Saturday, March 14, 2009

Skyping "Poetry & Politics"

Susan Schultz invited me to participate as a guest via Skype for her "Poetry and Politics" course, being taught at University of Hawai'i (Manoa). Thanks to Susan and the class (Eleanor, Liz, Nicole, Marina--[ed. note...along with Tinfish art designer Lian]), for your questions.

This was the blog posting in preparation for the class:
Hey Poetry & Politics People,

Thanks to Susan [Schultz} for inviting me, and for your reading, and in advance of our bizarre cyber-encounter later on....some answers to the questions:

--Please tell a bit about the origins of your blog and its particular mission, especially vis-a-vis the Middle East conflict(s).

This is the note from my website, which lays out the basic impetus behind beginning a blog. I entered blogging a few years after the most formative moments, in the mid 2000s, when a poetry blogger such as Ron Silliman could move from cult poet status to a kind of celebrity poetry pundit.

"I've entered the blogosphere, at On the blog, I'm working to extend the arguments I've made in Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront since 1941 (2008)--but in an approachable daily prose format. I post reviews of recent poetry collections; selected poems and art dealing with war/peace/social change; reviews of poetry readings; shameless self-promotions; links to political commentary (particularly on conflicts in the Middle East); youtubed performances of music, demos, and other audio-video nuggets dealing with peaceful change, dissent and resistance."

Essentially, I wanted to reach out past the academic and scholarly audience of my critical book project, investigating the interactions betweeen poets and the peace movement in the U.S. since World War II. It struck me as a limitation (profound failure?) that, after ten years of thinking about, reading, and working on Behind the Lines, only a few hundred people would actually buy and read it. Although I've had some gratifying encounters with young grad students who found it formative--one of them recently told me that they were thrilled to get a copy for Christmas(!)--it did not seem to reach the audience of peace movement people and poets that I imagined I was addressing. The blog was a democratic form in which I could not only reiterate some of the arguments of the book through recent developments, but also extend, complicate, and begin another one. Perhaps this "book," composed over daily doses, will be one that finally reaches people. I don't get a ton of readers--maybe averaging 130-150 readers per day--but that's a heck of a lot more than my sweated-over tome.

About the Middle East. Though Behind the Lines (the book version) focused on the American peace movement, and the U.S. involvement in wars abroad (principally, WWII, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and a bit on the War on Terror), I began to turn my focus even more intensively on the Middle East--Iraq and Israel/Palestine. The reasons for each should be pretty obvious: 2003 and 2006/2008 conflicts. The Israel/Palestine focus emerges from the tension for me, as a person and activist and artist, between my focus on human rights/justice issues and my desire for peace. Which is to say, most plainly, having undergone many many years of studying the conflict, engaging in activism, and now teaching Israeli and Palestinian literatures, I have come to see part of my being to contribute to ending this ugly conflict.

I teach the course in a way different from the stuff that I post on my blog; I would argue that my course enables students to understand the dual and duelling national narratives that fuel the conflict, and also explore how the literature provides a human face not only to the nations in conflict, but also to the "other side." (You would be shocked to discover, for example, that Aharon Shabtai, the Israeli dissident poet whom Leonard Schwartz reviews, is in fact Israeli. One of the final exam questions in my class tends to have a quote from his work, and it's a test case for students to be able to see that he's Israeli, even though he protests for the dignity of Palestinians.)

--What do you see as the role of poetry in these and other conflicts?

Poetry, like other arts, can be both a medium and a message, simultaneously a site of listening to the world and a way of articulating a certain way of being in the world.

I suppose I've begun answering the question in my previous answer. Literature, a poem, as Seamus Heaney has said, "has never stopped a tank." True enough, but lots of shit can't stop tanks. The point is: in poetry, in literature, are places where it might be possible to envision coexistence, or the means to document it in all its fugitive glory. For example, this orchestra, the collaboration of an Israeli and a Palestinian, cannot stop the conflict, the terror, the bombs, but it brings these kids together to make music. That's a beautiful thing.

--How can poets reach audiences other than what both Mark Nowak and Harvey Hix referred to as "the poetry world"?

Poetry is on the verge of a poetic collapse, speculating on itself and its values. I'm most interested in poets and poetries that constantly gyre outward, outside of the comfort zones of the maniacs of Wallace Stevens and hermeticism. I love Stevens, but I wouldn't want to live only in his (peopleless) world.

