“Ordering Another Drink”: A Climate Change Conversation with Natasha Rao

In our discussion, we focused on Rao’s poem, “What It Was Like,” and how she articulates a response to the precarious interrogative from an imagined grandchild asking her, “What was it was like?” to live today. Juggling the psychological discomfort and cognitive dissonance when ordering packages online, eating sushi, and delaying the difficult conversations, Rao simultaneously concedes to the gnawing delight of this “luxurious” present, despite the undercurrent of ecological dread creeping in. We speak about how verb tense can grant us better access to emotionally taxing topics like climate change, what we can learn from cicadas, and the instrumental awe one wishes poems could bring.

Cole Depuy (CD): Could you speak about the temporality of the poem, “What It Was Like;” I noticed the title positions us in a future moment, speaking about our present day. How did you get there and why you chose that kind of approach?

Natasha Rao (NR): I wrote the poem immediately after reading The Octopus Museum by Brenda Shaughnessy, so that book was swirling around my head at the time, and there are a lot of poems in that collection that employ the perspective of future hindsight. I think it’s a clever exercise in processing: describing the present as though it’s the past forces you to de-familiarize the current moment and recognize some of the absurdities that we automatically accept as routine. I was also thinking about that hypothetical people often raise: What will you tell your grandchildren one day about what you were doing during this moment? In choosing a broad title, I imagined the poem as a kind of address to some future generation, like a response to “tell us what it was like back then!” And maybe this is a pessimistic view, but I can’t help feeling that, at least the way it’s trending, things are going to get worse. So the temporality of the poem is also meant to highlight what’s at stake—to tell a future audience that we used to eat fresh sushi suggests that maybe one day that may no longer be possible.

CD: Part of the frustration I find coming through in this poem is the idea that it’s so hard to talk about ecological destruction and climate change in the present moment. In the third stanza, you write: “I thought I could / memorize enough facts to stay composed in debates and not cry after / one glass of wine when my brother says we can all just go to Mars.” Did you find it easier to address this topic using the audience of grandchildren rather than communicating this fear by projecting it forward; in other words, by treating it as if it’s already happened?

NR: I don’t think I was cognizant of that as I was writing, but having that distance definitely helped. It feels easier to have the added layer of past tense, which seems less intense than a declarative statement. “We pretended not to notice” felt easier to write than “we pretend not to notice,” which starts to sound prescriptive. It shouldn’t feel hard to talk about these things, but I think it’s easy to get overwhelmed by helplessness or frustration, as you noted.

CD: There’s so much emotion tied to the fear and the guilt and everything. I found that was one of the most refreshing aspects of this poem, because a lot of ecopoetry can be moralizing and didactic, but yours immerses the responsibility of the self within this larger situation that the self is clearly not responsible for completely. Why did you find it important to include that self-implication in what went wrong? For example, in the line: “Terrible people made terrible decisions. Good people made terrible / decisions, which was I?”

NR: The feeling driving the making of this poem was guilt—for what we’re doing to the planet, yes, but I was also feeling guilt in a personal relationship which is where the “you” comes in. I was thinking about how disaster on a smaller, more personal scale, as well as a large disaster like climate change, can elicit the same feelings and even the same reactions in us. It doesn’t matter how tiny the scale, you can still have that horrible feeling of “I’m doing something that I know I shouldn’t be doing, I know that something bad will likely come of this, and yet for whatever reason I’m continuing to act in this way.” To return to an earlier idea—if someone were to ask fifty years from now “if you knew that xyz were bad, why did you continue to do them?” I don’t think I would have an answer, so I wanted to examine that a little bit. And to your point, I tried not to be moralizing or didactic because hey I’m doing all these things, too, and I feel terrible about it, but I’m still doing them. Why is that?

CD: It’s incredibly frustrating, feeling like I’m on autopilot during the normality of destruction. Going into a supermarket to shop, traveling with friends, etc., is all quite destructive when you multiply it by billions of people.

NR: Exactly. It’s just this undercurrent in the back of your mind.

