Fate of the Writer: Shuttling Between Solitude and Engagement
The following essays were delivered on Thursday, April 9, 2015 at the AWP conference in Minneapolis by David Biespiel, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Lia Purpura, and Wendy Willis. The panelists sought to answer the question about the complementary and competing pressures on writers who struggle to maintain fealty to both individual sensibilities and the demands of global citizenship.
“A New Turning,” by David Biespiel
I am the kind of writer who would not be surprised if, one day while I am scrawling some piece of a poem, I were seized by a stroke and left to face the consequences of my life in front of some ultimate judgment; or by some other fluke taken to learn a different trade for which I might be better suited like as a cobbler who toils in a basement workshop, repairing shoes and memorizing Icelandic phrases. Nor would I be surprised if I were suddenly to wake from sleep and find myself back in the wide streets of Houston where I grew up and then, somewhat bemused, began to tell my long-ago friends, none of whom care much for literary life, all that had been going on in the poetry wars for nearly 35 years. I am always writing under the suspicion that there has been some kind of severe mistake, and that if I were a pig and you attached wings to me it still wouldn’t change me into an eagle.
I’ve grown reluctantly comfortable thinking of myself as this guy who has no business writing and especially no business writing in a time and under a political environment that for ten thousand reasons especially since September 11, 2001, has based itself on a stern application of power against the individual and by natural extension against the individual imagination both around the world and here at home.
We are living in challenging times, and the political facts of the world are changing so rapidly that none of the familiar systems of measurement seem adequate. We poets, who have to fashion a lifetime of insight and wisdom and knowledge of humanity into a poetic sequence, can hardly be expected to understand these changes with any kind of literary or even political confidence. Certainties abide in our mass media, as you know — including the propaganda on both FOX News and MSNBC blaring now in your hotel room. But a more honest look at the world we live in might acknowledge that we are careening from the knowledge of the probable into discoveries — and perhaps dark discoveries — of the improbable.
What is there to do then as a poet to address this state of affairs? Well I shall begin with just two improbable lines of poetry by Czeslaw Milosz that have been enormously important to me:
What is poetry that does not save
Nations or people?
I would like to explore why the changes in the world from the political to the climatic on every continent concern the fate of us all, including American poets and American writers who live under the protection of the world’s only nuclear super power and for whom the privilege of being a writer goes not only largely uncontested (notwithstanding the pressures I alluded to previously) but, as this conference personifies, affords us the capacity to form a guild of professionals in a literary industry with, for some, salaries, health care, safe working conditions and, for even some of those writers, job security and retirement supported, again for those us who teach in public institutions at least, by our fellow citizens.
In the last century, the world was on the brink of violent tragedy every decade from world wars, nuclear threat, regional violence, corporate indecency, and armed civil conflict. The 21st century has seen not one day of respite. Despite it all we writers arrive at our desks every day shining with the faith that, as Vaclav Havel said in to a joint meeting of the Congress in 1990, “Consciousness precedes being, and not the other way around…[and] for this reason, the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human humbleness and in human responsibility.”
With the Internet at our finger tips we are now uniquely equipped to witness the world as it is: as a single civilization and an integrated community of 7 billion unique human beings made up of amazing, distinctive characteristics tethered between positive and negative tendencies. This vision into our shared community conveys the integration of our social, political, economic, artistic, and literary experiences that crisscross the world at remarkable speeds.
But the Internet is just one thread connecting the world and the world’s writers. As many of the world’s political crises reveal, there is another thread tugging in the other direction too, and with equal urgency. Emerging against this global, technological web of connectivity with its roots in the ideals of the Enlightenment is the revival of ancient traditions and cultures, an awakening that seeks to exist alongside, and sometimes to rescind the contemporary world in favor of entrenched, even reactionary values of honor and shame and martyrdom and violence. It is a struggle to assert what is unique and different from the rest, and it arises, in my view, not from the kind of solitude a writer requires but from a fear of that kind of solitude and a fear of being isolated from the world’s communities.
This is a situation that ought to alarm us all. As writers we must work from solitude, yes, but in order to counter the fear of solitude. We must work to integrate our mutual connection between these various even competing forms of interests. For at the heart of our connection between the ancient and the contemporary, between, as it were, the theological and the technological, is our shared experience of humanity. Both spiritually and morally a writer renews his or her imagination by renewing a sense of responsibility for the world. And that renewal calls for a deep understanding of the past, the present, and perhaps even a kindred feel for the future.
None of us writes alone.
Now I believe that solitude is essential for creativity. I do. But solitude without a responsibility for community, solitude without the notion of offering a poem into a shared public space—a poem which before you write it never existed for a single moment in the entire history of humanity—solitude (which means the absence of human activity) without trusting the proximity and presence of human activity—imaginative activity, economic, emotional, and intellectual activity—solitude without communion, in other words, would be a form of death for a writer who even when sleeping dreams reality.
