Poetry News

Poets on Politics at PSA Include Zapruder, Armantrout, & Kearney

By Harriet Staff

As part of a new national series called Red, White, & Blue: Poets on Politics, the Poetry Society of America "is working to recognize and understand the world of change we will all face this year, and consider the voices of poets and the place of poetry in the shifting tide." They've started with poets Matthew Zapruder, Rae Armantrout, and Douglas Kearney. A bit more about the series:

This national series brings together diverse voices in the ongoing conversation on politics and poetry with public programs in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington DC, a web feature Poets on Politics Online, and more. It's our hope that what you read and view here will expand and record the conversation for new and veteran readers of poetry.

The poets here have all responded to the same questions about politics, accompanied by a poem of their own. From Kearney's:

What are your thoughts on shifts in the state of the political voice in contemporary poetry, from the early modernist to the beat poets and black arts movement, to today? Where are we now? Where are we going?


As far as where we're going, I've been recalcitrant at earlier points in this questionnaire, so I'll play along now. From my standpoint, I think there's a desire to be "post- " (race, gender, human) and I'm distrustful of a drive to invalidate certain kinds of dialogues right when so many interesting people are starting to speak more freely. It's like there's something somebody doesn't want to talk about and so wants to change the subject for everybody in the room. What is that somebody hiding? Of course, if this is just time rolling on, then perhaps my suspicion is just a way of rationalizing my desire to hold on to something becoming obsolete. But as a high school senior in 1992, I drove a car with an 8-track in it. I know from obsolescence, and this feels different.

No. It feels like a crime scene and someone with something that looks kind of like a badge is saying: "Move along, folks. Nothing to see here." But there is, isn't there? Right past that tape. Right under that sheet.

Part of Armantrout's response to the same question:

I think most political poetry is dystopic. It identifies the damage. For that reason, it isn't propaganda. For instance, feminist poetry that reveals in stark terms what it is to be regarded as a "piece," an abject thing, is more powerful that any song saying, "I am strong; I am woman."

Today we are awash in a cacophony of stranded, self-interested, fragmented voices. Zombie discourses, if you will. People like the Flarf poets, and some of the Language Poets, work within that space, foregrounding it and making people more conscious of it. There are other poets, Juliana Spahr comes to mind here, who are asserting, (reclaiming?) a collective voice (as opposed to the cacophony.) Her collective voice is wracked with doubt and it agonizes over what to do, but it is new in that it invokes collectivity. Then, coming down from the Objectivist poets to poets like, say, Ron Silliman (though who is really like Ron?), there is the practice of attention. Such poetry is political simply in that it takes nothing for granted. If you haven't accepted the social contract/context as given, then you notice more and see things differently.

Zapruder's response to that one:

...And commerce is everywhere in our language: metaphors of buying and selling, the Yelpification of all our experiences, turning us into little evaluators of the shopping experience, which is threatening to become all experience. Oh it's truly scary how colonized my mind has become, how often I walk down the street and see a sign or even just a color, and a terrible little corporate song urging me to buy something I don't need comes unbidden to my mind, producing the desire to spend.

In poetry, more than in any other form of writing, language becomes de-familiarized (Shklovsky), un-fossilized (Emerson), new again. That may be what we need more than anything else right now in order to liberate ourselves.

Great idea for a series--we look forward to seeing who's up next. For more from all three poets, go here.

Originally Published: February 28th, 2012