a basket of poetry and writing from Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner


A Moment of Clarity – Why I’m going to Paris COP21

If you’ve been following this blog you might have seen my past posts struggling with this new role I inherited as a “climate change poet” since my performance at the United Nations Climate Summit last September. All last year I fought with myself as I considered what this role, what these responsibilities, would now mean. I’ve always embraced my role as a poet – a Marshallese poet, who touched on various forms of activism – but a poet first and foremost. I used words and writing to understand the world around me, to make sense of my relationships and people – and sometimes this crossed into territories of social justice. But not always. Sometimes I just wanted to capture a feeling on the page.

Last year however, I was suddenly thrust into global conversations on climate change. I attended conferences, retreats, took interview after interview with journalists, cutting myself open raw each time to discuss broken sea walls, flooded homes, shriveled breadfruits, an impending future of rootless generations.


Performing at the United Nations opening of the Climate Summit 2014

Performing at the United Nations opening of the Climate Summit 2014

I’m not sure how many would understand this struggle. I discussed it a little with my mother – she encouraged me to use the networking platform I was getting to establish a Climate Justice Institute at the College of the Marshall Islands where I teach. While sniffing around for grants to fund this dream, I continued to incorporate climate change into the curriculum for my students, push them to understand the connections with our nuclear legacy, globalization, colonization, get them talking, thinking. And between classes I envisioned organizing a monsoon of activist environmentalist youth with my co-director and fellow Pacific Climate Warrior Milañ Loeak.

And yet. I resented the requests for the interviews. I resented the tunnel vision stories sought out by journalists visiting the islands. I resented the salt in the raw wound of discussing climate change, over and over. I resented the photos of each high tide, of each flooding. I found myself stuck during another king tide, during another flooding a few months ago. I was going to go outside to take the picture, post it to social media. But I didn’t want to. I was tired of begging. I was tired of the constant reminder that, to the world, we are just a drowning nation. And nothing more.

I asked myself, more than once: Why was I doing this? Why was I stressing myself out, adding even more of a workload onto my schedule? Isn’t it enough to just sit at home with my desk, my laptop, and write and play with my daughter in the sun?

Then – the wake-up call. This summer. A conversation with a fellow radical disrupter focusing on the 2 degrees versus 1.5 degrees debate. Scientists and climate change specialists have been advocating that we need to lower our carbon emissions so that the world’s temperature doesn’t rise above 2 degrees or catastrophe of the worst kind will hit – think “super droughts, rising seas, mass extinctions.”

Here’s the thing with this very important number. According to those same scientists and reports, while the rest of the world might be safe at 2 degrees, the Marshall Islands and all low-lying atolls will be under water.  The fact that 1.5 is always the afterthought in discussions regarding this simple number, instead of being the bottom line, is the problem. Doesn’t every life matter? And every country? Why is 2 degrees even considered an option if that would mean low-lying atolls drowning?

This – this is why our island leaders have been pushing for 1.5. Most of the negotiators from larger nations have so far ignored this plea. Even in a room full of brilliant organizers, I heard 2 degrees thrown around like it was the priority, like the science that has clearly stated that 1.5 would mean the end of all atoll nations meant nothing. A colleague later tried to convince me that 2 degrees would still be good for our islands. They assured me that the world will “most likely” meet that requirement, and will “most likely” fall “way below” those two degrees.

“But don’t you see that you’re gambling with our islands?”

A few months later, and there I was again discussing this simple number over tea and muffins. And my friend tells me, with their experience and research in climate work and the backing of various other reports, that 1.5 is, at this point, un-achievable. That 2 degrees is as good as it will get. That the science has been calculated and that there is no way we can lower our temperature to 1.5. “It’s not going to stop,” they said. “It’s just going to get worse.”

I was in shock. Perhaps I had been operating under the delusion that things were going to get better, that the work will one day end. Perhaps no one else had ever been so blunt with me. Either way, I spent the rest of that afternoon in a daze, processing this. I valued my friend’s opinion, and I took it at face value that this meant our islands were as good as gone – that there was nothing we could do to save them.

This was when I reached rock bottom. I’ve never allowed myself, even when I wrote “Tell Them” even after “Dear Matafele Peinam,” – I never really allowed myself to feel the full emotion of what losing our islands would mean. I skirted around the edge. I dipped in my toes. But I never dove into it. I feared that if I did, that I would drown. That I would never come up.

