O at Open Books
By day and night, Christine Deavel is the co-owner of OPEN BOOKS, Seattle’s poetry-only bookstore. She likes her clothes to help sell books. Case in point: She hopes her sweatshop-free, organic Hemp, blue cardigan ($25) and taupe-yellow Value Village camisole ($2) layered on top of a GAP poetic-black tee ($11) are the perfect complement to the color palette of the cover of a signed and numbered first edition of Lyn Hejinian’s MY LIFE ($145).
Wearing a Spiritual Ruin trench ($45), Robyn Schiff arrives—just off the plane from Iowa City—to read from her second book REVOLVER ($16), which includes the poem “Dear Ralph Lauren.” In it she outs Lauren as Ralph Lifshitz and imagines riding shotgun in his “silver Porsche 550/Spyder, designed by the first son of the/designer of Hitler’s Volkswagen.” Lauren and the poem’s speaker inhabit the same contradictory identities and desires. The speaker writes to Lauren to order a Ralph Lauren Winchester Tote that comes in “gun-check” plaid. Robyn’s poem makes us aware, as Jorie Graham puts it, “of the ultimate cost of beauty, and the endless human thirst for, and dependence upon surfaces…”
I thrust O Magazine’s April issue into Robyn’s hands in case she hasn’t seen its 24 pages devoted to poetry (and fashion). Obviously, poetry doesn’t sell magazines—any poet could have told Oprah that—because neither “poetry” nor “poem” appears on the cover. I brought O along to shop for books by the eight poets who modeled this spring’s latest looks in the issue. I find two volumes--BREAKING POEMS by the Palestinian poet Suheir Hammad (Oprah left out the word “Palestinian,” too), and YOU AND THREE OTHERS ARE APPROACHING A LAKE by Anna Moschovakis.
Later that evening reading their poetry and looking at their photographs, I feel a familiar cognitive dissonance. (It is not at all like the one David Orr describes. Mine does not lead to announcing a literary apocalypse or dishing out aside after aside so as to place a comfortable distance between me and the poet-models (See Jessica Winter’s “New York Times Columnist Shocked by Poetesses Wearing Clothes.”)
No, my cognitive dissonance originates in reading these two poets’ poems (some of which in very different ways express the complexity of inhabiting a female body) juxtaposed with seeing their bodies selling commodities—or so I think initially—in the fashion pages of a glossy woman’s magazine. In print as opposed to online, the women in the photographs look somehow vulnerable and more gorgeous, more hip and perplexed, more elegant and intelligent, more celebratory and strong.
But what are they feeling and thinking now after their 15 minutes in O exploded into days and weeks of online tweeting and posting “catty” critiques? All that noise—and I’ve read most of it—makes their silence in the photographs louder. Yes, there are lines from their poems in the photos. They are pasted on megaphones, dinner plates, tables, burlap bags, and walls, but the jumble of their mixed up font sizes and the lack of a sheltering poem as context, makes the lines almost unreadable. They look like ransom notes—get me out of this predicament, out of the pages of this magazine! But that’s how I feel. Is it a predicament for them? Could they be the brave ones—women strong enough to present our cultural predicament? Isn’t that what the flash bulb of fashion presents?
The “commentators,” as Kathleen Rooney wrote in her first post, are lining up “to tell you that you don’t really need to pay attention [to the literature picked by Oprah].” So who are these African American, Puerto Rican, Palestinian, spoken word, avant garde, political activist, literary publisher, visual artist, yoga teacher, and arts administrator poets? What is their poetry like? What is their experience of being in O? I have started emailing them and buying their books to find out, and I’ll report on Harriet as I do, if I do.
I reach Anna Moschovakis by phone and tell her about my disorienting response to the O shoot and The New York Times piece, and she asks whether "cognitive dissonance"—mine or Orr's—is necessarily a bad thing, if it might lead us to be more critical of our assumptions. She points me to a Wikipedia definition of the psychological term: “an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions.  Dissonance is also reduced by justifying, blaming, and denying. It is one of the most influential and extensively studied theories in social psychology."
This breakdown of the two ways we address this particular form of psychic malaise -- by changing attitudes, beliefs, and actions or by justifying, blaming, and denying -- helps me make sense of my gut response to the O fashion shoot and to other knee-jerk reactions I’ve read online. Could it be that our reflexive, defensive responses take the path of least resistance toward easing our discomfort (rather than critically examining it)?
I find a clip of Suheir Hammad on Al Jazeera English (now a clip on YouTube) in which the interviewer asks if she often has to defend herself:
“With your Arab roots, a lot of people in the West wouldn’t believe there could be a strong feminist streak, or a strong political activism streak in a woman, obviously. Do you find yourself constantly having to justify and explain yourself?
Suheir Hammad turns justifying herself into a broader question:
Yes, and also reminding people that the reason I have this opportunity is because I don’t veil. If I veiled my hair, I would be in a different situation. I don’t have an accent like my parents have. The accent and the visual are really important in the states and I imagine the rest of the world. And so the balance is to see the prejudice that I face as a Palestinian, and as a woman, and as a person from a Muslim family. And also to see my privilege. Because that’s the problem so many times we get to a place where we have a platform or where we can talk and we don’t realize that we’re there because someone else isn’t. And I feel that way about publishing and about opportunities to talk about my art-- there’s always another poet who hasn’t been published; there’s always another filmmaker who’s working on a screen play. I’m happy to share the space with them.
Here are a few lines from her poem “wind (break) her”:
curl of flame jeweled arms
flash smile flash flesh perfect cut damage tapestry vintage
design with no weapons dress to kill it means you don’t die
from the powerlessness of it
Many other poems in BREAKING POEMS interweave Arabic and English:
ana on corners
ana incarcerated light
you can’t see me
ana blood wa memory
--from “break (vitalogy)”
So will the megaphone she’s holding in her O photograph amplify the incantatory mix of Arabic and English in her poetry and reach more readers? Most likely. When a poem of hers was featured on Def Poetry, it became popular worldwide and was translated into a dozen languages. When asked why, she responded: “People needed to hear something from America that wasn’t vengeful.” (Are you listening Terry Jones?)
Yesterday on her Facebook page, she wrote:
do not burn, drown, disrespect anyone's holy book.
if someone disrespects your holy book, do not kill them.
Emily Warn was born in San Francisco and grew up in California and Detroit. She earned degrees from Kalamazoo College and the University of Washington. Her full-length collections of poetry include The Leaf Path (1982), The Novice Insomniac (1996), and Shadow Architect (2008). She has published two chapbooks: The Book...