Now obviously I don’t mean literally death, for we are well aware of writers in exile, in imprisonment, in isolation, and worse. But for those of us here at this conference of 10,000 writers who this weekend at least are not suffering those sorts of trials, writers at a convention of fellow travelers, I mean, whatever our stations, well we know it falls to us to commit ourselves to work in a vanguard of shared human consciousness.
We know from the human genome project, for instance, and the breaking of the human genetic code that all human beings, regardless of race—and regardless of poetics too, whether classicists or conceptualists, shall we say—are 99.9 percent the same and that the most essential fact of our time on this earth is our common humanity. Our differences matter, no doubt, and they make for interesting conversation and debate and discourse. But our connections matter more. We live in an interdependent world, which simply means we can’t escape each other.
What would this literary revolution in the realm of commonly shared human consciousness look like? Well, for one thing, without this revolution nothing will change. We will continue on our bleak trajectory toward ecological and political breakdown. Group by group—whether literary or political—will apply their particular interest in favor of the common need. For, insofar as this conference is concerned, many writers are still under the spell of the vanity that they are at the center if not the height of individual creative actions, not just part of the commonwealth but separate from it—and therefore everything is permitted and there is little consequence to their actions. They design texts and frenetically appropriate without consequence. They fetishize the failures of language and presume the death of authorship and the erasure of individual authority as unreal as life and art. They repudiate harmony in favor of chaos and disruption. And even some extol the notion that if it doesn’t exist on the Internet, it doesn’t exist.
But the new writer I am speaking of, on the other hand, understands that our actions as writers begin in moral responsibility—responsibility to something larger than ego, larger than literary acclaim. Instead, our responsibility as writers is to a higher order of shared communion. It’s both the fire warming the center of the tribal circle and the poems sung to bind us together.
Nothing embodies the opposition to this ideal than writing by a strict code of poetics—because the problem with writing by a strict code of poetics that one’s solitude can give comfort to—regardless of the emphasis in those poetics—is that it gives you the answer before you’ve even looked at the evidence. Writing by a strict code of poetics denies the intrinsic fact—and here I’m speaking only for myself based on everything I have experienced as a writer, failed and flawed as I am—writing by a strict code of poetics denies the intrinsic fact of common experience and what we think of as human consciousness.
So today I want to express to you my belief that the ritual of poetic discovery is always a reanimation of the whole metaphor of human dream and reason. This is the ideal that I ask you to consider with me today together: in short, to accept as writers the burdens of our times.
You will not be alone.
More and more writers are affirming this stance throughout the world. If the hope of our common survival lies in human consciousness, then it goes without saying that American writers especially can neither avoid our share of responsibility for the world’s future nor shelter our dislike of politics under an alleged belief that we are safe from the chaos.
What I mean is, perhaps it’s just too easy to have independence in your poetics and then leave others to carry out the politics. If every writer thought that way, soon no writer would be independent.
I think that we writers truly understand this way of thinking. Perhaps it’s one of the reasons some of you felt called to become a writer. I believe it was the case for me. I know too that there are many writers around the world who embody what I’m saying here today, including those of you in this very room and especially among these panelists, many writers dedicated to a revolution of shared human consciousness.
For despite our literary differences and our aesthetic preferences, we must go forward to write poems (and novels and plays and essays and screenplays) by demonstrating the value of the written word fashioned from lives lived as truth, lived in truth, and nothing else—and also as poets without any literary fanaticism in order to bring demons to face their demonic deeds and to expose those complicit in the act, among all of our other interests and compulsions and obsessions as individual writers.
As Czeslaw Milosz says in the opening of “Song of a Citizen”:
A stone from the depths that has witnessed the seas drying up
million white fish leaping in agony,
I, poor man,
see a multitude of white-bellied nations
I see the crab feeding on their flesh.
Yes, if one writer in the world is imprisoned, every writer must write as if imprisoned also. And with that as the score for one’s song of solitude I hope that each of my poems and each one of your poems will be like a single silver key to free the world into enlightenment. Because shuttling
between solitude and engagement begins in the imaginary shared spaces of
consciousness where your next poem will be a bell for those who come and those who do not come, where your next poem will never leave its readers to face the perils alone, where your next poem will celebrate the successes of language, and where your next poem will triumph by solving life with life.
“The Activist Role of the Writer,” by Rigoberto Gonzalez
The queer Chicano writer Michael Nava said the following: “Invisibility is the precursor to persecution.” He made this statement in response to my question about his most recent novel The City of Palaces, in which he essentially queers the Mexican Revolution by including protagonists who are discovering or expressing their homosexuality while the nation is in the midst of war. “Why,” I asked, “is it important to locate our queer bodies within the historical narrative?” Nava replied, “Of course we [the queer bodies] have always been part of that narrative. But we have not always been seen. This invisibility has damaged us. Invisibility is the precursor to persecution.”
