a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
The Baylands Poetry Project, in collaboration with the poet and musician Pat Reed, involves an immersive, collaborative, site-writing, sketching, poetry and practice-based research process that takes place within proximity of the San Francisco Bay and considers environmental issues and access. The process has led me to create a series of poems from which “Tend the Water with Them” is one. This project lends itself to a layered modulation wherein the environment serves as primary accompaniment. I see the work within the context of living art, ecopoetics, and disability poetics.
The Bay Area encompasses the major cities, metropolitan, and nature space areas in San Jose, San Francisco, and Oakland, along with smaller cities, unincorporated towns and many other urban and rural areas and parks in nine counties. Depth profile and size of the actual Bay are always fluctuating and depend on ever-changing conditions due to tides, currents, storms, earthquakes, development and the interpretation of what should be included in any measurement. But it covers approximately 400 to 1,600 square miles. The main part measures three to twelve miles wide east-to-west and roughly 48 miles to 60 miles north-to-south.
Throughout our journeys, we are continually pausing to question: what does the “Bay Area” mean? What defines an area? What about a zip code or neighborhood; a politically geographic gerrymander, developed or gentrified space; legislated demarcation, urban planning, accessible or inaccessible space; racist real-estate redlining meant to insure systemic economic disparity? What are such articulated and shadowed boundaries? Who lived there first? Who lives there now? Who feels entitled to these spaces and creates abusive policies accordingly? Who gets to define what are human spaces? What and where are considered nonhuman and/or inhumane spaces?
At every step, we are on American Indian land, and it is distressing how few trail heads or sites acknowledge this reality. Out of nearly 70 locations in 4 years, I think we have only seen three that do. I want to acknowledge here that when Pat and I journey around the Bay, we are privileged travelers: we are on land of the Ohlone people, including the Chochenyo and the Karkin in the East Bay; the Ramaytush in San Francisco; the Yokuts in the South Bay and in the Central Valley; as well as the Muwekma tribe throughout the region. Additional tribes include the Graton Rancheria community (Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo), Kashaya, Patwin, and Mishewal Wappo in the North Bay; and the Miwok throughout the East Bay.
The project started organically, with the beginnings of a friendship between Pat and me and our outings to visit the actual bay waters and to sit and write. We met during a time when we were each experiencing profound grief from the sudden loss of multiple loved ones. We began to traverse the bay’s area in a spontaneous process of interconnectedness with each other and our surroundings. The writing emerged from a place of sorrow, while embracing everything and anything having to do with water and poetry. We soon understood that what may have started as connecting with a sense of solace from these waters transformed to become the vastly more important project: for us to care for the breaking and disappearing bay and not the other way around.
My poems were not consciously written as eco-poetry in the beginning. That experiment and process revealed itself over time. Our artistic collaboration has become a more conscious engagement with the environment, language, and what our presence means. I also began more to consciously shape my own developing eco-poetics across the intersections of disability, gender, race, sexuality, and culture.
Rather than sitting at a desk in a room, we may find ourselves at ghost towns, near salt ponds, or abandoned buildings; on a post-militarized island; amid outdoor community art standing against a backdrop of a stunning bay eco-sphere. When writing together in locations such as this, a different kind of work emerges. In direct interaction and engagement with the landscape and waterscape, to both incubate and generate the act of making something—literal and imagined—feels possible.
Still, how, when, and where I can participate depends on the day. I have a neurological disability called dystonia that involves a vocal disorder, chronic pain, and sometimes physical restriction and limitation. How I can move my body or rather how much I can, changes. In whatever way, we wander and we map and we frequently end up in unplanned and planned places. Sometimes we consult site-focused Web-cams, peer out from the windows of a cafe, or catch the view over vista points off of a road or pathway.
With response to my unpredictable body, our mode of transportation might be public transit, cars, trains, ferries and, if possible, biking and walking. But getting there and how I move while I’m there is also inseparable from my laryngeal dystonia. My difference in speech production and vocal sound is ever-present. My encounters off and on the grid involve negotiations with safety that sometimes involve micro and sometimes macro-adaptive strategies. Social imperatives of ableism are not indivisible from a nature experience. The presence of a nonnormative body trying to be present in an environmental body begets a somatic dissonance. The absence of a participatory commons in boundaried nature–all while being right there. What results, for me, contains both the intentional and the unexpected via embodiment, chance, choice, and accessibility. And then, we write.
Our site-writing became more focused as the project grew. It involved further research to understand the history and politics of the area and an extensive exploration of the San Francisco Bay in relation to margins and shorelines, ideas of loss and emergence, notions of accessibility and inaccessibility, development and restoration, and what it also means to be working as an anti-racist, decolonizing ally. And we are always acutely mindful of our working within matters of scale: the inextricable largeness of climate change with the minutiae of a single mudflat in a colossal crisis of global disaster.
I want to write towards a subversive decentering or questioning of the pristine outdoors, ownership, romanticized nature tropes, waterscape aesthetics, nature as escape, perceptions of embodied risk, and the oft seen triumphalist image of disabled bodies in nature. In working directly with the baylands, we navigate terrains of open space and enclosure, natured and littered: reeds, shells, kelp, sea creatures, trash, riprap, driftwood; broken bottles, plastic, sand, tar, shoes, tires, Styrofoam; rocks, shoals, and barbed-wire fences.
