Red, White, & Blue

Brenda Hillman

A Quiet Afternoon at the Office

When you're overwhelmed at your job
     & the room is a field of consciousness,
     forming first the violet edges
& later the pierced spiral
          of what just happened,
you try to remember events while you
stumble over twigs of the day like a red bee.
     So much anger in the economy
  after too much not enough—
people setting tents in the streets,
          the last of the fruit gives way
on branches you see as you work
  holding the annihilated breath.

Now that the crisis has no locale
          there's a sense of the lively unit
  into which they had placed feeling:
     fatigue & theory, cornice & cup,
links of your spine on the chair…
  what will they do, will they do, will they do
     when labor rebels but not quickly?
It was so much work to cohere—
  a radical hope fills in: revolt
          in the square, thin crows,
     fat capital, the ash, the lists,
the fire you'd been harvesting, for this—

for MM

Published in Occupy SF: poems from the movement, edited by Virginia Barrett and Bobby Coleman (2012, published by Jambu Press/ Studio Saraswati). All rights reserved. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Do you value the examination of the political in poetry? If so, what experience(s) taught you its importance.

Maybe poems enact more than they examine, but it's baffling to think about what "political" is in poetry. I think a lot about this. Even Hopkins is a kind of dissenter who could be seen as a threat, though not as a terrorist! When people say "all poetry is political," I take this to mean that, even if a poem reflects no overt political agenda or strategy, the lack thereof also has political significance. I guess I don't think all poetry is political, and that even if a term like "political poetry" can be a vague designation, the use of it brings something to the conversation. Rilke's Duino Elegies are just not all that political; it doesn't mean they're not great emblems of consciousness. The fact that they were written in a turbulent time in Europe when Rilke avoided the subject of war is significant. Clearly, the term "political poetry" is neither a recommendation nor a condemnation. Some think that poetry should stick to particular subjects, that poets have no business bringing issues of social or political matters into poetry. I certainly disagree and feel there are many kinds of political; the most obvious "political" in poetry probably has to do with signaling matters of governance, the state or the nation, lawmaking, social justice issues, or economic conditions that result from people being governed or not governed. "Political" includes engagement with race, gender, and identity politics as well as with matters of environmental degradation and war. Blake's "London" is political because it references despair in cities, as does "The Waste Land." HD's political writing is intertwined with myth; when she writes about the bombing of London, she deploys fewer direct ethical statements than do Jeffers and Lowell. Many great poetics statements like Wordsworth's "Preface to Lyrical Ballads" and avant-garde manifestoes make the underlying assumptions that human languages and societies could be improved if poetry went "ahead" of the status quo. Rimbaud's writings and Breton's essays are dedicated to states of dream and derangement along with left-wing politics. The chance operations of the OuLiPo were introduced in part to unravel the authorial "voice." Deconstructing linguistic ideals and conventions is not automatically political, but it can be; Zhenia Ostashevsky introduced me to the work of Vvedensky, Kharms and the Oberiu; the use of nonsense as an encoded playfulness in their writings was meant to challenge Stalin's regime.

My reading as an adolescent included some poets whose political stances were clearly in the prophetic vein: the biblical book of Revelation, Yeats, Levertov, Ginsberg, the liner notes of Bob Dylan. Yeats was a great model for me; he was of course not left-wing in his politics. Reading lines like "A terrible beauty is born" as an adolescent, I knew I was in a different territory from poetry that had to do with love affairs; it seemed an inspired form of political statement that caught my attention. Levertov's writings on Vietnam were important to me too, but they were a disappointment after I had so loved her earlier lyric work. Lately I've grown interested in the refusals they represent, the refusal to make nice, as the Dixie Chicks would say—and also, the refusal to be subtle. Her more expansive and unedited style that Duncan objected to came at a time when she was willing to go to jail; but that poetry was a cautionary example to me because it became so polemical. During the seventies, I was also reading Baudelaire for the first time, who is political in an entirely different way; I read Mandelstam, and before I met Bob Hass, I read his Field Guide, a work that demonstrated to a lot of poets how to weave the personal with the political. When I moved to Berkeley, the political in poetry had increasingly to do with feminism and with experimentation. So I've learned from many kinds of political poetry.