CD: I find poetry that highlights that shared silence can really work to break the spiral because since it’s so hard to talk about, it can be easier to write about to a degree.

You teased who the “you” was as a personal relationship. Could you talk more about that? There seems to be a few characters, mainly the brother, the “you,” and the tuna who I would call a character. Who is this “you” and what is the personal guilt you were describing?

NR: When I was writing I did have a specific “you” in mind, a beloved, and was thinking about a relationship I knew was soon going to end. But as I was writing, that slipperiness became clearer where it transformed into an imagined “you,” or “we,” as in “we loved doing this,” sort of a collective “we.” I like that the “you” can be read as the brother, the beloved, the future, and that the “we” or the “I” could be all of us as well. There’s a line: “knowing the worst is coming and simply ordering another drink,” which is something that happened to me in real life at a dinner, you know, I was thinking I need to have this painful conversation but I’m going to put it off as long as I can and order another drink. At the same time, that can be enlarged more broadly, in that we all know the worst is coming, but we’re going to continue sitting at the table for as long as possible.

CD: I love that line. Another line that really complicated the “you” for me was, “I thought what I did was forgivable, in the grand scheme of things. / That your love was an inexhaustible resource.” The term “inexhaustible” with its emissions implication and connotation, as well as “resources,” obviously, like renewable or limited, felt like the speaker was giving the planet an elegy.

NR: I love that you read it that way because I was definitely just writing it as, “Oh, no, I messed up in this relationship.” But you’re right, it could absolutely be both the planet and “you.”

CD: It reminds me of how truth in poetry is usually accidental, not something we can try to grab; we can’t fabricate it or really even try to write an eco poem. It just happens.

I was curious to hear your explanation of a line in the second stanza: “Every 17 years, the cicadas rasped a kind of warning, showed us / with increasing urgency the need to leave our old bodies behind.” Can you talk more about what the cicadas meant in this moment by leaving “our old bodies behind?”

NR: When I was writing this there was that big Brood X of cicadas, and I was on the East Coast. There were cicada shells everywhere, so it seemed impossible not to write about them and about leaving, molting, shedding exoskeletons. I was thinking about how that’s probably what we should be doing–shedding an old way of thinking that we’ve been so ingrained in, I don’t know, as an alternative to simply sitting and ordering another drink. I love the physicality of molting and the notion of getting rid of one body and becoming something new. So yes, a metaphor for getting out of that destructive normality we’re talking about. And then also playing with that idea, a little later, with the line about “We can all just go to Mars,” which is a different kind of leaving our old bodies behind, though not one I’m particularly a fan of. That was all on my mind because they were truly everywhere, those empty exoskeletons.

CD: I didn’t know they did that.

NR: It’s very cool to witness. I mean it’s a little strange because they pile up everywhere, but very cool nonetheless.

CD: There’s something so understandable about wanting to go to Mars. You know, I get that, but it’s so tragic and heartbreaking at the same time that we would be willing to waste this planet for something completely barren.

NR: Totally. That also came from an argument that I got into—it’s just not how I think about things.

CD: The whole going to Mars thing is becoming way too serious. I don’t find it to be a permanent solution, to just keep running away. At least not a solution I want to be a part of.

Let’s talk about the ending of the poem. This toxic, sensationalist object, the poisonous nutrients, the paradox, really, of the tuna. The line follows: “It was luxurious. It / was inevitable. It was a thick piece of fatty tuna, brimming with / mercury, somehow effortless to swallow.” Can you speak about why you ended with that image and how you see it expanding into other areas?

NR: I think that if I were to try and sum up the feeling of “what it was like” to be alive at this moment, for me it’s the image of eating that piece of tuna. I love sushi, which is yet another instance where I know that I’m probably consuming dangerous levels of mercury, but I don’t alter my course of action. Eating something that is delicious, albeit poisonous on some level, feels so much easier in the moment than sending away the plate. That paradox feels to me like where I’m situated in this moment. I don’t know if that makes sense.

