Interview with Martín Espada
By Wendy Vardaman
WV: What was it like for you to come from New York City to Wisconsin? Why Wisconsin?
ME: I didn’t come directly from New York, so the culture shock wasn’t as dramatic as you might think. I did some wandering before I arrived, and lived in various places before coming to Madison. I went to the University of Maryland for a year, from 1975 to 1976, dropped out for lack of funds even to pay in-state tuition, then worked at a variety of bizarre occupations to save enough money to pay my way to the next destination, where I would finish my education. And so, at the time, I had very little idea what I was going to do. I was drifting a little, but ultimately decided on Wisconsin for reasons that were completely goofy. I thought Wisconsin was where Oregon is. I had very little idea of the geography on the other side of the country, obviously. A high school teacher mentioned Madison as one of several schools where I might, number one, get a decent education, and, number two, be admitted in the first place. It should be mentioned here that I was not a great student, either in high school, or in my first year of college at Maryland. I was a rather terrible student, in fact.
I had no sense at all of what was coming. I had never experienced anything like Wisconsin in terms of weather. I had no money. When I finally got there, in the fall of 1977, I had saved enough money to pay for one semester, and was compelled to drop out after that semester, even though I had a very high Grade Point Average. I worked full-time for a year, which lowered the tuition to the point where I could afford it.
Madison, for me, was a fortuitous accident.
WV: So the political reputation wasn’t a factor?
ME: The political reputation was not a factor at all. I had no idea what I was doing. I was twenty years old, and my work experience consisted of being a “porter” at Sears & Roebuck, i.e. a janitorial assistant; being a dishwasher and a cook at a pizza house; being a telephone solicitor; selling encyclopedias door-to-door; and washing cars for a Fiat factory showroom. I cobbled together enough money to move almost a thousand miles away and start over again.
WV: So it was this drive to go to school that was pushing you through all of these different jobs that you then wrote about in your poems?
ME: Yeah. I guess you could say that.
WV: I know you were a History major—did you spend much time in English or creative writing classes here?
ME: I spent very little time in such classes at Wisconsin. I had already gotten a taste of the English Department at the University of Maryland, and I didn’t care for it at all. At Maryland, I took one introductory poetry class and one creative writing class there, and thought both were rather dull, certainly not relevant to who I was or what I was writing at the time.
When I got to Wisconsin, I had no intention of pursuing an education in English. Instead, I was focused at first on film, and at one point decided I was a film major. I actually made a few Super-8 films. My priorities shifted when I advanced to the next level and discovered that 16-mm film was much more expensive. I couldn’t afford to continue studying film, so my film-making career ended.
At the same time, I focused on history. There were two mentors for me at UW: one in History, one in Afro-American studies. The history professor was Steve Stern, who is still there. He was teaching the history of Latin America. He taught me how to read and how to think in political-historical terms, which contributed greatly to my development as a poet. It’s a fallacy to think that poets only learn from other poets, or from the reading of poetry.
The other mentor I mentioned was Herbert Hill, the former National Labor Director of the NAACP, a witness to history and a brilliant lecturer. Hill was influential in my decision to go to law school.
Both of them had a tremendous impact on me and contributed to my development as a poet, despite the fact that these were not poetry workshops.
WV: Did you write poetry as an undergrad?
ME: Yeah, I did. For quite some time, no one knew I was writing. I came out as a poet before I graduated. I started doing readings in the Madison community. The first reading I did was in 1979. Actually, it was not a reading of my work, but that of Nazim Hikmet, the great Turkish poet, at an event for Turkish solidarity, which then, as now, was needed. I got an appetite for reading and performing in public. I remember also, in the early 1980s, getting involved with the Central American solidarity movement, a natural outgrowth of the education I was getting on Latin America. I did a reading of Ernesto Cardenal’s poems as part of a Central American solidarity event. From there, it was an easy progression to reading my own work.
