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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: 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. 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. Does this anthology have a central theme or message? The accumulation of voices reporting on the emotional and political state of America is powerful in itself, but I wondered if you began to see a shared message emerging, or if you had a central idea in mind all along.

MZ: No, we don't think it does. There are plenty of places one can find all the messages one needs about what is right/wrong with the state of the world today--in fact, it would be very difficult to escape those messages. But we believe there is a kind of consciousness and awareness of the world that can only happen to someone when that person is reading or hearing (or writing) a poem. This consciousness is often considered separate from political discourse. We wanted to get away from this reflexive idea that a poem couldn't be political and also a true poem, that somehow any political act in poetry immediately contaminates it, and turns it into propaganda or polemics. We are deeply concerned with social and economic justice, equality, violence, and the minds, bodies, and souls of our fellow human beings. Any work of art that enacts and summons awareness of how society and government affect those things--and how our inevitable position as members of a larger national community makes us responsible for them, and each other--can be called "political." The poems in the collection manage to avoid the pitfalls that you generally find in political poems. They’re unrelenting without being heavy handed, and funny (at times) without being glib. I’m sure this is a matter of the poets you chose. What was your selection process?

JB: For years we have encountered poets with deep connections to both poetry and politics and an aversion to their co-existence. I think this comes from a fear of strong ideas becoming dogmatic, or maybe simply that there is a belief that for many, at the core of their poetic practice is a mystery or unknowing and that this mystery seems an impossible partner with the direct needs of political action. I think we searched for poems created simultaneously out of that unknowing and need. Can you talk more about your process or gathering the poems? I know you had an open submissions process, and I definitely see poets here that I have not read before, and you also have luminaries and regular Wave authors. Did you ask for people to submit poems that they considered to be political, or did you target specific poems that you'd read?

JB: Actually, we decided early on not to solicit for submissions. I think part of our concern was that people would write poems for the anthology. Our sense was that there was a growing body of political poetry written in direct response to a set of personal and social needs and that there was a real necessity in this work, and it was often this necessity we found inspiring. So, we (and here I should say it was not just Matthew and me, but everyone at Wave Books) spent about two years looking through libraries, magazines, and websites searching for work by people who we were familiar with and by many people who were new to us. We took a lot of time with the open reading period and learned a lot about what was motivating political poems. We had done general open reading periods at the press before but never something like this. I think the topic drew a greater range of poets and that pushed us to continue to look more broadly. With the open submissions, did you find a lot of poems that you really liked but for whatever reason did not fit into the anthology? Can you talk about that experience a little?

JB: With both the submission period and in the outside reading we found many many poems that didn't fit into the anthology. From the beginning we had planned to make it a short anthology, and by the end it seemed even shorter. The limitations, however, made it easier to focus on the task of the book, to look at it as an attempt in the middle of many other attempts. By the time we came near the end of editing we still had more than twice the poems we could use in the anthology. One thing that Wave does really well is publish books that are thoughtfully designed. Can you talk a little bit about the design of this book? (E.g., the 1776 pamphleteer-style fonts, which play up the urgency of the material in a subtle way and have some fun with the whole citizen poet thing.)

JB: For us, the present political work seems to draw strength and insight from previous poetic political endeavors, the baldness of earlier discourses and a different social role for the poet. It is great to hear you call it "urgency" because it is hard to express urgency in a climate where every soft drink seems to be demanding direct action. I think we hoped that something slightly antiquated would create a remove in which the work could be heard and become present on its own. You’re donating your royalties to Swords to Plowshares, an organization that helps veterans. What encouraged you to support them?

JB: They are an amazing organization, and one dealing with some of the most pressing social needs. Is there anything you want people to know about your upcoming readings?

JB & MZ: We wish we could be at all of them.


Wave is hosting a series of readings around the country for the book, which they kicked off Thursday with a monster reading/voter registration at NYU. Check their website for a schedule of upcoming readings.

To preview poems from State of the Union, see the book’s Amazon page, as well as the Wave Books website. --Heidi


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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.

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