International Ballroom South, Hilton Chicago | March 1, 2012

Episode 50: Political Poetry: America and Abroad

(Nick Flynn, Matthea Harvey, Jeff Shotts, Tom Sleigh, Jeffrey Yang) In a year of national election and in another year of war and human rights violations, we turn to poetry for... what, exactly? Four poets offer their own responses to the role of the poet in confronting national and international political situations--from the so-called war on terror to government-sanctioned uses of torture, from resistance movements to the political imprisonment of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Liu Xiaobo.

Published Date: September 5, 2012



Welcome to the AWP Podcast Series. This event originally occurred at the AWP Conference in Chicago on March 1st, 2012. The recording features Jeff Shotts, Matthea Harvey, Nick Lantz, Tom Sleigh, and Jeffrey Yang. Now you will hear Jeff Shots from Graywolf Press provide introductions.

Jeff Shotts:

Thank you. This is the panel titled Political Poetry: America and Abroad, Arranged by Graywolf Press. I'm grateful to the four Graywolf poets who are with us today, Tom Sleigh, Matthea Harvey, Nick Lantz, and Jeffrey Yang. I need to make a note that we've had to trade one Nick for another as Nick Flynn couldn't be with us today in the end. His film Being Flynn premieres in New York today, so we thought we'd let him ride the red carpet. But all of the more appreciation for Nick Lantz for being Nick Lantz.

I'm Jeff Shotts, senior editor at Graywolf, where I've had the great fortune to work with these four writers on various works of poetry, translation, and criticism. Graywolf prides itself on a wide-ranging poetry list, one that I hope reflects much of the diversity and aesthetic differences and sensibilities available in contemporary literature. This is meant both to serve the wider art of poetry and to provide readers with access under one roof to a broad set of poetic experiences. Some of those experiences are political surely.

Though book after book, I feel increasingly uncertain about what a poem provides politically, what it means to write or to publish a political poem, let alone to read one silently to oneself or proclaim one from the soapbox. After all, the political spectrum in this country is broad, sometimes frighteningly so, and that fact is made especially apparent to us in an election year like this one. This contemporary poetry reflect that spectrum. Should contemporary poetry reflect that spectrum?

I suspect that it can get close and recall an election year 2004 Graywolf catalog that featured on Facing Pages a new book of critical essays by Dana Gioia at the time recently appointed by President George W. Bush as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. On the other page, Claudia Rankine's Don't Let Me Be Lonely, a genre defying book that in part observes the emotional and political numbness after September 11th and the subsequent so-called War on Terror. It's unfair perhaps to juxtapose the two this way as these books are not truly in opposition in the wider world.

But it does remind us that politics, political parties and political activism sometimes operate in red and blue, not only in elections, but also in the many directions the art of poetry might take. Certainly this was made evident in late December 2008 when we received the news that Graywolf poet Elizabeth Alexander was selected to write and deliver a poem for Barack Obama's presidential inauguration.

An impossible task, of course, made especially so by Alexander's conscious efforts to write a poem that wouldn't wear its politics overtly and that could be heard and experienced at a single occasional reading to a number of listeners that poetry frankly isn't used to. Could a poem, should a poem divest itself of politics when it was expressly commissioned for a political ceremony? Of course, Alexander's poem is full of imagery of the broken being mended.

And during that historic transition of administrations, we knew very well who had done the breaking and who was expected to do the mending. I was struck too by how the international community divides the political from the poetic. This past fall as the Nobel Prize for Literature was announced, which is so often an annual occasion for embarrassment as so many American readers and, yes, publishers upon hearing the announcement struggle with pronouncing the winner's name, let alone to find the winner's work in English translation.

Some even get downright caustic after the announcement and lament that somehow, again, Cormac McCarthy was overlooked by the European [inaudible 00:04:31] who seemingly choose activist politics over popular relevance. I'm not sure why it should surprise me that upon the announcement that Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer won the 2011 Nobel Prize, there were some reactionary commentary that boiled down to as The Washington Post reported, and this is a direct quote, "who and huh?"

The accusation that awarding the prize to yet another obscure writer misses an opportunity to make a statement that literature can be more than an academic parlor game, as The Boston Globe had it. That is one thing, but more relevant to our conversation here was the sense of relief suggested by some critics that the Nobel at last went to a writer whose writing wasn't overtly political. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, wrote in praise of Tranströmer and made the distinction that his selection for the prize was "a momentary defeat for ideology and a great victory for poetry."

Maybe so. Over and over, this distinction recurs and not just about t Tranströmer, that the political is one thing and that art is another. That distinction might be useful for us to talk about poetry, but I suspect it isn't useful for writers to write a poem. Let's turn to our writers. The four poets here have in many differing ways confronted political issues and written political poetry, but I'm not sure they would be rightly introduced together as a panel of political poets.

I've asked each of them to talk about their work and its engagement with political subject matter and how they've gone about confronting that subject matter in poetry, and I've asked them to read from their work. First, we'll hear from poet, essayist, translator, and playwright Tom Sleigh, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the author of seven poetry collections, including Army Cats. In that book, Sleigh transforms, sometimes obliquely, his experiences as a journalist in Lebanon in the aftermath of the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese war into poems that resist journalistic reportage.