CD: I think it does. I just love the idea that it’s called mercury, too. It gets back to the Mars and space motifs as well as the porousness of the body, where we can’t hide from what’s coming, being in our bodies and in our world.

You mentioned you’re not an “activist” and I can relate to that. I find the more I study the environment, the less connected I feel to it, in a way, and the more I fight for the environment, the more separated I feel from it, too. I wanted to get your take on writing and reading eco poetry then. Do you think that it can make any difference? Reading your work, from my standpoint, does. I find it incredibly valuable to read someone conceding that they’re not perfect. Who, instead of telling me what the problem is, shows me the problem that I’m a part of. There’s some healing there. Does writing and reading make a difference for you? Is it worthwhile?

NR: I’ve been thinking about this question for a long time, especially when trying to write these kinds of poems. I used to be more optimistic about the way writing and poetry can make a difference. In general, when I was younger, my sense of activism, if that’s the right word, felt so much more salient, and now, I don’t know if it’s just me getting busier or becoming jaded or what, but I feel that drive to a much lesser extent. There was a time when I used to believe, yes, poetry can change the world and in turn our entire society will shift. I no longer think that’s the case. But I think, at least on an individual level, it can certainly have an impact. Brenda’s book for me made a huge difference. And there are a lot of poems I read that point to aspects of life, including environmental challenges, that make me pause and recognize something about the way I operate in the world which maybe I hadn’t before considered. Or it can also be comforting to know that other people are also feeling the same way I am, which is often part of why I turn to poetry. So I do think it’s possible to shift individual frameworks. And at the very least, I think poetry can be a sense of solace and a reminder of the best parts of being alive.

CD: I think what’s interesting is how you mentioned it’s easier to eat the sushi than to not do so. It highlights the social costs of not doing these normal activities, making it easier to ignore the environmental things going on. But I think the fact you’re writing this kind of poem is a complete challenge to that destructive normality we’re experiencing. Do you feel a need to write about this stuff, even though, your writing may be ethically preceding your behaviors?

NR: I guess writing is my way of doing something, and is how I come to terms with that feeling of guilt. There’s an Anne Carson quote I love, from “The Glass Essay:” “You remember too much, my mother said to me recently. Why hold onto all that? And I said, Where can I put it down?” For me, the anxiety and guilt surrounding environmental crisis keeps building and the only place to put it down is on paper, writing about it. I’m working on a new project now that feels very much in this camp of writing and is primarily place-based, which feels good to be working on right now.

CD: That’s really exciting. One more question: If your poems were magic, what would you want them to be able to do?

NR: In the vein of this conversation, I think it would be amazing if the poems were able to get anyone who read them to appreciate the planet for all the little things. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, honestly, in poems, and I think the best poems I read are those that make me think about, for example, an insect differently, or a plant differently, or a landscape differently and recognize how extraordinary each small thing is. So I’d like if my magic poems could imbue the seemingly-ordinary with the same quality as the magnificent. It would be pretty incredible for wonder and awe and beauty to be felt at an intense level collectively. I think a lot of people would write amazing poems as a result, make meaningful art, maybe declare their love, live more boldly, all the things that come with contagious delight. And I think it would make me very happy.

Natasha Rao is the author of Latitude, which was selected by Ada Limón as the winner of the 2021 APR/Honickman First Book Prize. The recipient of a 2021 Ruth Lilly & Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, she has also received fellowships from Bread Loaf, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Community of Writers. Her work appears in The Nation, American Poetry Review, The New York Times Magazine, The Yale Review, and elsewhere. She holds a BA from Brown University and an MFA from NYU, where she was a Goldwater Fellow. She currently serves as an Editor of American Chordata.

Cole Depuy is the winner of an Academy of American Poets University Prize (Binghamton University) & the Negative Capability Press Spring 2020 Poetry Contest. His poetry has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Pinch, The Hunger Mountain Review, I-70 Review, Tipton Poetry Journal, Summerset Review, Solstice & elsewhere. He’s Poetry Co-Editor for Harpur Palate & Binghamton Poetry Project Co-Director. You can find him at coledepuy.com.