And I did drown. I sat outside in the sun and I wept. My cries were more than my own cries – I felt my ancestors sitting beside me, weeping with me. I heard their echoes, reverberating in my sorrow. I felt their/our anguish over our islands, over the next few generations. I felt the shuffling feet of our future generations –  floating adrift, the hopelessness and inability to go on.

This. This was my bottom.

But I dug myself out.

My friend, feeling my loss and agony, opened up a space following our conversation that gave everyone in the room time to breathe, to process the emotional effects that usually accompanies rigorous climate work. Thanks to them I came to understand that my fears, my questions, my doubts weren’t just mine. They were all of ours. And that it was not too late. That there was still time. That I had to believe.

And so I did. I chose. To believe.

This is why I will be traveling to Paris for COP21, despite the horrific recent attacks. Despite the fact that it means real danger. I will be going to perform alongside four other spoken word artists, each representing the communities of the Philippines, Guam, Samoa, Australia, to perform our poetry and share the stories of our people, to share what has already happened, what’s at stake. This is also why I’ve prioritized working with our youth, the next generation, as we plan a massive march in the Marshall Islands

As Nicolas Haeringer, France’s 350 organizer, recently stated, “This movement for climate justice has always also been a movement for peace–a way for people around the world to come together, no matter their background or religion, and fight to protect our common home.”

I’m going because I’m fighting for our home. I’m going because I have foreseen the loss and the sorrow that awaits our children and grandchildren, because I have fallen into that abyss. I’m going because others will not go into that abyss – they skirt around it. They refuse to feel it. Perhaps, understandably, they have more immediate things to worry about. And that’s ok. I will feel it. Over and over. For them. I will drown the wound in salt. I will do anything to save my islands.




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Luerkoklik and the Role of the Land in the Climate Movement

Just last week I published a blog post to the site – this is a blog site of an amazing collective of Pacific writers sharing stories, poetry, and songs on struggle and activism. The blog I posted about is the role of the land in the climate movement. I had just been visited by a CNN reporter who asked me to explain the relationship of land to the Marshallese people. You can read my response here:


Poem: 2 Degrees

Last month CNN reporter John Sutter came down asking me to write a piece about the importance of the 2 degree number to climate change, as a part of his series on 2 degrees:

I agreed to do it – with a little spin of my own, by challenging the 2 degrees estimate, which actually places more islands under water, than 1.5 (which is what our island leaders have been pushing for).

Here’s the video of the poem:

And here’s the full text of the piece:

2 Degrees

The other night my

1-year-old was a fever

pressed against my chest

We wrestled with a thermometer

that read

99.8 degrees

the doctor says



is a fever

but I can see her flushed face

how she drapes

across my lap, listless

LiPeinam is usually a

wobbly walking

toddler all chunks and

duck footed shaky knees

stomping squeaky yellow

light up shoes across

the edge of the reef

And I think

what a difference

a few degrees

can make

Scientists say

if humans warm the world

more than 2 degrees

then catastrophe will hit

Imagine North American wildfires increasing by 400%

animal extinction rising by 30%

fresh water declining by 20%

thousands, millions displaced

left wandering




At a climate change conference

a colleague tells me 2 degrees

is an estimate

I tell him for my islands 2 degrees

is a gamble

at 2 degrees my islands, the Marshall Islands

will already be under water

this is why our leaders push

for 1.5

Seems small

like 0.5 degrees

shouldn’t matter

like 0.5 degrees

are just crumbs

like the Marshall Islands

must look

on a map

just crumbs you

dust off the table, wipe

your hands clean

Today LiPeinam is feeling better

she bobs around our backyard

drops pebbles and leaves

into a plastic bucket

before emptying the bucket out

and dropping pebbles in again

As I watch I think about futility

I think about the world

making the same mistakes

since the industrial revolution

since 1977

when a scientist said 2 degrees

was the estimate

On Kili atoll

the tides were underestimated

patients with a nuclear history threaded

into their bloodlines, sleeping

in the only clinic on island woke

to a wild water world

a rushing rapid of salt

closing in around them

a sewage of syringes and gauze


they wheeled their hospital beds out

let them rest in the sun

they must be

stained rusted our people

creaking brackish from

salt spray and radiation blasts

so so tired, wandering wondering

if the world will

wheel us out to rest in the sun

or will they just

dust their hands of us, wipe

them clean

My father told me that idik

– when the tide is nearest an equilibrium

is the best time for fishing

Maybe I’m

fishing for recognition

writing the tide towards

an equilibrium

willing the world

to find its balance

So that people


that beyond

the discussions

are faces

all the way out here

that there is

a toddler

stomping squeaky

yellow light up shoes

walking wobbly

on the edge of the reef

not yet

under water

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About writing through writer’s block: one step at a time