One poem, for instance, written in prose describes the execution of Saddam Hussein as distorted by a cell phone video recording and made available on YouTube, though the poem ultimately and brilliantly masks itself as a critical essay on Shakespeare and the notion of staging and dramatizing a scene. Next, we'll hear from Matthea Harvey, poet, children's book writer, and visual artist. She's the author of three poetry books, including Modern Life. Also, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Harvey's daring and imaginative work finds innovative compositional strategies to confront psychological divisions, as well as cultural and political divisions. In her sequences, The Future of Terror and Terror of the Future, she envisions a politically dangerous terrain, one hemmed in on all sides between the letter F and the letter T. Then we will hear from Nick Lantz, author of two poetry collections, including his bake list prize winning debut titled, We Don't Know We Don't Know, which takes its title and, in fact, the entire organization of the book from the politicizing double-talk of former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

The result is a fascinating exploration of knowledge, how it's acquired and suppressed, how in fact what we know dissolves under the weight of time or under the sensor's black marker through the passages of a CIA human resource exploitation training manual describing how to conduct an interrogation of a prisoner. And finally, we'll hear from poet, translator, and editor Jeffrey Yang.

He's the author of two poetry books, An Aquarium, winner of the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, and Vanishing Line, a book vast in its fragmentary dislocations and lyrical interconnections of history, memory, elegy, violence, and the seats of political power. Yang's translation of the poetry of imprisoned Chinese writer and activist and 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo will appear from Graywolf later this spring in June Fourth Elegies, a deeply moving series of annual remembrances of June 4th, 1989, the protests in Tiananmen Square.

The book includes a new preface by his holiness the Dalai Lama, and it marks the first time this important work has been translated and made available to readers. After we hear from each poet, we hope to have some time for questions and answers and open conversation both among the panelists and with you all as well. Thanks again for being here. Thanks to the four of you. Tom Sleigh.

Tom Sleigh:

Can everybody hear me? I was just in this room earlier today when they had the joke panel and everything is now spinning in my head as if it were a punchline. I wish I could start off with a good joke, but all I can think of is a camel walks into a bar. But anyway, now can you hear me? Okay, all right. What I'm going to say today is, I'll just give a very brief preface about it, comes out of over the last five or six years, I've been doing some journalism. It's not real journalism in the sense that you have to meet a deadline. It's really long form journalism. It's like writing essays.

The first piece that I did was about the situation of, as Jeff said, Palestinian refugees in the aftermath of the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese war. And then the second piece, which I've just finished, and both of these pieces are in the Virginia Quarterly Review, that great wonderful literary magazine, which does some of the best political writing I've ever seen, that essay is about Somali refugees, Somali refugees as an urban phenomenon in Nairobi and the refugee camps up in Dadaab in Northern Kenya, and then also the internally displaced people's camps in Mogadishu.

I've visited all three of those places. I've just got back from Mogadishu. I was there in October. I'll just read this and maybe read a poem at the end, and then pass it on to my fellow poets. Thank you all for coming. In 2007, I went to Lebanon and Syria to write about Palestinian refugees in the aftermath of the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese war. I had to go to the south of Lebanon where most of the fighting had occurred to a town called Kana, the site supposedly of Jesus' first miracle, the wedding feast in which he turns water into wine.

In the last two wars, a bomb dropped by the Israel Defense Forces, whether by accident or design, killed civilians. My driver, a young man named Joseph, who was studying to be an engineering student, had been a rescue worker during the war. He was one of the first people to go into Kana to help the wounded and the dime. He took me from place to place in the town and told me all that he had seen, sometimes in gruesome detail. There was smoke and fire everywhere.

And in a bombed out house, he saw a little girl buried up to her neck in rubble. He began to clear debris until he could grab her under the armpits. But when he lifted her up, he discovered that she'd been blown in half. As he told me this story, I could see that he was deeply disturbed, and so I said that he didn't have to keep telling me what had happened if it was too difficult. But he said to me with great firmness, "No, I'll tell you what happened, but you must promise to tell my story."

I'd never felt such a commission, and I tried to honor it as best I could in an essay called The Deeds. But such an experience changes you. And ever since that time, I felt as if the stakes have been permanently raised on whatever I write, poetry or prose. The question then becomes, how do you tell someone else's story, particularly when their history and culture are so different than your own? What authority do you have to tell it and how do you avoid what might be called misery tourism?

Put bluntly, what right does an American poet have to extract aesthetic value from the suffering of the Lebanese? What is a speaker's role as an observer and outsider? Does that speaker have the right to get involved, to feel personally connected? Does he have the right even to feel? Isn't that a kind of presumption, a way of intruding on somebody else's grief? Well, let me come at this from the negative.

One way not to do it probably is the standard paradigm, what used to be called the Poetry of Witness, summed up by the story that Akhmatova tells in her poem Requiem as a kind of introduction. It's a story that's been quoted by American poets hundreds of times always approvingly. A woman, who is described as faceless, recognizes Akhmatova waiting in line with other women outside Kresty Prison in St. Petersburg and says to her, "Can you describe this?" And Akhmatova says, "I can."

You'll notice that the woman recognizes Akhmatova, but we never learned the name of the woman. Akhmatova doesn't say anything about the woman's history, her name, or what she suffered. Instead, Akhmatova portrays herself as the representative sufferer. But what would've happened if Akhmatova had said to the woman, "No, I can't?" What would've happened if she said, "What's your name? How have you suffered?" But to be fair to Akhmatova, of course, she was a fellow sufferer, so she found her voice and others' voices quite naturally.

But in my case, I'm an observer. And so if I'm asked, can you describe this, my answer would have to be no, but you can. And if you ask me to, I'll try to be as faithful to what you tell me as I can be. That's a radically different way than Akhmatova's way. For one thing, I know that in order to tell his story, I need to acknowledge the limits of my own subjective experience. I'm not Lebanese, I wasn't born in Joseph's circumstances, and yet I'm the one whom he's asked to tell his tale.

How do you tell someone else's story from the position of an outside observer? For me, it has to do with the difference between what you might call a political conviction and a political emotion. We all have political convictions and they get expressed in a thousand ways and our preference for certain politicians over others for certain ways of organizing civil society and all the myriad ways we know about when you watch the sideshow of a political debate.