I hold that word—persecution—in my hand and it feels quite heavy. I say the word out loud and it leaves an odor in my breath because the sound echoes of those gasps I made when I first encountered those frightening images of the history books in which people were corralled, imprisoned, assaulted, murdered. In the contemporary period, these associations might sound a bit melodramatic, but they are certainly not out of reach because the queer body, despite such gains as hate crime legislation, continues to be a target for violence and discrimination. Just read the national headlines: Not only are they filled with the welts of homophobic attacks on the singular queer body, they keep underscoring the active presence of institutional homophobia against the queer community.
Now imagine the body of color with its complicated relationship to whiteness, to the gatekeeping laws of this country, to pop culture’s insistence on keeping it perpetually linked to the social ills such as crime and poverty, which only serves to justify its vilification. Imagine that body as the Mexican body and you come across a very short bridge leading toward indictments such as “undocumented” and “illegal,” “foreign” and “invasive.” Like the queer body, the Mexican body is forcibly locked inside its objectification, inside a symbol that produces anxiety and invites hostility.
Now imagine the queer body of color, the body that I inhabit, the body that’s layered with the aforementioned burdens. Such a body comes across as vulnerable, doubly burdened, twice as weak. Or so I’ve been told.
Let me pause here and quickly reorient this perspective, or else I will slip into the fallacy of seeing the queer body of color—my body—from the same angle as those who would harm it. Such a view of myself, a view I have been constantly shown through the accusatory lenses of the media, of religion, of politics, only serves the egregious purposes: to convince me of my own inferiority, to devalue and dehumanize me, to explain why I am bullied and ostracized, to expect to be bullied and ostracized.
I’m reminded of a presentation I gave not too long ago, in which a young man in the audience asked me, quite earnestly, “Are we really making strides as queer people of color? Are we really gaining ground in this climate where we no one seems to be listening? What do you say to those of us who are losing hope?”
My initial reaction was, to be quite honest, surprise at the pessimism of his language. Here was a young man no older than 25, a gay Latino college student at a prestigious Midwestern university, letting me know that, despite the many strides he had made, despite how much ground he had gained, he was still losing hope! It dawned on me suddenly that the question he was asking was much more a personal plight, that his journey had reached that moment of existential crisis—a kind of battle fatigue brought on when frustration and outrage overtake one’s sense of accomplishment and triumph. At that moment I knew exactly where he was coming from. I knew precisely who that young man was because I had been there once myself, before I learned to see myself through the eyes of my champions, and to stop looking at myself through the eyes of my oppressors and detractors.
I looked at this young man from the podium, careful not to come across as condescending or patronizing, but very much aware of my role as emergency mentor. “I hear you,” I said to him. “And I see you. From where I stand I see plenty to be proud of and much to celebrate. But like you, I too have sat in the dark rooms of despair. The key to heading into the light is to remember that it’s your allies, not your enemies, who stand within earshot. That you have come this far, not alone, but in good company. That there’s a rich history of struggle propelling you forward, not holding you back. And that there’s an entire library of evidence to the contrary: there is plenty of hope. If you want to access that hope, all you have to do is read.”
My use of the word library was very deliberate. As an educated artist, as a writer and a thinker, I believe in the role of literature in shaping minds and shaping lives. But let me clarify from the get-go: I do not subscribe to the notion that books can or will educate those who are already barnacled to bigotry and prejudice. There has been too much time wasted and energy expended focusing on those who will not listen, whose hearts will not soften to empathy and compassion, whose eyes will refuse to recognize the dimensionality or complexity of those they scapegoat and delegitimize. Their function is simply to distract the rest of us from turning our attention to those who need us the most—the young, our future leaders, our future citizens, our future activists.
Believe me, my life has become much less unpleasant since I stopped worrying about those who don’t want to hear me. I recall doing a radio interview once, my host asked: “What can you say to those parents who object to your gay-themed books? What can you say to the parents to help them open their minds and realize how important these types of books are?”
I was genuinely surprised because as I wrote every single one of my books I never once had anyone’s parents in mind. So why start?
I turned to my radio host and said, “The parents? I have nothing to say to parents. It’s their children I want to reach. It’s their children I’m writing for.”
The minds and lives I want to help shape are those of the youth, young people who are currently navigating that precarious stage of life when doors seem so few and windows so small. Books not only expand our imaginations and the size of our world, but they show us how people like us exist, live, love, and thrive. That queer body, that body of color, that queer body of color–there it is, on the page, flawed, imperfect, and alive. Such a beautiful thing this connection between the reader and the book, when the reader connects to the protagonist and learns about agency, introspection, and conflict-resolution. When the reader understands that the self is not alone even if it’s solitary, that the person is both an individual and part of a larger community, no matter how much of an outsider or outlier that person appears to be. What a gift to acknowledge that being different is not a reason to be afraid, or silent, or invisible, or even dead. That being different is the avenue of artistic expression for a person who is actively engaged with identity, family, community, society.
Is this that frightening “gay agenda” we are constantly accused of pushing? Asking our young people to read, to observe, to imagine, and then configure for themselves who they are and where they want to be?
