So You Want to Write a Political Poem?

The following article appeared in the Press-Enterprise, Sunday, April 17, 2016.

This is the year it could happen. Maybe you’re stuck in a stop-and-go rubberneck on the 91 Freeway, the radio a dull drone through your morning migraine as the partisan station of your choice recaps last night’s 184th presidential debate, a town hall-style, lightning-round game of charades, where the candidate who terrifies you the most intellectually pantomimes the dismemberment of the candidate who offers at least a squint of hope, like those glimmers that might or might not be oncoming headlights emerging from the glare of a blinding commuter’s sun. Maybe it’s already happened. Maybe you’ve already begun making a list of rhymes in your head. Dump. Slump. Jump. Maybe you’re slant-rhyming Bernie with wormy, smarmy, and germy—most poems start as limericks (it was true until the fact-checkers checked it, I swear).

Wherever it happens, you might find within yourself at some point over the next eight months the sudden urge to write a political poem. If you do, I’ve prepared this simple guide to help you handle the situation with aplomb.

First of all: Don’t panic. Pull over to the side of the road somewhere safe, or wait for the nearest exit, then find an empty parking lot or an exceptionally long drive-thru line. Poems sometimes write themselves, but they can’t write themselves while you’re driving. Only poem in park.

Don’t feel guilty. A poem is just a special way to talk about special things. Human beings come equipped with language processing lobes in their brains that demand we talk, and all humans are subject to special times like now, and special thoughts about those times like these. We all have an innate desire to say the unsayable, to articulate all that lies just beyond the reach of articulation. Poetry can happen to anyone, anywhere, so remember: It’s not your fault.

Find a recording device. Often people today carry with them smartphones, and if you yourself have one, you can record your poem as a voice memo, text it to a long-lost friend, email it to yourself, or tap it out using a standard writing application. If not, many of the world’s greatest poems have been written on ancient, crusty glovebox napkins. It’s true. If all else fails, there’s still rhythmic memorization, a pneumonic device, which historically has been the point of poetry more often than not. Whatever tool you use, just don’t lose it.

Now that you have your poem saved, the real trouble begins. Sure, you’ve written something “felt in the blood and felt along the heart,” as Wordsworth put it, but what next? Does your political poem have any cultural value? Should you share it with close friends, or perhaps even the general public?

On this question, poets themselves have long been split. In “A Defense of Poetry,” Percy Shelley famously wrote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” and others have been trying to pat themselves on the back equally firmly ever since. William Carlos Williams says, “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Your political poem could be a matter of life and death! More recently, Meena Alexander writes that, “We have poetry/ So we do not die of history,” a statement I particularly love.

Not everyone agrees, though. In a 1965 lecture to students at Berkeley, Jack Spicer said, “I don’t know of any political poems which have worked,” and suggested instead of writing poems that they write letters to their congressmen. Both would be equally effective, he reasoned. I once asked National Book Critic’s Circle Award winner Troy Jollimore why he finds political poems difficult to write, and he worried about preaching to the converted: “The people who know those are good values are already on my side; the people that don’t think they’re good values aren’t going to be convinced by my siding up with good values.” He has a point, too. A poem isn’t an argument. A poem’s purpose isn’t to persuade—persuasion is for op-eds and campaign ads. Poetry doesn’t argue; it argonauts.

So keeping that in mind, re-read your political poem. Is it cheer-leading, or is it trail-blazing? Is it just a bullhorn for someone else’s bullshit, or does it reach deeper into that abyss to haul up some new creature?

Last month, an Orange County poet named David Miller wrote in a political poem, an elegy for the personified American Dream: “I ran when I heard you crying/ like a phone, no one told me how alone you are.” Now that’s what Shelley meant when he said that poetry “purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being.”

Be honest, does your political poem really purge the film of familiarity, or is it just more mosquito guts on the windshield? If it’s the former, then by all means share it widely!

This is the year for purging.

Ken Waldman on Poets Cafe

The following interview of Ken Waldman by Lois P. Jones originally aired on KPFK Los Angeles (reproduced with permission).


[download audio]

Biographical Information—Ken Waldman

waldmanKen Waldman has drawn on his 30 years in Alaska to produce poems, stories, and fiddle tunes that combine into a performance uniquely his.

A former college professor with an MFA in Creative Writing (University of Alaska Fairbanks, 1988), Waldman has had published six full-length poetry collections, a memoir, a children’s book, and has released nine CDs that mix old-time Appalachian-style string-band music with original poetry. Since 1995 he’s toured full-time, performing at some of the nation’s leading universities, festivals, arts centers, and clubs.

