Archive for the ‘Other Literary Work’ Category

1st Midwestern Friendlies Meet hosted by Indiana Unvirsity & October issue of The Conversant!

October 4, 2014

midw friendliesI — along with poetry reader Franklin KR Cline and fiction reader Michael Larson — will be reading for cream city review/University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee at tomorrow’s 1st Midwestern Friendlies Meet, hosted by Indiana University at The Back Door (207 S College Ave, Bloomington, Indiana). The Midwestern Friendlies and Meets are an initiative to build strong community and networks across writers in graduate creative writing programs in the Midwest and readers from Butler University, Indiana University, Ohio State University, Purdue University and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign will also be reading. Come say hello if you’re in the area!


If you haven’t checked out the new October issue of The Conversant yet, please take a peek! Featuring these conversations — Female Aesthetic(s) Symposium (Part 1): Monica Hand, Patricia Spears Jones, Ruth Ellen Kocher & Tracy Chiles McGhee with Metta Sáma; H.L. Hix with Naomi Ward; our 1st Intersecting Lineages conversation between Rosebud Ben-Oni with Jason Koo; Cathy Wagner with Laura Sims; Tony Trigilio’s Radio Free Albion interview with R. Erica Doyle; Philip Metres with Ivan Zhdanov; J’Lyn Chapman with Rachel Blau DuPlessis; Stephanie Anderson with Joanne Kyger; Rusty Morrison with Ewa Chrusciel; Andrew Wessels with Claire Huot and Robert Majzels; “to make a new whole of the fragments”: A Roundtable Discussion with Poets in Women Write Resistance; Catherine Theis with Nathan Hoks; Elaine Bleakney with Dan Brady; The People: Mathew Timmons & Ben White with John Burtle & Elana Mann (Ep. 14), Kim Calder & Vanessa Place (Ep. 15); Marietta Brill with Michael Ruby & Elisabeth Workman and Sandra Simonds: Poets in Tank Tops Discuss the Universe!

Writing Trans Genres: Emergent Literatures and Criticism, May 22-May 24 (Winnipeg)

May 21, 2014

Excited to be heading to winnipeg for Writing Trans Genres: Emergent Literatures and Criticism, Thursday, May 22 through Saturday, May 24!


Lots of keynotes, plenary panels, readings & other workshops that I’m looking forward to – you can check for the full schedule. Also,


Thanks Trish Salah, Shelagh Pizey-Allen, Owen Campbell and Athena Thiessen for organizing!


Here’s where I’ll be presenting during the conference:


Thursday, May 22:


4:30-6pm Fucking Gender, Fucking Form – Rm 2M70, Eckhardt-Grammate Hall @ University of Winnipeg, 515 Portage Ave, w/Ames Hawkins, Ching-In Chen, Emerson Whitney, K. Bradford


As trans and genderqueer writers, we inhabit our bodies, our communities, and our art forms marked and motivated by the contours and contexts of our gender. Our individual blueprints and proclivities — fluxes in desire, ruptures of trauma, morphings of body, configurations of race & class — infuse and drive our textual inventiveness. What we do to the sentence, what we do to the forms of writing on the page — and how we test the borders of the page itself — are 3 of gender fucking. We fuck the very forms we work in, as a creative and intellectual practice, and as part of what we do as gender variant people inhabiting the world. As we do and re-do our gender, we do and re-do the poetics and forms we step into as writers, carving out cultural space.


This panel will be a lively and layered event. We will engage each other in a series of questions about the acts of troubling form and aesthetics as connected to gender, looking at risks, experiments and failures; we will explore the lineage of writers we have been influenced by, then looking at examples of writing as we discuss the possibilities of language, image systems, voice and form via an aesthetics of gender variance. A lively dialogue with the audience will follow.


Friday, May 23:


3-5:30pm Group Reading at the Millennium Library, 251 Donald St, Winnipeg w/Aiyanna Maracle, Amir Rabiyah, Casey Plett, Ching-In Chen, Imogen Binnie, Joy Ladin, Mirha-Soleil Ross, Nathanaël, Rachel Pollack, Trace Peterson


free and open to the public!



