An Interview with Poet Tamiko Beyer

By Amy Brady

This month I have for you an interview with Tamiko Beyer, a writer whose latest poetry collection, Last Days, is out now on Alice James Books. Tamiko writes passionately about the climate crisis and how it’s driven by systemic forces like capitalism and racism. She’s also a social justice communications writer and strategist.

I spoke with Tamiko about what inspired her most recent collection, how she thinks about climate change beyond her writing, and the role she sees poetry playing in our larger discourse on climate change.

The poems in your recent collection, Last Days, are rife with images of plants, animals, and humans living and moving together. Is it fair to say that you’re encouraging readers to think about interconnectedness between life forms? Or perhaps that the boundaries between humans and other living things might be more porous than many folks believe?
 
Yes, that’s exactly right. I wrote Last Days as a poetic practice of radical imagination for our current political and environmental crises. I believe that one of the root causes of these crises is how disconnected so many of us feel to each other and the world around us. This vast disconnection makes it possible to internalize and enforce white supremacist structures. And, the exploitation of people and the natural world required by capitalist systems is made far easier when CEOs, workers, and consumers (that is, all of us) can disconnect from the harm we are causing to other people, other beings, and the Earth by our participation in this system.
 
I wanted to explore what it might look, feel, and sound like to live into the truth that we are all completely interdependent. How do I understand the ways in which I am more connected to than separate from the warbler singing in the laurel tree next to the tidal river? In what ways are we both dependent on the tree and the river, and the algae and the bacteria? What does it mean to move through the world as if we are all connected not just in the present moment, but also across time and space – connected to our ancestors and the generations that will come after us?
 
Your poems also speak to environmental crises. What else do you hope readers take away from this collection?
 
I hope that these poems encourage readers to follow their own threads of interdependence, and see how that might shift their relationships to the people and beings around them.
 
But of course, the climate crisis cannot be solved only by individual changes. I hope that some of these poems also encourage readers to think about the larger systems that are fueling the crisis, like racialized capitalism.
 
The central poem of the collection follows a small group of revolutionaries who are taking down the Corporate empire. As they do, the main character comes to understand her own power and trust her intuition. I think 2020 made clear to so many more people that we are, indeed, in the last days of the Corporate empire. We need radical, transformative changes if we – all beings – are going to survive the climate and related crises.
 
So I wrote this book for all the activists, organizers, healers, cultural workers, teachers, and artists who are doing the daily work of creating radically new worlds within this broken one. My wish is that these readers can lean into the hope that Last Days is rooted in, and that the poems offer ways for them to ground in their power.

Do you think about environmental issues, climate change, and related problems beyond what you write about in your poetry?

It’s impossible for me to live in this world, in this moment, in this body, and not think about and be affected by the climate crisis and its root causes – racism, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy. As a writer of prose and poetry, and as a social justice communications strategist, I feel called to write about the structures and systems we are living under, as well as the ways that we can navigate through them, ultimately tear them down, and create new ones. 

For most of the years during which I worked on Last Days, I worked at Corporate Accountability, which wages campaigns challenging the life-threatening abuses of corporations, and I still write for them as a freelancer. So I’m often writing about Big Polluters, their role in fueling the climate crisis, and the solutions that are being led by communities on the frontlines of the crisis – Black, Indigenous, people of color; communities in the Global South; women; people with disabilities; and youth.

I also write about these issues in my newsletter, Starlight and Strategy.

What role do you think poetry plays in our larger conversations and thinking about climate and environmental issues?

Poetry invites us to think and feel expansively and nonlinearly, to listen closely, and be willing to be completely surprised. I can think of it as practice for how to implement solutions to the climate crisis. We need to listen to the people on the front lines who are already putting these solutions to work. We need to be expansive, radical, and unfettered by what we’re told is politically possible.

My favorite kind of poetry helps me understand language as more than just utility, but as magic. I’m currently co-editing a book with fellow poets Destiny Hemphill and Lisbeth White on poetry as spellcasting, by and for BIPOC. We are thinking about how poems are ritualized acts of liberation. One section of the book is devoted to the way poetry as spellcasting can help re-establish a reciprocal relationship with the Earth and help us move in right relationship towards healing deep wounds inflicted on ourselves and the Earth.

Some of your poems speak to the damage – ecological and cultural – wrought by colonialism. 

The collection as a whole grapples with the many manifestations of white supremacy, of which colonialism is one. Colonialism can only succeed when both the people who are doing the colonizing and those who are colonized feel deeply disconnected from the source and power of the land and the people.

I spent my first ten years in Japan where I absorbed both the fundamental Buddhist teaching of interdependence, as well as the form of animism that is central to the Shinto religion. I grew up understanding that things have a spirit – are beings – whether they are animate or inanimate, and that all beings are connected. These are ancient teachings, central also to Indigenous cultures, and colonization and imperialism have attempted at every turn to destroy such ways of understanding the world. No wonder we are in the crises we are in. In this collection I seek paths back into interconnection.

Your collection opens with quotes from three incredible writers and activists, including Audre Lorde. Her quote is: “I have always known I learn my most lasting lessons about difference by closely attending the ways in which the differences inside me lie down together.” How do these powerful words relate to the poetry in your collection?

Yes, the work of all three powerful women – Audre Lorde, Grace Lee Boggs, and adrienne maree brown – were influential in the development of this collection.

When I was pulling the book together, I was reading Audre Lorde’s collection of essays, “A Burst of Light.” I spent a lot of time with the titular essay: diary entries as she lived her life with cancer. That line, that idea, appears in several places in the essay, and it stayed with me. I guess it’s another approach toward understanding how we are interconnected – we all have differences inside ourselves, and knowing how to navigate these differences in generative ways teaches us to better navigate differences with others to whom we depend on and are connected to. As a queer multiracial femme and a third culture kid, I’ve spent a lot of time navigating the differences inside me, and I was interested in what it might look like to think about how they “lie down together.” Many of the poems that address race and nationality in this collection is my attempt to do that.

Your approach to launching this book is a bit unusual. Please tell us about it!

In this political moment, I feel called to reimagine what I do and how I do it. So as I thought about launching this book, I was interested in how it could be a catalyst for new ways of thinking about the intersection of arts and organizing, poetry, and movement work. I developed an idea for a launch grounded in collaboration and solidarity instead of competition, one that operates within a gift economy instead of a capitalist approach.

The central component of this project is to give away Last Days and performance artist and poet Gabrielle Civil‘s forthcoming chapbook, ( ghost gestures ), to at least 250 organizers, campaigners, activists, cultural workers, and healers, prioritizing people working on racial, climate, and economic justice. At the time I write this, we’ve already got 175 people signed up to receive the books. I’m also organizing virtual “catalyst events” in the fall to inspire and activate people; creating tools for teachers to share the books with a new generation of organizers, activists, writers, artists, and cultural workers; and promoting other BIPOC writers with new books through my website, newsletter, and social media. And I created a successful fundraising campaign to power it all, asking people in my network and strangers to support this new way of launching a book.

This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

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Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles TimesPacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.

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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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