Politicians vs. Poetry: No contest

more poetry is needed

Photo by c.art, published under Creative Commons license.

This morning’s coffee with friends focused on the convention. The hate and the speeches and the hate and the plagiarism and the hate and the stupidity and the hate and the platform and … all the reasons that I am avoiding television and news this week. So today I’m focusing on poetry. Writing some. And re-reading some. Mostly from Minnesota poets, like Joyce Sutphen, whose words caught in my heart the first time I read “In Winter:”

In winter, snow drifted in through a crack
in the hay-barn door. Up there it was cold,
and the stacks of bales looked like cliffs of green
that we climbed so we could throw the hay down.

I’ve been there, I thought. I know that haymow. I climbed those bales. I, too, threw the bales down the chute, forked hay slices into the manger where “the kind eyes of Holsteins gazed / on us with all the love we’d ever need.” (Okay – by the time I was feeding them, our cows were Herefords, but I swear their eyes were just as kind.)

Some poems evoke that “aha!” moment of realizing / remembering your own life. Some poems open windows for you into other lives, inviting you to see what you have never seen.

Claudia Rankine qualifies as an honorary Minnesotan, since our own Graywolf Press published her award-winning Citizen: An American Lyric, according to her website, “the only poetry book to be a New York Times bestseller in the nonfiction category.” So, even though she lives in California, I’ll claim her for Minnesota. Her poetry has no rhymes, but many reasons. Citizen is a book-length poem. And it has a bibliography of works referenced in the poem — almost, but not quite footnotes. In the ways in which it was different from other poems, this book broke open new possibilities for me, for writing poetry.

Citizen, of course, is not a poem about writing poetry, but a painfully clear account of life as a black citizen, living in this country, today:

At the end of a brief phone conversation, you tell the manager you are speaking with that you will come by his office to sign the form. When you arrive and announce yourself, he blurts out, I didn’t know you were black.

I didn’t mean to say that, he then says.

Aloud, you say.

What? he asks.

You didn’t mean to say that aloud.

Your transaction goes swiftly after that.

I read Citizen shortly after it was published in 2014. Rereading it now, I realize again that poetry is meant to be read over and over again, unpacking its layers of meaning, each day’s new light reflecting from its surface to reveal colors and depths invisible the day before.

Minnesota poet Bao Phi opens windows into Minneapolis lives,

raised on Twenty-Sixth and Bloomington slipping through the seams in
this country’s
multiculti quilt

and to the alienation of that same city and street, where

Twenty-Sixth Street, a one-way,
flows by my house, keeps going right
out of the hood before spilling into
Uptown, fertile delta of the young,
disturbingly hip, rich by no fault of their own

Sông I Sing, his first book of poetry, bursts with life and love as well as anger and pain, as he explores a multigenerational landscape that includes his parents’ war and flight from home along with the the younger generation’s struggles against social forces of racism and poverty, and also their personal struggles to know and be known, to love and be loved.

Writing from my hometown, Nancy Paddock remembers earlier immigrants:

Great-Grandma Cecilia was told
the new world would be all roses
and streets of gold.

Instead, she found herself

scrubbing other people’s floors,
dragging Ida and little Molly with her,
speaking no English and gone
from all she loved at home.

Recognizing the distance between dreams and disappointments, Paddock still celebrates daily life, cooking with “the sharp sweetness of basil,” pulling weeds — “tiny, lovely spikes of crabgrass,” and marriage like “Two old oaks … roots and branches intertwined.”

The personal is political, we said over and over again, back in the day. Poetry weaves personal and political, memory and reflection, observation and understanding into a single fabric. Rodrigo Sanchez-Chavarria begins his 2010 chapbook, Writing Life:

We write to breathe in,
We bleed stories to blend in,
We bleed, breathe, we write.

Emmanuel Ortiz weaves memories of his father’s “big, beautiful, rough, brown” hands with his own hands that “have never known machete or machinery / have rarely had to do manual labor to survive,” and tells us:

Within these hands
Lie the stories of other hands
And the ability to tell them;
To bring past into present,
The privilege to forget,
Therefore the responsibility to remember.

The responsibility to remember. In the face of utter nonsense blasting from television and radio every night of this week, take time for poetry, for remembering, reflecting, and choosing ways to make sense in our world and to move from the present to a better future.

Poets and their books:

  • After Words by Joyce Sutphen, published by Red Dragonfly Press in 2013
  • Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine, published by Graywolf Press in 2014
  • Sông I Sing by Bao Phi, published by Coffee House Press in 2011
  • Cooking with Pavarotti by Nancy Paddock, published by Red Dragonfly Press in 2012
  • Writing Life – a chapbook by Rodrigo Sanchez-Chavarria, published in 2010.
  • Brown Unlike Me: Poems from the Second Layer of Our Skin – a chapbook by Emmanuel Ortiz, published by Red Salmon Press and Calaca Press in 2008


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