If you write about politics frequently, what issues, difficulties, advantages and disadvantages do you negotiate? Which poets do you draw on when conducting such negotiations?

I don't see there are any disadvantages in bringing socio-political or environmental concerns to the enterprise of poetry, except as I've just indicated, "political poetry" can be an overly loaded term, and people want to be able to put writers into theoretical boxes. Most people's fates are determined a lot by political and economic factors, and mine is no exception; I don't want to leave that out of my writing. It is part of a radical engagement with experience in every sense of the term. This includes spiritually radical experience with the non-human world. I write as working mother and grandmother, as someone who is engaged with social justice and environmental issues; I decided early on to cut across aesthetic traditions out of defiance. My practice involves the use of trance techniques that are part of my writing and there's a certain risk in bringing up that sort of thing with political issues. People can see these things go together if they study my work; each book has a set of strategies for dealing with the set of concerns. I wrote in fragmentary, discontinuous phrases in Cascadia because I was engaged with West Coast geology and environmental degradation; Pieces of Air in the Epic was written from deep in the dream of the collective unconscious when we were entering the most recent iterations of war; and Practical Water has poems gleaned from notes taken during Congressional hearings as well as fragmentary lyrics on California hydrologic systems. I feel the importance of bringing the work of poetry and activism together. Poetry involves a mysterious process even if it comes out of some terrible event. Every writer needs to find her own solution for the nature of her experiences and this may involve a collective venture or a collaboration or other research materials.

You can't leave activism out of your poetry if you are engaged that way. You have to figure it out in the poetic process. Ten years ago I noticed mainly the fundamental, deep differences between my activist friends and my poet friends. They seemed like non-intersecting sets in the Venn diagram. It still strikes me as strange sometimes that many of the thoughtful organizers don't sit around talking about the fine points of language like poets do. Many activists are very goal-oriented and they put their energies into planning and organizing. This doesn't mean they aren't subtle people, but mostly they don't theorize poetically about syntax; they have a lot of data to collect and then they get out and move language along. Political organizers often work fast to get their plans together and to assemble people. They talk about how difficult an action is going to be, they make lists and people take responsibility and then go out and get it done. Marks of "success" in political organizing are less subtle than the ways we think about success as poets. Did people show up for the action, was attention brought to the message? Did the press cover it? (It mostly does not.) Then they start planning the next action. The goal, even with arrests and civil disobedience, is to bring attention to the message rather than to the individual actor. Because so many activists I've met haven't been oriented to poetic experience as I understand it, it was one of the things I hoped to do as a poet— to introduce them to some radical poetry that I love, including innovative or modernist poetry since these folks often hail from other disciplines.

Since the Occupy movement began, more poets have been taking to the streets, have been organizing and engaging in direct action. This feels like a great and positive step. The Occupy Oakland poets list has been wonderful, and there have been a number of important conversations among people who organize and show up for actions as well. Eirik Steinhoff has made a collection of gorgeous and inventive "roules" that serve as anthologies. I believe you can bring all kinds of poetry to outdoor gatherings. The poets in that working group, a very inspiring and engaged group of people, take poetry outdoors and read at the Plaza. Right now I turn to the work and spirit of Blake and Shelley, H.D., Duncan, Ginsberg, Rukeyser, Celan, Vallejo, Oppen, Gennadi Aygi and many others.

What 'responsibility' does an artist have to artistically engage his or her own politic?

I take this question to address political engagement outside of poetry. What choice do we have at this point? We cannot wait for our engagement to be packaged by the State and sold back to us as corporate political parties. We have to use our great imaginations. Poets should be resisters and harridans when things are amiss in the State. Writing should not preclude other forms of engagement. Getting my body away from the computer is important, and my sense of the effectiveness of an action often has to do with whether it makes me uncomfortable or not. Writers are sensitive and dysfunctional half the time, but we are not exempt from taking action and organizing. It is often hard work, and we don't know where to find the courage. Should we pride ourselves if we are writing in a socially engaged manner? Of course. Writing is an action. But no one is exempt from forms of active participation—except children, the elderly or those who are ill. We are destroying the earth and its species with corrupt economics, with global greed and brutal imperialism. We have endangered our environment nearly to the point of no return. Poetry has a place in all revolutions. Can these revolutions be done through poetry itself? Of course not. That doesn't mean we should feel bad about poetry or put it aside as we are engaged in socially committed ways. The values that make poetry great can assist us in other disciplines and in habits of mind—uncertainty, risk-taking, a profound engagement with doubt and the beauty of each experience. Art has a great role to play, and the language arts can inspire revolutions and accompany them, as we remember from the social revolutions of the twentieth century, and the music and literature that went with them.