But a political emotion is a much more vexed condition, a condition of uncertainty in which the clear expression of mixed emotions becomes what you're trying to express as opposed to the settled sense that what you believe is right. It's the difference between expressing what you ought to feel, the conviction say that famine is bad and that any right-thinking person wants to help starving people and what you really do feel, that starving people are often terrifying because they'll do anything for food and can even seem as if they have a curse on them.

I've had firsthand experience of that in the sense that when I was in Mogadishu, the reason why there were so many displaced people is because there's been a terrible famine brought about by drought and war. The refugee camp that I visited two years ago, which had 280,000 people, now has 450,000 people, as many as 1,000 people a day coming in off the desert in really quite terrible shape, many of them starving. But this gap between what we ought to feel and what we do feel is the kind of poem that seems to me to be truly political.

To avoid that settled perspective then, you have to in some way acknowledge the limits of your own perspective. It's not the music of what Seamus Heaney calls "the anvil brains of some who hate me," but a music of clashing tones, and those clashing tones are an ethical statement in themselves. In a sense, you discover the ethics and discovering the right words to conjure the look of a firebombed car, Armani clothes blown all over the street, the head of a doll still lying in rubble where a child was blown in half.

The language relieves you of having to stand guard over your own opinions and convictions and gives you access to reaches of thought and feeling you might not otherwise imagine, which is risky, unpredictable, and not always easy to reconcile with your day-to-day political or emotional or intellectual entanglements. That gap between what the language reveals and what we think we want to believe points to another gap, a fault line between ethics and empathy.

Of course, it isn't getting any easier to straddle that fault line when you can channel back and forth between the corpses on CSI and CNN. But maybe the problem isn't how we think about empathy. Thom Gunn once wrote, "Save the word empathy, sweetheart, for your freshman essays. Doesn't it make a rather large claim? Think you can siphon yourself into another human as, in the movie, the lively boy-ghosts pour themselves down the ear-holes of pompous older men?" The poem goes on to say that only Jesus could really empathize and he probably didn't exist.

Gunn ends up recommending something more modest like sympathy in which "your isolated self may split a cloak with a beggar, slip a pillow under the head of the arrested man, hold tight the snag tooth hostler with red hair." Nonetheless, we do tend to want to siphon ourselves into other human beings. And rather than deny one feeling or the other, we might try to make a drama out of the rift between our isolated self and the experience of others. This perspective was brought home to me this past fall in Mogadishu when I was visiting IDP camps for an article on Somali refugees.

I saw many hundreds of starving children as a result of the current famine in East Africa in which many thousands have died. But I'm particularly haunted by one little boy that I saw in a feeding clinic. Unlike my notion of what starving people are like, at least up until the very end, they retain all their oddities and quirks. In the case of this boy, even though he'd been lying listless in his mother's arms, after he was given a nutritional biscuit to chew, he suddenly began to play with the silver wrapper, throwing it up in the air, catching it, throwing it up in the air again.

Even though he was starving, as soon as he had a few calories in him, he recovered the impulse toward play. This upended the countless images we've all seen of starving children, but how to circumvent the cliche? Well, one way is to view current events through the multiplying lenses of history, literature, and myth. In other words, you need to find for a political emotion what you might call wider historical or cultural perspectives. Now, I want to read a couple of things in which whether or not they're successful, that's what I was trying to do.

The first thing I'll read is a poem called called Army Cats, which is the title poem of this book. This poem came about from... On my way to the south of Lebanon, I had to stop at a command post to get clearance to go further south. As I walked into the command post, it was a very hot day. Everybody in the post was asleep, except for a sentry. In front of me there was a yard with tanks, and then behind that yard there was a cemetery, a Christian cemetery. And then all the way past the cemetery there was the sea.

As I was walking toward the officer on duty, I saw all these shadows begin to move and I couldn't quite figure out what they were. I thought, am I getting heat stroke or what? It turned out that they were cats, hundreds and hundreds of cats. I decided, wow, I can't put that into an article, but the image haunted me, and so I tried to write a poem about it later. In terms of this trying to give a wider cultural perspective, there's an Egyptian cat goddess named Bast, who during ancient Egyptian festivals there would be wild festivals.

And then the last thing which occurred to me as I was writing the poem was that there was an ancient Roman lawyer turned historian who wrote a series of meditations on strategies, military strategies, and he had a whole section devoted to what he called barbarians. Army Cats won. Over by the cemetery next to the CP. You could see them in wild catmint going crazy:I watched them roll and wriggle, paw it, lick it, chew it, leap about, pink tongues stuck out, drooling.Cats in the tanks' squat shadows lounging. Or sleeping curled up under gun turrets.

Hundreds of them sniffing or licking long hind legs stuck into the air, great six-toed brutes fixing you with a feral, slit-eyed stare...everywhere ears twitching, twitching as the armor plate expanding in the heat gave off piercing little pings. Cat invasion of the mind. Cat tribes running wild. And one big pregnant female comes racing through weeds to pounce between the paws of a marble dog crouching on a grave and sharpens her claws against his beard of moss before she goes all silky, luxuriously squirming right under the dog's jaws, and rolls over to expose her swollen belly.

Picture her with gold hoop earrings and punked-out nosering like the cat goddess Bast, bronze kittens at her feet, the crowd drinking wildly, women lifting up their skirts as she floats down the Nile, a sistrum jangling in her paw. Then come back out of it and sniff her ointments, Lady of Flame, Eye of Ra. Through the yard the tanks come gunning, charioteers laughing, goggles smeared with dust and sun, scattering the toms slinking along the blast wall holding back the waves from washing away white crosses on the graves, the motors roaring through the afternoon like a cat fuck yowling on and on.

