“The small moments that matter”: Q&A with Anthony Moll

Anthony Moll is a longtime member of the Little Patuxent Review community. I caught up with Anthony this week about their new manuscript, eco-poetry, and poetry in the midst of a pandemic.

Q: At the LPR reading in September you shared some pieces from your manuscript You Cannot Save Here, about the end of the world. You mentioned that climate change was a big part of that–can you describe how climate change informs your project?

A The manuscript is a collection of poems that, in one way or another, reflect on how we continue living during catastrophe. The poems examine how so much of what is happening right now, both in the US and globally, feels like the end of the world: endless war, the slip toward fascism & the surveillance state, the reign of the 45th president of the US, climate disaster, and all of the smaller disasters related to these catalysts. 

Climate change is the apocalyptic concern that seems to overshadow all of it, though. Even once the current president leaves office, even when the current pandemic has flattened, even if the US finds a few years of peace between wars, we’ve already slipped past more than one point of no return on climate change. The actions we take now are no longer a response to “Can we prevent disaster?” but to how can we mitigate the disaster that’s coming, and not make the situation worse for our immediate future and for those who we hope can someday reverse some of the damage? 

All of these poems are about endings, big and small, so many of them relate in some way to climate disaster. Climate change isn’t the abrupt apocalypse we often see in movies, though. Like so many of these endings, it’s drawn out, and we have to find a way to continue living and dating and paying rent and walking our dog and having successes and failures as the clock ticks in the background. Those are the moments I’m trying to discuss here.

Anthony Moll at LPR’s community reading in September 2019

What drew you to the theme of the end of the world, particularly climate change, for this project?

For me, like so many, climate change seems unignorable. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to say that it influences all art that is created in this moment, just as previous catastrophic threats infected earlier art (e.g., The Cold War, industrialization, colonialism).

And writing about the environment is nothing new—there have been several major poetic movements dedicated to it—but the threat of climate disaster has redefined how we talk and think about the world. It has redefined our relationship with the world. Ecopoetics and climate poetry (particularly apocalyptic climate poetry) are a response to that shifting relationship.

As Marlena Chertock suggests in her essay, existential threat creeps into our art. For me, this feeling really took hold right around the time I signed the contract on my first book, Out of Step: A Memoir. The current regime had just taken office, and the news hummed with constant images of brutality by police, immigration officials and military members, global saber-rattling, and the specter of climate disaster creeping forward (with a federal government now openly hostile to a meaningful response). I found myself telling people, only half joking, “The book comes out in summer of 2018, assuming books are still being made by then.”

So I first started writing just about that feeling, the feeling of trying to be happy about this moment in my life when things were going so poorly for so many in so many different ways. I am trying to work through the question how do we find and celebrate small joys in times like these? 

You mentioned Marlena Chertock’s craft essay on climate-inspired poetry and fiction, in which she says that literature can help humanize the numbers behind climate change. For you, why is it important for poets to address this issue when there are so many to choose from right now?

Climate change’s ubiquity means that we can’t not address it. It is unignorable. As Marlena says, it is “very present and dire.” One can see that as duty (I must address it) or as curse (“The images, sounds, and existential threat of climate change creep into my lines”), but either way, climate change is here in the room with us. 

Of course, like most writers, I don’t want my work to be didactic. I’m not trying to change people’s minds, though I do think that the humanization Marlena describes is a unique strength of an artistic response. There are people for whom the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community has not [been convincing]. We can only hope that seeing and hearing stories of the shore, and the sky, and future generations will do something that science and fact cannot. 

That’s one of the reasons I enjoy her work so much. I was so honored to be guest editor for the issue of LPR in which the poem Marlena mentions (“Ode to the Eastern Shore”) appears. Since I first read it, it’s seemed in conversation with some of the apocalyptic photo essays coming from places like Crisfield, Maryland or Tangiers Island. Maryland’s Eastern Shore is historically pretty conservative, and remains largely resistant to the truth of climate disaster. Yet the communities there are tied to the water, and the shore’s encroachment is indifferent to disbelief.

My own poetry in this moment is less set to the task of convincing anyone, and more an attempt to record and respond to all the various disasters that seem to happen all at once lately. They reflect my own anxiety about climate change, but also about war, nuclear disaster, police violence, colonialism, pandemics, whiteness, and capitalism. For me, those disasters all seem to be linked in both cause and effect. 