At the beginning of the Iraq War, I was very depressed and did not feel I could sign any more petitions without getting involved with lobbying and organizing. I had gone to a large conference in Memphis on non-violent active resistance and learned about different strategies. I was amazed at the people I met there who had come from all over the world. There were people who had chosen to do absolute tax resistance and were living completely off the grid, consuming almost nothing they had to buy. There were people who had been to jail hundreds of times for trying to enter military installations. Meeting these people woke me up to a keen sense of responsibility as a poet not to be an accepting citizen. Bob and I had been to Berlin; we had stood in the square where the good Germans had looked down from behind their curtains while Nazis loaded people into trucks for the camps. I did not want to be that good German. When I got involved with CodePink, it was a different paradigm of behavior from the world of sensible adult life. These women are not shy about entering official places and resisting business as usual. I have nothing but admiration for them; they use a lot of street theatre and spontaneity. We went to Washington a bunch of times, did anti-war and anti-capitalist demonstrations; we visited Congressional offices and hearings. At the start of the Iraq War, I was doing tax resistance and with a group of women, worked on state and local legislation to bring the National Guard home from Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a somewhat hopeful and somewhat frustrating time for the various resistance movements. I now believe that our protests must involve the whole broken monetary system; society is not fixable under the current model, in that it cannot bring justice to a large number of people who are serving the few.

I rejoice in the new energy of Occupy, and the involvement of more young people. I want to support my students and the activists who are getting involved for the first time figuring out what will have meaning for them. It is important for experienced activists to be present in strikes and actions of Occupy; I feel committed to non-violence as a starting place. I don't think you can know about tactics until you are in a particular moment. I once hit someone with a rock at a protest in the seventies, and I made a decision that for my own practice, non-violence and verbal negotiations have to be exhausted first. Most people know this. I don't use projectiles or provide projectiles to the young people who are so upset but I try to give them snacks and sunscreen because they can get very sunburned. You cannot know how an action will unfold; again, I would like to make an analogy with the processes of poetry. You should show up to help other people, and then leave the scene if you don't like it. Get your energy out there and do the right thing. Try not to hurt people. Try to be wise, even with the police. I do lose my calm in the tension of the moment sometimes; I feel like a mother bear defending my young when I see people being hurt.

When I hear friends say: "I would get out there but the Occupy movement doesn't have a message"—it sounds like baloney—and not organic baloney either. The messages of Occupy are quite clear: we have gone too far down the road of economic injustice and inequality for humans to survive in any reasonable way; immediate actions are needed to confront the current system of economic and environmental injustice; tinkering and little reforms will not do. Poets must be involved in protesting—it is existentially pure because it will mostly not produce results but is the right thing to do. The week I am finishing these responses marks the arraignment of some who were arrested on November 9 at Occupy Cal, some of whom are poets. I am so proud of these people, and hope the student energy will continue with support from many sectors. It's important not to be attached only to visible results, to think about the long haul and try not to be discouraged. Here is Gillian Hamel reading a poem at the Port of Oakland, during a strike.

Most poets struggle with how to define a life of poetry in relation to daily duty with their jobs and their families—it's hard enough just to make a living and keep steady, much less be politically involved. But it's a matter of priorities. Most people waste a lot of time on the computer. For a writer who is trying to make a bridge between the outer and the inner, being in a crowd with your body, or outside participating in a small direct action, is good for the ego because it helps keep the creative thought process in perspective. The group consensus process is one of the most inspiring things in the Occupy movement.

