‘The Animal that Adapts to Burning Houses:’ An Interview with Poet Trace DePass

By Imara-rose Glymph

Trace Howard DePass, author of Self-portrait as the space between us (PANK Books, 2018), editor for Scholastic’s Best Teen Writing of 2017, and 2016 Queens Teen Poet Laureate, is a kaleidoscopic wonder to behold. 

I had the pleasure of being a live Zoom studio audience member for the 2020 Climate Speaks performance, a youth poetry event organized by DePass in which 16 young writers embraced nuance to passionately and clearly convey their emotional responses to climate change. Trace initiated this fellowship as the 2018-2020 program coordinator of Climate Speaks with The Climate Museum.

In this interview, we break down Trace‘s unique rhythm, his poetic upbringing in vibrant Queens in New York City, and discuss what eco-poetry truly means. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You enjoy experimenting with the percussive, incorporating beatbox and drumming into the rhythm of your poetry. As a wearer of many hats, how were you drawn to the worlds of environmental justice and climate poetry? 

I’m in an open relationship with poetry: poems are my muse, the thing that gets me through each day. I freestyle them in the shower, write them with pen on paper, though sometimes I let the ideas ruminate for years. There has always been an element of science and mathematics in my poems – those are big drivers for me. I enjoy thinking about how to concretize mathematics and science in different kinds of colloquial and abstract ways. To see how I incorporate beatboxing into prose, check out the video for my piece filmed by Smuggler, “Band-aids & other temporary healings,” which interrogates the supposed healing nature of verse.

I was first influenced by my great-grandfather, Howard DePass, who I’m named after. He wrote a book of poems titled Bridges (1977). It’s the only thing I have left of him; he died before I was born. Howard was a father of three children when he authored this book, so there is a beautiful matriarchal and patriarchal theme present. There is one particular piece that could be considered climate poetry, called “Why Willows Weep,” in traditional ABAB rhyme. The last two lines are my favorites of all time, because he places nature and law into the same note.

But like a forfeiting attorney 
The willow stands and weeps

Ultimately, the poem is about beauty and weeping; the contrast heightens the message. 

While editing for Scholastic’s Best Teen Writing of 2017, I read an essay titled “No Sacrifice People: Ableism, the Climate Crisis, and Dehumanization” by J. Astrian Horsburgh. She broke down the abled and disabled body’s relationship to the climate crisis – highlighting where sacrifice zones for disabled people are designated in the case of nuclear fallout or natural disaster. As a person with MS, J. Astrian would not be able to receive medicine herself during a natural disaster; it would physically harm her to do so. It blew my mind, propelling me to think of the translation to discriminatory design in Black and Brown neighborhoods in cities like New Orleans and Queens. I was inspired to take classes on institutional racism, micro-aggression, intentional branding, and the history of food deserts. I do not separate these issues from climate change. They affect me personally: my grandmother and father have COVID-19, living in planned areas ravaged by Hurricane Sandy and other tropical storms.

Being raised by my grandmother, I was suddenly confronted with the reality of her mortality. It was extremely hard to get food during quarantine as the grocery lines in our hood were long and densely packed. We ordered delivery for the whole month of April because I could not risk going outside for her health. The same places where the coronavirus hit the hardest are those environmental sacrifice zones intertwined with environmental racism.

Bridges (1977) by Howard DePass

How was your collaboration with the Climate Museum born? How has the shift from in-person to online affected your teaching?

I formed part of a group of three youth poets and three youth climate activists who were flown to Utah to perform a 15-minute poem in choreo-style to get environmental venture capitalists to feel passionate by appealing to the emotional side of the crisis. Our director, Karl, was not able to come with us so I took up the responsibility of caring for the participants. Climate Speaks came out of this work. The Climate Museum took notice of my leadership ability as a teaching artist and realized how much I could do with the right resources. They hired me as an artist-in-residence in December 2018. Miranda, the director, is a former civil rights lawyer who fought for affirmative action at the Supreme Court level. I respect her and the Climate Museum a lot for the fact that they are not just any regular institution; they really do care about the community. 

This is our second year of programming Climate Speaks and if not for the pandemic, the performance would have been held at the Schomburg Library. We adapted to be online. Theatre does not always have the same team-building effect when translated to Zoom because we don’t share physical space. I was able to transition some of the ensemble building but tech does not create the group dynamic that we experienced in person. Despite this challenge, all of the kids really supported one another in their vision.

We spoke about the destruction of Black and Brown neighborhoods, such as the community of Far Rockaway, during Hurricane Sandy by climate-induced flooding, and your personal connection to this event. Why is environmental justice, with the involvement and leadership of BIPOC, so important, especially when it comes to food deserts and inaccessible green open spaces?

I’m from the south side of Jamaica, Queens, where I grew up in an incredibly diverse pivotal voting block, surrounded by Black, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Guyanese, Indian, and Trinidadian people. Similar to the south side of Chicago, gun violence, drought, famine, concentrated housing projects, and the prevalence of food deserts have wrecked my community. When COVID-19 swept through, people were dying everywhere. The coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter riots affected us in a way not mutually exclusive from the climate crisis. 

