Politics, Meet Poetry: An Interview with Joshua Beckman and Matthew Zapruder

Statecover This is not a declaration of love or song of war
not a tractate, autonym, or apologia

          --Peter Gizzi, from “Protest Song”

yes: the 1st photo after the end of America.

would you care to unwrap it?
hang it in your cockpit?

          --Rachel Zucker, from “To Save America”

If we the people were as funny as you say, then
we the people would laugh at us the laughers!

          --Edwin Torres, from “E-Man’s Proclamation”

Political poems have a bad reputation. The worst of them hit you over the head, scream at you, or try too hard to be funny or sly or rebellious. But when you encounter even one good one, it can change the way you look at the world (or at least make you thankful that some crazy fool out there feels the same as you).

This week, my friends over at Seattle-based Wave Books published a rare anthology: a slim volume of 50 good political poems by 50 poets aptly called State of the Union. Covering a surprising generational and stylistic range, the book comes together as a unified front, a sort of collective voice of contemporary poetry taking on the frenzied political state of our country and our world.Joshuamatthew

And, if that isn’t cool enough: all royalties from the book are going to Swords to Ploughshares, a nonprofit organization that helps homeless and low-income veterans get back on their feet.

I caught up with the book’s busy poet-editors, Joshua Beckman (right) and Matthew Zapruder (left), by email:

Amazon.com: The timing for State of the Union seems perfect, with such a historic presidential race. How did you decide to do a political anthology?

Matthew Zapruder: It has been clear to everyone for a long time that this current presidential election was going to be a historic one, with far-reaching consequences for the U.S. and the world. We wanted as editors, and poets, to contribute to the conversation at this crucial time, by putting together an anthology of poetry that would engage with the themes and issues that confront us, in ways that only poetry can.

Over the past several years (especially since 9/11, and then the start of the Iraq war in 2003) we have been noticing an increase in the number of poems that feel to us, or could be called, "political." This is obvious and natural; poets get their material from what surrounds them, and what has surrounded all of us in the last several years is an unmistakable feeling that the position and role of the United States abroad and at home has become more problematic and dangerous. Surely it has always been that way; this is just a time where that consciousness is more clear and urgent. Which is probably a good thing. While the events of the past seven years in particular have been traumatic, it is good that artists are waking up and paying more attention to their role as citizens.

Amazon.com: What makes a poem political? How did your definition of a political poem evolve as you went through the process of compiling the anthology?

Joshua Beckman: In creating this anthology we tried very hard not to have a definition of what a political poem was, while still constantly asking the question of what makes a political poem. I think we searched for work that felt like it was genuinely motivated by the needs of our present political circumstance. Historically it is easy to identify poetry that responds well to its time, and looking at a broad view of literary history one can see the amazing variety of poetry that has been politically motivated. But it feels far more daunting to have any grasp of the range and depth of contemporary work in relation to a political environment one is experiencing first hand, and I believe that was our challenge before we edited the anthology and continues to be. The more poems we saw the more we recognized the vastness of the needs that created them.

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Ah yes! Political poems have nearly been the vane of my college days. Let's see if I remember a typical poetry class discussion:

TEACHER: "Does anyone have a favorite poem that's also a political poem?"

Nearly ten hands go up in the air, mine too.

TEACHER: "Yes, Mr. Gonzalez, and try to stay away from Don Pablo (Neruda) please!

GONZALEZ: " 'LES CHATIMÊNTS' Victor Hugo's attack to Emperor Napoleon, by then defunct. It has some of his best rhyming, some matches of six syllables in beautiful duodecimal lines. Excuse, professor I cannot quote it without tears. But everybody knows Don Pablo couldn't speak of love unless it was somehow political.

TEACHER: "We have heard enough of Neruda, now, anybody else?

SUTDENT #2: "William Butler Yates almost kicks Neruda out of first contender for political poetry. One of my favorites is THE SECOND COMING, "Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer,/Things fall apart, the center cannot hold!/ Mere anarchy is thrown upon the world!" Doesn't it sound like a speaker in the National Conventions?

TEACHER: Oh mine, you are so right!, if it wasn't
Maude Gonne it was one O'reily or another with Yeats, and as usually he contradicts himself proclaiming that "Romantic Ireland is dead and done.../ It's with O'leary in the grave." Thank you so much, somebody else?

STUDENT #3: I think Aristophanes was pretty vocal politically,I remember his attacking Socrates in THE CLOUDS, where mere mortals beg attention of the philosopher which enters the stage floating in tiny cloud in the painted stage sky:
"Socrates, sweet, sweet Socrates...", that's all I can quote, pardon me."

TEACHER #4 you are pardoned indeed, and thanks for reminding us that the Greek Theater was splashed, particularly in the comedies' iambic pentameter!

A gentleman in a blue suit and a white shirt enters the classroom and sits in the back, after knoking the trash-can by the door. The class turns around to look. By the time they again turned attention to the teacher, she had gathered her notes and was holding her pocket-book, on the way out, waving the students "Good luck in the final, and hold the e-mails, thanks, you've been a lovely class!" The man in the blue suit seemed to have developed a bad ear ache.

Posted by: antonio gonzalez | Saturday September 6, 2008 at 9:24 PM

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