I recently read Nicole Loraux's essay on public mourning in ancient Greece. One of the poets had written to the list that when she got to Oscar Grant Plaza after they had taken down the tents in Oakland, she had started to cry uncontrollably. It is important for a sensitive person to take time to have emotional responses to stressful facts. The importance of public mourning and wailing, when state authority wins, when they take the tents down, to work on not letting depression overwhelm you. I've begun to think public wailing is a great idea, especially for women. We should bring back that practice.

Poets can contribute a tiny part to revolutions that become cumulative, being a part of collaborative, dramatic actions, being willing to take risks even at our jobs, in noisy or quiet service, to strike, resist, always using the poetic values of doubt and experimental experience. Since the BP disaster in the Gulf, I have been moaning when pumping gas, and I do believe individual direct actions, including street theater, can have imaginative underground life and power and that writers can organize these actions. Non-violent direct action involves being willing to embarrass oneself and to put oneself in harm's way to bring attention to an important message. I plan to do more of it until I'm a really old woman and fall down trying.

In 2008, Horace Engdahl, the secretary of the Nobel prize jury, wagged his finger at American writing saying that "[American writers] don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. […] That ignorance is restraining." What do you think? How have recent American poets engaged with or neglected the so-called 'big dialogue' of literature? Is this 'big dialogue' a political one?

In the last few decades, American writers have turned more and more to writers of other cultures and regions, to Eastern Europe, to Latin America, to learn from those who have constructed resistance literatures. Often American poets have been unfavorably compared to those who faced severe forms of oppression from the State: Milosz, Celan, Vallejo, Darwish, and so on. No writer gets to choose her or his conditions of adversity. We work in relation to the conditions we are given, and of course the big political dialogue has been occurring throughout a great deal of American literature in the twentieth century. American poetry from the 30s on has not been predominantly political, but that is not to say it has not engaged with the "great questions." One strand of American poetry in the mid- to late- twentieth century focused mainly on psychological matters of personal history; there is great poetry in that idiom, including narratives of the experience of excluded groups, of women and minority writers. Another strand has had to do with perception of the way mental experience works and the materials of language itself, and as I said in the first question above, the focus on certain uses of language can have the larger political picture in a different way. My own interest is in the more visionary political writing. It's clear that Mr. Engdahl is trying to call us to a sense of the awesome task of the writer, reminding us that we can seek the widest and most inclusive possible range of literary activity—to get past the cute, the coy, the minor mannerisms of a locally entertaining style. It is true there is a great deal of trivial writing going on, but there's also a lot of magnificent writing happening. Many American writers are at the forefront of the important conversation—the relationship between the tormented heart, individual consciousness, the conditions of the language and the state of the world. It is a very healthy time for poetry; the artist has greater responsibility than ever.

Is there room for romantic or rugged individualism in political poetry (as opposed to a capacious perspective of Whitman or other past poets)? If so, where is its place?

There's no binary here; Whitman is a rugged individualist and he has a capacious moral scope. Poets can display rugged individualism and collective concerns and radical inclusiveness. Romantic poetry has influenced me a great deal because a lot of it is uncompromisingly huge. (My students know that I think everything of value in poetry now comes out of Romanticism.) I hope people will be inspired to be uncompromising when they are writing from their hearts. John Clare and John Keats, Dickinson, Whitman, Hopkins, Stevens are all romantic, rugged individualists as well as capacious. I'm thinking also of the great Celan.

Where do you draw the line between poetry and propaganda? What is the purpose of such a line? Should today's poet be concerned with editorial censorship?