This journey is my life, and it’s personal, and it’s the reason I became a writer: to add to those bookshelves which not only shape lives, they save them. What more noble cause than that, than to save the lives of our youth? And perhaps, I’m saving myself each time I complete a book and toss it out to the sea of readers like a life preserver. Someone will grab it—grab hold of me.
Therein the crux of this essay and the reason why I chose this tone: as a queer body of color I have such a great responsibility. It has always been there, but now I must be more deliberate in my resolve to assert voice and visibility because of the troubled climate I live in. Firstly, the queer community and the Chicano/Latino community are presently the most accosted groups in this country, and I belong to both of them. The queer body of color is the connecting tissue that can keep these groups from resisting solidarity because they believe their special interests are mutually exclusive. And, yes, first we must confront the racism in the queer movements and the sexism and homophobia of the Chicano/ Latino movements, but that can only take place if we stitch a dialogue together instead of chanting and protesting as we march forward on parallel lines. One visceral example of such a conversation is taking place with the UnDocuQueers, young people who refuse to divide their loyalties and identities and instead foreground the intersection of class, immigrant status, ethnicity and sexuality. By simply speaking from this nexus they reconfigure our perspectives and suddenly, there are new questions that demand more creative approaches and resolutions.
Secondly, we are experiencing an era of transition. The demographics of this country’s ethnic population are shifting, tipping the cultural scales toward all things Latino. We are also experiencing our own backlash as demonstrated by the anti-immigrant policies that direct antagonism toward our communities, by the push-back against the development of Chicano and Mexican American Studies programs, and the censoring of our literature from the public schools—all of these actions are designed to instigate fear about our expanding numbers and our growing strength. And in truth, these are nothing more than desperate measures that pretend to assert some semblance of dominance over our minds and bodies. Control over our culture and intellect is a losing fight. And the only arsenal that scared people have left is their stupidity and ignorance, and never in the history of the world have those weapons proven to be effective. What matters is what these future generations learn about us and about themselves. What matters is that the literature creates a bridge so that, in the future, there will be an understanding that the artistic and academic communities of the times past contributed to its present health.
As our Chicano/Latino community becomes amplified, we must recognize that we will bring with us our shortcomings. As much as I love and appreciate my people, I know that much of the damage inflicted upon me during my youth was committed by members of my own family, in my own house. And later, in my schools and on the streets of my neighborhoods. As the body of color becomes a majority, the queer body of color will remain a minority. Will this new majority group respond to its minority group the same way the current dominant group is responding to its queer population? I’d like to believe that our Latino brethren will know better, but knowing better doesn’t offer any guarantees. History has taught us that much.
The only certainty I can offer about the future is that we will have one. And I can only hope that our books, artistry and scholarship containing our voices, perspectives, and knowledge will be there too. And although I’m a big believer in privileging the audience of the present, I would be deceiving myself if I didn’t admit that I do ponder how our works will resonate with its audience a generation from now and beyond. This is not arrogance or presumption. I know our works will have an audience because it is human instinct and curiosity that compels people to mine their histories, their memories, their pasts. We’re doing that now. Why won’t the readership be doing that decades from today?
What I’m saying is that we still have many minds to shape and many lives to save, today and tomorrow. We must think carefully about idealizing our own progress and becoming too comfortable with the notion that as the leadership of this country begins to reflect its demographic more accurately, that we will be more enlightened than the current dominant group. I don’t know if this will be the case, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared. And that means that we simply continue to put our experiences and testimonies down in writing so that we are continually making sense of the world we live in, never letting anyone forget that the body of color, the queer body, the queer body of color—that the body—was there bearing witness. We cannot assume that there will not be an effort in the future to erase us, and we cannot be erased if we’re tattooed to the literature, to the politics, to the culture. Let us not forget that dire warning: Invisibility is the precursor to persecution.
“On Utility,” by Lia Purpura
I plucked a few phrases from the panel’s description to work on: the “primacy of the individual imagination” and the “civic and political urgencies of our time.” These two notions are in constant and active conversation for me. I struggle mightily with the issue of “utility”—what does it meant to write and be “useful”? The great daily needs are endlessly with us, out there—ruined ecosystems, institutionalized injustice—and by “out there” I mean literally outside my door—and for the most part, I’m not “out there” rebuilding my neighbors’ homes or counseling pregnant teens or cleaning local urban creeks—I’m mostly writing and teaching—and what, by that work, am I changing or helping? That’s the nutshell version of the problem. However you conceive of it—in the marketplace or the street–utility, as a measure of worth and as an ethic, is a normative frame. What “good” is your work doing? What’s the good of it? So I’m always alert to discussions at large that investigate the issue of utility—and lately I’ve discovered an intriguing kind of attention to and a resistance to measuring certain kinds of worth and work by the utility meter. I’ve been tracking a kind of zeitgeist, one that’s asserting or at least roughing out a set of values that are profoundly human and that call for a different system of belief. I’ll lay out brief synopses of a few articles which try to see clear to these values—with varying degrees of success.
