Place, Time, Consciousness: Three New Political Anthologies


Rachel Zucker makes a good point re anthologies. They can be frustratingly fragmentary. Having edited or coedited a number of them, my feeling is that each anthology ideally ‘earns’ (that old poetry workshop term!) its right to exist by doing something a book of poems by one person could not do. An individual book of poetry can never speak on behalf of more than an individual poet (even a poet who seems to be channeling a wider perspective or experience)—but an anthology can speak on behalf of something larger: a time, a place, or a poetic approach. I have 3 new anthologies in mind. While one concerns place, one time, and one approach, they share a common focus on the political world.

This month I went to DC for a couple of different events, more time than I'd spent before in its poetry community, and I fell in love with many aspects of the place. At the Split This Rock Poetry Festival I picked up an anthology that has helped me understand why: Full Moon on K Street: Poems about Washington DC, edited by Kim Roberts (Plan B Press). The chronology of this book goes back past Sterling Brown, but it includes many poets from the contemporary “local” scene (many from Roberts' online journal Beltway Quarterly). The book is full of surprise and humor and energy, from Michael Lally opening a poem, “DC, do you wanna dance?” to Esther Iversen's "tribute" to Bush’s second inauguration:

Second Inauguration

How high and sharp the rooftop snipers.
How empty and fearful the downtown streets.
How many rows deep the local police.
How many rows deep the bussed-in police.
How many rows deep the National Guard.
How many rows deep the soldiers.
How many rows deep the secret service
How many rows deep the service that is no secret . . .

Full Moon is not explicitly a political book, but through attentiveness to DC in all its aspects, it becomes so in poems like this one or Hilary Tham's "Mrs. Wei on Government"

In Washington, DC, Mrs. Wei takes a tour
of the Capitol and is impressed.
She tells her daughter,
"Malaysian Government is like the American
price system: take it or leave it.
It's easy enough to leave a dress hanging

on the rack, but a country is not something
you can get up and walk away from. Your Congress
resembles our marketplace: haggling and shouting
until everyone is a little satisfied.
Can we visit a shop where I can talk
the price down? I want to buy a victory.

I need a good fight."

. . .Fresh and memorable poems from a true range of voices. An additional unique charm is that each author bio ends with a sentence giving concrete information about DC evoked by that poet's poem; for example, "Kenneth Carroll is the author of a book of poems, So What? For the White Dude Who Said This Ain't Poetry. He is the past coordinator of WritersCorps DC and the African American Writers Guild. A US Army Recruitment Office is located at Florida Avenue, where it intersects with Benning Road NE." All around, this is a fun and unique anthology and a great introduction to the very cool world of DC poetry.

Maybe it is unfair to compare these poems to those in Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama’s First 100 Days, edited by Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker (U of Iowa Press). The poems in this book were all written under great time-pressure, by members of a single (albeit very large) network of poets who said yes to an invitation from the editors to send a poem about Obama's first months in office to a website. As opposed to Full Moon On K Street, where I knew just a handful of the contributors, I was shocked to realize how many contributors to Starting Over I know personally (I was invited to send to the website myself, and would have if I hadn't been unusually busy that month). The time-pressure may be why this cultural and historical document is characterized overall by “breeziness,” as Denise Duhamel points out on the back cover. And in that breeziness, it captures a time, both a powerful mood ( as Brenda Shaugnessey’s “Citizen” reports on her feelings after election day (”I think I feel my limbs again”) and a poetic vocabulary.

The aesthetics of this anthology provide a good cross-section of contemporary poetic modes, moving through roughly three generations from Ann Waldman’s beat-influenced syntax (oh, those missing articles!) and Marvin Bell’s carefully vatic dead man chant, to Patricia Smith’s anecdotal cascade and Prageeta Sharma’s philsophical threading, to Matthew Zapruder’s dazed inclusiveness and Major Jackson’s loose and slightly bitter verse couplets. While a handful of poets clearly focus their poems on Obama (Jeanne Beaumont’s shield poem, for example), many are too abstruse for me, at least, to decipher any meaningful connection; I think most readers would agree that the book overall tells a lot more about the poets than it does about its ostensible subject--making it, arguably, an even more accurate document of the mainstream poetry of our time. Still, it's a very clever idea, well-executed, full of surprising juxtapositions of well-known and unknown poets, and with a great front cover. How could anyone who reads poetry and was happy about Obama's election resist owning it?

I've saved the best of these 3 good political anthologies for last. Fire and Ink: An Anthology of Social Action Writing, edited by Frances Payne Adler, Deb Busman, and Diane Garcia (U of Arizona Pres) obviously took a huge amount of time, thoughtfulness, and passion to compile. And it will all pay off; this gorgeous, rich, sensitive, valuable book will have lasting value for a large number of people. It's a natural for teaching, but not too academic-looking; it's browsable, mullable, and lose-yourself-inable. Divided into ten sections, from "The Politics of Voice" through sections on labor writing, environmental justice, race, prison writing, and war and ending with "Waging Peace" and "Social Action Writing," it includes wonderful and moving poems, essays, and stories that will surely achieve their aim of adding social action awareness, "along with craft, to the creative writing toolbox. "

As long as I can remember, it has been a stereotype of poetry workshops that it's nearly impossible to write good poems that are explicitly political. This belief has been used to justify the exclusion of political writing from many mainstream publications. And in turn it has led to a reluctance to write explicitly political poems in workshops and MFA programs. But at last it seems that, as the editors of Fire and Ink write, the "centuries of walls of silence have been coming down, and social action writers have been witnessing and resisting injustice . . . Prisoners have been writing about their abusive world behind bars. Women who have been raped and/or have become victims of incest have been taking back their truths..."

All three of these anthologies speak to a renewed interest in political poetry. One is centered on a place, one on a time. Fire and Ink has a broader ambition: it is centered on a consciousness, one that will help many of us attain a new way of thinking about, responding to, and taking artistic responsibility for our place and our time.

Originally Published: April 26th, 2010

Annie Finch is the author or editor of more than twenty books of poetry, plays, translation, literary essays, textbooks, and anthologies, including the poetry collections Eve (1997), Calendars (2003), and Spells: New and Selected Poems (2012), and the long poems The Encyclopedia of Scotland (1982) and Among the Goddesses: An Epic...