A couple of days ago, I visited a school in the Bronx to talk about poetry to high school students who were majoring (!) in Creative Writing. My visit was organized by a literary organization in New York City that brings poets and writers to schools. My assignment was to offer a perspective on “political poetry.” I had been pondering about politics long before I was given such assignment, thoughts triggered by the current state of health care reform in Washington, DC. On facebook, I had also been posting on how we, as citizens, might influence congress on their decisions on this national issue, amid concurrent postings by other Fbers on less salient issues. I have no health insurance. I understand exactly what the health reform means to millions of Americans.
Political Person vs. Political Poet
The latter makes me cringe. The idea that anyone who reads my work would call me a political poet makes me wonder about the common denominator about these two identities–politics. I have no qualms professing the former, Political Person. Since my apolitical and naive college years, I have grown to be very engaged in things . . . of political nature. I have made a working life out of fighting for social justice. I have spent many breakfast mornings exercising my brain with online political commentaries. My role models in life are totally immersed in social change. Even the writers I adore–say, Jose Saramago–are very politically charged, not only on the literary page, but also, in real life. I am a political person and there’s no debating that fact. Label me, as you may, it’s the truth.
The discomfort I have about being called a political poet is the word, poet.
If there is a type of poetry that most poets, much less non-poets, don’t understand, it is political poetry. I also know so many poets who would never enter the doors of political poetry, because the thought of politics is in essence, a dungeon of unknown prospects. It is as if one needs to be equipped with a lighter, a white dove, fig leaves, or other symbolistic objects in order to produce a literary work remotely resembling social justice on paper. There is also the tendency to write poetry that resembles a copy for a human rights propaganda or protest banners. Worse, the disaster poetry in which some poets engage when a part of the world falls apart (think: Iraq War, Katrina, 9-11, Tsunami). I don’t condemn such collectives. I question the intention behind them (and the sentimentality), especially when apolitical poets take advantage of these occasional environments of disasters for literary production and professional exposure. I have not once contributed to such sad commentaries on the poetic life. The most political anthology I am in, Fire in the Soul: 100 Poems for Human Rights, was a solicitation. I was quite proud to be in those pages, albeit among dead people. But I don’t seek them out. When I get invited to these so called political anthologies, I think twice, thrice, and most often, ignore.
Many of my friends, not all poets, mind you, are very political. I have worked in many environments that attract think-alikes. We don’t always agree on political view points, but we can agree on having very strong personal opinions. I even know some folks who don’t call themselves political, but have buttons once pressed, liberate the most political soundbytes you would ever hear from these unsuspecting types. My mother is one of them. Don’t get her started. She watches CNN every day. She knows the pulse of the nation.
So Politics, Politics
I do have these secret wishes. Let’s begin: I hope that people won’t be ashamed to declare war against social injustice publicly, the way they post on facebook party pictures, NFL commentary, favorite movies, last night’s dinner, this morning’s breakfast, private illnesses not so private anymore, cryptic hate posts, and other fascinating tantrums suddenly made interesting because half your friends are experiencing the same (the full moon?). I just really wish that everyone I know would call their congresswo/man and get Washington politics working like it should. Yes, enough partisan politics. Say No to the Tea Party. And please pass Health Care Reform so living artists can work full time as artists and not endanger their full time MFA jobs by writing, um, political poetry.
How many times can a man turn his head pretending that he just doesn’t see? The answer my friend is blowin in the wind. The answer is blowin in the wind.