Surfacing Ecological Disaster: Poets for Living Waters and the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Posted January 2, 2021:

I have posted below the abstract for an article I am currently working on for an edited collection, hopefully to be published as part of the Palgrave series “Literatures, Cultures, and Environments.” There’s also plans to give a short presentation on this article at the British Association for American Studies Conference, held online April 6 to 11, 2021.

Surfacing Ecological Disaster: Poets for Living Waters and the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill (Abstract)

On April 20, 2010 the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded, instigating the largest marine oil spill in history. Over 4.9 million barrels of crude oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico, creating a public relations disaster that BP sought to mitigate with prodigious use of Corexit, a chemical surfactant that breaks up oil droplets and causes them to sink rather than rise to the ocean surface. Corexit is also so toxic that when it combines with oil the resulting mixture is up to 52 times more toxic than oil alone. Thus, while BP’s usage of Corexit helped to minimize the visible impact of the oil spill on the surface and shore, it also created a highly toxic undersea environment with an outsized demonstrable effect on sea life, including plankton, dolphins, and tuna. As Robb Nixon (in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor) and Melody Jue (in “Fluid Cuts: The Anti-Visual Logic of Surfactants after Deepwater Horizon”) argue, while BP was able to mitigate the negative optics of the oil spill with Corexit, they also created an even greater underwater ecological disaster.

On May 19, less than a month after the oil spill began and well before the Deepwater Horizon pipe was capped on July 15, poets Amy King & Heidi Lynn Staples put out a call for submissions for a new online platform for poems either written in response to the disaster or in support of healthy ocean communities. Poets for Living Waters ( was active for four years and includes the work of over 250 poets. Each contribution considers the 2010 oil spill or the importance of healthy water ecosystems, and there is an ecologically-minded attentiveness throughout that grapples with humanity’s problematic effects on the ocean and ocean life.

In this article, I consider Poets for Living Waters as an antithesis to the dispersant Corexit. While BP minimized the oil spill’s visibility by chemically submerging the oil, Poets for Living Waters raises the toxic specter of the oil spill to the surface by congealing the work of hundreds of poets as a means of challenging America’s petrochemical dependence and persistent failure to protect ocean ecosystems. In contrasting BP’s usage of Corexit with Poets for Living Waters (focusing on a few poems, as well as the platform as a whole), this article will consider issues of surface and depth to argue that poetry can voice a refusal of, or at least a complication of, BP and the broader implicated structures that propagate and obfuscate such ecological disasters.