Science writer Richard Conniff, has this to say in a recent NYT article titled “Useless Creatures”: “…I am bored to tears by usefulness. I am bored, more precisely, by pretending usefulness is the thing that really matters.” Conniff writes: “what typically happens is a study comes out indicating that species X, Y, and Z are in imminent danger of extinction or that some major bio region is being sucked down the abyss. And it’s my job to convince people that they should care. ..” “My usual strategy” he continues, “is to trot out a list of ways even the most obscure species can prove unexpectedly useful … that new medical bandage gentle enough for the delicate skin of the newborn and the elderly? Modeled on the silk of spider webs.” And so on. He’s troubled in a few ways by this line of reasoning, and I’ll recount a few here: first, in order to be funded, often by taxpayer money, scientists are “obliged to imply that they are two steps away from a cure for the common cold.” No basic exploratory research is tolerated. Second: wildlife conservationists use utility-based arguments to lobby for the preservation of wildlife and ecosystems: “forests, meadows and marshes prevent floods, supply clean water, provide habitat for species that pollinate crops …” and so on. And while this is of course, true, the stance asserts that we need them in order to be productive and this “productivity” angle can too easily be used against environmentalists: so, as he notes, “nothing you can say about 100 acres in the NJ Meadowlands will ever add up for a politician who thinks a new shopping mall will mean more jobs for local voters.”
He concludes the article by making another case entirely: Even when animals do turn out, by some quirk to be “useful,” that’s typically incidental to what makes them interesting. Cuttlefish do not fascinate because their skin may suggest new forms of military camouflage, but because of the fantastic light show that sometimes plays across their flanks. “Wildlife” he says, “is and should be useless in the same way music, art, and poetry are useless. They are useless in the sense that they do nothing more than raise our spirits, make us laugh or cry, frighten, disturb, or delight us. …they connect us to a world where we humans do not matter nearly as much as we’d like to think.” I’m interested in parts of the article and in his frustration with having to defend the lives of creatures in terms of their utility value for human consumption. But wildlife as “existing for our pleasure”—that’s more complicated. Sheer “pleasure” unattached to utility is part of it, but he missed a chance to discuss any creatures a priori worth, it’s importance to itself, the viability of its life as its own. (I go into this point more fully in a new essay, called “My Eagles,” just out in Orion’s March/April 2015 issue.)
Another article, titled “The Good for Nothing Garden” gets closer to the value I’m interested in. Journalist Michael Tortorello quotes wild gardener James Golden, as saying: “the best kind of garden is a useless garden … use implies something utilitarian… I don’t want it for anything utilitarian.” Golden’s rural NJ garden is not a project, not meant to restore a pristine habitat or local ecosystem… “I don’t care that much about flowering… I’m much more into seeds and pods…” he says. “A garden should be a place to sit in, think (in), look at the sky in, live in. In my case it’s a sort of psychological exploration of the hidden.” (As an aside, Mr. Golden thought briefly attending an MFA program realized he wasn’t going to be a poet and figured, quote, “I would just be gay instead.”) He says later in the article “a wild garden is not a low maintenance garden. I used to think it would be, but it’s not.” His garden of many grasses, he notes, is “aesthetic, ornamental, even emotional.” A place where he sat recently with an unrequited love from high school, recently, who was near 70, and had just come out—an encounter he describes as deeply moving. Wild garden as a space where such a reckoning and reconciling can be properly held. A place imagined for sitting, and being. The “good for nothing garden” produces nothing, it does nothing—except exist as a spot on earth where revelation might unfold. How radical, I thought, reading this—a place that just IS. And is not a means to any particular end.
Here’s an article which seeks to make certain overlooked traits useful, but in ways that are, again, slightly disturbing and skewed (according to me). A recent article in the Baltimore Sun was titled “Highly Sensitive People Have Much to Offer Society.” Citing critiques of ever popular extrovert behavior (gregariousness, dominance, being comfortable in the spotlight) the article states—and it’s the wording I’m interested in here, the language of utility—“a quieter category of humans, known as highly sensitive people, are of great value to the world.” (you kind of have to get over the “NO SHIT” factor here in order to read on….) “HSPs have great imagination and intellectual abilities’ are creative and curious, good problem solvers; greatly respect nature, art, and music, have profound and intense sensations …notice things few people notice and tend to withdraw and feel emotionally drained at sensory-rich events. …” The article ends “all this is to suggest that society needs the contributions of HSPs and needs to enable them to operate in environments where they can unleash their potential.” I read this thinking, wow, so those general, work-a-day poet traits are legit and not just weird, shy, or god help us, “dreamy! Great!”