Saturday, May 24:

6:30pm-8pm Plenary Panel: Identity and Poetics Across Genres – Eckhardt-Grammate Hall @ University of Winnipeg, 515 Portage Ave


free and open to the public, w/ASL interpretation


Panelists: Ching-In Chen, Max Wolf Valerio, Micha Cárdenas, Samuel Ace, Trace Peterson

Midwest Monster (Input 4)

February 23, 2014


by Duncan

Poetry & Pints (Grand Rapids); First Wave @ WI Book Festival (Madison); Red Rover Trans & Genderqueer (Chicago); Verse WI conversation & 1st Amendment chapbook

October 13, 2013

Dear all,

A conversation about Sentiment & Sentimentality with Sarah Busse, Cathryn Cofell, Fabu & Chuck Rybak & organized by Wendy Vardaman has been published in the latest issue of Verse Wisconsin.  Also, an excerpt of a poem I wrote about the Wisconsin uprising is being reprinted in Turn Up the Volume: Poems on the States of Wisconsin, a limited edition, hand-bound chapbook available NOW through October 25 for pre-publication purchase ($15 + $2 for postage).  After Oct. 25, the price will be $20 + postage.  Click on donation, SPECIFY CHAPBOOK ORDER and number of books in comment box and order directly through the First Amendment Protection Fund online.

I’ll also be reading &/or participating in the events below.  Hope to see you there!

1) Poetry & Pints, Harmony Brewing Co, Grand Rapids, MI, 10/13, 8pm EDT

2) PERFORMANCE POETRY:  First Wave @ Wisconsin Book Festival, Madison, WI, 10/18, 5:30pm CST

3) Red Rover Series Experiment #68: Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, Outer Space Studios, Chicago, IL, 10/19, 7pm,



1) Poetry & Pints, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Readings by Ching-In Chen, Zoe Addison, Nikki Wallschlaeger, and Cynthia Spencer

Harmony Brewing Company 1551 Lake Dr. SE, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49506, 8pm EDT, Sun, 10/13

Ching-In Chen is the author of The Heart’s Traffic and co-editor of The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities. They are a Kundiman, Lambda and Norman Mailer Poetry Fellow and a member of the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation and Macondo writing communities. A community organizer, they have worked in the Asian American communities of San Francisco, Oakland, Riverside and Boston. In Milwaukee, they are cream city review’s editor-in-chief.

Zoe Addison explores mysticism, power, and subjectivity in her poems. Her poem “Apocalysm” was published on Everyday Genius. She co-authored and co-produced the interactive hypertext document &c.&c.&c.&c.&c.&c.&c.&c.&c. with Cynthia Spencer (

Nikki Wallschlaeger’s work has been featured in DecomP, Esque, Word Riot, Spork, Great Lakes Review and others. A chapbook is forthcoming from Strange Cage. She lives in Milwaukee, WI and considers the Midwest one of the bestplaygrounds to live in, where all the worst bullies and the best lovers live, all at once, arguing on themonkey bars over the wet cement. You can reach her at

Cynthia Spencer is the author of three solo chapbooks: in what sequence will my parts exit (Plumberries Press, 2011), MERCY (Pity Milk Press, 2012) and 3/THREE/III (Strange Cage, 2013). She has worked collaboratively on just about everything else she has ever done with Chelsea Tadeyeske, Zoe Addison, Edwin R. Perry and others. These things include the Cloudburst and Empty Room reading series, a chapbook of math-inspired poems called THERE EXISTS… and a hypertext called etcetcetcetcetcetcetcetcetc available at She lives in Milwaukee and recently starting playing the ukulele.

2) PERFORMANCE POETRY:  First Wave @ Wisconsin Book Festival
10/18/2013 – 5:30pm
Overture Center for the Arts – Promenade Hall
Poetry and Performance were once a united art, going back to common ancient roots. In the last few centuries, this connection has largely been lost. This event will point to some of the ways back, bring “page” poets and “stage” poets together across multiple divides:page/stage/class/race/gender/age. OMAI presenters, Lemon Andersen and Gia Scott-Heron, will provide feedback alongside Verse Wisconsin responders, Margaret Rozga, Ching-In Chin, Amaud Jamaul Johnson, and Andy Gricevich

3) Red Rover Series Experiment #68: Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics 


