Poetry News

Carol Muske-Dukes & Bob Holman Start a Neo-Con Convo on Poetry and Empire with American Renga

By Harriet Staff

Poets Carol Muske-Dukes and Bob Holman are chatting rengas and relevance on the Huffington Post! Their recent co-edited publication, Crossing State Lines: An American Renga, is out to "(mostly) approving press," as Muske-Dukes notes. The book originated with an idea from painter Eric Fischl, who wanted to suss out how Americans were feeling about America post-9/11; and he eventually brought on folks like Chuck Close, Ed Ruscha, Alex Katz, David Salle, Chuck Close, Carole Bayer Sager, Laurie Anderson, Edward Albee and Jasper Johns. Muske-Dukes and Holman took care of the poetry "wing" of things. As Muske-Dukes explains:

I suggested that the renga, the ancient Japanese linked verse form, could be just the right delivery system for the "varied carols" (as Bob describes them) -- of the chorus of participating poets. In a variation on the original form, each poet was allowed ten lines, some worked in syllables, as per the Japanese tradition, others did not. Robert Pinsky begins the renga on the Atlantic coast, lines written in October -- and Robert Hass ends the renga, signing off on the Pacific coast in "greeny April". In between: "Four time zones, oceans of prairies" -- Also in-between, a poetic relay race, as each poet receives and passes the word-torch to the next in line.

Holman, writing from Nepal, might have some interesting things to say on the other end of things:

Bob: Dear Carol -- at 4:40am from my room at the Yak and Yeti Hotel in Kathmandu. Of course I also just want to get the Himalayas in here somewhere, and how the crew that brought me here, the Iowa International Writing Program in conjunction with the US State Department, is sending some of us on from here to Pakistan and Afghanistan -- I can't go because of visa and timing issues (I'll be in Dubai instead). But what I want to get at is the RELEVANCE of poetry in light of the publication of Crossing State Lines: An American Renga. So that's my first question to you:

Q: Is Poetry relevant?

Don't think generic Gioia--this generates much of interest, but in this case is particular to their company:

Bob: The thought came to me while listening to you, Bob Hass and Ed Ledford on NPR with Renee Montagne. (on a recent segment of Morning Edition) that since Ledford (one of the renga poets) is a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army who was stationed in Afghanistan when he wrote his section of the renga -- (it seemed) to the four of you there was no doubt of poetry's relevance.

But today, in our culture, poetry's relevance is in doubt to many: look no further than the recent Tea Party flare-up against the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, the largest annual poetry festival in the country. It was as if the word "poetry" were a joke when considered against other more important budgetary needs, like bombs or health care, say, and even health care being seen as dubious by some.

But on April 22, 2011, a month plus after Harry Reid had the innocent audacity to say that "We need taxpayer funding for the Cowboy Poetry Festival," four US citizens (that would be Carol Muske-Dukes, Robert Hass and Lt. Colonel Ed Ledford, who contributed to the Renga) discussed on National Public Radio, itself an institution in crisis: issues of foreclosure, birdsong, 9/11, Homer, and the fact that most Americans have lived their whole lives in a time of war, all in relationship to a single slim book of 63 pages, a book of poetry by 54 poets: Crossing State Lines: An American Renga. For 7 minutes 20 seconds this far-ranging conversation not only took poetry's relevance as a given but got strength from what they found there: "It's so dark...it's remarkable," said Hass of Ledford's poem, which includes the lines "like/slapping the moron beside the bully, we invade Babylon to/applause."

Carol: Indeed, those lines of Ed Ledford's have the hell-dark humor Bob is referring to. When the three of us were on Morning Edition (a week or two ago) Ed's reading of those devastating lines that end with the savagely apt "Heh heh heh, sure showd em, didn we, Dead-eye" rocked the airwaves.

Just to tighten the focus on "relevance" -- this segment of Morning Edition unwittingly lit some neo-cons pants on fire, bigtime. Their enraged blog response to the three of us, three poets reading their poems about foreclosure, war, "greeny April" -- and the lone lectern that Ed Ledford describes standing in the rubble of the Pentagon after it was hit on 9/11 (Ed was inside the building) -- ironically highlights the power of the word, the power of poetry to endure and prevail. On that lectern in the trashed Pentagon was a dictionary, untouched, unburned, pages open -- as if inviting a passerby in the chaos to (literally) find meaning.

You can find the entire interview here, though what Muske-Dukes is referring to is superweirdly interesting as well. If you can stomach it, check out the conservative view on poetry and empire in this article.

Originally Published: June 8th, 2011