The gun turrets revolving in the cats' eyes swivel and shine, steel treads clanking, sending the cats flying in an exodus through brown brittle grass, the stalks barely rippling as they pass. After the last car bomb killed three soldiers the army website labelled them "martyrs." Four civilians killed at checkpoints. Three on the airport road. A young woman blown up by a grenade.

Facts and more facts...until the dead ones climb up out of the graves, gashes on faces or faces blown away like sandblasted stone that in the boarded up museums' fractured English "leaves the onlooker riddled and shaken, nothing but a pathetic gaping..." And then I remember the ancient archers frozen between reverence and necessity, who stare down the enemy, barbarians, as it's told, who nailed sacred cats to their shields, knowing their foes outraged in their piety would throw down their bows and wail like kittens. Thank you very much.

Matthea Harvey:

Thanks, Tom. Can you hear me as well? Okay. On September 11th, I took the subway to Spring Street in SoHo. My husband and I were going to get coffee before work. As we got out of the subway, a group of people were all looking at something behind us, taking photos, pointing. We didn't turn around. "Probably filming a movie," we said. Then a few blocks later, we saw another group of people and a television blaring from inside a deli, and we turned around and saw the two planes lodged in the World Trade Center.

People were saying it must have been an accident and how could it be an accident? And then the reporters began talking about the other airplanes. We were terrified and confused. And because we didn't know what to do, we kissed one another and went to work. As I walked up Spring Street, I stopped to look again at the towers, incredulous uncomprehending, and that's when the first tower fell. This is not an image that I want to have in my brain, but it hasn't dimmed in the past years and I doubt it will.

Someone could write a poem directly about that day, but it wasn't and it isn't me. I write poems usually about imagined worlds, because in them I can express and discover a complexity of thought that doesn't come out when I speak off the cuff or when I write in prose for a panel like this one. I rarely write head on autobiographically. Instead, my thoughts and feelings come out at an angle.

Anxieties about the writer's responsibility appear suddenly in a poem that started out as a dream image of a field of ham flowers, a poem lampooning class division sprouts from a title that I chose for its music, minarets and pinnacles. After 9/11, every morning for many years, the first thing I did was turn on the radio. I didn't want to walk unknowingly into another disaster. I heard The Future of Terror over and over on the radio and it got stuck in my head. A few years later, I typed that phrase into a blank Word document, but nothing happened.

I didn't know what I wanted to say, but I knew that I wanted the phrase to mean something concrete as opposed to being an amorphous umbrella of dread. At the same time, I felt trapped by the phrase and I wanted something in the poem to reflect that. Eventually I turned to my big red Webster's Dictionary and looked up the definition of future and of terror. And with my fingers marking those two pages, I noticed how many words there were in the dictionary between them.

On the spur of the moment, I decided to create a word list by writing down the words between future and terror that fell in the same place on the page as future. That first list included such words as gamma ray, heliotrope, itinerary, all words I love, but had never used before in a poem. An hour later, I had the words typed out and I felt ready to write. Stories were already swirling in the word list. Truly, that first poem seemed to write itself, which is something that I hate hearing because we all want that to happen more often than it does, but that one really sort of did.

This is the first poem. The Future of Terror / 1. The generalissimo's glands directed him to and fro. Geronimo! said the uber-goon we called God, and we were off to the races. Never mind that we could only grow gray things, that inspecting the horses' gums in the gymnasium predicted a jagged road ahead. We were tired of hard news. It helped to turn down our hearing aids. We could already all do impeccable imitations of the idiot, his insistent incisors working on a steak as he said there's an intimacy to invasion.

That much was true. When we got jaded about joyrides, we could always play games in the kitchen garden with the prisoners. Jump the Gun, Fine Kettle of Fish and Kick the Kidney were our favorites. The laws the linguists thought up were particularly lissome, full of magical loopholes that spit out medals. We had made the big time, but night still nipped at our heels. The navigator's needle swung strangely, oscillating between the oil wells and ask again later.

We tried to pull ourselves together by practicing quarterback sneaks along the pylons, but the race to the ravine was starting to feel as real as the R.I.P.'s and roses carved into rock. Suddenly the sight of a schoolbag could send us scrambling. I realized that I was writing not about this world exactly, but a skewed version, a future apocalyptic twin. There were parallels to the situation we were and are in right now, and I was amazed at the way words like soldier and oil field kept popping up on my word lists.

I was essentially writing in a modified abecedarian form, which is a poem that uses letters of the alphabet as the beginning of each successive line. But instead of doing that, I was using future and terror as my end points. These poems were angrier than any poems I'd ever written, sadder too, but there was a delight in connecting the dots between the delicious words that kept part of my brain busy and somehow allowed all my despair and rage to emerge. After writing a few of The Future of Terror poems, I realized that writing them was letting me access my simple Terror of the Future.

To write those mirror image Terror of the Future poems, I went backwards through the dictionary. There isn't a name for this that I can find backwards, abecedarian, or maybe decebarian. I started noticing differences between the two series. Going forwards, the story was more official. The characters, often soldiers, were stuck in systems they didn't understand. Going backwards, like playing a record backwards to find its secret message, I find I was writing now about civilians equally baffled.

A new I and a you emerged as characters and became lovers and one of them dies. There wasn't any difference in the bewilderment felt by the civilians and soldiers, but they were divided from one another. This is one from the backwards series, Terror of the Future / 9. The teacups tied to strings along the walkway stayed silent, had no warning songs to sing. We shook talc onto our tastebuds and watched the skyrockets, starry-eyed, until night blacked them out like a giant malevolent Sharpie.

Scouts gathered in the square and surveyed the room for rent signs. In this and only this did we have supply and no demand. It was a long time since anyone had felt a quiver on the railroad. We argued timetables regardless. I was just glad you were speaking to me. You wanted to go to the provinces. I wanted to see the palace. Of course, given the state of the ozone, we weren't going anywhere. We weren't outdoorsy anyway. Our Anoraks were moth-eaten for a reason. You said, I am morose, a new kind of rose.