I’ve been quiet lately on a lot of fronts. I saw the news on the destruction on Vanuatu, read the letters and pleas from a mutual friend on A week or so later wind like we’d never seen whipped through our backyard during my grandmother’s funeral in our home, ripping through the tents set up in the backyard for mourners, taking down branches and trees. We found out later that whatever caused that wind, had continued on to upturn and destroy houses in Yap, in Chuuk. I stayed quiet again, wondering what could be done, what kinds of donations could be made, whether or not we could arrange a fundraiser. I talked it over with my students, considered options. I had also heard of flooding on Kili atoll once again, a letter from the Mayor asking for donations. A few weeks later, my friends posted photographs of themselves with the #wearemaunakea hashtag. I did some research, found out there was a massive movement of Hawaiians and allies coming together to protect Mauna Kea against a massive telescope. I taught a lecture on the movement, had my students take photos of themselves with posters showing their solidarity. Then Nepal, another devastation. Then Baltimore.

Sometimes, I wonder how people can stay so in touch, with news, with facebook and twitter. How do we stay on top of all the different issues around the world? How do we show solidarity without just liking and sharing statuses, retweeting and favoriting? And is it ok to be exhausted? To unplug? It seems easier, instead, to focus on the right now. To look up recipes, start making green smoothies, play with baby, grade some papers, hit the gym, watch a volleyball game. But does that mean we’re shutting off our empathy? Does that mean we’re tuning out? I’ve always found my ability to empathize to be an important aspect of why I can write. I think to write well, you’d need to be able to understand other people, you’d need to be able to connect to yourself, to your emotions. So I deliberately try my best to stay in touch with my emotions, to stay connected to the world around me. I worry that if I were to shut off my emotions, I would shut off my writing.

I have to admit something else. I’ve been suffering from some serious writer’s block. I’ve owed articles, poems, etc, and haven’t been able to write a damn thing. Who am I to write on what happened in Vanuatu? Who am I to say anything about Yap and Chuuk, when I couldn’t organize a fundraiser to support them? All these questions, insecurities, and hell maybe just life – being busy, being a mom and a full time faculty, all have contributed to a very dry well of inspiration and creativity.

Either way, this blog post was my attempt to dig myself out of this writer’s block. One step at a time I’ve been telling myself this past week. I’ve been feeling that itch – a consistent itch these past few months, and weeks. This itch to write. But I blocked it off for so long, told myself whatever I have to write is not worthy, not smart enough, not brave enough. Not sure where that voice came from. But it was only this past week that I told myself hey – just write a blog post. See where it can go from there. Put yourself out there once more, make yourself real and vulnerable, a tangible object of flesh and thoughts, memory and sound. Even if you’re not inspirational. Even if you don’t have the answers. Even if it means exposing yourself as human, as flawed, as real. Why not?

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Ally is a Verb: A Whale’s Song


Beautiful writing from a friend on what it means to be an ally amidst the Mauna Kea movement, and how it’s linked to cultural erasure in poetry and in personal landscapes

Originally posted on KE KAUPU HEHI ALE:

“Humpback Whales” by Christopher Michel is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Ally is a Verb: A Whale’s Song
by Rajiv Mohabir

I have had my land erased from me, he is being erased from his own land. When I was younger my family called my Raimie—a British name. When I first went to India I started going by Rajiv, my Indian name my parents gave me. I wandered my traditional fields feeling out for the calling of where they buried my ancestors’ navel string.

Bryan refers to himself as Kamaoli when he speaks Hawaiian.


To ally I must pectoral slap and fluke thrash against the ideas of “ally” and “settler.” These are convenient terms—they should be verbs. To ally: an action. It must be intoned in active voice.