The first reading I did of my own was at the Club de Wash, at the same bar where I was working as the bouncer. Naturally, since I was the bouncer, I immediately got all the attention I wanted, and didn’t have any problem getting people to listen to me. I cut my teeth reading in places like that and the Cardinal Bar, places where you had to learn certain tricks to make yourself heard.
WV: More of a slam setting, almost?
ME: Yeah, although here I would add that a slam setting implies competition. I wasn’t there to be judged or rated. I was there because I had this compulsion to write poetry, to be heard and to find an audience, which all poets want, whether they admit it or not. That first reading did involve a certain amount of bellowing. The skills I learned reading in bars are still valuable, more than thirty years later.
WV: During the late 70s, Madison still had a sense of itself as politically radical. Did you find it that way?
ME: Yes. As I mentioned, when I came, I didn’t know much of anything about the local political history, and, because I arrived with my own set of politics, I quickly gravitated to the political activism in Madison.
I wasn’t a neophyte politically. I grew up in a very activist household. My father, Frank Espada, was a leader of the Puerto Rican community in New York during the 1960s, and I grew up with an ethos of resistance all around me. That’s why it was so easy to integrate with the political activism of Madison. What was very much in evidence when I arrived was that this, indeed, had been a political battleground. You might remember that, at one time, there were actually chains up around certain parts of the campus for crowd control.
The counterculture was very much alive. One thing you saw everywhere you looked were alternative institutions. When I arrived, I encountered my first radical bookstore, which was Gilman Street Books. I encountered the Green Lantern Co-op. I encountered the Yellow Jersey Bicycle Co-op. There was a communal way of life for many of the students. We tend to forget how important that was. When we talk about these political values, we’re not just talking about what you learned in a classroom, or what you heard at a demonstration. These were values people lived every day, with varying degrees of success, but there were co-ops everywhere, including communal living arrangements, with people acting out their principles.
There were still a number of individuals in the community who had played an important role in Madison during the1960s. They included people like former mayor Paul Soglin. I remember meeting Glen Silber, who made the film The War at Home. The Armstrong brothers were around. During my time in Madison, they were released from prison. Many of these people had something to teach us. Many of them made an impression on me, none more so than David Velázquez. David was a veteran of many political battles, who had been a farm worker and an activist on many levels, from the Puerto Rican community in New York to the Central American solidarity movement in Madison . I wouldn’t be who I am without him. He died young and is buried in Madison. He wasn’t a professor—he didn’t even have a college degree—but he was as good a teacher as I’ve ever had, and there were many people in Madison who exemplified that counter-cultural spirit.
WV: It doesn’t sound as if you would think of Wisconsin as isolated.
ME: Wisconsin is complicated. There are many Wisconsins. It’s a mistake to talk about one Wisconsin, or one Midwest. When we think of Wisconsin in terms of a rural stereotype, what are we leaving out? If you’re from Milwaukee, you’re probably not writing about the deer and the birds. If you’re from Racine, you’re probably not writing about the lakes and the fish. If you’re from Madison, which is one of the great college towns in this country, you have a cosmopolitan view of the world.
Lou and Peter Berryman (I was their bouncer) have written many songs that lampoon these stereotypes—beer and bratwurst and snow. And beer.
Wisconsin is also a place with a great progressive tradition, and with large populations of African-Americans and Latinos. We don’t have to think of Wisconsin as simply rural, or exclusively white, or provincial and isolated.
WV: Do you think that poets in the Midwest are at a disadvantage culturally or geographically?
ME: I think there’s a disadvantage for poets in terms of their recognition. If you don’t live on one of the coasts, it’s easy to be overlooked. There have been any number of writers from the Midwest who haven’t gotten their due because they happen to be, literally, stuck in the middle of the country. However, in terms of what you’re exposed to culturally, there’s a richness and diversity of experience that we tend to overlook when we talk about the Midwest or Wisconsin. There’s a lot more going on there than meets the eye. I think there’s a Prairie Home Companion myth out there that’s embraced by certain audiences: the myth sells to an urban audience that finds it charming. But think, too, about The Progressive magazine, that just celebrated its 100th anniversary, or about Fighting Bob LaFollette, or all the farmers’ movements in the Upper Midwest, or about the fact that socialism took root in this part of the country during the early twentieth century as it did nowhere else.
