The Civic Responsibility of the Poet in America Today



I think one of the civic responsibilities of poets in America today is to continue to encourage a sense of civility among us and a sense of curiosity about one another's lives there seems to be such a strident tone taking over in certain areas that I love the deep attribute of poetry to pause to look to listen to respect to pay attention to variety and learn something new so I'd hold that close well I like what Naomi says you know about coming together you know poets really coming together and coming together with the community sometimes we get so concerned with publishing or we're just just so demanding and we are so busy everyone's so busy so we're writing and publishing or writing and publishing and reading and we forget to to break those walls down and really hang out with each other and meet each other like we're meeting each other today and also walk in those streets and listen and be with people sounds odd it sounds odd but it's like we're in this big machine all of a sudden in the 21st century and so many people are being left behind and we kind of literally leave ourselves behind and each other behind so and the Yummy's make makes a lot of sense it's let's let's Britain it's great so let's create incredible bridges and I would say that I love in this question the word responsibility for its fundamental meaning of to respond you know when you're asking what is the role of a poet in a society and a culture in the country in a community it is to respond in the way that only poetry can and a lot of that just as your wonderful call for civility poetry's summoning is also to transcend easy language platitudinous language slogans that make people stupid and that separate people from one another and so part of the role of poetry and poets is I think to force ourselves past the common ways of looking at things by being more responsive and by finding the uncommon original side long nuanced subtle and and not strive for the certainty which seems such a bane of our current discourse gorgeous judge well you know well things are things are kind of things are falling apart and things are breaking apart and there's incredible discourse many discourse many discourses in the world and and in some ways there's there's there's a war of discourse and and writers and human beings all of us writers are human beings all of us you know are in that swirl of of contestation well we're all poets and we're all looking forwards we're all looking forwards and there's so there's there's too many words perhaps there's perhaps there's too many words right now and and everyone's struggling to find those words also words to talk about the suffering our suffering the suffering of people's and and there's there's there's a fight in the media and different kinds of media to rip to present and represent what's really going on so so the established forms of communication established forms of maybe reaching a larger vision they're all kind of being taken over and they're being occupied or being destroyed or they're being dismantled and all of a sudden find ourselves in this desert of broken languages and in shrapnel eyes versions of what to say so it's a tough time so and it's a beautiful time because now we have to pick up the pieces and really find out what we really want to say and how to say it something like that something like that yeah that was a beautiful answer it's your fault and I would also say living in this time of muchness where so much is available and given all around and people are trying to tune in on so many frequencies poetry better than anything I've ever found will slow us down quickly will give us that apprehension the capacity to respond as Jane said to respond with a meaningful slow kind of worthy gaze into something and it takes only a few moments to read a poem to reread a stanza to feel something in you sort of recomposing itself and I think I think people are challenged at this time in history to feel focused and to feel sort of intact within their own spirits and bodies and you know there are many things many experiences of art which can help refurbish our souls but poetry by its very nature does it so quickly and directly and so I think we need it at this moment of muchness to be simplified and I would agree you know I think that crises are ceaseless and debased language goes all the way back but when you spoke about the level of distraction that we all feel right now with the continual clamoring for attention in every direction and pose in a way are the language which has the deepest relationship to silence and its summons their words that summon our interior quiet to meet them and comprehend them not every poem but some homes you know as each of you was talking just now besides listening to your your words I for some reason on like myself noticed your talismanic rings bracelets this is the heart of art again allows us to do it takes the attention which is you know trying to think of the next thing to say I'm trying to listen to it and suddenly there is the gleam of beauty and the gleam of beauty stops us and restores us to some taproot of being from which compassion and thoughtfulness have a possibility of entering the room beautiful and I like your talismanic necklace and earrings thank you distraction distraction distraction you know absurd I'm sure I'm well I'm distracted and and I'm absorbed by it actually yeah I'm sore by it and because I think that's that's that's what we do we we let ourselves go and whatever is present were there with it and if it's a distract of chaotic falling apart blown blowing a moment in the world or next to us with the