I pointed hopefully at my foot and said, Mistletoe? No, you wouldn't get within a meter of me. Later, when your lungs filled with liquid, you might've said love. You might've said leave. I said I love you too and left the room. There was no ice storm, no helicoptered in help, no Hollywood ending. Just a gasp, and then no more you, which meant the end of me too. As a writer, your imagination cannot help but be afflicted or affected by the noise of politics. This means that thoughts about war and political situations can appear out of nowhere.

Jen Bervin's nets is an erasure of Shakespeare's sonnets, which came out in 2004 I think. Yet when Bervin sieved through the sonnets, she came up with two startlingly contemporary fragments. From Sonnet 65, she fashioned, I have seen towers down raised, loss, loss. In the erasure, the two losses stand side by side with just a little erased space that erased and between them, making a vividly melancholy portrait of the space where the Twin Towers once were. I like that I said war for were.

Sonnet 55 yielded the even more strongly worded sluttish, wasteful war, you wear this world out. And those are not poems that I can see Jen Bervin writing directly, in the same way that I don't think I would've written mine if I had just been trying to speak directly. Another poet whose slant approach I admire is Brenda Hillman. Her poem In a Senate Armed Services Hearing in the book Practical Water takes on a multiplicity of perspectives from her position as a woman, then proceeding to review the hearing from the point of view of a fly, a thought, a molecule.

And as such, she creates a kaleidoscopic and beautifully complex portrait of the room, the people, the words uttered, even the carpet. In a Senate Armed Services Hearing. From my position as a woman, I could see the back of the general's head, the prickly intimate hairs behind his ears, the visible rimless justice raining down from the eagle on the national seal, the eagle's claw held pack of arrows and its friends. A fly was making its for sure maybe algebra cloud in the Senate chamber.

It fell to us to see how senators reshuffled papers, the pity of the staples. To sense when someone coughed after the about to be Czar General said, "I don't foresee a long roll for our troops." There was a rose vibration in the rug. From its position on the table, the fly could then foresee the soon to be smashed goddess as in Babylon. More perception had to be, began to be. Filaments rose from the carpet as the general spoke. The senators were stuck. What were they thinking sitting there as dutiful as lunch patrols in junior high?

For my position as the fly, I could foresee as letters issued from their mouths like, "General, I'd be interested to know." Some of the letters regretted that. Fibers in the carpet crouched. From the floor arose the sense the goddess Ishtar had come down to bring her astral light with a day wrinkled plan. From my position as a thought, I thought she might. She might come in to reign her tears on Senator Bay and Senator Clinton, on Senator Warner and his papa tie and Senator Levin, on Senator Reed and Senator Hill.

Reign tears into their water glasses. Ishtar from Babylon they had not met before they smashed her country now or never. Then someone Clinton, I think it was, but it might have been Bay, asked whether this confirmation will give breathing space for the new general to unoccupy. How do the dead breathe, Senator, from my position as a fly? I forget who asked what isn't even in the same syntax of this language I'm trying to make no progress in, asked how the army would unoccupy by north or south.

A voice beside my insect ears said, "These senators all have their lives. Kids with stuff to do, folks with cancer, some secret shame in a quotidian, the thing in front always producing panic just like yours," the voice went. "Just like your life." I tried to think if this was true, but was too weak from flying above this notebook to pity them. From my position as a molecule, I could foresee 12 Senate water glasses. Each bubble had an azure rim. The ovals on the Senator's heads were just like them.

The breath they used when saying A for American interests made the A standstill. It had a sunset clause. They tried to say safety, but the S withdrew. The S went underground, would not be redeployed, refused to spell, until all the letters stopped in astral light, in dark love for their human ones. There is many ways to write a political poem as there are to write any other kind of poem. You may invent a formal constraint that lets you express things you couldn't otherwise.

You may find thoughts about the war embedded in a sonnet, or you may discover a new form of empathy writing from the perspective of a fly. Perhaps we write these poems, one pulse projected amongst a billion heartbeats, not only to be challenged and changed, but also to simply feel less alone. Thanks.

Nick Lantz:

Hello. Can everyone hear me okay? All right. As Jeff mentioned, my first book is called We Don't Know We Don't Know. The title of that comes from a speech by Donald Rumsfeld, which I just want to read briefly in case anyone isn't familiar with it. It's pretty amazing. Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.

But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know. When I first heard this, I was struck by a few things. One was the way in which Rumsfeld was using language intricately, skillfully, deliberately, and I thought that's sort of similar to what I do. He's making, I think, actually a fairly interesting distinction about knowledge, the nature of knowledge, epistemology. It's a nuanced distinction, and I think it's true. What he says is nominally true. It's just not an answer to the question that he was asked.

That for me really summed up the difference between what he does and what I do. What I saw Rumsfeld doing was taking language and saying something that was true in the service of obfuscating a more substantial truth. Whereas I think as a poet, I often say things that are not true, I make things up, in the service of what I hope is a more substantial truth. I felt like Rumsfeld and I were engaged in something very similar, but I was highly displeased with the way he was using language.

I felt that he and others like him were corrupting language. A large part of this book is me trying to reclaim language from its more political rhetorical uses. I don't know if that makes these political poems. I think on one level it has to because they're answering a political viewpoint. But my intent was really to rest language from those political arenas and turn it back towards something that was more purely narrative or purely artistic.

I don't know if it can ever be fully divorced from its political origins, but many of the poems in the book begin from further quotes from Donald Rumsfeld, and they often take some bit of syntax or turn of phrase of his. He often spoke in tautologies and these wonderful circular sentences. I would take some bit of language of his, some phrase, and repurpose it for a poem. I want to start by reading one of those so you can see what I was doing with that. The title of this poem is Too many, too Few, and the Epigraph from Rumsfeld is this.

