Dreaming in a world on fire: sustainability through literature
EPFL’s literature club Plume recently held its fourth annual poetry contest. The theme of the contest – Dreaming in a World on Fire – reflects the club’s growing interest in the issue of sustainability.
Literature wasn’t really a part of campus life at EPFL until three students – and friends – Léandre Guy, Gustave Pellier and Barnabé Devaux ran a poetry contest in 2020. That marked the beginning of Plume, a student club they founded where people can share their love of literature, take part in writing workshops and compete in annual writing contests. The club also participates in numerous events with other student clubs and now accepts students from the University of Lausanne (UNIL). Its members recently decided to promote sustainability, whether through their own efforts or by joining forces with other clubs. Plume’s most recent poetry contest was backed by EPFL’s Sustainability Unit.
A heated competition
“When we decided to hold our first poetry contest three years ago, we spoke with the College of Humanities, which offered to help,” says Guy. “After launching the contest, we were surprised to receive around 100 entries that were really good. That prompted us to set up the club.” Plume now holds two contests every year: one for poetry, in the spring, and one for short stories, in the fall.
The topic for this year’s poetry contest was deeply rooted in sustainability. Pellier explains: “With ‘Dreaming in a World on Fire’ – a title that seemed like an oxymoron juxtaposing daydreaming and the threat of climate change – we wanted to become part of the sustainability movement.” The posters for the contest, depicting whales swimming over a burning planet, inspired a large number of entries.
For the first time this year, poems could be submitted in either French or English. Four winning poems were selected in each of the two languages.
One of the French-language winners, Danseuse émeraude (Emerald Dancer), was written in just a few days by Claire Trotti, a French and English major at UNIL. “Inspiration is something that just hits you,” she explains. “I’ve always enjoyed poetry, and I’ve come to appreciate it even more since I started university.”
One day I heard about this opportunity to share my writing, and that it could have an impact on other people. I’d like to think that’s what happened here.
Danseuse émeraude draws on metaphor to evoke poignant emotion. “My poem is about separation, as I’d just broken up with someone,” says Trotti. “Relationships can be uplifting but, at the same time, you give someone the means to hurt you. I drew a parallel with our relationship with planet Earth – a flourishing and nurturing relationship that can also be devastating.”
A series of writing workshops
In addition to the poetry contest, Plume also holds two-hour writing workshops several times a month at both EPFL and UNIL. These workshops were just about the only activity the club was able to run during the pandemic, as participants could share and discuss their essays online. Pellier was away on exchange at the time yet was still able to participate: “There’s one workshop that I’ll never forget – there were just four of us and we talked for the full two hours. With such a small group, we had time to discuss the things we’d recently read and written. That kind of open dialogue is really important.”
Today, the workshops are held in person and open to around a dozen people. Participants write on a given topic and then discuss what they penned in a friendly, constructive manner. The wide range of topics – such as a writing constraint, a game with music, or a specific color or quote – means that each workshop is a unique experience. “I love hearing the participants each speak about a given subject in a completely different way,” says Guy.
“The workshops can be intense because they also have a therapeutic aspect,” adds Pellier. “Sometimes people write about really personal things, and that helps them. The workshop organizers have successfully created a safe space where people feel comfortable opening up.”
It’s great to have these writing workshops where we can get away and talk about something other than our everyday issues.
Teaming up on sustainability
Plume has gradually been forging ties with other EPFL student clubs – particularly those focused on sustainability. Its members wrote a play called Les Insolents (The Irreverent) in spring 2023 and had the costumes made by Unipoly Fashion Lab, a second-hand store run by Unipoly. Plume also ran a booth at Marchéco, a flea market put on every semester by Meubléco, another Unipoly group.
“We selected some used books from a Lausanne bookstore, which gave them to us for free, and we sold them at Marchéco for one or two francs,” says Guy. “That let us bring literature to the EPFL community and make it accessible for those who may not have the time or money.”
Plume has also set up a joint initiative with ArtePoly, EPFL’s student club for the visual arts. “The idea with ArtePoly was to pair up writers and illustrators in order to create diptychs,” says Pellier. “Some have already been made, and they’re fantastic! For example, one of our members wrote an illustrated book with an ArtePoly member, which they now want to publish.”
Sustainability a core value
“It’d be easy to say that sustainability doesn’t really matter to us at Plume, or that any impact we have could be only marginal” says Pellier. “But the truth is that it was easy to incorporate aspects of sustainability into our activities, and we know we’re making a difference. For example, we served a vegetarian cocktail buffet at our latest awards ceremony, and people really appreciated it! Making these kinds of choices at events does help change things.”
“It’s great to be able to build awareness among clubs that aren’t very sustainable by having them team up with those that are,” says Pellier. “We’ve got lots of ideas on our leadership team for working with even more clubs.”
Plume is still in its early stages and is open to all kinds of creative new initiatives. “We’re happy to welcome people from all backgrounds with an idea they’d like to take further. We’re also open to teaming up with other organizations,” says Guy.
Pellier adds: “And if you need to write something, give us a call. We can do just about anything – sustainably!”