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Journal, Day One

By Patricia Spears Jones

Yes, I have performance anxiety folks. I don’t blog. I do send out epistles via e-mail to my friends and family, but you are a stranger to me Dear Reader and I am on one side of an odd equation. Okay, this is not about algebra, it’s about poetry. But “Ars poetica” always scared the heck out of me, so okay, poems, poets, intrigue. I ran into an old friend who had stopped writing poetry for a decade to focus on fiction and she’s returned to poetry. She’ll probably write fiction again, but poetry is still the essential art.

It is essential because when you get down to it, our deepest, craziest emotions; our philosophical biases are often found in a few lines or stanzas of verse. It could be the relentless economy of the form(s) that lend poems a capacity to pack a BIG WALLOP in so small a space. Even in an era of growing cynicism, careerism, and just plain exhaustion from the bad news of this world, poetry remains subversive. Try as we might to join the cultural media industry as a kind of specialized entertainment—those hip hop guys rhyme, those MFA guys rhyme, we remain on the edges. There has been a lot of discussion about where poetry is in the marketplace, but I think that’s not what should worry poets.

I agree with much of the argument from Tim Seibles in “An Open Letter” from his collection Hammerlock,

I hear about what poets and poetry can do: Poetry will never reach the general public. Poetry will not succeed if it’s excessively imaginative. Poetry can’t change anything. . . . I used to believe these notions were born of thoughtful consideration and humility, but now I see them as a kind of preemptive apology, a small-hearted justification for the writing of a hobbled poetry. He goes on to ask Why not a sublimely reckless poetry—when the ascendant social order permits nearly every type of corruption and related hypocrisy? Why not risk more and more?

Why not risk more and more? Like every art, poets have to learn craft; have to know something of what went before; have to have respect speech. And we need to take cues from the courage, and brilliance of our literary progenitors, no matter what their genre. Just think of Frederick Douglass’—not a poet, but truly one of our great writers—in his Narrative describing how he learned to read and write and how important literacy is to liberation, to humanity fulfilled.

Why are we not risking more in our art? Well, fellow citizens and poets, what are we to say about our nation at this juncture? Indeed, what is our culture and who is framing it at this moment of American imperial power on the one hand and loss of American values (fair play, innovation, upward mobility) on the other hand. Think on this: I recently read an article from a New Orleans media group about the police’s decision to regulate the clubs who organize the second liners by charging fees for the club’s parades—they don’t do that for Mardi Gras or tourist parades. Just to give you context:

The clash between New Orleans police and cultural groups asserting their right to the streets came to a head in July 2005, just before Katrina hit, when Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana collapsed in the middle of public hearings on alleged police harassment of Mardi Gras Indians. He died hours later. His last words to the public were “I want this to stop.”
Reeling from Montana’s death, the NOPD at the time promised better community policing and cultural training for its officers.

This cultural disconnect from a living tradition plays out across this nation. I’ve been to New Orleans, was there when Andy Young’s father died. I went to the funeral—this was back in the day like the 1970s—indeed the brass bands’ somber tones sung the body into the crypt, this being New Orleans, where people are buried above ground. And of course, once the sad business is done, we’ll get up and party. “A happy death” someone called it. Well, who do you think did that partying? Guys in suits? Socialites—possibly? But mostly it was the dishwashers, the janitors, the dock workers, musicians in between jobs, and a guy or gal friend of a friend— the poor people who are NOT being welcomed back to New Orleans. Or think about the banning of fireworks during the Lunar New Year by the Giuliani administration—some part of me believes allowing so many bad spirits to not be loudly banished left New York City vulnerable, left us open to the attack of September 11. Okay, a quiet Lunar New Year did not create murderous Islamist hijackers. But their deed took place in the Year of the Dragon and I know that many fear the idea of spirits even as they play with crystals, burn candles, and add to their dream books. How much of what happens to us remains invisible, on some other plane?

New Orleans will not be healed if poor people and their social network remain tattered and suppressed. New Orleans would just become another sanitized tourist trap—French Quarter Ville, y’all? But then the poor people in this country are not welcome anywhere, except to be exploited.

I got a day job with health care; but I live like many of the people in New Orleans, paycheck to paycheck. I ain’t poor, but I ain’t rich and I would suggest that most poets are in the same shoes. How do we explore our status in our work? How do we categorize ourselves, class wise? Class like race is one of those topics that we recognize as important, but then suddenly we can’t quite speak. A good way to start the discussion is with an interesting book by Gary Lenhart entitled The Stamp of Class: Reflections On Poetry & Social Class. In it he discusses the question of class by looking at the work of a variety of poets: Tracie Morris, William Carlos Williams, Ted Berrigan, and Ron Padgett, among others. My questions to American poets on the eve of Independence Day: How do we write as citizens? What if we are not persons of faith? What if you have had an abortion? What if you oppose the military? What if you feel as if the Age of Reagan has driven all but the gloss out of America? What if you think war is a great thing, not all poets are pacifists? Where in quatrains, tercets, couplets, blues, and haikus are the words that examine our lives as lived now? How are we dealing with Babylon to give it that Rasta edge?

I recently gave a talk on the life and work of Lorenzo Thomas at Poets House and one of the things about his poetry was its observation of how we live—from the desire to hit it rich to our willful inattention to the growing horror of nation’s imperialistic efforts. So why the fights over paltry things—the few major prizes will always go to the elder poets, a select lot and younger poets with “connections” will get the other ones. So what. Isn’t the work of thinking and inspiration and passion and anguish and the occasional belly laugh, the making of poems the most important thing to poets. And with a few exceptions, poetry alone does not pay the rent or the mortgage.

So enough of economics. I’ve had the great pleasure of reading Maureen Owen’s most recent volume, Erosions’s Pull. Along with Lorenzo Thomas, I think of Maureen as my mentor. My work does not use her strategies on the page, but there is something about her fearlessness—her capacity to imbue ordinary problems (motherhood, gardening, divorce, aging) with language as colorful, charged, and layered as the Joseph Cornell boxes she so brilliantly examines in one of poem series—that truly inspires me to think more, see more, dare more in my own work. Plus she can be very, very funny. She ends the “Leaving Song or where would we be if we/weren’t where we are,” thusly:

After the adoption
of the anti-Jewish laws in France
tho he hadn’t want to leave Chagall
began to realize he must but
anxiously asking of Varian Fry
“Are there cows in America?”

On the eve of July 4th it is always good to reminded just how ignorant any of us are about our nation and any other. We live on one globe. And in only a few places do the birds sing without a chorus of gunfire. I wonder where would be or how would we be if weren’t where we are.

Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, July 3rd, 2006 by Patricia Spears Jones.