Three of his poetry collections are set in Alaska. His first, Nome Poems, details white and Native issues in rural Alaska and went through two printings with Albuquerque’s West End Press before Waldman reprinted it himself. His second, To Live on This Earth, was released by the same publisher and has poems set throughout Alaska; many focus on the natural world there. His third, The Secret Visitor’s Guide, was published by Wings Press of San Antonio, and revisits both Alaska settings, and includes work set outside Alaska, plus a sequence of political poems inspired by the September 11, 2001 attacks. Waldman has three other full-length poetry collections by respected and known publishers: And Shadow Remained (Pavement Saw Press), Conditions and Cures (Steel Toe Books), and As the World Burns (Ridgeway Press). His memoir, Are You Famous? (Catalyst Book Press), chronicles Waldman’s adventures on tour throughout the United States. His self-published children’s book, D is for Dog Team (Nomadic Press) is a sequence of Alaska-set acrostic poems for young readers that was almost immmediately picked up for distribution by University of Alaska Press.

Waldman has had over 400 poems and stories in journals and anthologies, including Beloit Poetry Journal, Puerto del Sol, and Quarterly West. He is currently shopping four additional full-length poetry collections, a novel, a story collection, a sequel to his memoir, and a hybrid work that is both memoir and a guide to writing—and also includes a full poetry collection of poems about writing and writers.

Among Waldman’s CDs are two for children, Fiddling Poets on Parade (2005) and D is for Dog Team (2009), which goes with the children’s book of the same title. On all CDs, Waldman is joined by ace accompanists. He’s also composed and recorded over one hundred original tunes.

Though he still performs solo on occasion, Waldman teams with other musicians when he headlines such venues as Cal Poly Arts, Lakewood Cultural Center in Colorado, The Millennium Stage at The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., or else for concert series and festivals. He’ll also bring a troupe of musicians for performing arts series shows.

He is also a popular visiting artist in classrooms. Using both his fiddle and a repertoire of proven writing exercises, he has led workshops in over 225 schools in 34 states nationwide, and has been a guest writer at over 100 colleges and universities, including University of Tennessee, Knox College, and San Diego State University.

His recent essay about making a living as a touring artist was in the September/October 2015 issue of Poets & Writers magazine, and can be seen here.

For more about Ken Waldman: www.kenwaldman.com.

__________

Village Fiddle

I toted my junker, side seam already cracked,
an old cheap box of wood that would take
the steep banks of small planes aiming
for runways, the bumps and jostles of sleds
hooked to snowmachines, the ice, the wind,
nights in the villages. Higher education
missionary, I made rounds to students’ homes
(where I visited, but never fit), to liaisons’
offices (where the state-issued equipment
sometimes worked), to the local high schools
and elementaries (where I volunteered service)—
fiddle closer to my heart than the backpack
full of books. Indeed, closer to my heart
than the frozen broken truth: a bloody pump
buried in utter darkness. Quick to unsnap
the case, I scratched tunes where no one had,
played real-life old-time music to Eskimos
and the odd whites in that weathered land.
The Pied Fiddler, I might have been, gently
placing the beat-up instrument in others’ hands,
giving up the bow. Good for smiles and laughs.
Random questions and comments. A third-grader:
It must be like having a dog making noise—
you must never get lonely. A high-schooler:
Is it hard to learn? One of my college students:
Why are you out here? Where is your family?

Richard Gilbert on Poets Cafe

The following interview of Richard Gilbert by Lois P. Jones originally aired on KPFK Los Angeles (reproduced with permission).


[download audio]

Biographical Information—Richard Gilbert

GilbertEducation. While at Naropa University (Boulder, Colorado) studied and hung out with beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, Gary Snyder, and others; became a Tibetan Buddhist meditator. Performed in and produced conceptual art multidisciplinary presentations as poet, videographer, and electric guitarist. Undergraduate thesis on Japanese classical haiku, BA in Poetics and Expressive Arts, 1982. Completed Tibetan Buddhist seminary training in 1984, and returned to Naropa for an MA in Contemplative Psychology, graduated 1986. Worked as a clinical adult outpatient psychotherapist at Boulder Community Mental Health Center. In 1990, completed a Ph.D. at The Union Institute & University, in Poetics and Depth Psychology, studying Archetypal Psychology with James Hillman. Moved to Kumamoto, Japan, in 1997,  teaching at university and publishing academic articles on Japanese and English-language haiku, while designing EFL educational software. Received tenure as an Associate Professor of British and American Literature, Faculty of Letters, Kumamoto University in 2002.

