writing a political poem
When I was in my senior year of college, I was dating the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and I found myself wanting to address their execution in a poem. I had passionate feelings about her, and the execution of her grandparents. The intensity of my feelings was actually a barrier to accessing something authentic. I quickly found how difficult it is to write a poem when you enter into the experience with a preconceived notion of what the poem should be. The poem kept coming out “that was wrong”, or “the government sucks”—I couldn’t move beyond that. What I lacked was an entry point. What I also lacked was an open-ness to letting the poem become whatever it needed to be. After a few months of banging my head into the blank page, which was beginning to feel like a brick wall (funny, how something so seemingly light can become so hard and solid), I started doing research about the Rosenbergs, reading about their case. Eventually an entry point revealed itself—instead of talking about the Rosenbergs in general terms, as historical icons, I decided to make them personal, three-dimensional. I ended up writing a love poem of sorts, centered on an imagined last kiss, the night before their execution, the last time they would rub their noses together. I don’t know whether they had such a moment in real life, but for the poem’s sake that kiss good-bye needed to happen.
Also in my first book, I wrote a poem about this girl I had a major crush on, probably the most major crush I ever had. It was debilitating. I was in grad school, in northern Virginia, and used to see her around campus. Finally I talked to her, under the most ridiculous pretense; (Carolyn Forche actually once ordered me out of workshop and said I couldn’t come back to class until I introduced myself to her.) This was 1992; the first war with Iraq had just happened, and there was (what seemed like) a lot (at the time) of anti-Middle Eastern sentiment in the air. One of the poems I wrote to her (Our Shadows Dance in Riot Gear) was a love poem that fused fear-based cultural stereotypes with my romantic feelings for her.
Over the past ten years I’ve felt an increasing responsibility/desire to engage political issues in my poems, but I cannot command my muse. I cannot sit down and say, “muse, this is what we’re going to do…” That doesn’t work. I can bring wishes to the blank page, but not commands. I have a stubborn muse, who responds much better to a cordial pose.
About seven years ago I wrote an eight-page (unpublished) essay about how there should be a Slavery Museum on the mall in Washington DC. The essay eventually evolved into a poem that threaded together several narratives, touching on white privilege and the police, the execution of Diallo, and the nation’s inability to accept its past.
Another more recent poem wrestles with the dilemma of working in the medium of language, when language is the tool of political manipulation; it started out as a long-distance love poem, but maybe I was also thinking of something Joseph Brodsky once said about Americans assuming that the arrival of authoritarian-like forces would involve kicked-in bedroom doors, when actually it starts with the language.
Jeffrey McDaniel is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Chapel of Inadvertent Joy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). Other books include The Endarkenment (Pittsburgh, 2008), The Splinter Factory (Manic D, 2002), The Forgiveness Parade (Manic D Press, 1998), and Alibi School (Manic D, 1995). His poems have...