‘We are all engaged in looting the past. (Only the greatest geniuses manage to steal from the future)’ – Donald Barthelme.
I find poetry that functions as nostalgia hugely frustrating. Maybe wallpaper was better in the 70s and gas lamps have a certain whimsical appeal but poems that do this and nothing else always feel lazy to me; they work on the assumption that someone else will recognise the scene and that this recognition is enough for the poem to achieve its aim. The place we’re looking back to was just as fraught with problems as the modern day is, it’s just that we’ve forgotten them for a picturesque idea. Hey, maybe we can make gas lamps Great Again.
I’ve always felt like my own relationship with the future has been a bit of an odd one; that I might feel more intensely than some the tension between living in the moment in case the world explodes and planning for the future and taking the long view in case it doesn’t.
I often draw this heightened awareness back to the fact that I took my GCSEs in 1999, under the dual threats of the millennium bug causing the collapse of Western civilisation and the fact that I might not get in to Sixth form. Hollywood was in on it too; two of the films I saw in the run-up to the event were Armageddon and Deep Impact, in both of which the Earth was threatened with extinction events from asteroids.
However, on new years’ day 2000, once we’d cleaned up the sick on the carpet and reassured the distressed dog, it was pretty evident that no planes had fallen out of the sky and that no-one had witnessed the second coming and that we were all, apart from our alcopop hangovers, going to be more or less alright. Even so, there was something anticlimactic in that realisation, which I think speaks strongly to our obsession with the apocalyptic; the catastrophe resolves all our petty earthly worries and leaves us with no questions left to ask.
Is it any more terrifying to keep going to your boring job every day for twenty years than it is to watch the world burn up in a single night? It’s similar to the rationale that leads us to get worked up about the long-term effects climate change whilst thoughtlessly burning through single-use plastics.
I’ve lived through many more apocalypses since then; the Rapture, the Nibiru Collision, that thing with the Mayans. In fact there have been 57 predicted apocalypses since I was born and these events have started to feel a bit run-of-the-mill now. However, being the intensely anxious human that I am, my brain can predict cataclysmic events surrounding almost anything; a difficult conversation, a job interview, a checking of my bank balance, let alone more long-term decisions like house-buying and procreating.
The human brain is an excellent simulator for all kinds of futures: we need yours, and its visions. But why should an anthology of future poems exist? Why now?
Looking to the future is an extrapolation of what’s happening now, it’s an imaginative exercise. Living in the terrifying times we do, where technology moves so quickly forwards and human rights seem to be moving backwards, it’s easy to predict catastrophe.
But what happens after the catastrophe? What of our civilisation will remain to tell the story of who we were and what we stood for? Will it be the Emma Press anthology of Future Poetry? Did we get it right?