Editor's Message Guest Critic
Are You There? Are We?
Poetry is where we trace and torque changes in the words that constitute our realities
Fifteen has a nice fulcrum feel. Half the number of days in a month. Or, put another way, the typical point at which a full moon occurs within the lunar calendar. The moon—why are we so obsessed with it. Well one thing is the simultaneous alienation and communion it inspires, the sense of shared regard happening across great distance. Poetry happens first in solitude, though with the belief (I believe) in a destination that is plural, and this is how I like it best: when we experience it together in a room.
Fifteen people is about where I start to feel the room will happen. I think it’s a good round but not unwieldy place to begin a conversation about how poetry forms, counters, and functions within groups.
And so here are fifteen questions I posed to fifteen poets:
Are you there. Are we.
Who is the you on the other end of the poem, or does the poem have correspondence at all. And if it does, what are the decisions we make with regard to that figure or figures, and what are the consequences of these iterative acts. How do we account for the impossibility of a universal, how do we interrogate the limitations of the default. Do we write toward some audiences and not others—what are the social contexts the poem is heading toward, away from, sensitively, obliviously to. What are the dimensions of speech we are applying pressure to. Or: what are the dimensions of decorum, rigor, legibility the poet consciously adheres to, consciously rejects. Do we imagine communities around poems, present or future. What’s happening there; what could.
Speaking of fifteen, speaking of relation, it is helpful to have numbers to give ourselves coordinates and scale. Every year there is too much writing concerned with the question of whether poetry is relevant. Nevermind that we bring poems to protests, weddings, funerals; or that poetry is where we trace and torque changes in the words that constitute our realities; or that it is one of our oldest and most enduring forms of expression period.
I would like to point out that the NEA’s most recent Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (2017) shows us nearly 12% of adults in the U.S. read poetry that year. That is the highest poetry readership on record over the 15-year period this survey has been conducted. It is about 28 million people. I would also like to point out that among the different age brackets, 18 to 24-year-olds had the highest rate of poetry readership, followed by 25 to 34-year-olds. And while I question the federal government’s demographic division and nomenclature around different “racial and ethnic subgroups,” I also find notable: African American readers responded with the highest rate of poetry readership (15.3%); followed by “other” non-White, non-Hispanic groups (13.5%); followed by Asian American readers (12.6%). Followed by non-Hispanic white readers (11.4%).
Is it gauche to bring numbers into discourse around poetry, gauche to talk about audience and specifically demographics. What if we replace the word gauche with productive. Maybe that’s worse. I think the skepticism of what has use for and through poetry might come from a sincere desire to remain outside the market. At the same time, what I pose to myself and to the poets in this feature is the question of how much that can ever really be the case, how differently free or bound we each are to audience and expectation, and the extent to which our respective articulations are perceived as political, abstract, experimental—any other manner of adjectives through which we become situated. Why and how do our notions of suppressed-identity default persist.
One way I think about default is through rage; when does it become particular, and what would rage be without particularity. In a recent conversation I had with a White poet, he referred to the Black rage of one of his now deceased contemporaries. I didn’t think that felt wrong of him to say, but it struck me, and made me wonder if I had ever felt a rage particular to my race or ethnicity (being Filipino this distinction is complicated and colonial).
Yes, I thought. Probably many times. Maybe every time. Though what comes to mind right now is the first fundraising event I attended in my former job, an awards ceremony for journalism at Columbia. I arrived alone. I was there to talk about the press freedom work my organization was engaged in. I was talking with a circle of older White men about one of the year’s winners, a Black man who had written a book about children killed by guns on a single day in the U.S. One of the men in the circle chafed at what he perceived as the book’s over-emphasis on identity. I chafed at that.
“I’m sorry,” he said to me in front of the others, “but who even are you and why are you here.”
“I’m sorry?” I said, not understanding the question.
“Aren’t you supposed to be working,” he responded, gesturing to someone passing out drinks.
The most valuable advice I ever received from a teacher was “Don’t spend time with people who make you feel you cannot speak.”
The people who have contributed to this section are people who make me feel an abundance and openness of speech. Who the you and we are is always in flux, sometimes combustion. What I do believe is that poetry finds more particularly and timelessly its power the more variable and multi-vocal and disobedient it becomes.