Last week, the Poetry Society of America’s national series, Red, White, & Blue: Poets on Politics, landed in Houston. Local literary non-profits Inprint and Nuestra Palabra teamed up with PSA to bring Sandra Cisneros, Tony Hoagland, and Alice Quinn to UH for a free, public reading and discussion. (Poet Benjamin Saenz from El Paso was also scheduled to read, but he could not make it.)

I promoted the event with the following lines:

You know what the politicians say (what their focus groups tell them you want to hear), you know what the pundits say (whatever will get them more ratings), and you know what the comics say (whatever will get them a cheap laugh)–now come hear the poets.

The poets all read the works of others (more on that in a bit), but the most interesting part for me was the Q&A that followed, particularly when Cisneros said, “Poets are the opposite of politicians. Politicians tell us what we want to hear, whereas poets tell the truth” and Hoagland added, “Poetry teaches us irony. Politicians are not allowed to be ironic or ambivalent…or to change their minds.”

Of course, poetry deals with timeless themes, whereas “politics” are of the moment. There is a tendency in the common discourse of the US to think of “politics” as only having to do with party politics and elections, Democrats vs Republicans, conservative vs liberal. As an artist, myself, I can understand why artists want to stay away from subjects that are so base and temporal.

If we expand our definition of “political” to any study of power dynamics among and between groups of people, then I daresay all expression becomes political. Politics becomes impossible to avoid–if not in subject matter than in the choices the artist makes regarding tradition, their medium, how they define their audience and their relationship with that audience. These considerations are impossible to avoid.

“Speaking at all,” said Cisneros, “is a political act.”

The website for the whole national series features poems and interviews with some of the participants which are worth checking out (including local poet/translator Fady Joudah). This is Hoagland’s response to a question about the examination of the political in poetry:

It is central to me. As I became an adult, outgrew my anguish of adolescence and came further into knowledge of the world, I recognized that…things like money race, nationality, history, to name a few, were forces that infiltrated everything.

Douglas Kearny’s answer to the same question included this:

I think poetry is well-equipped to deal with examining questions about the desire for power, grappling with the dangers of that desire, the ways we deal with those we consider of lesser, greater and equal power as ourselves. There are of course, as Tracy K. Smith once said, things a vote can do that a poem cannot and vice versa. Things a petition can do, a bill can do. But in my experience as a writer and reader, poetry is excellent for examining will and want. These seem to me engines of the political.

I posit, then, that despite any artist’s desire to be “apolitical,” all art is political. Some months ago, an artist described her work as “apolitical” to me. I asked her more about it and she described it as “jewelry…pretty things…nothing political.” I asked her where she sold it, how much she priced it at, what kind of language she used to sell it, and looked at photos she had on her phone.

“So you make pretty things for rich people,” I finally said. “Is that not political?”

Of course, there are different levels of nuance and complexity–of overtness and subtlety–layers of subtext and multiplicities of meaning–across an artist’s oeuvre and within a single piece, even. After reading Kenneth Patchen’s “The Orange Bears,” about the terror experienced by a ten year-old boy who witnesses the National Guard brutally busting a steel workers’ strike which included the poet’s father and his father’s friends, Hoagland explained that poetry adds meaning and depth to emotions we may not initially understand.

“Poetry teaches us how to feel,” he said. “A poem can guide you through the architecture of an emotion. At the end of it, you are larger.”

“Poems should be on the backs of cereal boxes,” said Cisneros, “in bags of Cheetos.”

As I said earlier, the poets all read the work of others rather than reading their own work, which was an interesting choice. Listening and working to understand the perspectives of others–even those with whom you might disagree–is a political act. That polyphony, and the readers’ implicit humility, was refreshing.

I contrast last Monday’s event with the typical poetry slam–perhaps the most overtly political contemporary poetic movement. The typical slam poem goes something like, “I…I, I…I, I, I…I, I, I.” The “I” is so self-indulgent, so self-involved, so solipsistic, that it can hardly be subversive.

Rather than getting into the identity politics that ended the night and the dismissive attitude of the otherwise charming and compelling poet, Tony Hoagland, I will leave you with this brilliant parody of your typical political slam poem, from one of the best in the form, Taylor Mali, called “How to Write a Political Poem”:

(I am not above dishing the dirt in the comments section, though.)

OK wait–two more plugs. First, listen to this recording of Tracie Morris reading her “Slave Sho to Video aka Black but Beautiful”–a tremendously powerful poem consisting of about seven words, repeated and chopped and screwed and remixed to explode syntax and explore the very construction of meaning. Second, take every opportunity that presents itself to immerse yourself in the work of local poet, John Pluecker, who does something similar to Morris in his critique of slam-style poetry with his poem consisting of the five words “this is a poem about,” repeated with different pauses and intonations to create questions and declarations and exhortations. (Look for one of Pluecker’s performances in ongoing collaboration with Lucas Gorham for an especially humbling yet simultaneously inspiring experience.)

Photos courtesy of Dave Einsel.