Poetry can have an appeal to a varied, large culture if it goes for the deep and vast places of the human experience, even if it's modernist or may not seem "appropriate" for a rally. No one likes rants in poetry, but a lot of people involved in politics enjoy really obvious messages. It's one of the things I alluded to earlier: activists and contemporary poets share different aesthetic models. Many of my activist friends haven't studied American Modernism and they consider subtle, oblique or non-referential writing "elitist." That is the word they use: elitist. It is fine if they think this. I don't consider my poetry elitist in the slightest; it has a lot of specificity about women's experience and it uses the modernist technique of "the thinking of a woman going through the day"! It is jumpy and sometimes has snippets and is full of nutty music but so are music videos. Many contemporary poets face challenges when the complexity they desire in poetry doesn't 'mesh' with the populist hunger for simplicity and "themes." On the other hand, people at rallies or seeking an ethical satisfaction from poetry might want their feelings to soar in a particularly satisfying way so they can let out an audible sigh after the poem is read or burst into applause, as after an anthem, a poem that makes a point easily and gives them the sound bite. This is not a bad thing to want; I get this feeling from a lot of modern rock music, which now seems to be defunct, but I turn to poetry for a more nuanced experience, and I feel manipulated by the downward vortex of that "message" kind of sigh-eliciting poem. Some great poems give soaring injunctions— and while it's not a bad thing, it's not the only wonderful thing poetry does. Poems aren't written to be useful at rallies, or to be calls to arms. Poetry refreshes reality in ways that are best when they are unrecognizable until one hears unusually well-expressed language.

The cure for propaganda is imagination. The spirit of experiment and a freedom of style will help. Our brains love musical continuity in language; this doesn't preclude the use of the fragmentary and disjunctive techniques that have been keys to reflecting how we experience things as modern people. Our experiences aren't always smooth—political or not. Current modes of modernist-inflected verse bring notes from the field: reportorial and documentary poetics, list-making and sampling, the studied placement of the disembodied data, the use of testimony and research materials—these can be polyphonic and full of undigested elements.

A few years ago I would have thought your question about censorship was irrelevant. But Congress has just passed HR 347, which puts severe restrictions on protesting. Only three people voted against it, including Ron Paul. Can you believe we have to side with Ron Paul on this? It's positively scary. The net tightens; it's like that Robinson Jeffers poem, "The Purse Seine." I don't share Jeffers' political views, but the image of the huge net closing around the little shining fish is really apt.

What are your thoughts on shifts in the state of the political voice in contemporary poetry, from the early modernist to the beat poets and black arts movement, to today? Where are we now? Where are we going?

I think the "state of the political voice" is strong and diverse and inspiring. It is fed by the historical groups you mention— the early Modernists, the Beat poets, Black Arts poets. My poetry draws a great deal from the values of the San Francisco Renaissance writers, which include freedom of form and expressivity, plus a radical left wing politics. I don't know exactly where 'we' are going as a poetic culture, but I'm pursuing a contemporary eco-feminist version of the Romantic tradition, as well as investigatory poetry in general: poems that enact complex and layered experiences of being alive on earth for a brief time, that are not one unified thing. Much of the current ecopoetical writing could be called "political" in nature—I guess I've made a pun there—and some of the most exciting work lies in the nexus between the human and the non-human. A term like "ecopoetics" is not meant to narrow but to open the conversation about poetry's relationship to the environments; Jonathan Skinner's journal Ecopoetics has really opened up this area. My approach is feminist, which involves mixing facts of the spiritual, linguistic, political and daily life of a woman that I gleaned from an antinomian background. It's all pretty much a very conscious mix. Angie Lewandowski has called what some of us are writing the "contaminated" lyric – borrowing the term from several sources, including Claudia Rankine who has said she retrieved the adjective "contaminated" from Barthes and other theorists. Being contaminated doesn't mean this poetry isn't wildly organic! I feel my generation of poets has paved the way for future writers not to have to compromise or pasteurize in order to make a palatable cocktail for the mass reader.

Both poetry and political engagement can make radical claims on the human spirit. Our poetic sensibilities choose us without our control. But, we do have to choose a life that includes political struggle. I sometimes feel this great ring around human life, as if something is trying to protect us although we humans are clueless and feckless. Perhaps my belief in a spirit world is a way of protecting part of the mind with a metaphor, but honestly it all seems like a metaphor. Metaphor allows us to be several things at once so maybe it is the key to political activity, in that we can take the other person's side. It seems important to stay worried and active and not to stop writing from our beautiful worried hearts. The world needs us to do this.

Further Reading

Brenda Hillman's A Brutal Encounter Recollected in Tranquility: a poetics essay from November 9, 2011.

Published September 2012.

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