Speaking poetry to power

Poets discuss the intersection of personal and political for a pre-election reading at Harvard Art Museums.

By Isa Flores-Jones ‘19

On the one hand, there are inflammatory election seasons. On the other, there are bonfires. This year’s showdown between the Trump and Clinton campaigns has been both. When “locker-room talk” and leaked emails dominate the political stage, the arts provide an arena for genuine expression. Poets, in particular, are ready to answer the call. To that end, five imaginative voices will be part of “A Provocation:A Pre-Election Poetry Reading” at 6 p.m. October 24 at the Harvard Art Museums. Poets Anne Waldman (Matriot Acts and Manatee/Humanity), Tyehimba Jess (Olio and leadbelly), Don Mee Choi (Hardly War), Rodrigo Toscano (Explosion Rocks Springfield) and Juliana Spahr (This Connection of Everyone with Lungs and An Army of Lovers) will present their words and invite the Harvard community to share in a night of exclamation, frustration, reclamation and, yes, provocation.

Waldman, Spahr and Jess talked to me about the ways in which their poetry engages with personal politics and politics in general. An edited and condensed version of their thoughts follows.

Anne Waldman: “Poetry has the possibility to help wake the world up to itself. It’s complicated crimes and its tenderness and beauties as well. This was a view Allen Ginsberg and I shared as we founded the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, in the mid-‘70s. We saw the development of the Outrider tradition as a means of envisioning an ‘activist’ poetics, which could include reading poems at the Rocky Flats Plutonium Plant and being arrested as we worked to help close the place down. We were arrested with Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame. This view includes poems of protest and celebration, and looks at the importance of investigative and documentary poetics and archives as vital histories, not manipulated and manufactured histories. Poets can be seen as the true historians.”

Juliana Spahr “What is often considered to be ‘political’ content shows up in my work. But I tend to think of it less as ‘political’ and more just as what I am thinking about. And I don't really think of myself as a political poet, nor do I want to strive to be that. I write stuff for some reason that probably has to do with a series of peculiar and specific moments that lead me to find the poem as a good place to do some thinking, something that I'm not sure I still think, and here I am right now, but I might not be here in the near future or I could be, too. Who knows? Not me.”

Tyehimba Jess “All art has a political lens. At the same time, that’s not necessarily the only lens through which art should be viewed. There is no real escape from the political. From the topic one chooses to the topic one doesn’t choose, to the perspective that one has as an individual involving oneself in the arts. There’s no way to escape the political ramifications of art. But that doesn’t mean the only impetus behind art is political. I have an understanding of this country’s political process, as one that’s intermediate from the mechanisms of genocide, of slavery, a political process that has been born and bred from those circumstances. I guess what I’m saying is: I write about history. The more I write, the more I see the circles in history repeat themselves, both in our political seasons and in our everyday comedies, in our military, in our prison-industrial complexes, in our entertainment industry. I see my work as an historical reflection into the political forces that have shaped my existence in this country. History is a mirror to the past, a mirror to the present and a vision to possible futures. Those histories are inescapable, even those they’ve been affected by erasure; by disposal. That past keeps keeping up with us.”