite explicit), insofar as it tells the truth, and exposes the gap between what is, and what could be. It opens up questions, is a portal to something we might not have seen before, or seen clearly, or really felt. And from there, we might be moved to think differently, or to act differently. That was part of the impetus for the Scales Project. I felt (and still do) as if I was living in an alternate universe, that I could see things that others (judging from what the media was focusing on, what seemed to be people’s preoccupations in social media, etc.) could not. I thought, if people could really see (and what better than art to make that happen), they would act, they would tell their governments, for instance, that our survival matters. I mean, I hope this might happen!

With “Dark Command” you are commenting on the state of the world in a way that might change a reader’s view or deepen their understanding — and you are also talking about activism. What is your view of the connection between art and activism? 

KG: Bertolt Brecht (a hero of mine) said: “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” I agree with the concept but try not to be quite so deliberate or programmatic in its execution. Poetry in particular usually suffers if you go into it knowing what you plan to say, what a poem’s “point” is, or even what you are going to write about. However, in “Dark Command” I felt an urgent need to write about my friend’s hunger strike, and about the people ready to commit suicide because of climate grief, and about the whole climate debacle unfolding in BC. So the challenge would be how to pull off something creative and unexpected when I had already entombed it in predetermination.

That’s probably why my mind reached for the pantoum form. A pantoum is an intriguing form of verse in which each line repeats once, according to a formula that is centuries old. But when the line appears the second time it will be surrounded by different lines, giving rise to more complex meaning. So each line leads a double life. And really, it was a way for me to surprise myself in writing this poem. Because if I am bored writing it because I know exactly where it’s going and what it’s about, then I certainly can’t expect anyone else to be enlivened reading it.

While pantoum lines are normally repeated verbatim in their second occurrence, it can be fun (or profound) to occasionally twist one for a slight shift in meaning. So when the opening line “He vowed no food would cross his lips” was due to make its second appearance at the end of the poem, I switched it to “we vow this breath shall cross our lips.” That also enabled me to shift the tone to a more empowered and life-affirming statement, a commitment to continue breathing.

I’m not sure that choice was true to the spirit of the poem, or to Howard. But it seemed to be essential to my own mental health and trauma-control. It has been traumatizing for me to witness and inhabit the body-breakdown that my friend Howard is experiencing and inducing. The last few years of my life have been a Wagnerian saga of repeatedly battling my way back from the brink of death from two different cancers and the removal of the Hepatitis C virus. So the last line of the poem affirming a will to live is my own testament and worldview to survive no matter what. And that is perhaps at odds with the truth of this poem, with Howard’s truth. But perhaps not. Perhaps that life-affirming twist of the last line attests to truth being vast enough to contain contradiction. The will to survive coexists with preparedness to die and the reality of climate collapse.

BG: In the context of both activism and art, I think about what Extinction Rebellion (for one) is doing, the basis of their disruptions, which are intended to be just that: disruptive (while also peaceful). Part of that model of civil disobedience is predicated on the notion that one person can, and will, turn into many. I wonder what your thoughts are about being just one person, the power one has, or doesn’t, individually? Or do we need many to make change?

KG: This is a very interesting question—the power of the many versus the power of one. As a solo actor in all things in life, I am a believer in the power of one. I believe change is made one person at a time, and we must live our truth every day, live by our conscience, manifest our integrity. And that our actions and choices will have results on the world around us, a ripple effect often far beyond what we will ever see or know. And to just trust that and live our lives.

There are certainly historic examples, and probably modern-day examples, of mass civil disobedience being successful. More commonly though, it does not seem to achieve its immediate or overt goal. Clearcut logging of ancient forest is still continuing in Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island, despite a year of blockades resulting in 1,300 arrests—making it the largest mass nonviolent civil disobedience in Canadian history, which I wrote about.

Mass actions are of course very effective at grabbing headlines, which in turn can raise public awareness and open public discourse or investigative journalism on topics previously hidden.

BG: You have a degree in biology, and have written about social justice and environmental issues. What was your path, from biology, to activism and to poetry? How do you see the connections?

KG: I pursued a biology degree in university for existential and philosophical reasons more than ecological ones at the time. I was obsessed with understanding the concept of “life,” obsessed with locating exactly where life ended and non-life began. A virus for example isn’t technically “alive” since it is simply a strand of genetic material (a single very big molecule) in a protein sheath. Whereas a bacterium is considered a life form. For some reason this distinction between life and non-life and locating the precise boundary between the two fascinated me. Twenty years later I was diagnosed with Hepatitis C. But the virus was already in my body back in university, unbeknownst to me.

I took my biology degree at University of Oregon, and then moved toVancouver Island upon graduating to join my mother and brother, who had come up earlier as war resisters during the Vietnam War. I began supporting myself as a freelance journalist for newspapers, and because of my biology background, I found myself particularly interested in environmental issues.

I built a career as an investigative freelance journalist covering primarily environmental and social justice topics. After twenty years of that and four nonfiction books, I signed up for a T’ai Chi course one day and didn’t (couldn’t!) write another word for ten years. When the words returned, they came as poems.

I got very involved in Taoist metaphysics and Taoist internal alchemy during my “T’ai Chi Coma” decade. My first book upon awaking was about that—Ride Backwards on Dragon: a poets journey through Liuhebafa. The book was a collection of poems. I have published three more poetry collections since then. Red Zone (about homelessness), Undetectable (about Hepatitis C and virus as metaphor), and most recently Devolution (poems and fables of ecopocalypse).

As for connections between biology, poetry, and activism—I would say all of existence is biology. But it is also poetry. And also activism.