Red, White, & Blue

Rae Armantrout

Bubble Wrap

"Want to turn on CNN,
see if there've been any


In the dream,
you slip inside me.

Ponzi scheme; rhyme scheme.

The child wants his mother
to put her head
where his is, see
what he sees.


In the dream
inside the dream,

our new roommates
are arguing:

"These are not
'astro-turf' calls,

and we're all populists


Now an engine's
single indrawn breath.

(The black hole
at the heart

of it
is taking it

all back.)


An immigrant
sells scorpions
of twisted electrical wire
in front of the Rite-Aid.

"Bubble Wrap" from Money Shot (Wesleyan University Press, 2011). Copyright © 2011 by Rae Armantrout. 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?

I value the examination of the world in poetry and the world is, to a large extent, controlled and even created by politics. I came of age as the war in Vietnam was dragging on and what we later came to call "spin" was being developed and refined to defend it. The second half of the 20th Century also witnessed the corporations and the rich figuring out how to convince the majority of the American people to vote against their own economic interests. Ideologies manipulate through language. That is where politics and poetry naturally meet. I like to think they are antagonists.

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 exactly write "about" politics. I don't stand apart from topics and discuss them. Politics inhabits my poems with some frequency. That is how I think of it. I don't really distinguish between political material and other material. If my poems are about anything, they're about my refusal to compartmentalize. I admire the way George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker, Ron Silliman, Bob Perelman, Juliana Spahr, Fanny Howe, Rachel Loden, Claudia Rankine, and Ben Lerner (among others) have dealt with politics in poetry.

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

I don't consider it a responsibility. For whatever reasons, I respond to the world by writing. I have no reason to think that helps the world. It seems to help me get by. I live in a city and I listen to various forms of media so my world is full of commercials, both for products and for politicians. Sometimes I talk back to these inputs; sometimes I just include them. As long as this is my world, I don't see how it could be otherwise. However, if I chose to live like a hermit and to cut myself (and my poetry) off from the modern world, that would be a political act of a different sort.

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?

I'm not sure I understand what Engdall meant. I don't think American literature is apolitical or lacking in general seriousness. I suspect he may have meant that Americans are still more or less isolationist in practice. We don't read as much world literature as we should – or as we would if we were a smaller country. We are busy arguing with ourselves and no doubt we miss a lot. If that's what he meant, I think he's right.

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?

I'm not sure I would draw a firm line between Whitman and Romantic individualism. To me, his poems seem to invite us to join together into one big Romantic American Individual. That's what's so attractive about them. You get to have your cake (individualism) and eat it too (collectivism). There is always a place at the table for Romanticism, it seems. But I'm not sure how useful that is now.

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?

Yeats said "Of our quarrel with others, we make rhetoric; of our quarrel with ourselves, poetry." I may not have that exactly right, but it's close. And I agree with that. I think in good art, as in good science, you have to ask real questions – questions you don't have answers for. And you have to be ready to admit you could be wrong. If that's true, then art is the opposite of propaganda. Poetry is not at its best when it tries to persuade. The essay is a better form for that useful task, as is the documentary.

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 most political poetry is dystopic. It identifies the damage. For that reason, it isn't propaganda. For instance, feminist poetry that reveals in stark terms what it is to be regarded as a "piece," an abject thing, is more powerful that any song saying, "I am strong; I am woman."

Today we are awash in a cacophony of stranded, self-interested, fragmented voices. Zombie discourses, if you will. People like the Flarf poets, and some of the Language Poets, work within that space, foregrounding it and making people more conscious of it. There are other poets, Juliana Spahr comes to mind here, who are asserting, (reclaiming?) a collective voice (as opposed to the cacophony.) Her collective voice is wracked with doubt and it agonizes over what to do, but it is new in that it invokes collectivity. Then, coming down from the Objectivist poets to poets like, say, Ron Silliman (though who is really like Ron?), there is the practice of attention. Such poetry is political simply in that it takes nothing for granted. If you haven't accepted the social contract/context as given, then you notice more and see things differently.

I don't know where we go from here. But the most promising thing I've seen in, well maybe ever, is the Occupy movement's "mic check." Poetry can mic check this system.

* * *
Rae Armantrout
is the author of numerous books of poems, including,Money Shot (Wesleyan, 2011); Versed (2009), which received the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Award; and Next Life (2007) which was chosen as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2007 by The New York Times. She is Professor of Poetry and Poetics at the University of California, San Diego.

Published September 2012.

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