Robert Bernard Hass, Edinboro University
Martin Espada: The Meaning of the Shovel
Part of the Political Poetry series
Poetry brings us together, and the light comes from within us. When I think of those who provide the light, I think of Librotraficante (www.librotraficante.com/). We should follow Librotraficante’s example, organizing readings and libraries and even courses around the list of banned books. However, I think of poetry more in terms of blood than light. As I’ve said elsewhere, we live in an age of hyper-euphemism, the vocabulary of power imposed on us by government and business. Phrases like enhanced interrogation bleed language of its meaning. Poets must reconcile language with meaning and restore the blood to words.
Women, War, and the Working Class
We have a poverty draft for people like England and Darby. Lynndie England volunteered because she saw the army as her only means to have adventure. If we want to reach the Lynndie Englands, we need to provide them with more opportunities. England’s job before she joined the Army was as a checker in a supermarket. I once worked with a largely middle class group of women in Common Threads, an anti-sweatshop group modeled after the Women’s Trade Union League (W.T.U.L), which fought for better jobs for working class women before World War I. We need to revive organizations like the W.T.U.L. If organizations like the W.T.U.L. could be established in West Virginia, working class women like Lynndie England would have the opportunities they need.
I was the oldest child, and when Aunt Janet passed no one else knew the story. So I thought I would see if there was any historical support, at least for the general idea of the story. When I searched the Emory University website devoted to the records of the Atlantic slave trade, I discovered the slave ship Jesus Maria had over 200 children, most of them between eight and twelve years old. I saw names that might have been pronounced as Phoebe. I set the dates for the search around the time she might have been sold and came up with that ship. I was so upset by the idea of that ship full of children that I had to take a week and a half to gather myself. Then I began the series with the kidnapping of the children, using my imagination to summon what I thought the parents must have felt to see their children snatched by other Africans and taken to the Europeans.
I adhere to the motto of the second wave of feminism: what is personal is political. That means that I do not really follow mottos, but rather follow my own personal understanding of freedom and my feel for language. If my soul and body do not feel well because of the curtailing of freedom, I write about it quite directly, using common words, but can employ really complex poetic methods.
An Interview with Bruce Weigl
on War, Poetry and Reconciliation
BW For years after the war I was practically silent. It seemed that I simply had nothing left to say, to anyone, about anything. Words had become treacherous things to me because I had learned how words can twist and bend things to suit one’s needs and how that can so easily lead to murder and suffering. Once I found poetry, I began to see that I could also repair some wrongs simply by telling the truth about my experiences in the war. My teacher Charles Simic told me one day that the world had given me a subject – the American War in Vietnam – and it was now my responsibility as a poet, like it or not, to make sense of things again. I was eager to take on that challenge, and it freed me up in a way I’d never known before.
TMC: My particular situation forced me to not take sides, I had no choice but to see both sides and to realize that there aren’t “sides” and that we are all humans constructing these imaginary “divisions.” I think part of compassion is feeling past these “divisions” and embracing the humanness in each of us. Life is a huge learning experience and the U.S. soldiers that I have met who fought in Vietnam and in the current wars have to deal with the realization of the reality of war once they have faced it. In Buddhism, intention is very important. In war, we often learn, too late, that perhaps “good” intentions were based on lies and in the process the most terrible of acts against human lives can be committed.
An Interview with Sam Hamill
On Love, True Peace, and Political Poetry
SH: Rexroth said erotic love is the highest form of contemplation. I would add that like the Tao, the more you talk about it, the more you talk around it. Love is the intensification of compassion. In a poem for my late wife, “The Orchid Flower”, I say that she grows more beautiful each day “because one of us will die.” Our own temporality makes love all the more powerful, more tender, because we know it only in our act of passing through. Hayden Carruth says poetry is “a gift, a bestowal,” and is the “very act of love.” Capitalist/materialist culture wants to quantify and merchandise it, and thus cheapen its power. But actual love is far beyond the horizon of the all-American search for immediate self-gratification. It can’t be bought, can’t be rented. It is our highest calling. If only we listen.
Interview with Samah Sabawi
Poetry, Palestine, and the Language of Resistance
SS "For the Israeli Zionist project to succeed in asserting legitimacy and presence on the ruins of Palestinian homes and lives, it needed to do two things: make the Palestinians invisible to the world by denying their existence (‘a land without a people for a people without a land’), and/or in the event that they become visible, demonize them by manipulating the discourse – for example, by emphasizing Palestinian violence and terror while undermining and ignoring Palestinian non-violent resistance and the reality of occupied vs. occupier. This is why Israel views Palestinian culture with great contempt. After all, Palestinian artists and cultural figures tell the stories of their people and by that they reflect a reality through their art that Israel would rather conceal."