WV: A number of your poems draw on experiences you had in Madison, e.g., “Do Not Put Dead Monkeys in the Freezer,” The Bouncer’s Confession,” and “The Saint Vincent de Paul Food Pantry Stomp.” Would you tell me about the circumstances surrounding that poem?
ME: In spite of the fact that I had a very rich experience politically and culturally in Madison, it was a difficult place for me economically. I was there for five years, and struggled to make ends meet the entire time. There were times when I hit bottom, when I ended up on food stamps or General Relief. In the case of that poem, I was referred to the food pantry by the Dane County Welfare Rights Alliance because I had run out of money. I turned to them for help. What the poem chronicles is the feeling of having hit bottom, which was as comical as it was despairing. Here I was, a young man with no religion, referred to a Christian agency and waiting for my carton of food that no one would touch if there was any other choice. The list of food items in the poem is very precise.
WV: You’ve written many poems about work—your own and the work lives of others. A favorite of mine, “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper,” has as its subject the production of the legal pads that you later encountered as a law student. Could you talk about the importance of poetry about work?
Espada reads "Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper"
ME: Poetry about work is very important. I’ve been deeply influenced by poets who wrote about work and the working class, but did so in a way that was very concrete and grounded. It’s easy to write about something called the working class in the abstract, but that impulse tends to produce bad poetry. It’s very different to write about working class people in terms of the work they do.
I didn’t invent poetry of work as a genre. Look at Carl Sandburg or Sterling Brown. Brown wrote in the form of the work song. There is a sense out there that poets can write about everything but work. Why not write about work? Why not write about the things we do to occupy our time all day long? You can write about any kind of work, even if you work in an office and think it’s the dullest kind of occupation. You can still find something to say about it. You can write about power relationships, about human relationships, about what you create. For me, my string of jobs that ranged from the bizarre to the dangerous was invaluable. In the process of doing these jobs—whether as a bouncer or as a grunt in a primate lab—I became invisible, but I never stopped observing my world, or writing down what I saw and heard.
The same would be true of “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper,” as a poem about working in a printing plant. You’re only seen for what your hands can do. The rest of you is rendered invisible. Yet, in some ways, that’s very helpful if you happen to be a writer. People will say and do anything in front of you. I remember when I worked in a gas station, soaked in gasoline, people would stand right next to me and light a cigarette. That’s how invisible you are. But you still have eyes to see and ears to hear. You can write about things that matter. I didn’t seek out jobs for the experience. When I took a job, I needed the job.
WV: Your work as a tenant lawyer has been a source of many of your poems. Why did you switch from law to teaching? Do you ever miss legal work?
ME: It was a matter of circumstance. The things that motivate me are the things that motivate everyone else. When I worked as a legal services lawyer, the money that supported what I did was constantly in danger of being cut back or eliminated. I had been living a double life as a poet-lawyer for a number of years when big cutbacks came down. I had seniority, and could have pushed out a colleague, but this guy was a good friend and had come from Chile after talking his way out of being shot by a firing squad. Someone like that has the gift of gab; someone like that should be a lawyer. There was an opening at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst for someone to teach creative writing and poetry seminars to undergraduates. They were looking for someone with one book; I had four. I began there in the fall of 1993. I used to tell people, “if the law doesn’t work out, I always have poetry to fall back on.” That was because of the nature of the legal work I did. I never took a nickel from a client.
Do I miss it? I never miss a legal system stacked in favor of wealth, property and power. You see that very clearly if you’re a tenant lawyer. You deal with the issues that define our legal system. It’s all about property: Property over people; property as protected by the law. Every now and then, we were able to make a difference. However, it was also very difficult on a day-to day-basis, very emotionally demanding. I do miss the fighting. I think every now and then I have to get into a fight, a brawl, because I miss brawling. If you’re trained that way, then you seek out confrontation. And why not, if you’re good at it?