At its most blunting, the utility ethic worms its way into art making and quite simply, makes for bad art. Let’s look at the utility requirements of a past decade: In Eudora Welty’s 1965 essay, written in defense of Faulkner and in response to a friend asking her what she was going to “do” about the racial unrest in the south… Welty wrote against what she called the “crusader” novel (or for my purposes, the novel of utility) and stood up instead for “the novel”. She said—“the writing of a novel is taking life as it already exists, not to report it but to make an object, toward the end that the finished work might contain this life inside it and offer it to the reader. … what distinguishes it above all from the raw material and what distinguishes it from journalism is that, inherent in the novel, is the possibility of a shared act of the imagination between its author and its reader.” She notes the many problems of the crusader novel, including an inability to allow in the messy dimensions of human life and the inability to behave in a wholly free way with one’s materials (“to strain it to breaking point, double it up, use it backwards.”) She says “There’s no way to know but we might guess that the reason the young write no fiction behind the Iron Curtain is the obvious fact that to be acceptable there all novels must conform, and so be alike and hence valueless. With a blueprint to work with instead of a vision” the crusader novelist leaves out “one of the greatest things—the mystery of life.” Most radically she offers this: “finally, I think we need to write with love. Not in self-defense, not in hate, not in the mood of instruction, not in rebuttal, in any kind of militance, or in apology, but with love… not in exorcisement, either, for that is to make a reader bear a thing for you. Neither do I speak of writing forgivingly… but out of love you can write with straight fury. It is the source of the understanding that I speak of.” “Love” rattled me. It seemed—not edged or muscled or wild enough. I don’t know what she means by love, exactly—love as the source—but here my intuition is helpfully outrunning my intellect—and I give over to another kind of knowing that allows that “love” is revolutionary, and a very, very demanding practice. And, as a source that powers the artist’s concern about the big, intractable issues, it’s a weird amalgam of empathy, sensibility, porosity, focus. And because “love” is in this way, mysterious, like anything of great power and mystery, it’s also been defanged, bled, and coopted, over used, made soft and not-ferocious by the culture at large.
I’d like to end with two very well-known, often quoted lines that face off with the utility ethic: first, Wm Carlos Williams’s lines from “Asphodel That Greeny Flower”: “It’s difficult to get the news from poems, but men die miserably every day from lack of what is found there…” So first off, what IS it, that’s found there? that causes a misery-tinged death of the soul, when we lack it? Staying close to the poem, some kind of “news” that’s “hard to get”—poetry’s news—the real-deal news, the kind that’s “difficult to get” because in its unnamed state, by way of its unnameablity, it delivers that which can’t be gotten elsewhere. A rare thing. A sustaining thing. A needed thing. It’s not nameable—not easily useful—it’s not designated for a particular use, but it’s a life-sustaining, free-ranging force. Without it, we’re as good as dead. Dead to what? Shades and tints and hues and rages. Dead to unchartable, “Internal difference, where the meanings are” as Dickinson said. What is found there is an under-the-radar pulse in translation, a way of listening, of making the mind on the page do something, see or speak something, that the mind in the world can’t do or see or speak.
Finally: Auden’s line: “poetry makes nothing happen” from “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”:
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of it’s saying where executives
Would never want to tamper: it flows south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
While I don’t have time for any substantial contextualizing, here’s this, briefly—if the word “nothing” is the subject of the line, then poetry in its “big-bang” capacity calls forth a palpable nothingness, a non-utility based something or state. It draws a happening from air. Makes a something-out-of-nothing gesture. And it’s exactly the “nothingness” that’s of value—poetry’s where you go for it. Or, consider another angle, too: the statement as a flat out rejection, a resistance—poetry indeed makes nothing “happen”—you can hear the statement as a kind of refutation of utility. A refusal to perform a useful function. It’s not about “happening” or making things happen. As the poem continues, “it survives/ in the valley of its saying… it survives (he says it twice) “A way of happening, a mouth.” There it is again: poetry’s a WAY. A way of being. A state. Not an end.
We live in an era of assessment. With institutions that want us to assess our “leaning outcomes”. How do we tot up our students’ improved survival rate resulting from proper dosage of “what is found there.” How to test the density of nutrient X in poetry or conduct the longitudinal study necessary to prove its effectiveness over a life time? Art resists such tallying. This is nothing to be apologetic about. I’d propose that we learn better ways of speaking up for and protecting that space, that valley; that we prescribe uselessness as a core nutrient, one we’d surely wilt without. That we write with very fierce love. With both arms around the very present moment. That we remember: A poem survives “in the valley of its making”… that a valley is a protected environment, a place guarded by mountains on either side, where, when you whisper, even the softest voice carries far.
“The Perfume of Resistance,” by Wendy Willis
I come to you today with twin anxieties. On one hand I am terrified by what we have learned about mass government and corporate surveillance, about the erosion of our civil liberties, about the increasing infrastructure of authoritarianism. And we all should be afraid. Just yesterday we learned that not only has the government been using blanket suspicionless surveillance to protect national security, but that widespread data collection was routinely used in drug enforcement, even before 9/11. I am sure there are more revelations to come.