Oliver Bendorf
Ching-In Chen
Meg Day
TT Jax
Stacey Waite
& guest curated by Jen (Jay) Besemer

at Outer Space Studio
1474 N. Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL
suggested donation $4

Saturday, Oct. 19, 7pm / doors lock 7:30pm

logistics –
near CTA Damen blue line
third floor walk up
not wheelchair accessible

About the new anthology published by Nightboat Books:
The first of its kind, Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics edited by TC Tolbert and Tim Trace Peterson, gathers together a diverse range of 55 poets with varying aesthetics and backgrounds. In addition to generous samples of poetry by each trans writer, the book also includes “poetics statements”—reflections by each poet that provide context for their work covering a range of issues from identification and embodiment to language and activism.

OLIVER BENDORF’s book, The Spectral Wilderness, was chosen by Mark Doty for the 2013 Wick Poetry Prize and is forthcoming from Kent State University Press. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where he recently earned his MFA and now teaches creativity, comics, and composition.

JEN JAY BESEMER is the author of several poetry books and chapbooks, including Telephone, Object with Man’s Face, Quiet Vertical Movements, Ten Word Problems, and What Is Born. A new chapbook, Aster to Daylily, is forthcoming in 2014 from Damask Press. Jay’s recombinant poetry projects are also found in Monsters & Dust, Aufgabe, Drunken Boat, BlazeVOX, e-ratio, Sentence and other delicious publications. Jay also writes feature essays and reviews, and teaches art and poetry workshops in and beyond Chicago. To find out more, visit

CHING-IN CHEN is author of The Heart’s Traffic (Arktoi Books/Red Hen Press) and co-editor of The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities (South End Press). They are a Kundiman, Lambda and Norman Mailer Poetry Fellow and a member of the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation and Macondo writing communities. A community organizer, they have worked in the Asian American communities of San Francisco, Oakland, Riverside and Boston. In Milwaukee, they are cream city review’s editor-in-chief. See

MEG DAY, recently selected for Best New Poets of 2013, is a 2013 recipient of an NEA Fellowship in Poetry and the author of When All You Have Is a Hammer (winner of the 2012 Gertrude Press Chapbook Contest) and We Can’t Read This (winner of the 2013 Gazing Grain Chapbook Contest). A 2012 AWP Intro Journals Award Winner, Meg has also received awards and fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation, Hedgebrook, Squaw Valley Writers, and the International Queer Arts Festival. Meg is currently a PhD fellow in Poetry & Disability Poetics at the University of Utah.

TT JAX is a parent, poet, mixed media artist, and writer living in the Pacific Northwest by way of 28 years in the Deep South.

STACEY WAITE is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln and has published four collections of poems: Choke (winner of the 2004 Frank O’Hara Prize), Love Poem to Androgyny, the lake has no saint (winner of the 2008 Snowbound Prize from Tupelo Press), and Butch Geography (also from Tupelo Press in 2013). Waite is the co-host of Prairie Schooner’s podcast “Air Schooner” and has individual poems appearing most recently in Bloom, The Indiana Review, and Heart Quarterly. One of Waite’s poems from Troubling the Line was selected by Denise Duhamel and David Lehman for Best American Poetry 2013.

Lantern Review poetry giveaway, cream city review & Ninth Letter reading in Champaign + UWM library reading for National Poetry Month!

April 11, 2013

Dear lovelies,

In honor of poetry month, Lantern Review is running a poetry giveaway on the blog where you’ll be entered to win a 1-year subscription to Asian American Literary Review and copies of Nicky Schildkraut’s collection Magnetic Refrain and Henry’s chapbook, Paradise Hunger, when you leave a comment with the name of at least one Asian American poet you love or think others should know about & you’ll be enter to The first 10 people to enter each also get a gift (a bundle of “poetry starter packs” containing prompts and snippets of ekphrastic/found inspiration). I’ve also contributed my own two picks for Asian American poet to read.

Also, catch Jewel Marie Bush’s National Poetry Month blog post for Uptown Messenger! A great list of Gil Scott-Heron’s work and shoutouts to Kundiman alumni Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai, Tarfia Faizullah & me, among others!

