September 16, 2021
Count is a powerful book-length poem that reckons with the heartbreaking reality of climate change. Forty-three sections of myth-gathering, flora and fauna, accounts of climate devastation, personal narratives, witnessing, references to works of eco-art, and evocations of children unfold over the course of the book, creating a deeply nuanced image of the current climate crisis. Below, read five questions with poet Valerie Martínez about her new work, Count.
What inspired you to write this collection?
Climate change is one of the issues I follow closely, so an abiding concern and sense of responsibility for the planet–and our own survival– is very important to me. Also, in 2011 or so, I started to be bothered by a daydream/vision that kept coming to me. A young girl (who appears in the poem) standing on a beach, facing the ocean. I saw her from behind, always. The sky was overcast, gray, foreboding. I didn’t know where she came from but she kept visiting me, insistent. Finally, I had a Visiting Professor position at the University of Miami during the 2012-2013 academic year. Traveling back and forth from Florida, water everywhere, to the New Mexico high desert, where I live, sparked and sustained the poem.
In Rigoberto Gonzaléz’s forward to the collection, he writes “She scaffolds story with the language of the scientific community, the knowledge of the land’s Indigenous peoples, and the insights of a socially conscious speaker.” Could you tell us more about your research process for Count, and your process for artfully weaving these different perspectives together?
Since 2005 or so, I have been working in the long poem form. My previous book, Each and Her, is also a book-length work. It, too, weaves in facts as well as lyric fragments, pieces of narrative, and more. That book is about the women of Juárez, among other things, and demanded a level of witnessing that is also present in Count. Because Count attempts to grapple with the now extremely obvious effects of human-made climate change, and the impending disasters we will face if we don’t change our ways, I wanted to weave together many threads–facts about the remarkable characteristics of flora and fauna, stories about “the deluge” from peoples and communities around the world, details about how creatures and plants are trying to adapt to climate change, snippets about the children in my life, stories of water, and more. My “research process” is more about weaving together what I imagine, what I know, what I read in books, magazines, and newspapers, what I see in art, what I watch on TV, and more. My writing desk and files are full of information I’ve gathered over many, many years. Overall, I think I’m interested in how much a poem can “hold.” How much can it “manage”?
One of the lines in Count that deeply resonates with me is, “reality numbed by the force of exhilarating velocity.”, which is in reference to Sigalit Landau’s piece titled Barbed Hula. Could you tell us about the impact that various artworks had on your creation of Count?
As I wrote the book, I became more laser-focused on works of art that address climate change and others that struck me as related. When I’m deep in a book of poetry, everything seems connected to it. While in Paris, long before I started writing Count, I saw Landau’s video at the Centre Pompidou. It came back to me as I was writing. I saw “A Needle Woman,” by Kim Sooja, at the Miami Museum of Art. I had known of Basia Irland’s ice books for a long time. As the poem unfolded, these and others began to weave themselves in. I have a particular interest in contemporary work by artists who are grappling with climate change in the ways that a poem does–less didactically, less directly, and more by association. What I love about good poetry is what I call the “language of indirection.” I believe that we are changed, deeply, when this kind of language alters our consciousness.
In Count, you write “How old are they? How much does it weigh to be 25 years in the world at this fateful witnessing?” Do you have any thoughts on how young people should navigate a world that is being drastically and rapidly shaped by climate change, and how they might be able to advocate for and enact change?
Oh, I think it’s the obligation of my generation, 50’s and older, to bear the brunt of making change. Many younger people are incredibly active and their activism is crucial, but they deserve to know and feel that their elders are doing everything to mitigate what we have wrought on the planet. They are seeing, like we, the more devastating hurricanes and flooding and wildfires and they will feel it more than anyone. They will HAVE to act. But their elders need to dig in and use our expertise and long-lived experience and resources to make things better for them.
What are you working on now?
Actually, nothing much. I have a day job, like most poets (leading a truth, healing, and reconciliation project in the City of Santa Fe, New Mexico) and it occupies much of my time. But I continue to work and travel and read and live and these well themselves in me and eventually lead to new work.
Valerie Martínez is the author of six books of poetry. Her work has been awarded the Larry Levis Prize, a Greenwall Grant from Academy of American Poets, an Arizona Book Award, and received nominations for the Pulitzer Prize, William Carlos William Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, PEN Open Book Award, and Ron Ridenhour Prize, as well as honorable mention in the 2011 International Latino Book Awards. She was the poet laureate of Santa Fe, New Mexico, from 2008 to 2010.