neighborhood or at home or many thousands of miles away we with it well with it so it's kind of a unique kind of distraction it's they just if it happens then we're there with it it's it's a it's a continual recalibration yeah a reminder a tuning a retuning I sat next to someone in Northern Ireland for three days ago as she tuned a harp and I realized I've never had this experience I played the guitar play the violin I've never sat with a harp tuning experience and it took a long time because it has a lot of strings and while she was tuning it I felt as if I was becoming open and empty and ready to listen in the same way that a poem cannot often take you and it just reminded me you know like whenever we recalibrate read two lines two phrases to language it's as if we're tuning that heart inside us and sometimes it is a lot of strings because there are lots of tone tonality zin everybody's lives these days that's right it goes back to if you are a being who has dedicated yourself to being responsive then you become very vulnerable right to everything that asks for your attention and then perhaps the responsibility is to choose to some degree what you are going to give yourself over to and when you must pick yourself up because otherwise we could just fall into this river of distraction and never come out and fall into the river of what we're asked to do I never come out and part of my responsibility to poetry is occasionally to step back and say I think not I think this is you know a sabbatical from the outer distraction is in order and a an immersion into the deeper levels which for me are only accessible if I'm not answering emails I can't wake up in the morning answer emails and then say oh time to write a poem that's the wrong order taken care of but it also takes intention and it takes a decision right and I think this is a decision that we hope that the arts are modeling for everyone that if a person has an experience of Sheen and joy and opulence including the opulence of grief including even the opulence of anxiety that they might feel themselves somehow altered in a way that makes them feel this is worth doing that's what art offers it can't make anybody taken it can only offer something which rewards in a way that makes a person say I want this in my life I will intend to invite this to my life both in giving poetry readings and also listening to other poets read yeah yeah I think this this sense of to go back to the community it's a place where you can participate in the art with the ears and eyes and hearts of others in the same room and you feel that yeah so you know it's not always necessary reading reading somebody else's poem alone in the room can be utterly its undoing and transformative but if you love that poem and then you've got the poet's voice in your ear as well now giving readings for me was very hard to learn how to do I was terrified of performing in public when I was a young woman oh yes I mean I shook it was it was awful for me but you know after after the first year that I did it 35 times and I realized I was going to live I gradually became able to just be with the poem yeah be with the poem and be in the room and be with other people and bring it forward as Midwife and after that readings became much better that's great you know it's great it's like that isn't it at the beginning I kind of began this whole thing when I was in around sixth grade and I thought I wanted to I had memorized that one of the mosque paws my mother used to learned probably in third grade which was her last grade and in Paso Texas because she was taken out by my grandmother because she stole some candy so little piece of candy with a girlfriend and my grandmother said well it looks like you're not serious about school so so from here on out so from here on out you're gonna stay home and you're gonna stay home with me until until I fall on that floor and I'm dead so until that day and you're gonna be at home with me it looks like you're not interested in school but she was she loved she loved school she loved writing male spelling I mean up until third grade and poems the ones that she had learned and she had learned one called underneath the Apple underneath the apple tree and something about a brown house and so I had memorized it in third grade I I I made sure that I had all the lines together and then I said to myself oh well look second Anita take over leader tuxedo and that was that was the last thing I knew yeah you know it was the last thing I could ever imagine and it was impossible it was like I don't know going to Saturn and back I said well how do I do that so I went downtown San Francisco market and Vaness and right there there was a little tuxedo shop and I went across the street because I it was just too much for me to attempt to to do at that moment so I said I'm gonna cross the street and I'm gonna see with my binocular eyes it could actually distinguish it exceed them in there and I had ten bucks in my pocket I said I'm sure it cost about $10 or $5 so how can I do the second I do this I said honest it's just it's just this is way too much you know I guess I'm not gonna read the poem is this is you know am I gonna get that tuxedo anyway so I went back home and I forgot about the taxi dough and looked it looked just impossible to me so I went back to school and and I did a report on the Bay of Fundy it's 2.3.4 so very so by 8th grade I decided to get rid of all the nerves and face the face myself and the fear and everything else that I had going and I got it acquired after many years of choir I finally got on campus at UCLA and I got on that free speech mound kerkhof Plaza and I was still super