There's another way to phrase that and that is that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. It is basically saying the same thing in a different way. Too many, too few. There are too many finches, too few Darwins, too many Baroque Christ's glooming from their guilt frames, too few clouds gawking rails of light. The ren doesn't stay behind to count each flake of snow filling her abandoned nest, which isn't to say she doesn't consider it during the taut respites between wing beats.

I look out and I see too many people and too few, which is a different way of saying the same thing, which is a way of saying I'm tired of saying the same thing, which is a way of saying I find no evidence of change, which is a way of saying that even decline can be a kind of steadiness. The archipelago's isles bunch up in the distance, but this is a trick of perspective. The straits between are miles across and whatever land we settle on is always windswept and wide.

As you can see, these poems that originated in Rumsfeld's language don't really have anything directly to do with politics or with Rumsfeld or with the Bush administration. As I said, my interest was more in turning that language back to another purpose. Over the course of writing this book, I started looking for other sources of political language that I could contest. One area I became very interested in was declassified documents, documents that had been released through the Freedom of Information Act and made available to the public.

One of them became the genesis for a longer poem in the book that I'd like to read, and I'll say a few words about it. The title of the poem is Will There Be More Than One "Questioner"? The title is a line from a declassified interrogation manual called the CIA Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual. Right away from the title I knew just through its use of euphemism that this was going to be something fruitful for me as a poet, a bit of language that I could pull back to my side.

There are a few interesting features of this manual. One is that even though it's a manual about interrogation and perhaps even torture, it's simultaneously very frank and very coy. On one hand, it's full of mundane questions, checklists for the interrogator. One of the lines in the poem is actually taken directly from the checklist and it asked the interrogator, will you provide refreshments during the interrogation? But in other ways, it's very evasive. Every time the word questioning appears, it appears in quotation marks.

This was a classified document at the time, so I'm not quite sure who they thought they were fooling with the ironic quotation marks. But you can just imagine that that every time I read the poem and say the word questioning or questioner, it appears in quotation marks. Another interesting formal aspect of the source material is that even though it's been released through the Freedom of Information Act, there are still parts of the manual that have been redacted. There have been whited out or blacked out or written over.

We'll never know what these said originally, what these lines said originally. And that tied in with some of the larger issues of this book, which has to do with the problems of knowledge that Rumsfeld brings up in the book epigraph. The things we know we don't know and the things we don't know we don't know and the things we'll never know. In the poem, there are sections that are blacked out. When I read those, I'll just pause when I arrive at them. Will There Be More Than One "Questioner"?

Will the cell window look out onto a hem of mountains? An alley of hard-packed dirt? A seam of razor wire? Will the "questioning" take place in the cell or at another location? In the location where the "questioning" will take place, have provisions been made for restraints? Will you know the crime of which he is accused before you begin the "questioning"? Have provisions been made for surveillance? Have provisions been made for refreshments? Will there be light? Will there be music?

During the day will all light be shut out? Will you read the name on his dossier before entering the cell? Before the "questioning" begins, will you offer tea scented with rose water Will you take his hand in yours? Will you send for? After the first day of "questioning," will you sit on the breezy veranda and read the confiscated letters from his wife? Will it concern you that the detention center has a veranda in the first place, that from the nearest road, it looks like a rich man's estate, sprawl of tan buildings collared by a tender lawn?

For this reason, will you give him your real name even though to do so is forbidden? Will you have an unconscious man dragged past the open door at a predetermined time? Will you say, Excuse me, and then rise to shut the door? Will you remember that the anticipation of pain is more acute than pain itself? Will his wife send the same letter to every embassy, every week, for months? What kind of music will be playing at night? Will the unconscious man be missing his nose?

Will you ask questions you know are beyond his knowledge? Will you ask questions that have no answers? Will he say, No more for today, please? Will you listen? In the letters his wife sends, will she have left a blank space exactly the length of the words Where are you? Will there be a window at all? Will you show him your pistol just once? Will you ask him what he did before the war? Will a bucket in the corner continue to catch the drip of water? Will he say, I was a farmer? Will he say, I salvaged scrap metal?

Will he say, I was a faith healer who traveled in a covered wagon? Will he say, I was a thief? Will he say, I was an interrogator? Will he say, I was a weaver? Will you admit you've never understood the mechanics of the loom, how the shuttle racks back and forth and a pattern emerges? Will he say, The loom has been more essential to the development of civilization than has the printing press or the cotton gin? Will he say, I was a scribe when the centurions crucified your god?

Will you ask, How could you sit by and do nothing? Will he say, It was my job to record such things, not to intercede? Will you ask the stenographer to strike his last statement from the record? Will there be a stenographer? Will there be any record of what you've done, what you plan to do? After many weeks, during a lull in the "questioning," will you speak of the first time your fingers grazed the inside of your wife's thigh? Will he nod and say, Yes, I remember too, the smell of my own wife's hair on my face in the morning?

Will you ask him how he can remember anything?Will he admit that more than once he has tried drowning himself in that bucket of dripped-down water? Will you say, I know, we watch you day and night? Will he ask, How could you sit by and do nothing? Will you say, We thought you were praying? Will you say, Even to witness an atrocity is a kind of courage? Will you say, The remedy is worse than the disease? Will you say, I misspoke, we see nothing? Will you say, Such things are not up to me?

Will he say, After I failed, I had to wait ten years for the bucket to fill so I could try again? Will you say, It was a hundred years? Will he say? Will you ask, How are such wonders possible? Will he say, The shuttle of the loom whispers as it makes its pass over the threads? Will there be a translator?At night will you rub the bumpy skin of his passport between your fingers? Will you think of him while you eat dark honey smeared on dark bread in a cafe? Will you sign the order? Will you say, If it were up to me?