Activities. Co-judge of the Kusamakura International Haiku Competition, Kumamoto, Japan (2003-present). Founder and Director of the Kon Nichi Haiku Translation Group, Kumamoto University (2002-present). Founding Associate Member of The Haiku Foundation (thehaikufoundation.org). In March 2008, publication of Poems of Consciousness: Contemporary Japanese & English-language Haiku in Cross-cultural Perspective (Red Moon Press, 2008, 306 pp.) was awarded the HSA 2009 Mildred Kanterman Award for Haiku Criticism and Theory. In mixed media publication, the gendaihaiku.com website presents subtitled video interviews with notable gendaihaiku (modern Japanese haiku) poets, biographical information and haiku translations. In 2011, publication of Ikimonofûei: Poetic Composition on Living Things (a talk by Kaneko Tohta, with commentary and essays. Gilbert, et al, Red Moon Press, 92 pp.), and The Future of Haiku, an Interview with Kaneko Tohta (with commentary and essays. Gilbert, et al, Red Moon Press, 138 pp.). In 2012, publication of Selected Haiku of Kaneko Tohta, Part 1, 1937-1960 (with commentary, essays and chronology. Gilbert, et al, Red Moon Press, 256 pp.), and Selected Haiku of Kaneko Tohta, Part 2, 1961-2012 (with commentary, chronology and encyclopedic glossary. Gilbert, et al, Red Moon Press, 250 pp.). The two 2012 Selected Haiku of Kaneko Tohta volumes were awarded The Haiku Foundation 2012 Touchstone Distinguished Book Award. In August 2013, publication of The Disjunctive Dragonfly: A New Theory of English-language Haiku (R. Gilbert, Red Moon Press, 132 pp.): A revised and expanded update of the decade-old essay, which first appeared (in North America) in Modern Haiku Journal 35:2 (2004). The book contains 275 haiku by 185 authors, and several new sections, including a comparative discussion of strong and weak styles of disjunction in excellent haiku, and a presentation of seven newly coined “strong reader-resistance” disjunctive categories. (Full bio. available: http://thehaikufoundation.org/poet-details/?IDclient=159)

__________

15 Haiku

 

1.

 

as an and you and you and you alone in the sea

 

Haiku in English, Kacian et al, New York: Norton, 2013, p.240

 

2.

 

a drowning man
pulled into violet worlds
grasping hydrangea

 

Haiku in English, Kacian et al, New York: Norton, 2013, p.240

 

3.

 

something of a scar
of ocean left
rolling cigarettes

is/let Haiku Journal,  2015 (March 11)

 

4.

 

it must be how
violence in the world
crocus

is/let Haiku Journal,  2015 (Feb 8)

 

5.

 

semite war
unharmed olives — the desert
tastes your skin

is/let Haiku Journal,  2014 (Dec 30) 

 

6.

 

unchangeability—
i leave the earth
that way

 

Moongarlic, Issue 3, 2014, p.73

 

7.

 

be mine –
alive for one
more war

is/let Haiku Journal, 2014, Dec. 30

 

 

 

8.

 

moon resins —

sex and god and teeth

and fingernails

Moongarlic, Issue 3, 2014

 

 

9.

 

mass

solitude
what’s left
of the party
denial

 

Moongarlic issue 3, 2014

 

10.

 

licking the cleft sweet aspirin after rain

 

Roadrunner Haiku Journal 13:2 (2013)

 

11.

 

what became deeper of you i let in

 

Roadrunner Haiku Journal 12:3 (2012)

 

 

12.

 

moon cradled you recall the voice of another I might be the distance

 

Roadrunner Haiku Journal 11:2 (2012)

 

 

13.

 

When you dream the inside
smoke between cypress trees

Roadrunner Haiku Journal 10:1 (2010)

 

14.

 

Stay with me
with the light out
and water glass

 

Roadrunner Haiku Journal 10:1 (2010)

 

15.

 

hungover — ignoble
Jerusalem —  cactus
pissing   —   the cats

 

Roadrunner Haiku Journal 8:2 (2008)

Fereidun Shokatfard on Poets Cafe

The following interview of Fereidun Shokatfard by Lois P. Jones originally aired on KPFK Los Angeles (reproduced with permission).


[download audio]

Biographical Information—Fereidun Shokatfard

Shokatfard1Fereidun Shokatfard is a native of Iran. He is an artist, educator and accomplished businessman. His love for poetry of Rumi and Hafiz was inspired by the teachings of his maternal grandfather, who often gathered the children and played the tar – an ancient Persian string instrument and recited poems from Rumi and Hafiz. Fereidun’s love for nature and the outdoors led him to study agriculture. He graduated from Justus Liebig University in Giessen, Germany with a Ph.D. in Agro Economics. During his graduate studies, he also studied Art at the Pedagogic Institute in Giessen. Fereidun taught at Pahlavi University in Shiraz, Iran.