I recently reviewed a couple books: 1) Peter Cole's Things On Which I've Stumbled, a book of poems by the translator of both Israeli and Palestinian poetry. That's the kind of work that midwives a better world--and his poems have this lovely humility about them; and 2) Jules Boykoff and Kaia Sand's Landscapes of Dissent, which explores "guerrilla poetry"; last year, I did a piece called "Lang/scapes: Further Explorations on War Resistance Poetry in Public Spaces," and ended up as a kind of secret co-conspirator with Jules and Kaia on trying to valorize poetic language and acts that bring poetry to the public sphere. There's a mysterious figure known as the Sidewalk Blogger, about whom we've all written and whose work you should check out.... I know that you'll be talking to Kaia and Jules next week, so give them a shout-out from me. I love what they've done with that book, and want to hear how your projects go. Document the heck out of them--we should be seeing pics and youtube videos that show the process and product and reception.

Mark Nowak and I have become fast friends; he's one of the poets who opened a world for me, and made me feel as if I weren't utterly alone in my poetic obsessions.

--Is poetry itself a form of activism, or ought poetry try to instigate activism? Tell us a bit about your own poetry and work in translation.

In a way, it is a form of activism. In another way, it should NOT replace action. I know Leonard [Schwartz] wrote that he takes Duncan's side of the Duncan/Levertov spat, and I guess I'm a Levertov person. Not because her war poems are great--actually, they both kind of soiled themselves in the war in different ways--but because she could not NOT write those poems, and also supported actively the resistance against the Vietnam War in ways that very few did (maybe Bly, Rich, Ginsberg, Stafford). And, most importantly, she came to make small strides to articulating a poetry of peace, which is the motivating impulse behind a recent anthology that I co-edited, called Come Together: Imagine Peace (2008).

My own work is really still emerging. My first full-length poetry book, To See the Earth (2008), and my two books of translation, all are simply what all books of poems are--my attempts to articulate, dramatize, and bring into the light of language the complex ways that we come to be who we are and where we are. It's fairly autobiographical, with sections devoted to living in Russia, to my own ethnic heritage (Arab-American), to living in a time of war and becoming a dad.

The new projects include "Sand Opera" (and here's where Nowak has been a support)--a full length documentary poem based on the language of Standard Operation Procedure manuals from Gitmo prison and the testimony of Abu Ghraib torture victims, among other things. The project used to be called "ur" and I've written and talked about it elsewhere, in a recent issue of PMLA under the title "Remaking/Unmaking: Abu Ghraib and Poetry" (2008).

In the meantime, I'm loving life, writing poems, teaching poems, being with my wife and two daughters. My free time to talk tonight is sponsored by my mom, who's in town from Chicago. So instead of my falling asleep in my daughter's bed (as I've come to do), it will be my mom. I'll be talking to you, half-dreaming of sleep and half-dreaming of Hawai'i.


susan said...

I never realized that your image was stuck on my throat! Thanks so much for joining us, Phil. Just one thing: Lian's not in the class, but is an MFA student in Art who does design work for Tinfish.

Does "skypeing" have an e?

Such questions!

aloha, Susan

Philip Metres said...

Thanks Susan. I don't know about the gerund of skype, but I'll follow your format! It was a good time, and sometimes it's fun just to follow one's own trick of the mind ("producing dignity" indeed!)...

Lyle Daggett said...

My experience has been that the poetry world, in general, is practically crawling with poets who are in one way or another addressing explicitly political subject matter in their poems, and involving themselves in political activism in one way or another. Though probably the majority of poets I know of who are doing these things mostly live and work outside the academic world.

I'm not intending this as a flat generalization, but an observation of a general trend I've found.

During the years of the Vietnam war, a large number of poets wrote poems, at least occasionally, expressing opposition to the war and addressing other political issues of the time. The book "Where Is Vietnam?," edited by Walter Lowenfels -- an anthology of poems written in response to the Vietnam war, published ca. 1967 -- had something like 80 or 90 contributors, including many of the most prominent poets of those years (Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Thomas McGrath, Denise Levertov, Robert Bly, James Wright, Galway Kinnell, Robert Lowell, Clarence Major, Robert Creeley, etc.). Lowenfels edited several other anthologies during those years, all of which were gatherings of poems with explicitly content by many poets.

There's an almost unbroken tradition of politically explicit poetry in the United States, going back at least as far as the time of the Civil War. One could count, for instance, poems by Whitman and Melville, and some of the poems of Emily Dickinson (subtler, perhaps, but emerging with clear political implications if taken in the context of her active correspondence on behalf of the anti-slavery movement.)

One of the most insightful pieces of writing I've found, from the past half-century or so, on the broad subject of poetry and politics, is "Problems of the Revolutionary Poet in Contemporary Times" by Thomas McGrath, currently published in the online poetry magazine Pemmican. The link above is to the page where the essay is posted; the main page for Pemmican is here.

Thanks for posting this. This whole subject is something that interests me a great deal.