My other fear, though, is more personal, more interior. Truth be told, I find myself worried about the state of my own imagination. I think I am becoming a little fuzzy around the edges. Not only is my ability to concentrate compromised—often a sustained argument or even a detailed metaphor feels like it is on the other side of a concrete wall—but I am growing suspicious of my own mind. I wonder about the source of my own interests, about why I find certain metaphors compelling, about why an obsession arises at a particular time.
And here’s the thing, I suspect that these two anxieties—one public, one private—are not unrelated. I worry that some all-encompassing algorithm is not only reporting every detail of my outer life to Larry Page at Google and Michael Rogers at the NSA, but is also spitting back to me carefully curated data that is colonizing my inner life, as well.
I love research. It is one of life’s great pleasures. I don’t start a poem until I’ve compiled pages—sometimes dozens of pages of notes and fragments and stray facts. I just completed a poem that combined research about 19th century Cincinnati and Wagner’s opera, Tristan und Isolde, and the native plants of the Black Forest. Like for many of you, I’m sure, the Internet gives me a buzz like nothing else. I can follow a four-lane highway until I get to wagon ruts that give way to a goat path and then a mouse trail and then flattened grass and pretty soon I have burrowed my way into a prairie dog hole.
There’s that happy warmth that floods the system each time I make a new discovery. And I want more of it. But this is not exactly the Dewey Decimal System at the public library. While it feels like I have bumped into the goat path on a trek of my own making, these paths are not necessarily benign. They are not worn into the rock by mammals who have spent centuries avoiding crevasses and perilous cliffs. No. They are paths bought and paid for by entities who want us to follow them to their company, their university, their cause. The paths are cleared and paved by algorithms based on what the hive mind has decided we must be looking for. The Internet genies are tapping into our yearnings and are giving us dopamine shots along the way like breadcrumbs on the trail. And each time we walk the trail, we clear it for the next person. And it’s not just research—it’s our debit cards and GPS searches and tweets and friends on Facebook. Our individual interests and idiosyncrasies have become part of a massive sorting algorithm that boomerangs right back at us.
I guess I need to ask now: So what’s the problem? What does it matter if a singular imagination merges with that of millions of others? If it becomes one data point among many in a massive crowd-sourced culture? After all, as we learned in James Surowiecki’s important book, The Wisdom of Crowds, the crowd is better at guessing the weight of an ox than an individual. Why shouldn’t we embrace that collective wisdom when it comes to our poems?
And some poets do. Some of the most skillful and talked-about recent poems reflect the fragmentary jump cuts and mass confusion of the culture. And we nod with recognition when we read them, but here’s the thing: I actually don’t need to be shown what the culture does to my imagination. I already I live it.
What I need—as a reader and citizen—is a glimpse into another intact consciousness. I need to live in another’s skin for a moment, struggle inside their struggles, suffer unforgettable particularities that are similar—or dissimilar—to my own. That connection to the inner life of another is the wellspring of empathy—for myself, for my family, for those in the next town, for those in countries across the world.
Poems that grow from the deep space of an empathetic and capacious imagination bring us metaphor and meaning that provide a counter-weight to that which is cynical and brutal. I can’t help but think of the sophisticated online marketing done by ISIS, offering Middle Eastern and Western youth alike a pathway to certainty and meaning. And how, despite scientific agreement that our fossil fuel use is incinerating the planet, we continue to consume it in ever vaster quantities. These problems we face seem urgent and alarming, so we throw policy solutions and negotiating teams at them. And good. I’m glad somebody is. But in some sense, they seem to have archetypal roots—a search for meaning and a fear of death—and policy proposals don’t speak archetype.
But archetypes and their corresponding metaphors are artists (particularly poets) stock and trade. I can’t stop thinking about the temple that David Best and Helen Marriage built in Londonderry—or Derry as the Catholics call it—in Northern Ireland last month. Best—of Burning Man fame—worked with Catholic and Protestant kids to build an ornate wooden temple on a hill. Then—beyond all expectations—60,000 people visited the temple, many of whom had been directly affected by the violence between Catholics and Protestants. They left photographs and locks of hair and prayers for reconciliation. And then, on the night of March 21, they set it on fire in a spectacular conflagration. That, my friends, is metaphor at work in the world. That is what Lawrence Ferlinghetti was urging on in poets when he said: “If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this means sounding apocalyptic.”
We poets like to think we are witnesses to the maladies of our era. And we are. But we are also confined to the infirmary. We are exposed to the same pathogens as everyone else, and it behooves us to do what we can to heal ourselves. Speaking of Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsburg’s great American poem, Howl, warned of the corporatized threat to the fragile, the marginalized, the expressive. Listen up here:
What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open
Their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness? Ashcans and unobtainable
dollars! Children screaming under the
stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men
weeping in the parks!