In other recent news, I’ll be doing these upcoming readings here:

1) cream city review & Ninth Letter reading

Saturday, April 13, 5:30-7:30pm

Mike ‘n Molly’s, 105 N Market, Champaign, Illinois 61820

As part of the annual 
Boneyard Arts Festival, the University of Illinois will hold its first Visiting Writers Reading, featuring students from the PhD in Creative Writing program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and special guest Frank Montesonti, as well as students from UIUC’s MFA in Creative Writing program.

Please join us on April 13th at 5:30PM for this special event, to be held at Mike ‘n Molly’s in downtown Champaign. Learn more about our readers here:

Ching-In Chen is the author of The Heart’s Traffic (Arktoi Books/Red Hen Press) and co-editor ofThe Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities (South End Press). A Kundiman and Lambda Fellow, Ching-In is part of the Macondo and Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation writing communities, and has been a participant in Sharon Bridgforth’s Theatrical Jazz Institute. Ching-In attends the PhD program in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee and is Cream City Review’s editor-in-chief.

Loretta McCormick is a native Angelino and creative writing PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she studies and writes about freakery, disability and death. She is a fiction editor for Cream City Review, and her work has appeared in The Northridge Review. 

Khaleel Gheba is an MFA candidate in Poetry, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He grew up in Maryland. He once used a poem to lift a burning car off of a baby. He’s very tired. Please don’t wake him.

Natalie Mesnard is a student in the Creative Writing program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her work is forthcoming in Copper Nickel and Kenyon Review Online.

Greg Rodgers is an author and Choctaw storyteller who appears at schools, libraries, universities, museums, and tribal events throughout the country. He has written two books, The Ghost of Mingo Creek and One Dark Night in Oklahoma. Additionally, he is a contributing writer for the graphic-anthology, Trickster, an ALA Children’s Notable Book for 2011. Greg is listed as an official Smithsonian Associate and is currently a Graduate Assistant in the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Kara Van de Graaf is a doctoral student in creative writing at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a miniature silverware enthusiast. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the anthology Best New Poets, Ninth Letter, Indiana Review, Mid-American Review, Third Coast, Alaska Quarterly Review and other journals. She is a poetry editor for Cream City Review.  Her favorite animal is the goat.

Special guest Frank Montesonti is the author of two full-length collections of poetry, Blight, Blight, Blight, Ray of Hope, winner of the 2011 Barrow Street Book Prize chosen by D.A. Powell, and the book of erasure, Hope Tree (How To Prune Fruit Trees) by Black Lawrence Press. He is also author of the chapbook, A Civic Pageant, also from Black Lawrence Press. His poems have appeared in journals such as Tin House, AQR, Black Warrior Review, Poet Lore, and Poems and Plays, among many others. A longtime resident of Indiana, he now lives in Los Angeles and teaches creative writing at National University.


2) UWM Poets Read at Library in Celebration of National Library Week

In celebration of National Library Week (April 14-20) and National Poetry Month, the UWM Libraries are hosting a poetry reading by UWM creative writing professor Susan Firer, graduate students Ching-In Chen and Elisa Karbin, and undergraduate Skyer Osborne in the Golda Meir Library’s Grind area on Tuesday, April 16 at noon.

The reading, free and open to the public, is sponsored by the UWM Libraries, Department of English, and School of Information Studies.


Podcast @ One World Cafe, Niedecker Poetry Festival, Rev @ Home Milwaukee, Verse WI & WI Book Festival, Dirtcakes

November 3, 2012

Dear friendlies,

I’m writing this from the busiest fall yet since I’ve moved to Milwaukee. I’m writing this from a night which included facepainting, music-making, hot chocolate and singing to the dead. I’m writing you from a warm house set up to receive visitors for a housemate’s 49th mix-tape birthday party tomorrow night. I’m writing this from a place of gratitude for being connected with me on this journey and more to come …

Some news!

1) in Podcast form! 1st Skype reading & interview w/Claire Hart of One World Cafe up!


2) Lorine Niedecker Wisconsin Poetry Festival, Saturday, Nov 3

Dwight Foster Public Library, 209 Merchants Ave, Fort Atkinson, WI

11am-12:30pm Nature of Wisconsin Poetry panel (Community Room)

Culture, storytelling, personal experience, how they relate to physical place, community and relationships, create layers for potential poetry. This panel will highlight Wisconsin voices of diversity and the importance of diverse voices in mainstream writing. Each year this conversation gets everyone thinking about poetry, their own and the state of poetry in Wisconsin. This conversation element of the Wisconsin Poetry Festival never disappoints.