In the literary world, people are more double-dealing and passive-aggressive than in the legal world. We’re used to thinking of lawyers as dishonest, but I’ve found more dishonesty among literati than among lawyers. Nevertheless, I’m glad I made the choice I did.
WV: Does teaching work for or against writing poetry for you?
ME: There are many different kinds of teaching. When I began teaching at U-Mass, I taught five courses over an academic year. For the first time in my life, I found myself in a workplace where most people did not go to work every day. Most academics on the university level complain about how hard they work, though the courseload can’t be compared to that of teachers at high school or community college. Likewise, it can’t be compared to what Legal Services lawyers do, in terms of the hours they put in or the emotional commitment.
There are times, no matter what the teaching load, that it can be counterproductive to your own writing in a number of ways. It’s simply a matter of time and energy. This past semester, I was employed by three different universities, and did nothing but grade papers and poems.
I spend most of my time these days evaluating other people’s work, whether it’s in a workshop setting or judging a poetry prize, writing a blurb or writing a letter of recommendation. It’s rather ironic, because that leaves me very little time to work. I think, to a certain extent, the mentor-protégé system has run amuck.
WV: Would you recommend a young poet to get an MFA and teach or to study something else and then do other work while writing?
ME: It depends. There are all kinds of work. If you find work that’s rewarding, that involves a contribution to the community, that involves social justice, the poetry will grow from your experience. I would love to see more poet-lawyers.
My favorite poet-lawyer in the 20th century is Edgar Lee Masters. He was Clarence Darrow’s law partner in Chicago, before Spoon River Anthology made him famous. I can tell, just by looking, that Spoon River Anthology was written by a lawyer: those are poems of advocacy, of testimony. That’s a lawyer’s way of seeing the world. Think of Charles Reznikoff, or Lawrence Joseph, a terrific contemporary poet who teaches law school.
What about poet doctors? Everyone thinks of William Carlos William, but let’s not forget Rafael Campo, a doctor at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston who has written beautiful poems about the community he serves, his patients and their life-and-death struggles. He couldn’t do that if he simply got an MFA and taught poetry to others who want an MFA.
It’s possible to get an MFA and be a decent, passionate human being, but it’s not the only way. There are other ways. I’ve met and been impressed by a whole variety of people who write poetry and do other things for a living. I did a reading once with a poet- mailman. Recently, I met a poet-firefighter. It’s not just a matter of writing your autobiography. You see the world from a certain point of view because of the work you do and the community of which you are a part.
The system of MFAs has run into an economic snag: there are more and more credentialed people for fewer and fewer jobs. What is it for? Is it about community? There are lots of ways to find community. Poets, if nothing else, do tend to organize themselves. That’s where the community is. It’s all about organization. You don’t need an MFA for that.
WV: Did you feel at a disadvantage when you worked outside a university?
ME: There were certainly things I missed, and continue to miss, because I came from another world, but there are so many things I gained from the complex experience of my world that I would have missed out on if I had focused narrowly on my education as a poet. I think it’s important for poets to live in the world, to be part of the world, to reach beyond their immediate circle of friends who also happen to be poets. We should read and act beyond the walls of poetry. Not only does that make you a better human being; it enriches the poetry itself.
WV: Are there enough connections among different kinds of poets, e.g., those at universities, performance and spoken word artists, poets in prison, homeless poets?
How do we build those connections?
ME: I think many more bridges need to be built. All too often, poets are sheltered and insular. I’m one of those poets who builds bridges and crosses bridges. I find myself participating in a dialogue with many communities of poets. I’m often dismayed at how segregated the poetry community is, even now. One of the things that has to change is the segregation of Latino poets. We are still largely invisible in the landscape of American poetry. I’m always amazed when I look at the table of contents of a reputable literary journal and don’t see a single Spanish surname. I mean not one. How is that possible? There are approximately 50 million Latinos in the US, and yet their expression of themselves in the form of poetry is almost completely invisible. Where is it? Why is it that no Latino poet has won a Pulitzer or a National Book Award?