Shokatfard2Dr. Shokatfard is an author of three books: Colors of Paradise, a collection of his art work and poetry; Colors of Love and Peace, a which brings together artwork of the students of 186th St. Elementary School in the LA Unified School District; and Colors of Joy and Happiness, an instructional art book. The Dalai Lama graciously wrote a foreword for the latter two books. These collections are part of the permanent patient library in local and national children’s hospitals.

In 2012 Fereidun created Heartful Children’s Foundation to help children with cancer through art. He agrees with the medical community that “children need more than medicine to get well” and conducts art shows to highlight the work of patients and share what is going on inside these facilities. Some former patients are familiar faces when he conducts workshops for children at his home.

__________

No more room

Somewhere at the edge of the emptiness
Layers of images coming to focus in my mind
Finding myself in the children’s cemetery
Graves of little angels as far as eyes could see
Fear no more heart, if you don’t hear the laughter
of Lily, Patrick and Paul
Where are Kylie, Jasmine and Laura
They all faded away
The killer, the cancer took them away one by one
The four year old Lily who looked like a porcelain doll
with her dark brown eyes, radiating life was a promise
If you overlooked her bald head and the tube in her nose
and just saw the pretty tiara on her head
and the fluffy petty coat bouncing when she came to the playroom,
with such an enthusiasm
You could hear her shouting in silence,
I will make it
she didn’t
O heart that led me to Laura’s bedside
to tell her that I brought the book of her art work
while my wife and her mom, who could not speak
a word of English were hugging and sobbing
I knew that the end was near
but I had to tell her what was in my heart
Te amo Laura, I love you
She opened her eyes slightly, smiled and softly replayed, me too
and went to a deep sleep
I need to take my mind off the cemetery
I have half an hour to rush to the hospital
to do art with those kids
They are waiting for me
And this time I am convinced
They all going to make it
Because we are going to love them a bit more
I told the Drs and nurses do your very best
I just passed the cemetery
There was a big sign in front of the gate that read
No more room

Austin Straus on Poets Cafe

The following interview of Austin Straus by Lois P. Jones originally aired on KPFK Los Angeles (reproduced with permission).


[download audio]

Biographical Information—Austin Straus

AustinStrausAustin Straus was born in June 1939 in Brooklyn, New York. He has lived in Southern California since 1978. His poems and illustrations have appeared in numerous literary magazines and anthologies, including Alcatraz 3, The Maverick Poets, Men of Our Time, New Letters, Plainsong, Stand Up Poetry, and This Sporting Life, among many others. He is an accomplished painter, printmaker, and book artist with work in several private collections, including The Ruth & Marvin Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry. His one-of-kind books combine poetry and graphics and are in many art collections throughout California and elsewhere. He frequently, informally, exhibits prints, drawings and paintings in conjunction with readings. As the host of Pacific Radio’s The Poetry Connexion, he directed the show on KPFK from October 1981 through June of 1996 with co-host Wanda Coleman. Drunk with Light, a book of poems, was published by Red Hen Press in 2002. Intensifications, his second book from Red Hen appeared in 2010. The Love Project, A Marriage Made in Poetry, poems written by himself and his wife of 32 years, Wanda Coleman, also from Red Hen, was published in 2014, after Coleman’s death. He continues his life-long exploration of visual poetry with paintings, collages and unique books.

__________

Pictures of You

The thing is to paint as if no other
painter ever existed.
—Cezanne

1.

You break no Kodaks, so camera
friendly, the lens loves you.

Painting is another story…you are
variegated, light and dark browns
tinged with ochres, reds, oranges, siennas,
umbers, maroons and salmons, all blended,
everything but green and blue!  What you wear
changes your skin tone, and where you sit
and how you hold yourself, look up, down,
sideways and your expression, sad, meditative,
thoughtful, worried, calm, delighted,
and is it sunny or shady or rainy, and
what’s the atmosphere, the barometric pressure,
humidity…the very air and light change you,
my brown/black, Indian red, multi-colored,
multi-brained, multi-sensed multiple, my
million women in one, my elusive, changeable,
unpindownable, ever unpredictable, highly
unpaintable you.

2.

No one ever saw an apple before
or that mountain

and I never saw you, try now
to see you as if no one
has ever seen you, see you new,
from every possible angle and
nuance, real and surreal, flat,
round and cubed, collaged and
montaged, in shadow and light, color
or black and white, etched, sketched
and painted, in delicate pencil,
charcoal and pastels, or hard, linear,
contoured, barely seen or superreal,
totally, to all your levels, with all
the depths, complexity, truth and care
you have always deserved…

 

The Love Project, A Marriage Made in Poetry
(Red Hen Press, 2014)