Thursday, October 18, 2007


Are there political love poems? On Defining Political Poems, by Guest Blogger Kim Roberts

In a rare guest appearance on this blog (OK, first such), Kim Roberts, the one, the only editor of Beltway Poetry Quarterly, and Advisory Board member of Split This Rock Poetry Festival, addresses the age-old question, What makes a poem political? Stumped? Read on.


What's your definition of a political poem? This came up recently; Regie Cabico and I are working on a special issue of Beltway Poetry Quarterly, which will be published January 1, 2008. The issue will be released in honor of the Split This Rock Poetry Festival (which takes place March 20-23), and will include work by some of the organizers and some of the featured readers.

The Split This Rock Festival description says it will highlight poems of "provocation and witness." But what does that mean? I'd like to think the "political" can be interpreted widely. Regie suggested that our invitation for submissions include a definition so we ensured we'd get a range of responses.

When we see a poem about government, politics, war, or leadership, we can all point to it and agree it's political.

The feminist movement taught us that "the personal is political" (a phrase first coined by Carol Hanisch in an essay of that same name, published in 1970, that was widely adopted). So certainly (good feminist that I am), I want to count poems about gender and sexuality, and poems about body image. I think other poems about identity should be included as well: poems addressing disability, immigration, and cultural heritage. Poems about religious and ethnic identity would also count.

I also believe that poetry describing how we interact with our communities is inherently political. That means poems on subjects of civic engagement, activism, education, and group identity get thrown into the mix. For the same reason, poems that describe our interactions with the wider world should be included as well: themes of history, Americana, and cultural icons are political because they help us interpret our background and influences.

But soon it starts to feel like we could make a case for any kind of poem. Are there political love poems? Certainly. What doesn't count? Is everything political, simply by being interpreted though a human prism? Are there political nature poems? (Well--of course--poems about ecology count.)

The political, it seems, intersects through most human endeavors. Not to get all fuzzy and vague about this--I like precision. In the end, though, I think political poetry is defined by a heightened self-awareness on the part of the writer.

Thank you for writing about the definition of political poetry. I think it's something that all of us who write and read "poetry of witness" should think about.
Too often the idea of political poetry becomes 'wishy-washy"--where any poem can be considered politcal.
On the other hand, too often, the definition of political is made too narrow. So that a poem on any topic other than say, war or peace, is deemed not political.
I think your point about self-awareness is key here. For instance, I write poetry from a disability culture perspective. I consider my poetry political because I'm writing not only about the body (in a personal sense..pain, limitation, forging new images of body idenity) but of the body as part of the "body politic." That is, I write with an awareness that I'm part of a social change movement--an effort to challenge oppression and forge identity within a socio-cultural, community context.
Another point is that, yes, the political is personal--deeply personal. But, it's personal within the context of community--of society--of an awareness that one is a part of society. The political poet often writes out of the personal--but with an awareness.a passion--to comment on, to change the cultural..the global.
Actually, I think there can be political love poems. A couple of my poems about Helen Keller are love poems. Where Helen is thinking about the man she loved when she was young. These poems are political, I think, because Helen knows that she was not allowed to marry the man she loved--because society did not permit people with disabilities to marry or to have children at this time. (Also her family and her teacher nixed the marriage because they believed that a deaf-blind woman could not marry). So yes, I believe some love poems are political.
This is as profound as I can get on only 1 cup of coffee.
Thanks to you and to Reggie for doing the Split Rock Beltway issue!
Kathi Wolfe
One more thought. You mused about whether a poem on a topic could be considered not to be a political poem.
I think this is sometimes the case..depending on how one approaches the topic.
Take the topic of disability..since this is a perspective that I often write out of.
There are some very good poems about the physical and emotional pain of living with a disability. But, some of these poems aren't political. Because, they're written from only a personal context--that is not written from within the community/society context. These poems aren't working to forge social change.
I'm not saying here that political poems need to be preachy or didactic in tone..but that, for example, poems on disabilty..are political when they're written within the context of the intersection of the personal and the community. I think this is the case for political poems on other topics.
I also think political poetry has an awareness that we live in an intersection of communities--affiniity groups. That many of us are part of many communities--from the lgbt community..the disability people of color..etc.
Kathi Wolfe
Wow - altogether the most thoughtful comments on the blog so far! Thanks, Kathi. I absolutely agree with all that you say. And yes, love poems can definitely be political. To revolutionary love!
Kim -

This topic evokes many ideas I have wrestled with for the last several years. I have to say, I I think the "personal" color for "political" is a good one.

I too hope that a poem need not mention something or someone in official "politics" to be political. But I would go one step more. I think a political poem necessarily presents a challenge and speaks of gaps in power among different people. Challenge and Power.

So, is any poem that challenges a reader to feel or think beyond traditional ideas a political poem? I think it might be. Similarly, is any poem that addresses differing levels of power a political poem? I think so.

Here's a personal example: If I write a love poem for my partner, as a gay man in America, that might automatically serve as a political poem. Even if I am not speaking of marriage, gay rights, anything explicitly political. I am mindful that when we simply walk down the street holding hands we are engaging in a policital act. (though we don't mean it to be)

Because the idea might challenge a current norm, and because the idea illuminates where power resides and where it does not, I think it is political. To me, those two ideas of Challenge & Power speak to the heart of political poetry.

Just some ideas. Thanks for getting me thinking on this beautiful Sunday morning.

Peace, Joseph Ross
I think the biggest problem around political poetry is how much of it is so bad. Of course that's true of poetry in general, not just political poetry. But I think political poetry has more pitfalls. There's a certain thinness to so much of it, and a falling on hackneyed shrillness.
But I do appreciate your starting this conversation.
It seems the question of political-ness rests largely with the reader. To build on Joseph Ross's comment, in some circles, a love poem involving gay men or women is simply a love poem, in others it speaks to the ominous "gay agenda."

Once a piece of writing crosses over from personal space--the writer's notebook or hard drive--to public space--a book, blog, or magazine--it is the reader who gets to decide.
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