To a large extent, this schism exists because there’s a perception in society as a whole that Latinos are not literary people, that Latinos don’t read and don’t write. If we don’t read or write, then no one is under any obligation to read us. It’s very easy for students to pass through English Departments and MFA programs without reading a single Latino poet. Why is that? We have to ask these questions, and they have to be answered.
WV: Not everyone who writes can be a great poet, but we can all volunteer, we can all serve. I’d like to know some instances where you have witnessed poetry making a difference.
ME: First of all, I think it’s important to realize that we can’t always see when poetry makes a difference. It’s not always something that’s visible to the naked eye. What poetry does, first and foremost, is to change people from within. It changes the way we think and the way we feel. It changes hearts and minds. It creates a new way of seeing, of feeling the world, and that in turn changes the world. Even explicitly political poetry doesn’t necessarily have a particular impact on a particular event at a particular time and place. The changes poetry makes are more profound than that. A number of people have come to me and said, “Poetry saved my life.” Many times these are people who have come from extreme circumstances, such as deep poverty or the prison system, who have struggled with drug or alcohol abuse, or a history of domestic violence, and will tell you, literally, “Poetry saved my life. I would have been dead without it.”
We can see something concrete happening when, for example, prison inmates are exposed to poetry, when a poet comes to visit, or their books are donated to the prison library. That’s an epiphany for somebody out there.
Espada reads & discusses "The New Bathroom Policy at English High School"
I remember when someone came to a reading of mine—a Puerto Rican nurse for a hospital in Hartford—and he told me about a situation where there was a debate within the hospital administration about the use of English and Spanish, resulting in an English only rule imposed on the patients and workers. He brought in a poem of mine to a meeting, “The New Bathroom Policy at English High School.” He read this poem out loud and embarrassed the administrators into changing the policy. There’s an example of a poem being put to a particular use to make change.
I want my poems to be useful. I want them to be used in all kinds of ways, but if we try to measure the impact of, say, political poems on the world, it’s an exercise in futility. It’s better to think about the changes that political poems make on the individual, who then goes out and makes the changes in the world at large.
WV: You’ve also been very interested in poetry activism, though, and I wonder where are some of the areas where poets’ service might be most needed.
ME: There are so many things that poets can do to serve the community. It’s a very broad question. First of all, poets should go where poetry is not supposed to go, where poetry, allegedly, would not be well-received at all. Think of prison as the classic example: you would think that poetry wouldn’t be welcome at a place where the literacy level is so low. Yet the opposite is true. The most energetic, enthusiastic audiences for poetry are in prison. There are more poets per capita in the prison system than in the academic system. They have a lot of time on their hands, but they also have an urgent need to define themselves, to explain themselves, to present themselves to the world.
Poets should go into such places—into the prisons, the nursing homes, migrant labor camps, factories, wherever programs have been set up to make it possible for poets to offer what they have. I’m not advocating that poets wander in off the street; there has to be a system in place. But there are more and more such programs. A generation ago it was not as easy for a poet to visit a prison as it is today.
WV: And do you think that places like prisons are more receptive to having such programs? If one didn’t exist, couldn’t a poet approach such a place?
ME: A smart administration will always urge us to create educational programs in prisons. Let me clarify. A couple of generations ago, there was suspicion about such programs, which were thought of as a waste of time. But that’s changed to a large extent, not just because it may help an inmate to acquire some skills, but because it provides an emotional outlet for inmates.
WV: I’m really impressed with the mission of Curbstone Press, where you published the anthology, Poetry Like Bread. Could you talk about the press and your connection to it?
ME: There are many kinds of community outreach poets can do. When I was involved with Curbstone Press, I was doing community outreach all the time, because that was part of its mission. Curbstone was based in Willimantic, Connecticut, a depressed city with a large Puerto Rican population. Curbstone committed itself at the beginning to providing those services, putting poets into all kinds of places. We did the obvious. Poets visited the high school, for example. But I also did a reading at a boxing gym in Willimantic for a team of young amateur boxers, between twelve and twenty years old, whose coach was a fan of poetry and involved with Curbstone.