How do we enjoy hookups, chosen family, summer peaches, winter soups, pop music, and even poetry itself, when forest fires and hurricanes are getting worse, or when the news tells you of the latest human rights violation being committed by the nation you live in?

You’ve started to touch on this already, but did you have a specific goal in mind (e.g., inspire people to take action, work through eco-anxiety) when you started You Cannot Save Here?

More than anything, I’m just trying to write through the moment—not to ward off the endings, but to document these endings as they are happening. 

I cite a lot of apocalyptic literature in these poems—stories and poetry, video games and films—and so many of the endings depicted there arrive suddenly and spread rapidly. That’s not the case for us. We have witnessed the slow rise of fascism and the creep of climate change; we even saw the current pandemic spread across the globe in real time. I don’t want to write nihilistic poems, though. I sort of want to write epicurean poems. How do we do that in a disaster, though? How do we enjoy hookups, chosen family, summer peaches, winter soups, pop music, and even poetry itself, when forest fires and hurricanes are getting worse, or when the news tells you of the latest human rights violation being committed by the nation you live in? Or when some workers are asked to stay indoors and some are asked to put their lives at stake for our comfort? 

I think this is a central question of the 21st century, and because there is not a clear answer, because that answer is complex (and maybe paradoxical or maybe hypocritical), poetry seems like the right tool for addressing it.

One of the poems you read, also titled “You Cannot Save Here,” begins with the line “The seven-hundredth day of the end I don’t do anything,” which struck me as particularly relevant to our day-to-day right now. How has the pandemic changed how you think about this project? 

I have started writing these responses in my seventh week of social distancing, but also on a week that saw the 25th anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing, the 10-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill,  and the fifth anniversary of the Baltimore Uprising that resulted from the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. 

Which is to say, this is both an extraordinary situation, and we have been living in extraordinary times. This moment feels global and monumental, but like these other events, it is also comprised of countless other tiny apocalypses. The apocalypses of a loved one lost to the virus or homegrown terror, of police violence, of people, environments, and economies destroyed by greed. In each case, The End isn’t sudden, it goes on. It takes its time. We’re stuck trying to figure out how we should act—what behavior is sustainable? Helpful? Appropriate? 

My response to those questions keeps shifting throughout the course of this project, and right now the questions have led to me writing social distancing poems. I’m writing about being cloistered with my primary partner, about us being separated from the other people we are dating, about friendship, longing, fear, and human touch. These poems end up following a similar theme as earlier poems in the series—not about the disaster, but about the small moments that matter, and how they matter when you find yourself surrounded by disaster.

More than anything, I’m just trying to write through the moment—not to ward off the endings, but to document these endings as they are happening. 

Who are some of your favorite writers who are addressing climate change right now?

Apocalyptic poetry is the heart of my research right now, and ecopoetry is central to that movement, so I could write about this for hours! I love Marlena’s poetry, and I love that she’s speaking and writing very directly about cli-fi, climate poetry, and their role in the world. For full-length books, Ed Roberson and Brian Teare both have gorgeous collections about climate change and apocalypse that everyone should have on their bookshelves.

I also love work from poets who may not be associated with climate writing who nonetheless have stunning poems about this disaster: 

One of my favorite lines about climate change can be found in this last one:

….The situation so harshly primary and not beautiful
when you don’t go to visit the seaside, but the seaside visits you,
rudely, breaks in through the basement, ascends stairs
to your bedroom, you can’t think of it generally then. 

I know some of the poems in the collection have already been published (congratulations!). Where can folks find them?

Thanks so much for sharing these! Though the manuscript is still currently on the market, many of the individual poems within it have already been published. Here are a few of the recent ones: 

“You Cannot Save Here,” Hobart
“You Cannot Save Here,” Voicemail Poems
“You Cannot Save Here,” Cartridge Lit

Anthony Moll is a queer poet, essayist and educator. Their work has appeared in Hobart, Little Patuxent Review, Assaracus, jubilat and more. Anthony holds an MFA in creative writing & publishing arts and is completing a PhD in English. Their debut memoir, Out of Step, won a 2018 Lambda Literary Award and the 2017 Non/Fiction Prize. It is now available from The Ohio State University Press.

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