Nature has been a theme and inspiration to poets since forever. When I first started writing, I hated nature poems. Poems about the trees in Massachusetts or those contemplating winter in Vermont felt insulting to me. I grew up in Calumet City, Ill., a steel mill suburb of Chicago, so the nature I grew up in was different. It was concrete and asphalt, bricks and blacktop.
My parents worked at the mall and at the steel mill. Who could think about the trees when we had to contend with economic anxieties? As a young poet, I rebelled against what I believed was a conservative poetry tradition. I wanted poems about the type of environment I was growing up in: smokestacks, factory lines, concrete, highways, dilapidated yards.
What I missed during those years was that my family and I were not actually living a life removed from nature. My mom and dad always kept a garden where they would grow zucchini, carrots, cilantro, peppers and a lot more than I can remember. Those days my mom would send me or one of my siblings to the garden to pick something she needed to finish cooking. We may have been living in a city, but my family was rooted in a tradition with the land and earth. This helped me understand that the natural world was mine to write about just like the city. And when I started talking to the creatures living around me, I was moved to see they talked back. The oak trees I grew up with, the squirrels on my block, and even roaches all have their own personalities.
For this series of poems, I asked four poets to reflect on their relationship to nature. So many of us are migrants or the descendants of migrants. How does that inform how we think about nature? What about the land and rivers and oceans and lakes between us and our ancestral homes? How do we reckon with climate change as something that is not in the future, but something that is happening right now? How do we (especially us city people) heal our relationship with the beings all around us? What does nature teach us?
I chose to invite Vic Xochitl Chavez, Yesenia Montilla, Gisselle Yepes, and Sabrina San Miguel to write for this series because they write poems with an emotional force that is captivating and beautiful. These four poets know how to write into heartache, tenderness, joy and laughter. I can’t wait for you to read their work.
if humans have different dialects then maybe plants do too
whatever (warnings) (advice) (sweet nothings)
the violets give me get lost.
in translation, i keep the meaning
but lose all texture. all the honey.
all the smoke of life rises
to eye level. i bow down to the dirt.
some words keep the sweetness
of their names: honey. luz. cielo.
dirt. we’ve put enough family members
into the dirt, they must be whispering all around me.
my homies who don’t read poems
want to know why i can’t just say it simply.
i am saying it, i want to tell them. i am saying everything.
José Olivarez is the son of Mexican immigrants, and the author of two collections of poems, including “Promises of Gold “—which was long listed for the 2023 National Book Awards. His debut book of poems, “Citizen Illegal,” was a finalist for the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award and a winner of the 2018 Chicago Review of Books Poetry Prize. Along with Felicia Rose Chavez and Willie Perdomo, he co-edited the poetry anthology, “The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNEXT.”