Moderators: Kim Blaeser

Panel: Jim Stevens, Ching-In Chen, Kate Sontag

3-5pm Poetry Round Table (Reference Area)

Invited poets will read and discuss their work in small groups. There will be two 40 minute sessions with a 10 minute break.

Group A Kim Blaeser and Robin Chapman – Community Room

Group B Jim Stevens and Anjie Kokan – Wisconsin Room

Group C Ching-In Chen and Sandy Stark – Reference area

Group D Kate Sontag and Fabu Jones – Gallery

3) Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence within Activist Communities anthology book launch + 1st Milwaukee Community Accountability/Transformative Justice learn-to-action group gathering, Saturday, Nov 10, 7-10pm

Eight Limbs Housing Co-op, 601 E. Wright St., Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53212

Inspired by other study-to-action Community Accountability/Transformative Justice groups (in Toronto, NY & elsewhere!), this is a call out for folks interested in coming together to learn about strategies to develop knowledge, skills and capacities of our communities to intervene in and end violence (including child abuse, sexual violence and intimate partner violence) without policing and prisons.

At this first gathering, Ching-In Chen — co-editor of The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence within Activist Communities — and others will read/share stories and strategies from the book and lead a discussion around how to support Community Accountability/Transformative Justice work in Milwaukee communities

4) Verse Wisconsin:

my poems, “A Town Where There Are No People” and “In the Beaten Rice Factory” in Verse Wisconsin’s Issue 110 in print & a review of my book in a mash-up review of recent books by twelve women by Wendy Vardman

5) The Creative Side of Publishing panel @ Wisconsin Book Festival, Sunday, Nov 11, 4-5:30pm, Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St, Madison WI

This panel will be a guided conversation between publishers to explore and discuss the risks and responsibilities that go with that role. With opportunities for collaboration and partnership, how do we break down barriers and build relations across communities? How do the choices we make help to create community? What are the ethical questions and issues a publisher might keep in mind? How does the literary community intersect and interact with broader communities? What are the political implications, both narrowly and broadly defined, of publishing poems, stories, and essays? Are there advantages to being a mission-driven publication, and if so, what are our missions, and to what extent do we engage in larger social issues? How do we seek out the writers we would like to publish? And how do we find balance between our work as publishers and our own writing lives? Books, broadsides, and magazines from a wide array of Wisconsin poetry publishers will be available for audience perusal. With VW editors and other panelists Oliver Bendorf & Nancy Reddy—Devil’s Lake; Ching-In Chen—Cream City Review; CX Dillhunt—Hummingbird; Frank X Walker—Pluck!, Nov 11, 4PM, Rotunda Studio/Overture.

6) dirtcakes: my collaborative poems, “three seeds” and “six seeds” found a home in the print journal. One of them also is featured online here.


Keep warm, keep writing!

Filtering the World: interview w/Natalie Diaz; Eight Limbs Housing Co-op & 100 Thousand Poems of Response and Survival for Milwaukee

September 29, 2012
Dear friendlies,
This fall has started off with a bang!
The first week of classes brought over 50 Native writers to Milwaukee for the 20th anniversary of Returning the Gift.  One of my favorite things about RTG was meeting the wonderful writers, including Natalie Diaz.   Natalie took time out of her whirlwind schedule to chat with me about writing for the Century for 21st Century Studies blog.
This morning, woke up to raw granola being made and listening to the sound of a community of voices in the kitchen while I’m writing this … because I’m a new resident of the Eight Limbs Housing Co-op, and have been excited about building a home, centered around wellness, healing and community.   If you’re local or happen to be passing through Milwaukee on Oct 7, come visit us during our Open House, 5-8pm!
Co-curating this event with Nikki Wallschlager in conjunction with 100 Thousand Poets for Changes happening all over today — hope to see you there!
100 Thousand Poems of Response and Survival for Milwaukee:

in memory of those we’ve lost to and those who are surviving violence in the Milwaukee area

Woodland Pattern poetry bookstore
720 E. Locust St., Milwaukee WI 53212

Join the Milwaukee poetry community as we participate in 100 Thousand Poets for Change on Saturday, September 29 by remembering those we’ve lost to and those surviving violence in our Milwaukee-area communities.