The night before, will you keep him awake with unscripted questions? Will you ask, When you were a healer, would you heal anyone? When you were a scribe, what did you omit? When you were a thief, did you steal from yourself? Will he say, Questions in sufficient quantity are a kind of answer? Will you ask, Like the drops falling into the bucket? And will he say, No, not like that at all? Many months later, will you recognize his wife buying loose tea and oranges from the market?

Will you take her picture from his dossier and carry it in your inside breast pocket?Will you have her followed? Will you sit in your car outside her house, which was once their house? Will the house be made of marble? Sheets of corrugated tin? Bones and hide? Will you approach her at the gate one morning and touch her arm, though to do so is forbidden, even for you? Will you risk everything to say, He is alive, he is alive? Will it be true? Will she call out for help? Will the bucket in the corner overflow?

Will you say, The anticipation of death is worse than death itself? Will you say this to no one in particular? Will you go to his cell, sit in the chair he sat in, and imagine your own face staring at you across the pocked table, your open mouth a hole that water drips through day and night? Will there be light? Will there be? Will there be more than one "questioner"? Will there be more than one "question"? Will the loom hold taut the warp as the weft passes through? Will a pattern emerge?

Will there be a witness to all we have said and done? I'm just going to read one more very brief poem that I think gets at this divide I saw between the deceptions of politics and the deceptions of art. The poem is called Potemkin Village Ars Poetica, and the title is an allusion to the story that Gregory Potemkin erected fake villages along a river to convince Catherine the Great that an area that had just been conquered was more substantial than it was. With that in mind, I wanted to write about the deceptions of art.

Potemkin Village Ars Poetica. Verisimilitude requires a homeless man's feet protruding from a dark vestibule. Empty huts will fool no one. If I say, do not look there, you will look more closely, so I say, look, for God's sake, look. The men and women paper mache flesh, one bare bulb burning in each ribcage. From this distance light can resemble life. See how they wave to you. Thank you.

Jeffrey Yang:

Hello. Like many, I was particularly shocked and sadden a couple of weeks ago to hear that the journalist Anthony Shadid had died. A friend of mine, Gary Kamiya, wrote a little encomium to Shadid that put into words some of what many felt about his work and the enormous empathy he conveyed for ordinary people in the Middle East, and to Thom Gunn I would argue for empathy. Kamiya writes in, "Shadid's death is not just a terrible loss to journalism, it is a loss to America.

Even though the United States is at war with two Middle Eastern countries and stands on the brink of war with a third, most Americans, including our politicians and many so-called experts, know almost nothing about it, which is one of the reasons we embarked upon the disastrous Iraq War. Like all great reporters, Shadid penetrated the darkness. He took us not just into the streets and cafes, but into hearts and minds.

He showed the impact of decisions made by politicians and generals in faraway lands, on housewives and young girls and street vendors, on small human beings just trying to live decent lives. He was our eyes." A day after New Year's in 2009, Shadid wrote that the US had turned Iraq into an atomized fractured land, seized by a paroxism of brutality. In that Iraq, the Americans were the final arbiter and as a result deprived anything they left behind of the legitimacy.

I wondered whether or not to bring Shadid up on a panel about politics and poetry at a conference focused on creative writing, but he seems the most necessary example for all of us. With this thing now called creative writing and its meaningful overtones of imagination and originality, the political has an inevitable role in shaping that imagination and subverting our preconceptions about originality. Journalists like Shadid are writing at the speed of events, trying to uncover real truths at the speed of events to compensate for our blindness and safety.

Distance is compressed as everything happening is near. Ezra Pound famously wrote, "Poetry is news that stays news." I understand this as a comment about poetry's tradition and its transformation through time. In thinking about Shadid, I could define journalism as in real news that is extraordinarily difficult to become news, let alone stay news. As with journalism, poetry can include all content. Unlike journalism, it isn't written under deadlines or with word counts in mind. Its forms, its lines, and rhythms can be elastic or more strict, and it is written under the sign of tradition.

In this way, it must always negotiate the nearness and distance of the real. The political is inevitably part of this fabric, which seems to become less effective as a site of thought and transformation in trying to overcome it rather than trying to engage with it however impossible that might be. To quote the great poet and translator of Tamil poetry A.K. Ramanujan, poems involve more than poems. What is usually called content is really formed to the artist. Why do we turn to poetry?

For reasons that we've always have, well-being, love, and virtue still among them, as well as the failures within and without that we know and experience day after day. I was asked to read from these two books, and I think I have time for a few stanzas of each. Try to ignore everything I just said about poetry and politics. This is from Vanishing-Line, and it's from a poem called Throne. I'll read it for Shadid's memory.

The actual dispersed in memories, legends and their exegesis, geographers or travelers fragmented in earth annals, curls of a beard palm shade, fish cloak, Apkallu wing, sage, guardian spirits, scarab seal. Foundation deposits undeciphered until the 1850s, while the pillage continues, vaults lean against throne for profit. Everest off the gold standard. Isdubbar begins empire and the banks a deluge of accounts. Poor commodities depend upon forever unsettled farmed humanity.

At the heart of history, generations forced into wilderness camps unable to wander, that a world without guns would be a world without eternity. Power in the throne room suite dispersed tragedy. Library tablet found underground, dove sent forth returned, swallow sent forth returned, raven sent forth saw corpses it ate, then wandered away. Animals sent forth to the four winds, I poured a libation, built an altar on a mountain peak, cut seven herbs, placed reeds, pine, sigmar beneath.