Tides and meteorological events in the biome are as much a part of the necessary reading as are books and maps. Writing and poetic experiments result from our sharing varied prompts. Those may center on physical space; fragments of a poem; elicit responses to visual or movement art; and often emerge from the close engagement to the found objects and land-art that we encounter in these varied locations.
We experience, in different ways and in varying proximity, distinctive bayland geographies that involve human and nonhuman interactions: peninsulas, beaches, sub-bays; streams, creeks, rivers, bay trails; cityscapes, working piers, non-working piers; ports, jetties, landfills, bay fills; islands, harbors, channels, deltas; recreational waterfronts and regional, state and national parks; cemeteries, museums; nature study centers, libraries, historic sites, heritage sites; ferries, bridges, bike lanes; abandoned and populated prisons; former World War II internment camps; old commercial and war ships, bunkers and barracks; dilapidated ship yards, construction sites, “remediated” but uninhabitable toxic sites, waste sites; cafes, pubs, bakeries, restaurants; industrial sites and factories, both functioning and nonfunctioning; those that are under development and construction; gentrified spaces too numerous to mention; and a working hydraulic scale model of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta System created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
One of the most prominent and widely celebrated efforts to build the shorelines and landscapes for public use is the creation of the San Francisco Bay Trail which is administered, in part, by the Association of Bay Area Governments, the Metropolitan Transit Commission, the State Coastal Conservancy and other organizations. While the organizers and planners of the Bay Trail show concern about non-appropriation and indigenous lands, and are committed to wetland restoration, they are, in fact, building new walking, bicycling and sometimes wheeling pathways on urban and nonurban spaces. Their goal is to create a 500-mile trail through 47 cities. So far, approximately 355 miles of paths have been completed around the Bay.
It is also important to acknowledge that development is development whoever is doing it: business owners, governments, or centrist, neo-liberal environmentalists trying to “save” an area from even worse destruction. When the land is constructed into parks and trails instead of high-end apartments and retail outlets, it is its own kind of appropriation. The housing crisis in the Bay Area is pushing land development in new, politically stealthy and rapid ways. Against the prospect of further retail and real-estate development, the intervention toward parks and recreation areas is a legal and political fight often lost. How to define public access within modes of artistic connection/disconnection in relation to diminishing habitat, urban interdependency, environmental destruction and restoration, gentrification, via intersectionality and questioning mobility? As we continue to consider these types of questions, we try to focus on neglected and infrequently traveled areas juxtaposed with popular, congested places where habitat, conservation, and accessibility may intertwine and collide.
The San Francisco Bay Trail Design Plan addresses access this way: “To provide universal access wherever feasible to the greatest range of trail users, regardless of physical limitations due to age or physical, audial or visual disability. Trail users with mobility limitations should be able to gauge the difficulty of trail sections to assure a continuous linear experience of connectivity with clear wayfinding signs.” This, of course, is frequently not the case. It might look good on paper. It may be the letter of the law but not the law on the ground as we consistently observe places and spaces that most certainly do not provide “universal” modes of reach and, at times, reinforce barriers.
The commodification of disabled bodies moving in space and time encounters the mechanization and privatization of land and sea bodies moving in relation to organic structure and artificial permutations. Within the Baylands Project, definitions of constructed nature and supposed “wild” nature formulate a definitional critique of constructed bodies and “pure” bodies. In my poetry and creative practice, I am trying to coalesce artistically that ideas of disability as an “otherness” also reinforces tired stereotyping of what is to be determined as being “natural/normal.” These concepts of normalizing accessibility, as but an altruistic bestowal, disrupts multiple ways of fully being—whether or not we are working in land and waterscapes or observing the trees from which our paper derives. The series of poems that I have written are centered in and around one of the largest estuaries in western North America, and are meant to evoke not just this giving place, but my multi-vocalic embodiment within its imperiled magnificence.
Your heart is as big as a fist.
Don’t destroy our art.
casket of wind in their blown stick hair.
The first thing she thinks:
“I am glad they have company.”
To sit in sans serif:
a dusty, skeletal crumble.
Twisted faces in acrid stare:
limbs a worn cord to lamp debris.
Pacifier, gas tank, plastic clown,
rubber spider, bike frame, toy cat,
asphalt, bottle cap.
She is built from ruin in our quiet:
weathered arms outstretched.
Her splintery voice seeps old bay brine:
a hollow glow of mouth.
In a canned blink of marsh:
her gnarled sanctum backlit.
Dancers paint the plywood stage red:
over dirt they move with feral care in midnight witness.
Denise Leto is a multidisciplinary poet, writer, editor, dance dramaturge and visiting artist. Recently, she collaborated on the performance Bluets #1-40 at the University of Santa Cruz. Her current collaboration is an ecopoetic exploration of the San Francisco Bay entitled “Baylands Poetry Project.” Fellowships and residencies include: the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, the Sicily Breadloaf Poetry Fellowship, and the Queer Sugarloaf Art Residency. She is also an awardee of the Orlando Poetry Price. Denise wrote the poetry book for Your Body is Not a Shark exploring feminist embodiment, dance, voice, and disability poetics. Poems are forthcoming in Rogue Agent and Quarterly West.