Q & A: American Poetry

Q & A American Poetry: Naomi Shihab Nye

I'd like to respond to 2 at once:

Do you believe there is anything specifically American about past and contemporary American poetry?...along with What significance does popular culture possess in your sense of American poetry?

* * *

When I was working overseas on various occasions, poets in other countries would remark that we American poets have a luxury they do not have: we are free to write about tiny "insignificances" any time we want to. (This made me shrink immediately to the size of a sesame seed.) We write about personal lives, minor idiosyncracies, familial details, tomatoes—not feeling burdened to explore larger collective issues all the time, which is something writers elsewhere often consider part of their endless responsibility.

That is, we do not feel as if we have to be "spokespersons" for our own political crises and national agendas all the time—we may speak of those things if we choose to, but WE HAVE A CHOICE. We may swing back and forth, a wide weave. Poets elsewhere (Middle East and Asia, especially) do not always feel they have the same choice. We argued these issues repeatedly, but I was always left feeling that American poets indeed have infinite latitude in "what we may write about" with very few constraints imposed upon us from anywhere. This is a luckiness we no doubt take for granted.

* * *

Popular culture holds a fascinating, dazzling, whimsical place in my sense of American poetry—Albert Goldbarth's book of the same title comes to mind. Frank O'Hara and Bob Holman and many others come to mind... If this inclusion of goofy, momentary details, this referential embrace, makes our poetry more bound to time than, say, the poetry of Whitman (which did not, to my knowledge, include brand names or restaurants) that will be a distinguishing feature of our time, in which everything started trying to look like everything else and poets FOUGHT IT.

More Q & A: American Poetry