I tend to write about political subjects over at Incertus, but this is personal too, and I suppose if I’m going to give David Biespiel crap about not seeing poets involved with politics, I should at least occasionally come through.
As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in the south, and NASCAR was a part of our lives well before it tried to expand into the rest of the country. I’ve been more a casual observer recently, though I’ve been known to click over and watch races from time to time, and yes, I am often able to match drivers and car numbers. That said, I’ve been pulling away from the sport in recent years, in no small part because of an argument Amy’s made to me more than once–that it’s an incredible waste of natural resources with little, if any, mitigating benefits. That’s generally true of most professional sports, but it seems to be particularly true of NASCAR. Some European racing circuits have been using the sport to find ways to advance hybrid, fuel cell, and EV technology, which puts them in a different class, as far as I’m concerned, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with NASCAR. Read more »
David Biespiel’s scolding essay in the latest issue of Poetry would bug me more if its claims weren’t so easy to debunk. Many of the commenters there–and thanks to the Poetry Foundation for not closing them down the way they did the ones at Harriet–did a good job of disemboweling Biespiel’s claims by pointing to a number of contemporary poets who are doing powerful work in both the political and poetical realms.
I understand where Biespiel is coming from, though, and what his goal is (I think). He’s trying to get poets as a class to become more politically vocal, and thereby increase their exposure, and poetry’s exposure by extension. And I applaud that. Poets ought to be good communicators, given our constant work with language, even those poets for whom communication in their work is secondary (or problematic), so it makes sense that in the political arguments of the day that poets ought to be able to provide some clarity.
The thing is, though, we do. The commenters noted the political engagement of the Split This Rock festival, the writing of poet/activists like Martin Espada, Patricia Smith, Naomi Shihab Nye, Joy Harjo, Lorna Dee Cervantes & Sinan Antoon, for example (all poets of color, which doesn’t reflect well on either Biespiel or the Poetry Foundation, frankly). Poets are making their voices heard on everything from health care reform to immigration issues to war protests to even organizing relief efforts for earthquake victims–and if someone doesn’t do something for Nashville, I’ll be really surprised.
If Biespiel is looking for examples of poetic engagement with politics, I’d suggest he check into Split This Rock, journals like Guernica or Ecotone, or drop by The Rumpus sometime, where we often use our platform to bring attention to political issues. Today, for example, we ran two pieces on the immigration debate, one by me and one by Peter Orner. I won’t say he does it often, but Ron Silliman has been known to get political on his blog as well. I can see how Biespiel might miss some lesser (in reach or volume) voices, but how do you miss Silliman?
I don’t want to suggest that, on the whole, poets are manning the barricades shouting “Viva la Revolucion!” in between shifts at the sit-in and the picket line. Biespiel is right, to an extent, that the poetic conversation is insular at times, and that there’s often more concern over protecting one’s poetic turf than there is in conversing across aesthetic boundaries. That’s due, no doubt, in part to the scraps of public attention and monetary reward we’re all competing for. But we are also capable of taking part in more than one conversation, and more to the point, there’s a lot of poets writing a lot of poetry, and many of us are deeply involved in the politics of the day as well. Just get out there more, beyond the major organs of the press and dig down to the–forgive the cliché–grassroots. We’re there and we’re having an effect on the discourse, alongside the community organizers and other writers and activists.
Amy McDaniel over at HTMLGIANT is talking about the aesthetic versus the political in art, and she uses this as part of the basis of her argument.
Politics are terminal. They are finite. We might say we are interested in raising questions when we talk about gender or race or other categories that are defined and upheld by politics. But politics is really about finding answers. This has its place, but its place is not in art.
I think this is a very limited way to think about politics, for starters, and so I have problems with the rest of her argument. I don’t think politics are terminal or finite, especially when we’re looking at the political in terms of social issues, and the effects of privilege. I can’t imagine a time where there won’t be some group which is othered, and where another is privileged above all others.
And I don’t think politics is about finding answers. In practice, few answers ever come out of politics, at least in practical terms. Politics is always a matter of negotiation, of argument, of pushing and shoving between groups, often violently. But about answers? No. Agreements, perhaps, mostly temporary, often open to interpretation by the involved parties, and often broken and renegotiated as the times require, but never answers.
Because I look at politics that way–as an ongoing negotiation rather than a search for and finding of answers–it’s odd that I find some common cause with part of her next statement:
Artists know that finding real answers is not possible in this world. The failure of politics to recognize this fact is why the lasting thing from any culture has been its expression.
It’s the first half I agree with–artists who claim they’ve found real answers are always boring, because they have a limited view of the human condition. And there are politicians who fail to recognize that there are no real answers, no question–the last President was a perfect example of this. His unwavering certainty that what he was doing was the right thing led him to make disastrous decisions, many of which are still causing great harm all around the world. But that’s not a failure of politics–that’s a failure of a politician.
But there are many politicians and activists and citizens who know that politics offers no real answers, that there will always be trade-offs and compromises, victories and setbacks, and always, always arguments. There will hopefully be a next day, but never a settled answer.
But here’s the funny thing. In the end, I agree with what McDaniel is saying.
I’m interested in the bigger things, more mysterious, more permanent things. A bigger thing is having empathy for someone you thought you had nothing in common with. A bigger thing is seeing the world through unshaded eyes. A bigger thing is realizing you are powerless to change any of it, but that you still have the will, courage, and stamina to muddle through, most likely for someone else’s sake. A bigger thing is realizing you are not alone. That you are not the only person built this way but that the world won’t stop calling you a freak.
The thing is, for me, that’s politics. Empathy is at the heart of a progressive politics, of widening the in-group, of seeing the world through unshaded eyes and helping to remove those shades from other people’s eyes, often (but not exclusively) by using art as a medium for communication. The personal is the political and all that. And given that, I think that art is the most political statement one can make.