There’s a creative and unusual definition of outreach, and I think it’s important to get beyond the usual definitions. We should be going into the high schools and the prisons, but we should also be going where poetry is completely unexpected. It sets off a spark for the poet and the audience.
WV: Couldn’t any magazine or publisher think about adding that to its mission?
ME: Of course, it made sense for Curbstone to do this, because it published the kind of poetry that was socially aware and politically committed. Not every poet can do that. There is poetry written in this country that doesn’t attempt to communicate, that is deliberately obscure, and which would not be well-received by an audience that is hungry for meaning. A prison audience is hungry for meaning. A high school audience is hungry for meaning. They want to make sense of their own lives and the world around them. Poetry can do that. But not all poetry does that.
WV: You speak of having a mission as a poet to make the “invisible visible,” and that mission drives both the form and the content of your work—from your focus on certain people and situations, to your poetic accessibility, to your craft & use of literary elements like dialog, setting and narration. Have you always had that mission? Do you ever write outside of it?
ME: Well, there is a sense of mission in my work, but I think it’s important to articulate that mission without becoming a missionary. First of all, no one’s going to listen. Secondly, it doesn’t make for very good poetry. It’s important to strike that balance. There’s a mission, a sense of purpose, but that has to be balanced with a sense of the aesthetic, the image, the music in poetry.
Do I ever write outside the mission? Of course. And yet, because of the way I see the world, that perspective is present in almost every poem. Not all my poems are political, but they’re all coming from the same point of view, which is unique to me. I’ve written, as you know, a number of very personal, very intimate narratives. It’s easy to see that I’m influenced by Neruda or influenced by Whitman. It might not be as easy to see that I’m influenced by a poet like Sharon Olds, who is so brave and willing to risk everything. I find that really admirable, and I aspire to write the same way, especially when it comes to my own personal experience. So, yes, there is a mission, but it comes out of a broader context.
WV: It’s a serious mission, many of your poems are political, and it seems there’s a stereotype that political poems aren’t funny. But a lot of your work is extremely funny—I’m thinking of poems like “Thanksgiving,” “Advice to a Young Poet,” or “Revolutionary Spanish Lesson,” and I wonder if you could talk a bit about your use of humor and how you see that relating to your work.
ME: Well, humor can be a political tool. It relaxes your audience. It lowers defenses against ideas that might otherwise be resisted. You can use humor subversively to smuggle ideas that might otherwise be refused at the border. At the same time, I write the way I do because I find the world to be a very strange and funny place. I don’t think you can impose that on a subject. You can’t impose that on a poem. It has to be organic.
WV: You write almost exclusively in free verse (one exception is the haunting villanelle, “The Prisoners of Saint Lawrence”): what do you think about the place of form in contemporary poetry, and the renewal of interest in form?
ME: There are formalists whose work I really appreciate. I’ll go back to Rafael Campo, who is very fond of the sonnet. I also think of a lesser-known poet, Jack Agüeros, who writes sonnets and psalms. Both Campo and Agüeros are political formalists. Marilyn Nelson is another formalist whose work I greatly admire. It’s not something I do myself, mostly because I lack the training, but it makes a contribution. Still, it has everything to do with content. I’m much less interested in form than in content. What does the poet have to say? It’s not enough to be right; you have to say it well, too.
WV: You’ve spoken about a working-class aesthetic—can you talk about what might characterize that aesthetic in terms of form or content?
ME: Primarily, it has to do with content. I don’t argue that there’s a working-class form. I’ll leave that to others. You can talk about Blues, I suppose, as a working-class form, or hip-hop, but I’m interested in a working class perspective.
Class influences the way you perceive the world; not just your work, but everything. We have to begin with that. That’s what I mean when I talk about a working-class aesthetic. It goes beyond poetry. When I participate in a conversation or debate in the academic world, I’m very conscious of the fact that I don’t come from the same class background as most of the people taking part in that dialog or debate. Latino writers as a rule tend to come from a working-class background, whereas most Anglo writers come from a middle- or upper-class background, which accounts for some of the friction, some of the difficulties in communicating.
