Sunday, August 30, 2009


Who Gets to Write Political Poems - A Riff Off Eileen Myles on Harriet

I woke up this morning intending to weigh in on the Poetry Foundation blog, Harriet, about Eileen Myles' response to Sean Patrick Hill's review in Rain Taxi (not available online) of State of the Union, the anthology of political poems published by Wave Books. I haven't seen the anthology yet, or read Hill's review, and I certainly don't have time to read the hundreds of comments generated by Myles' opinion piece. Still, I have a lot to say about political poetry and Myles makes good points in her critique of Hill, who apparently voices the tired position that in order to have the standing to write a political poem one has to have directly experienced war or some other form of violence and persecution.

But every time I try to go to the site today my browser seizes up - I can't scroll, I can't do anything. And the Wave Books page on the anthology seems to be down so I'm having trouble finding out who's included in the collection. Telling? Hmmm - technological helplessness... as metaphor for women's relative powerlessness in cyberspace? Should I write a political poem?

Of course I'm being glib, but let's examine at Hill's basic premise (assuming Myles got it right): that only certain people -- veterans of conventionally understood war zones -- have the standing, the right, to write poems about the broader world. Only in America have I heard this position asserted. In Italy I had to explain at length why we needed Poets Against the War or Split This Rock. Italians couldn't imagine poets who write socially engaged works feeling isolated from the poetry mainstream.

We are all citizens of this fast-dying planet; we are responsible for its death. As Americans we consume the cheap products of poorly paid and otherwise exploited workers in our own country and around the world. We were governed for 8 years by a murderous, lying political regime. Even today, the Obama administration continues to wage wars in our name, to turn a blind eye to Israeli occupation and oppression of Palestinians, to impose US military bases all over the world, to support economic policies here at home that keep the poor and working classes powerless. Our systems of education, criminal justice, and health care are grossly inequitable.

Myles makes the critical point that if we are female or queer or a person of color, everyday life is a war zone in the United States: rape, hate crimes, violence in our neighborhoods and homes.

But even if we are "comfortably middle class," as Hill apparently accuses the poets in State of Union of being, it seems to me that we’re not given a pass. Indeed, we have an extra responsibility to speak out, to expose the inequities, to make clear the ways in which we benefit every day from, as in my case, white skin, education, heterosexual marriage.

I also deeply resent the notion that we should take some part of our lives (our relationship to the wider world) and rope it off, not write about it. Please don’t tell me what I can’t write about. I assert: Any topic is worthy of poetry. John Updike wrote a poem to a particular turd he “struck off” one afternoon. Childish? Perhaps. But no one told Updike what topics he should consider worthy of poetry.
I have read hundreds – perhaps thousands – of “political” poems while editing Poets Against the War anthologies, curating the Sunday Kind of Love reading series at Busboys and Poets in DC, and organizing now two Split This Rock Poetry Festivals. The fact of the matter is that there are as many ways to write a political poem as there are poets. More, in fact, since many poets write lots of different kinds of such poems. Poets are writing challenging, funny, grieving, confounding, angry, hopeful poems about our benighted and beautiful world. American poets are doing this and doing it in all kinds of interesting ways, far more poets than we can hope to feature in a decade of biannual festivals. I salute you all.

Rather than tread the tired territory of whether one should write political poems, and who deserves to do the writing, again and again, let’s read this work, spread the good word, celebrate these poems and poets. We could begin – and I will – with the poets who will read at Split This Rock next year, March 10-13, 2010. Check out this list: Chris Abani, Lillian Allen, Sinan Antoon, Francisco Aragón, Jan Beatty, Martha Collins, Cornelius Eady, Martín Espada, Allison Hedge Coke, Andrea Gibson, Natalie Illum, Fady Joudah, Toni Asante Lightfoot, Richard McCann, Jeffrey McDaniel, Lenelle Moïse, Nancy Morejón, Mark Nowak, Wang Ping, Patricia Smith, A.B. Spellman, Arthur Sze, Quincy Troupe, and Bruce Weigl.

All of these poets are in the world, are poet-citizens, in a variety of ways. Lillian Allen is an originator of dub poetry and a leader on diversity and culture in Canada. Fady Joudah was a field doctor with Doctors Without Borders. Cornelius Eady is a founder of Cave Canem, the organization for African American poets. Jan Beatty has worked as a welfare caseworker and an abortion counselor. Mark Nowak facilitates “poetry dialogues” with Ford autoworkers in the US and South Africa.

And their poetry reflects this diversity of experience and background: Jan Beatty’s plainspoken explorations of gender and working class life; Mark Nowak’s documentary poetics, weaving news accounts and corporate instructional guides into the poems; poem-songs of Lenelle Moïse; the often short sharp lyrics of Cornelius Eady; A.B. Spellman’s jazz-inflected sounds.

Political poetry – even the term is tainted, in America; at Split This Rock we often call it socially engaged poetry or social justice poetry –contains multitudes. To further adapt Walt Whitman, the godfather of these poets, social justice poetry is not a bit tamed, it too is untranslatable, it sounds its barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

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