1-2pm making a community poem sculpture: Contribute a word, a phrase, a song, a quote, a borrowed line or stanza or poem, or your own poem to the community poem.

Catron Booker :: Waiting for the Rain with Fists Full of Grace
Jennifer Morales :: Swish

Readings by Milwaukee-area poets & community folks:
Carmen Murguia, Eric Disambwa, Dawn Tefft, JoAnn Chang, Suzanne Rosenblatt, Noel Mariano, Jeff Poniewaz, Jess Vega Gonzalez, Harvey Taylor & more!

Community readings of poems by:
Peggy Hong, Molly Snyder, Angela Trudell-Vasquez & more

Queer Poetry: a Zuihitsu, a blog up @ Metre Maids

June 19, 2012

New blog post on queer poetry (written in the form of a zuihitsu) up now for Pride Week @ Metre Maids!


APIA poetry blog up @ Best American Poetry blog: Milwaukee’s Pacific Heritage + Reading Across the Acronym

May 22, 2012

My contribution to this week’s APIA poetry blogs, Milwaukee’s Pacific Heritage, curated by Kenji C. Liu (Writer) up at the Best American Poetry blog!

Also, if you missed it, please check out Craig Santos Perez’s blog yesterday on “Reading Across the Acronym:” ‘To me, “collaboration against Empire within the arts” is exactly what we need to build an APIA literary coalition to confront the continuous ravages of empire that are destroying our homelands and peoples and futures.’

I look forward to the rest of the week!

Couplets Blog Tour: Celia Lisset Alvarez on Poetry & Politics

April 28, 2012

Today, I am happy to host Celia Lisset Alvarez as part of the Couplets multi-author poetry blog tour this month!

She is a writer and educator from Miami, Florida. Her first collection of poetry, Shapeshifting (Spire Press, 2006), was the winner of the 2005 Spire Press Poetry Prize. She has a second collection, The Stones (Finishing Line Press, 2006), and has been published in numerous journals and anthologies. She teaches at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens.


On Poetry and Politics


I’ve lately become obsessed with something I read in Very Like a Whale, something British poet Tony Williams said in an interview when asked about the role of the poet in the world: “It’s very difficult for a poet to write well in the light of a perceived responsibility to engage with matters outside the poem – whether these are political, historical, moral, theoretical, aesthetic, etc – because as soon as you have a conscious desire to do so, you’re serving two masters.” I was reading Ann Fisher-Wirth’s Dream Cabinet, in which sheeasilyslips back and forth from the lyrical to the political, and Williams’s words seemed both to fit and not to fit in an apt way.


Williams expresses the thought clearly, but it’s not an original one. In fact, he is speaking to a debate that has been going on since Plato first expelled the poets, possibly before. In another interview, one of my favorite poets, Martín Espada, speaks to the other side:


The very same people who are lamenting the loss of literacy in this society oftentimes turn around and embrace the very sort of poetry which seems guaranteed to render poetry irrelevant… To embrace that which is least likely to bring an audience to poetry. There are many critics, for example, who insist that poetry and politics are incompatible… If you examine the reasoning behind that argument, what you see basically is the position that it’s difficult to do well. Well, poetry in general is difficult to do well. Love poetry is particularly difficult to do well, yet I do not hear anyone suggesting that therefore love and poetry are incompatible . . . .


I think that a poem can and should have political content, that it doesn’t therefore mean that it will be propagandistic or polemic… When I write a political poem, I do so from the intimate vantage point of individual human beings. When I write these political poems, I’m writing about people I know or people they know. I am writing about family, friends, lovers, community, clients. The notion is to give politics or history a human face.