One thing Ginsberg, in all of his fabulous naïve excess, reminds us is that we live in a body—we are a body—and that the body can ground us and inoculate us, at least to some extent, against the colonization of the mind. So how about this? Let’s stop eating out of cans and boxes and plastic wrap. I don’t say this to be high-handed and pure but to remind us that food manufacturers are central players in the massive marketplace of yearning and satisfaction. Manufactured food is filled with salt and sugar and fat, making us always crave more and obliterating our taste buds against the subtler flavors that come from the ground and the sea. Let’s run, jump, do burpees. Feel our feet and knees and heaving breath. Get out of our heads. Disrupt the hegemony of the mind and its pursuit of that which can be bought and sold. Meditate, practice yoga. Touch the ground. Plant a carrot, rake leaves, do the laundry. Eat dirt. Shovel manure. Whatever we can to bring ourselves back to our animal bodies.
Of course, yes. We cannot become monks or pious refuseniks. We can’t shut the door and turn our back on the suffering of humans and creatures. But in our quest to keep up, we must be selective, self-critical, aware, not so certain all the time. We must maintain contact with the unconscious, the unseen world, the deep pool of intuition that is untouched by profit motive and the shiny hope of a new pair of shoes. And I do think it is our imperative to heal and protect our imagination. Each and every one of us. If we don’t, our capacity for right thinking and moral imagination is co-opted and maimed. And we should remain vigilant.
But that said, we also know that this is not a problem of individual action. My laying off the Pringles and doing my daily walk in the park with the dog will not stop the forces that subsume and obliterate individual consciousness. No. Like so many of the ills we face, we are confronted with a massive power imbalance. One middle-aged lady poet versus the corporatized forces of capitalism combined with the full power of government is an unfair fight. The odds are stacked against us. Big corporations and big government know that our inner lives are valuable to them. Our yearnings and desires are essential to those who would sell us satisfaction. But our inner lives are also irresistible to the government. By examining who we are associating with, where we are going, what we are reading and searching and watching, the government can detect the seed of a dangerous idea before it either forms an idea or becomes dangerous. And we know where that leads.
We recall them by name—Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Ang San Su Kyi. Even as we sit here today, Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi faces a sentence of 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam.” Writer and activist Chen Wei remains in prison in China for essays critical of the state. And Egyptian poet Shaimaa el Sabbagh was shot in the street by the police as she carried a wreath of flowers to commemorate the uprising in Tahrir Square.
But we cannot be cozy in believing that these are other countries’ problems. American filmmaker Laura Poitras lives in Berlin because she has been detained and searched by US law enforcement so many times she is afraid her footage will be confiscated. And Edward Snowden is in what appears to be in permanent exile for revealing the scope and breadth of NSA spying.
A recent poll of American writers and journalists conducted by PEN America found that a majority of writers assume that all of their communications are monitored by the government. Let me say that again, a majority of writers assume all of their communications are monitored. And as a result, 1 in 6 writers have avoided speaking or writing about a particular topic. And another ten percent have seriously considered it. Think about that. Look around this room. That means that a quarter of you may not put your work into the world because of fear of government surveillance. That is nothing short of a crisis of the imagination.
All of this makes me look at AWP a little differently this year. What if AWP were a place to incite collective action? What if we came here not just to drink 12 cups of coffee and 8 glasses of wine a day but came to become what they call “radicalized?” What if AWP became our training camp for resistance to the colonization of the mind? What if it became a place where we didn’t just learn craft and network, but we also bolstered one another’s efforts to protect our individual imaginations and fostered support for writers in harm’s way? What if we fomented collective opposition to corporate and government intrusion into our communications, into our very minds? What if AWP became the place the media whispered about: “You know, Lia became radicalized at AWP.” “David’s never been the same since he came back from Minneapolis.”
So let us go forth into these days of training and collective action once again in the company of Lawrence Ferlinghetti:
Poetry is the incomparable lyric
intelligence brought to bear upon
fifty-seven varieties of experience.
It is the energy of the soul, if soul
It is a high house echoing with all
the voices that ever said anything
crazy or wonderful
It is a subversive raid upon the forgotten
language of the collective unconscious
Poetry is a life-giving weapon deployed
In the killing fields.
Poetry is the perfume of resistance.
David Biespiel has published ten books of poetry and prose, most recently Charming Gardeners and The Book of Men and Women, and A Long High Whistle: Selected Columns on Poetry. He writes the Poetry Wire column for The Rumpus.
Rigoberto González is the author of thirteen books. He is the recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, winner of the American Book Award, the Poetry Center Book Award, the Shelley Memorial Award, and a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He is associate professor of English at Rutgers University, Newark.
Lia Purpura is the author of seven collections of essays, poems, and translations, most recently Rough Likeness (essays) and King Baby (poems). Her awards include a Guggenheim fellowship and a National Book Critics Circle Award. She is writer in residence at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Wendy Willis is a poet, essayist, and lawyer. She teaches poetry at the Attic Institute of Arts and Letters in Portland and serves as the executive director of the Policy Consensus Initiative at Portland State University. Her first book of poems is Blood Sisters of the Republic.