'Planet in Peril' Poet Interview: Anne Casey

Anne Casey snorkelling near the Great Barrier Reef © Anne Casey

In anticipation of the launch of the Planet in Peril anthology, we are excited to introduce you to some of our poets and photographers. This week first up, we are thrilled to present you Anne Casey, whose entry "where once she danced" was highly commended. A former environmental journalist, Casey is an ecopoet who grew up on the coast of County Clare, Ireland, but has been living in Sydney for twenty years. She is the author of two poetry collections, where the lost things go (2017) and out of emptied cups (2019), published by Salmon Poetry.

What inspired you to write “where once she danced”? Were there any specific images, places, experiences or events that you pulled from?

This poem is a lyrical lament for Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the largest living structure on Earth, which is in dire peril due to the impacts of human activities. It was inspired by my visits to this beautiful natural wonder over the past 20 years and was greatly influenced by my ongoing collaboration with Australian environmental activist, Deborah Hart and the Climate Guardians.

I had the considerable honour earlier this year of working with Deborah and the Climate Guardians, by special invitation, to create an ‘intervention’ which was staged as part of the launch of leading Australian contemporary artist and environmentalist, Janet Laurence’s extraordinary ‘After Nature’ exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. The imagery and impact of that exhibition were powerful drivers for me to explore ways of further embodying the absolute tragedy of what is happening to the reef in poetry. I believe that poetry can be an extremely potent tool for bringing issues into sharp focus.

As a former environment journalist and an ecopoet, I am very grateful for the opportunity to have this poem published in this vital work by Fly on the Wall Press – the stunning 'Planet in Peril' anthology.

“where once she danced” mentions several colours, herbs, plants and animal species. What made you decide to bring these specific images together? They evoke a sense of vibrancy. Is “where once she danced” a way to describe the vividness and variety of nature, something which is being lost, as emphasised by your use of the past tense and particularly the word “once”?

In considering how I might best convey the utter catastrophe that is happening for the reef, Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet kept springing to mind… this beautiful young woman lying dead in the river surrounded by wildflowers. I had all these images going around in my head of pre-Raphaelite nineteenth century paintings of Ophelia – John William Waterhouse, Arthur Hughes, Frances MacDonald, Alexandre Cabanel, John Everett Millais…

John Everett Millais, 'Ophelia' 1851-2, Tate.

That’s where the idea to personify the reef as a woman dancing amongst the vibrant colours of nature came from. It seemed the perfect starting point to draw on my memories of snorkelling off Heron Island in Queensland twenty years ago, enthralled by the kaleidoscope of life underwater on and around the reef. At the time, I volunteered as a ‘layperson’ to help with research for the University of Queensland. Amongst other tasks, I was asked to count all the colours of coral that I observed. I remember that was my first encounter with the term ‘coral bleaching’ and it was such a shock to discover that this extraordinary underwater wonderland was under threat. It seemed so vibrant and bursting with life – every colour you could imagine. I swam with manta ray and chased great clouds of butterfly fish. Sea turtles were happy for you to cruise along beside them. Clownfish, anemone fish, reef shark, giant clams, sea cucumbers, every shade and variety of seagrass, not to mention the exquisite architecture of the coral colonies. In writing the poem, I was trying to capture all of this abundance, the astonishing living treasure beneath the surface. It is deliberately lyrical, incorporating the sibilance and rhythm of the sea, and also that sense of wonderment.

By contrast with those first visits to the reef, it has been really shocking over the past number of years taking my sons snorkelling there and seeing the blanched subsurface ‘desert’ that is emerging. Even by my superficial ‘witnessing’, there is a huge decline in the numbers and varieties of sea-life. The truth of the situation is beyond dispute when you see it with your own eyes. This is what I was trying to capture towards the end of the poem – the devastating impacts ofclimate change, run-off from agricultural and industrial activities, coastal development and fishing. The rhyming throughout the poem is broken to embody discordance – speaking of beauty, but with a sinister undercurrent.

You were born and raised in Ireland, but are currently living in Sydney. How have these different places/environments informed your poetry, as well as the different attitudes towards and policies regarding climate change?

I grew up on the rugged and breathtakingly beautiful west coast of Clare in Ireland. I spent my childhood foraging around the seashore exploring the rock-pools for sea-life – jellyfish, shrimp, crabs, sprat, starfish, all manner of molluscs, urchins, seagrasses and even the odd lobster or salmon. My Dad was a fisherman, and I was a regular crewmate on his trawler during the summer holidays. From him, I learnt that we take what we need, no more. I remember him always warning against the problem of over-fishing. Even just a few days ago, I was talking with him on the phone and, though he is long retired, he was railing against a big boat that was sweeping up all the ‘she-crabs’ during breeding seasons. “It’s so short-sighted,” he said, “They’ll devastate stocks and there’ll be nothing left.” He made his living from the sea, but he also made sure that what he took would be replaced and that his footprint was never too big.

There is no doubt that my ‘Irish voice’ comes through very strongly in my poetry. And there is no denying that the values instilled in me growing up in a small seaside community have impacted what has been observed by one leading Australian poet recently as my ‘moral fierceness’. Growing up surrounded by such beauty, but also living close to the land, the sea, you develop a real sense that conservation matters.

Living in the sprawling metropolis of Sydney for the past two decades, I can see how people become so separated from nature, and so caught up in the rush of consumer society, that they lose sight of how reliant we truly are on this one and only precious planet beneath our feet. I am very fortunate to live right on the edge of a wonderful natural reserve in Sydney – Flat Rock Gully. It is teeming with bird and animal life. I go for a bushwalk every day, and I often sit on the back balcony amongst the treetops to write. It is no wonder that lorikeets, cockatoos, honeyeaters, galahs, wattle birds, water dragons, skinks, geckos, possums (ring-tailed and brush-tailed), even the odd bandicoot regularly infiltrate my poems. One of my neighbours recently spotted a wallaby down in the reserve so I’m hoping he’ll make an appearance one of these days.