LR: “I got the worst formal education this side of the 20th century. The architects of apartheid, and by default Bantu education, sought to make me and mine “drawers of water and hewers of wood.” They deemed mathematics, for instance, beyond my grasp. Said it would crack my skull. Calling up butt-bare-crap-faced eugenics, they said my brains were more watery than those of white people. And thus I was unfit for the empirical shit. They said it was “useless” to have me chained to a school-desk when I could more usefully be out in the fields of the white man digging holes and sowing his treasures, or pulling them up out of the earth in South Africa’s blasted mines. At any rate, Bantu education was a crime against humanity, I will say until the end of my days. “Though my soul be black as sin,” for me “bah bah black sheep,” …trust me, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone you could, in all sanity, align to a sheep in Soweto."
MR: "When the Sandinistas were victorious, in 1979, my old friend Catholic priest and poet Ernesto Cardenal invited me to Nicaragua to interview the women who had taken part in that struggle. He was the country’s first Minister of Culture. I had already written several books of oral history with women. In Nicaragua I did the fieldwork for what would eventually be SANDINO’S DAUGHTERS in 1979-1980. I returned to Cuba where I wrote the book, and then decided to move on to Nicaragua. This was a brand new revolution with all sorts of challenges. I was particularly interested in how the Sandinistas would address issues concerning women and poets.
DV: Is Magician’s Hat an attempt to bring revolutionary art to the masses?
BT: I don’t think of the American people—any people in any country—as “the masses.” But, yes. I think art should delight and encourage. I’m not recommending that people go shoot up the houses of the billionaire monopolists who are choking off their opportunities in a way that’s practically medieval. But I am suggesting that they not stand for it anymore.
When Siqueiros says to his dying father, “My politics is what you might call ‘audience development,’” he’s talking about revolutionary art for the people. His view was that people are so bullied by bosses who believe they have the right to exploit them that they have no energy left to lift up their eyes and see an artwork that might liberate them. In effect, then, to organize a union is to create working conditions that allow workers enough spare energy to receive the vision of a more fulfilled life. Maybe that’s why today in the US art education is considered a non-fundable “frill.”
Please visit the Poetry Project on Facebook
Dedicated to the poets and poetry of my anthology "With Our Eyes Wide Open: Poems of the New American Century"
Click and type in a question or comment
How do I get your poetry book and Operation Phoenix?
I have samples both. Congratulations. Good work.
Attentively, Martin Rizzi
Your Counterpunch series of interviews with political poets is illuminating history as well as bringing us the words of poets from around the world we may otherwise not read. So many people have told me how much they've gotten from the series: the opportunity to read the words and opinions--and about the lives--of poets too often kept from the mainstream. I hope you will think of collecting the interviews into a book. It would be invaluable.
Doug: Your series in CounterPunch regarding war and poetry which introduced me to the book you are editing: With Our Eyes Wide Open: Poems of the New American Century is, in my opinion, the best writing, containing the best expression of ideas and concepts and the most powerful use of the written word I have ever enjoyed. I ain’t shitting you. Those essays are the best writing I have ever read. I look forward to the book. Thank you very much for what you are doing. I think it is very important.
I have purchased and read The Phoenix Program and found it one of the best books I have ever read on Vietnam (I also find John Pilger's reporting in "Heroes" especially enlightening). There is no question that your book clearly shows the nature of the conflict: Murder in order to prop a horrid 'government'. Thank you for making this clear, and also making it clear by extension what humanity is facing now.
"Poetry is badly written prose", according to Morse Peckham. To think that in the 19th century this was the main form of popular literature before the novel assumed prominence. Fredric Jameson once called the novel "psychic technology for the reproduction of bourgeois subjectivity." Your series reintroduces the notion that orality-- sensuosity in language-- is not something for its own sake like the CIA-promoted version of Modernism has preached for half a century. It also should remind critical readers that language is action and if we want to name the injustice and the beauty in the world we have to reclaim all the forms of linguistic expression available to us. Poetry is an essential form with its potential to violate the rules of conventional personality and the resulting restriction in our vision. A people without vision are doomed to demise-- and that is one sensible proverb from the otherwise violently misused fairytale collection aka the Bible.
I am currently reading The Hotel Tacloban, and enjoying it very much. It was a gift as my father too served during this time and was shot down over Japan. Your early statement of how your father would not participate in other typical veteran organizations or talk of the war was so my father. You described him to a tee, right down to the nightmares. I only wish I could have gotten my father to talk. Thank you for this book.
Susan from Florida
I have purchased and read your Phoenix Program and Strength of the Wolf books. Both are masterpieces.