WV: Do you think it accounts for some of the reason why these poets aren’t getting published, or aren’t getting into the anthologies, as you mentioned earlier?
ME: I think so. I don’t want to generalize too broadly, but in the mainstream poetry community there is sometimes a deep suspicion when it comes to those of us who are telling stories about coming up from the projects, let’s say, or writing about oppression and resistance to oppression.
I did a radio program in Madison [April 2009] where the host decided to take some questions, and I got a very hostile email from someone who accused me of exploiting human suffering in my poetry. That’s a deep cynicism and a deep naïvete at work, so I spent the next half-hour defending myself and trying to explain something that, to me, is a given: that you write about human suffering because this is who you are. This is what you’ve seen since the day you opened your eyes. There’s an ethical imperative to speak on behalf of those who are suffering but who can’t speak for themselves.
WV: And to make that suffering visible, which is what you often say.
ME: I want to make the invisible visible. However, in the poetry world, there is a calculated cynicism, a violent defense of apathy and lethargy. If certain people perceive what you do as a political poet or a poet who writes about social conditions as an implicit challenge to them, they can become very threatened and defensive.
WV: You have been critical of those poets who you say “don’t have anything to say.”
ME: Yeah, because I get bored. There’s a lot of boring poetry out there. Am I right? Have you been bored by any poetry lately?
[laughter and agreement]
Too often poets let themselves off the hook, because they justify the indifference with which their work is received.
WV: Is it that the subjects are inherently boring, or the way the poets are approaching them?
ME: It’s the approach. You can write about almost anything. Pablo Neruda wrote four books of odes. If you look at those books, you’ll see he wrote about almost anything: he wrote an ode to an artichoke, he wrote an ode to a tomato, he wrote an ode to a bicycle, he wrote an ode to a cat, he wrote an ode to his suit, he wrote an ode to a chestnut, he wrote an ode to boy holding a hare, he wrote an ode to a bricklayer, he wrote an ode to a laboratory technician, he wrote an ode to his cranium. He could write about anything. But what makes his work different is that, first of all, there’s a passionate appreciation for being alive. Secondly, there is a deep compassion for human beings in his orbit. He never forgets, for example, the labor that went into the everyday objects.
When I refer to poets who don’t have anything to say, I mean poets who aren’t trying to communicate in the first place. There is no subject. It really isn’t about anything. It’s a matter of concrete language, of the willingness to speak to an audience.
The English poet Adrian Mitchell famously said, Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people. It makes sense, doesn’t it?
WV: So if we talk about how poets can help make poetry more relevant to non-poets, is it by taking more of an interest?
ME: Take more of an interest in people. Take more of an interest in the world around you. Take more risks. There’s great safety in obscurity, in not communicating, in language for the sake of language. Ed Hirsch, in How to Read a Poem, which is a very good book, writes about the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, a prison poet, who is openly and unabashedly emotional. Hirsch says that, by contrast, “we live in a cool age,” that most contemporary poets are terrified of openly expressing emotion. It’s too risky, on a personal level and on an aesthetic level. Too many poets are afraid of the great accusation: sentimentality.
WV: That’s the worst thing you can be.
ME: That’s absolutely the worst thing you can be. Yet, that term is used so broadly now that it no longer means anything. When someone says a poem is sentimental, what that person means is, “I don’t like it.” It’s a poem that expresses emotions that make me uncomfortable, or that I don’t like for other reasons.
Every now and then, I see these words come into play, become popular, and then become meaningless. “Sentimentality” is such a word in the poetry universe.
Another word now being bandied about that really speaks to the issues we’ve been addressing is “agency.” What we see is the use of the word “agency” as a rationalization to evade responsibility for saying anything of substance. So poets and critics argue that they won’t write about certain subjects because they don’t have the agency, that is, they don’t have the authority. It’s a cop out. I did a workshop in Vermont where I had just spent an hour talking about political poets. The prevailing logic of the group was, “yeah, well, those people had those experiences, but I don’t have the agency.”