Queens, despite being a cultural hub with the highest percentage of Black homeowners and the largest number of spoken languages, is heavily under-resourced and lacking in radical political organizing. Harlem and Brooklyn are far more consistent and well-known for that kind of activism. From the Black Panther era going forward, Queens’ organizers were displaced and political corruption ran rampant. Many poets have migrated away; I am one of the only people still organizing and bringing Council members together with artists. I became tied to a lot of spiritual, poetic, and artistic forms outside of institutional teaching because of the rich African dance theatre tradition in Queens. I feel very confident in my skills and my blackness because of where I grew up, but life is hard out here. When it rains, it floods. I try to focus my work on these parcels of experience. The climate crisis is here. It is urgent to use it to amplify the other social justice conversations – the climate is the one intersection where we all relate.

What is the difference between eco-poetry and climate poetry? 

There is a need for a specific kind of pedagogy around the climate conversation and poetry for further mobilizing. What we aim to do is separate climate poetry from eco-poetics so as to objectively address the roots of the climate crisis. We don’t want to focus so much on being an eco-movement. We don’t want to co-opt environmental poetry but we also can’t have a completely disembodied climate poetic not grounded in the Earth. How can we actually communicate climate in a poem rather than grapple with metaphysical themes? This negotiation is tricky for me as a Black and Indigenous person, having Shinnecock tribal affiliation by way of my great-grandmama.

How do we address the root causes of the climate crisis without being too anthropomorphic? I wrote a climate poem for the American Poetry Journal showcasing how I am struggling with anthropomorphism. It’s called “The animal that adapts to burning houses,” inspired by one of Martin Luther King’s only in-color interviews where he illuminated that he feared he was integrating his people into a burning house. It is written in honor of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Dr. King, and the south side. 

“The animal that adapts to burning houses” by Trace DePass

How did you use perspective, style, and structure to amplify the message of that poem? Does it relate to the Black ancestral tie to the land, the flora, and the fauna? Is this resonance something that influences your craft?

My poem is a sonnet that reckons with individualism, with “ram” as a metaphysical conceit. There are many definitions of ram: ram as a boat, as a physical act, an image of a goat or satan, or random access memory on your phone. All these definitions within one word carry throughout the entire poem. Ram can be anthropomorphized as toxic masculinity and as the memory of the human race. 

To give more context on the symbolism used, Habakkuk is a prophet from the Old Testament who questioned God – a social justice warrior for his day. There’s a whole chapter in which he questions God but receives no concrete answers, leaving only more questions. That ending was profound for me.

A hypercube is a four-dimensional cube. A tesseract, in other words. Tesseracts can only be perceived within the fifth dimension – they take up that much dimension. Human beings live within it. I see this creation as an interaction with God or whichever divine entities exist out in the universe.

While there are lyrical moments in this poem, I am deliberately saying that there is no metaphor. There is an actual calf. There is no human cheese. It sounds hyperbolic when in fact, I am simultaneously being hyper-literal and meta. I am giving my Black human context through the lens of an animal so that the audience can relate no matter their background. The challenge of climate poetry specifically is to figure out how to rely on clear communication, not solely poetic devices, within the poem to push the conversation forward.

There can be an unnerving nature of pleasantry in many interviews; I appreciate your raw honesty. Do you feel pressure or expectation to write on themes of identity, trauma, and oppression as a Black artist? 

Many black poets – I think of Phillip Williams and Jericho Brown – share a certain queer aesthetic and convey sensuality despite the triggering nature that our prose can take on. There is a consciousness in that. Even my work, rooted in affirmation, alludes to sexual violence, toxic masculinity, and the interrogation of more nuanced abusive relationships that don’t involve only men. 

However, there is so much discussion nowadays around what “the work” constitutes. While I’m happy for people of all races to be doing this supposed “work,” the phrase honestly aggravates me. Black people do not need to be held so hyper-accountable for this all the time. We are not given even five minutes to just exist as human beings without being framed for complicity and perpetuation of stereotypes. 

I have to code-switch. I try to speak in a way where everyone can receive me, which is why I curse less in front of the children. I teach poetic form in a way that can be pulled apart using any kind of intelligence, be it from the street, physical, or within a school. This is why my poems are really long, often presented in weird sonnets that use arrows, dashes, and spaces. I like to come up with more and more ways to reiterate and evolve material. When we focus on certain literary devices instead of truth in meaning, we lose out on a lot of teaching. 

What does the future hold for you? 

I plan on doing the same things I’ve been doing all year: investing in my communities, continuing my work on climate art with the Climate Museum, and collaborating with Urban Word NYC. Before the coronavirus switched up my whole schematic, I was going to be one of Scholastic’s first teaching artists. I am also a part of the Community Word Project, which pairs writers with multidisciplinary artists to educate kids in New York City. I’ve even taught virtually for New York University. That was especially wild because I was teaching at the college level without a degree! I never want to be an academic. Underground grassroots organizations contributed a lot more to my growth as an artist, thinker, and educator. 

Tell the BIPOC and queer kids you know to apply for the Scholastic and Climate Museum art and writing programs. The majority of people applying for these opportunities are young white girls; this demographic needs to change! The Climate Museum, although not incredibly diverse, is definitely dedicated to increasing representation across different sexual orientations, gender expressions, and identities.

This article is part of our Black Artists & Storytellers series.

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Imara-rose Glymph is a student at Bennington College pursuing an interdisciplinary degree looking at multi-cultural identity, language, biology/ecology, and performative arts. Most recently, she was a media fellow with Global Citizen Year, documenting Indigenous Women’s agricultural stewardship, and a representative of Intersectional Outreach with Extinction Rebellion. She has been involved in the climate conversation since leading youth delegations in the GIN 852 conference Hong Kong, organizing bio-tours of mangrove conservation areas, and guiding students as an Arctic Hall Docent with the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. 

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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