These terms don’t hold the complexities of identity in assemblages—but they are a place where I can start my migration.


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Lavender Saltwater (a poem)

These past few weeks I’ve been totally swamped with preparations for Global Divestment Day (which you can read more about here:, prepping for a few trips coming up, and also, most importantly, preparing for my daughter’s first birthday.

For those who don’t know, first birthdays are a HUGE deal for Marshallese. First birthdays, or kemem, as we call them, are the superbowl of marshallese parties. We go alll out. Most kemems cater to over a thousand people. Ours is considered “small” (we’re expecting 200-300 people). When the kemem is announced, pigs are roasted, fish are cooked in the earth, pineep or coconut oil are bottled as gift giveaways, family members spend weeks practicing dance routines for the big night, and baby’s face adorns stickers, huge banners, balloons, tshirts, invitations, cakes and cupcake toppers. And everyone – and I mean everyone – is invited. It’s all about coming together as a community – all to celebrate this beautiful child in our life.

In honor of baby’s kemem, I’m posting a quick poem I wrote about her birth. Some of these lines were actually written in the delivery room (I typed them into my phone). It’s dedicated to my friend Grace who was our family’s doula, who helped guide me through the scariest, most painful, most rewarding journey I’ve ever been on.

Lavender Salt-Water

Waves of



into me

crack me

open split

down the middle

I imagine

the eruption: a bulging

sack of slime and blood and


Do not measure

the breaths the minutes

the hours of clenched

fists curled toes

eyes pinched

shut tight


Just inhale

the saving


of hot towels

dipped in sweet lavender

Dream of saltwater

orange fruit and sunsets

uncle clyde aunty kaka

mom hetine tamera

baby dukie all of us

that one picnic afternoon

that ordinary sunday

just think

of her

seeing it all


and when she

is pulled

from my body

an army of white

coats shout

an order:




And there she is.



there’s a journalist here

So I know in my last post I mentioned not wanting to be pigeonholed as a climate change writer. But I wrote this poem last night and yup – it’s climate themed, or more accurately it’s a reflection on climate change, the media, and how stories are framed.

I’ve worked with a few journalists and documentary film makers since I performed this past September, and I’ve been inundated with even more requests then I can keep up with. I’ve been grateful for each interaction, and I’ve had no problem helping them out – whatever I need to do to help raise awareness on this issue.  But there’s something about selling the right story – framing that story for a specific audience, for a specific reaction. I’ve written a few articles here and there so I understand the struggle to have the perfect pitch, how it’s an art form in and of itself to draw in an audience and have them come away with a different understanding of the topic, and how important it is to be short and straight to the point. But the topic of climate change is so much more complicated than a 600 word story. It has so many facets. What kinds of opinions and stories are being left out?

A few months back, I put my cousin on the phone with one of the journalists, because of the fact that she experienced climate change first hand during the last king tide – her whole house was leveled by the waves. Only debris was left. Remarkably, though, she thinks of it as a fresh start, not as this tragic incidence. And this is what she told the journalist.

What is a journalist to do then? Not enough anger or outrage to fuel the plot.

Her story didn’t make it into the article.

In truth, I actually loved the article – it was incredibly well-written. But it still bothered me a bit that they didn’t include her story. I wondered – was it for space? I’m willing to bet that this is the most likely possibility. But a small part of me wonders. Was it because she was too positive – no drama, no anger? Did she not fit into the character she was supposed to play?

So here’s a first draft of the poem, still rough.


there’s a journalist here

who wants to interview you


they want to hear

about your old old house

older than you

its cracked plywood walls

like dry, sunburnt skin

how it collapsed

like a lung

as the water rushed in

they want to hear

about your journal

how you awoke

to soggy pages – ink

staining the floor

staining your hands

they want to hear

about the glass shards

from your window

how they carved

jagged pathways

along your stepmother’s leg


they want to hear

how you blame yourself

the way the neighbors

blamed you


shouldn’t stare

at the ocean 

too long 

they said

it was your


that dared it to come



what they want to hear


they don’t to hear

that maybe

you’re imaging

a house

with new doors

new windows

on a grassy hillside

they don’t want to hear

that, weeks later

you found your breath

filling and expanding your lungs

that all you want now

is to move




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