What happened to the concept of advocacy, of speaking on behalf of those who can’t be heard? What happened to the notion of witness? What happened to eliciting testimony from those who are silenced, and presenting that testimony as evidence that the world has to change, that it begins with us? What happened to the idea of taking responsibility for the world around you? What happened to the idea that you write what you know? All these things outweigh the risks, aesthetic or political, of speaking on behalf of others.
What I’m addressing is this sense of lethargy, of privilege, among too many poets in this country, who are comfortable saying nothing and then express amazement when no one reacts to them. Poets are accustomed to blaming a society that’s increasingly illiterate for this indifference, and there’s some grain of truth to that. There is a decline in literacy. In the end, however, poets have no one to blame but themselves if no one reads poetry.
WV: I’d like to know more about what you think makes a good political poem—is a good political poem fundamentally different from any other good poem?
ME: A good political poem shares many of the same qualities with a good poem that isn’t political. I believe in poems that are grounded in the image, in the senses. I believe in poems that are grounded in strong diction. I believe in poems that are grounded in music, in the ear. There’s common ground between poetry that is political and poetry that isn’t. What’s different is the substance; there’s also an urgency, an immediacy to the best political poems that is difficult to find in poems that aren’t political. It comes from that sense of shared humanity, a sense of suffering and resistance. It’s not just about condemnation. It’s also about celebration, about praise. It can be a portrait of an individual that reflects the dignity of that human being. It could be that simple. In that sense, I think it’s important to define political poetry as broadly as possible, without defining it too broadly. There are people who are writing political poetry who don’t know it, or who would violently object to defining it as such because that would make it “bad poetry.”
WV: You’ve talked about the importance of having “faith in poetry”—do you ever have difficulties with believing in poetry and its significance?
ME: Anyone who looks at the world realistically has to have a crisis of faith. Whatever belief system you have will be tested by the realities of the world. That just means you’re paying attention.
When I say “faith,” however, I’m not talking about something with magical properties. I’m not talking about something Romantic. I’m talking about the fact that poetry has a profound and yet intangible impact on the world. Critics of political poetry make this mistake all too often: if you can’t measure exactly what a political poem does, then it fails, or so the conventional wisdom goes.
Let’s take a concrete example. Sam Hamill founded an organization in 2003, Poets Against the War, and created a website (www.poetsagainstwar.net) which attracted thousands and thousands of poems against the war in Iraq, and against war in general. I believe it was the greatest collective response by poets to any single event in history. Sam also edited an anthology called Poets Against the War (Nation Books). Yet, we all know the war happened anyway, and continues to happen. There are those who would say, “Look. Poetry failed. Poets Against the War didn’t stop the war from happening. They had no impact.” I think that’s the wrong way to measure the success of anti-war poetry. It’s ultimately an act of faith. You write the poem and put it into the atmosphere. It becomes part of the air we breathe. You can hope that this poem, and others like it, will influence hearts and minds, will change behavior.
This is not to say that an anti-war poem can’t have an immediate impact. A year or so ago, I was teaching Wilfred Owen, the great poet of World War I, who wrote very powerful and prophetic poems about his experiences in that war, and was killed a week prior to the Armistice. One of my students wrote a paper in response to Owen, where he said, “I was thinking about joining the army, but after reading Owen, I’m not going to do it.” How many times do you think that happens? If it happened in my class, you’d better believe it’s happening somewhere else at the same time. There are young people looking at this economic crisis and weighing their options. When they read a poet like Wilfred Owen or the poets of the Vietnam War, who I also teach, and they say “wait a minute, what was I thinking?” then they have the opportunity to exempt themselves from the economic draft that’s produced our modern army. Did we save a life? Was this young person saved? Who knows? The point is that poetry matters.
We poets have to stop participating in our own marginalization. We have to stop internalizing this idea that poetry doesn’t matter. We have to stop with all of these expressions of false modesty. We have to stop buying into the idea that poetry is irrelevant. The choice is ours.