What Can Political Poetry Do?
After years of attending AWP (the Associated Writing Programs' annual conference--Brits, imagine 11,000 writers in one U.S. city for three days) and thereby obtaining my American lit and food fix, I decided to take a break this year. It proved to be fortuitous, as I was suffering from a flu for the first time in years, and a bad one at that. It was only when I spoke to Lesley Wheeler that I began to feel sorry I'd missed it.
She told me people were talking about hexes, spells, incantations--what poetry can do in this terrifying new era, signified in the U.S. by Trump's presidency. What is the power of language when it seems people make important political decisions while discounting the facts? By discounting them? What can poetry do now?
In Lesley Wheeler's classroom at Washington and Lee University, my poetry made the students argue. More specifically, Scar led to a discussion about whether humanity was really the "earth's curse," whether the situation were really so dire. I was so pleased the students' reading of my poetry led them to consider and discuss the extent of humanity's responsibility for climate change. I felt as though I'd raised awareness, quite like my reading of Peter Reading's tremendous -273.15 (Bloodaxe, 2005) sharpened mine.
Last year, I wrote more poems in urgent response to political events than I ever had before. I wrote about the disproportionate killings of African Americans and the media (mis)representation of them; I wrote about Brexit as well as the rise in hate crimes that followed; I wrote about Trump and his proposed wall. The impulse--for impulse it was--was strong; it felt necessary to write in response to these events. I responded reflexively.
When I received an email soliciting a submission for an anthology of poems in response to Trump's election, I was delighted not only because I already had an appropriate poem to send, but more because I wanted to be part of such an effort. Effort, that's the word. Did you know effort comes from the old French verb esforcier, from the Latin ex, out and fortis, strong? The anthology presents a strong, outward-looking response to events, that can help those of us who read it (even if we are the choir we're preaching to) stay vigilant in fighting against government measures with which we deeply disagree.
The anthology, Resist Much, Obey Little: Inaugural Poems to the Resistance, came out last week; it's available online for $30 here, and half the profits go to Planned Parenthood--there's a palpable positive outcome! Happily a couple reviews have already appeared online, and one includes my poem as one of five highlights of the anthology. You can read the review and my poem here (if you do, be sure to go on and read Forrest Gander's excellent poem which follows). And please, share your thoughts about these matters with me in the comments. I'd be grateful.