The gods, gathered at the burning. The gods gathered at the good burning. The gods gathered like flies over the sacrifice. I'll just read this, one poem by the Liu Xiaobo, who as Jeff had mentioned, he's been writing these poems for the past more than 20 years, annual poems and remembrance of those who lost their lives during the June 4th movement in '89. This poem he wrote for the 10th anniversary when he was in a reeducation camp, a labor camp. It's called Standing in the Curse of Time, and it's the first poem of the series.

Standing in the Curse of Time, that day seems so unfamiliar. 10 years ago, this day is dawn, a bloody garment, sun, calendar torn to shreds, all eyes stop at this single page. The world becomes a sorrowful indignant gaze. Time cannot tolerate the blameless dead who resist and shout until the throats turn to a dirt filled hoarseness. Grasping the iron bars of the cell, this very moment I must howl with tears. So afraid I am of the next moment now grief without tears.

To remember the innocent dead, calmly stick a bayonet into the eyes center and use the price of blindness to restore the brain's no brightness, that bone crushing, marrow sucking memory, which only by means of refusal can be perfectly expressed. Thanks.

Jeff Shotts:

We've got a little time for some conversation. If anybody has any immediate question here, I can ask questions all day. Does anybody have any burning observations or questions for the panel? Forced gander.


[Inaudible 01:03:35]

Tom Sleigh:

Yeah, great question. The question is, let me see if I've got this right for us, when I have the intention of representing somebody else's story, then when I try to write my own work, does the intention change? Is that correct? Yeah, okay. Well, it does inevitably. I mean, just to be really very specific, for example, when I was in Mogadishu, I was in a armored vehicle wearing a flack jacket and a helmet.

The immediate image that came to my mind was how absurd and ridiculous I looked as I reminded myself of Michael Dukakis when he lost the election and this silly helmet on and all the flag jacket and all the rest of that. But when I write the article, I mean, I put that in there, but there are other things that, for example, I can't put in there. For example, there was a certain newsman who will go unnamed, who basically the only thing he could think about was how his collar looked over his flack jacket and how his hair looked on camera and all the rest of that.

Now, on the one hand, it was a gesture of tact, and of course, I wanted to put it in there because it was very funny and shows you what media culture is about. But I can't do that. Do you know what I mean? It's because it would compromise the person who put me in that situation and it would be tactless, even though it makes a good barroom story. I mean, I feel that there's a certain kind of limit that I have to observe about other people's jobs and about their confidentiality.

The confidentiality extends also to when you're doing lots of refugee interviews, which I've done hundreds of hours of them. In fact, there are certain details which you cannot release. This is proforma stuff. It's UNHCR regulations. They don't want you releasing names, for example. Because then if they get back, then people can end up killed and all kinds of terrible things.

But with my own work, obviously I don't have those kinds of strictures, but the strictures that does hold over from journalism for me is the desire not to bend facts, to try in some way, to accommodate facts as closely as I can, while trying to enrich the texture of things by bringing in other elements. I think you said you wanted to get off the subject. And that often is what happens for me. If I'm going to write something successful, the more I try to stick to the subject, the worse it gets, the more earnest it becomes.

And in the way, the more it turns into political conviction as opposed to something that has a oddity and wildness of its own thing.


[Inaudible 01:06:39]

Matthea Harvey:

The question is whether having some kind of intermediary thing like the dictionary or journalism, whether that is a scaffolding that's more useful with political poetry, or if it's used in general by all of us. In my case, I tend to come up with little strictures like that. The dictionary one was a particularly strong one in that it really led me in a direction, like a series of poems I'm writing right now about feminist mermaid poems.

The first one was just called The Straightforward Mermaid, and then I thought after that I didn't want to write every kind of mermaid, so I made a rule for myself that the word before mermaid had to end in a D or a T. Having that little bit of structure or a little bit of a rule helps me in general, I think, but it was really necessary. I never would've written these poems without it.

Nick Lantz:

Well, I think for me, the other muse of my book is Pliny the Elder. For every Rumsfeld poem, there's also one that has a seed in Philemon Holland's Elizabethan Translation of Pliny's Natural History. For me, it's more of a generative principle for writing poems in general that I often find I need some seed of idea or language or syntax to build a poem around. I'm very bad about just thinking things up out of thin air. It has more of a practical use for me. And in this case, they just happened to be instances of political language that I was drawing from, which steered it, I think, in that direction.


Time for one more. [Inaudible 01:08:30]

Tom Sleigh:

The question was how much time do we put between the experience and then writing something down?

Jeff Shotts:

Jeff? Your turn.

Jeffrey Yang:

It's my turn. At least for me, I mean, I don't think there's a hard and fast rule to how much time passes between something. Is there something in particular you were thinking about with that question? Oh, I see.

Jeff Shotts:

How raw something is versus something that is mitigated by art.

Jeffrey Yang:

I always find jotting things down immediately with thoughts and emotions. At least for me, that's something that I'm always doing, and then seeing what that turns into slowly. I think it depends so much on what you're writing about and what you're approaching, what exactly it is, because I think you could argue for being dispassionate or being completely emotional about something, it really depending. But I think for me, I'm always writing things down immediately while it's fresh and while the emotions are raw, and then seeing what comes of that. Someone else?

Nick Lantz:

Yeah, I can speak to that a little too. I think for me, the process of writing is also the process of thinking something through. I don't have a lot of success with holding onto something in my head and having it just percolate and develop in my head on its own. It's not until I start trying out words, trying words on it, like you try on a pair of clothes. It's not until then that I really see whether it will work as a poem.

But there are certainly examples of stories and anecdotes in my work that kicked around from poem to poem five or six times before they found a place where I was actually able to work them out in language that I was satisfied with. But I think nothing really happens to them for me until I start trying to apply language to the idea.

Jeff Shotts:

Thanks everybody for coming. I think they're going to kick us out here. Thanks. Thanks all four of you.


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