What are we to make of this semi-eternal debate over the role of the poet? Espada begins above with the fact that wewe poets, we educators, we readers—“ [lament] the loss of literacy in this society . . . and embrace the very sort of poetry which seems guaranteed to render poetry irrelevant.” Another favorite poet of mine, David Bottoms, when asked what the single greatest mistake young poets make was, complained that “so many poems I see by young writers, actually so many I see period, just don’t have a sense of necessity about them. They don’t communicate a compelling need to have been written. Either they memorialize some very uneventful event or they try to express some vague feeling the poet has had. They just never develop into art that carries the weight of necessity, of significance.” In a particularly incendiary piece on the appointment of Philip Levine as Poet Laureate, Anis Shivani complained that “the quality of poetry being produced by American poets regularly awarded the highest prizes in the land and recognized as the equals of past masters is not meant to last this pathetic moment of self-absorption and lassitude,” that, of course, he goes on to attribute to the lyrical tradition, especially the confessional poets (most disturbingly, the women—but I digress), whose “very project,” he claims, “is to participate–as the front guard of a regressive political elite–in the annihilation of common decency at all levels.” He continues to argue that “their poetry is garish, troublingly content-free, indecorous, and emotionless. Readers are smart not to read this trash,” as it would “diminish” them as “reader[s] and as . . . human being[s].”


I’ve had the conversation with people from other cultures, from Iran, from Cuba, from Haiti. In many other cultures, poety holds a central place in its citizenry’s imaginary. Josh Dzieza, in an article for The Daily Beast, reports that people in Egypt chant the poetry of Abul Qasim al-Shabi, while protesters in Iraq stage readings of Tunisian poets in support.


Is is possible that the move toward more lyrical and confessional poetry is responsible for the alienation Americans and other Westerners feel from poetry? Of course, Americans have a lot less to be chanting in protest about. Even the most vitriolic of the Occupy protests or the recent efforts on behalf of women’s health issues can’t compare to the situation in Egypt. Are Americans unmoved by poetry because American poetry has become apolitical, or has American poetry become apolitical because Americans already were?


In my own classroom, I try to give my students a choice of poetic styles. They read Louise Glück alongside Martín Espada, and they can write what they please—as long as it’s good. How do we define that, you might ask. For one thing, it is important to recognize the possibilities of bad—very, very bad—political poetry. It is easy to become so enamored of the message that we neglect to study the messenger, which is the poem. A well-crafted poem is good, whether it is political or not. Think of “Jabberwocky”—still one of the most beloved poems of all time, taught in schools and remembered by many who would not call themselves “poetry lovers.” What the heck is it about? Absolutely nothing. It is Carroll’s giddy, joyful wordplay that enchants us, oblivious to meaning, much less message. Asked the same question as Tony Williams, poet Katy Evans-Bush said “poetry is not about trying to make things happen. It’s about ways of experiencing, ways of navigating experience. We might look to Socrates, who told us that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ – poetry helps to create the tools for self-examination. Socrates also said: ‘Let him that would move the world first move himself.’”


There is a danger in political poetry to have an overinflated sense not just of the poem, but of the poet. A poem with a strong message can appear “important,” even if it’s sloppily crafted or riddled with feel-good or “uplifting” clichés. Moreover, there is something presumptuous about assuming that the poet has some kind of superior moral duty or ability to speak not just to others but for them. In a talk titled “Speaking of the Unspoken Places in Poetry,” Espada quotes Whitman: “Not a man walks handcuffed to the jail, but I am handcuffed / to him and walk by his side.” At face value, the thought is admirable, a triumph of human empathy. On the other hand, one can almost hear the handcuffed man thinking: no, you’re not.


It is important to write political poetry honestly and well. The poet can’t be a wagon-jumper, picking causes like flowers. The impulse to write a political poem is the same as the impulse to write a lyrical one: the poet’s attention hooks on some experience that produces meaningpersonal, political, but most often bothand the words weave it back into existence for the reader. If that moment of “compelled attention,” as Mark Doty calls it, that starts the poem happens to be political, that will be a good political poem. The poet must have an intimate connection with the politics, or the poem will fail. The poet who starts backwardswho attempts to write politically “in the light of a perceived responsibility to engage with matters outside the poem,” is more politician than poet.


The act of reading a poem often politicizes content the poet might have not considered political. When Anne Bradstreet sat down to write out her writer’s angst in “The Author to Her Book,” she never could have imagined that centuries later I’d be teaching it as an example of how women struggled—and struggle—to claim authorship in patriarchal societies. No human experience is apolitical. We live in a matrix, and whether the poet looks through the window and sees a tree laden with fruit or protesters being beaten by a repressive police force, the act of writing it down so that someone else can understand it is a political act.



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