nervous and still super scared but I said I have to get up here and I'm gonna and I started to squeak because I was shouting and if you shot your eventually in seven seconds you've got to bring your voice out you're gonna sound like me miles so that's what happened to me and I kept on to what I kept on doing until I got more into it and I really wanted to do it and it didn't matter anyway until the poem the reading you know became kind of this big this immense man space it wasn't just me anymore yeah and it wasn't really my voice anymore and it wasn't this thing anymore it was this medicine this infinite that's I don't know what it was this infinite space symphony people I don't know what it was the law and the people everybody the faces the heat and what I was doing whatever that was this big giant cosmic gyration and that's what became the beauty the beauty of it all and the incredible incredible energy of it all and and so that would that's what it all into what I started with underneath this apple tree and that took acetyl and I did I ended up well I think a lot about empathy one community to another paying attention with respect and curiosity to people who weren't exactly like us and I think poetry can often help us do that help us have a window into someone else's experience or loneliness or difficulty and having worked with kids so many years and seeing often I kind of respect rising up after someone described something with an honest voice what changes in the room I'm very disturbed by rudeness and meanness and having grown up with an immigrant father and thinking about the way immigrants are being talked about in our society I feel really a strong desire to talk about the bravery of the immigrant and the sort of doubled capacity for imagination that an immigrant has to have and I think poetry can often help us do that in a way that isn't didactic but is caring and it kind of takes us into the room and very curious and hopeful when kids are wanting to read poems about people who aren't exactly like themselves people who don't I don't believe that we have a hunger to be only with others who match us that's kind of double I'd much rather be with all kinds of people and I think we can bring that up over and over again these days in poetry and it has a great societal impact yeah but what right is a good thing is a good thing good luck if you don't like it what's gonna happen to you yeah you know but you know there's so many walls and there's so many you know what is it look like a new segregation taking place or something and and then there's all these kind of stereotypical what is it the manufacture ways of talking about each other and about others which is each other by the way it's uh so and it seems to be getting a kind of more crystallized and more hardened the way we're all talking about each other and about others and this group in that group and I think poetry is like the that's like this what is it the solvent or that that magical liquid or rain it's like rain and it kind of softens everything up and regardless of what we write what regarding self will be right you know it's like all of a sudden you know like you had said a while ago we kind of slow down and be kind of pay attention and a new kind of attention and we've kind of gone but kind of gone and we kind of kind of connect me connected and whatever manner it is whether it's a wild manner or a manner of feeling really together or just a matter of reflection of a reflective moment you know and all this these bandages and mummification that we've kind of a pace that ourselves on to during their eight hours of the day they kind of kind of fall away but but you're right about it issues about immigration and immigrants and migrants those two are not really talked about enough in a positive way in a positive way you know I have a piece that's called border bus and and I wanted to two women in a bus and the bus has crossed has been detained the women have been detained with a group of other women and and some children and this happened recently and it was really it really got to me yeah really cut to me because they already had been arrested but I have already been thrown in a bus and they didn't know where they were going and they were supposed to be going into a detention center and a holding tank and you know with all kinds of guards and they're going towards this place and the place the people in that particular place didn't allow this supposed to come in well know what on earth you know come on they've been arrested they're going to a detention center they're gonna be quote-unquote processed and put in some jail with a blanket and glass of water but you can't even get to that so I'm not gonna redo all of it I enjoyed writing this because it's kind of a performance piece so I'll just read you the last fourth of it and it's bilingual and it all comes together anyway and they're having this kind of argument what are you talking about I told you to be quiet one of the women says tres to la libertad viene de muy adentro I give a seed a total ordell todo el mundo el momento que nos debemos des dolor de nuestras entrance a Ramos libros en ese momento tenemos que en Manos de todo el dolor de todos los seres para liberar pallidal Argos I am Isthmus freedom comes from deep inside all the pain of the world lives there the second we cleanse that pain from our guts we shall be free and at that moment we have to fill ourselves up with all the pain of all beings to free them all of them guard is coming well now what maybe they'll take us to another Detention Center we'll eat we'll have a will have a flora blanket toilets water in each other for a while no somos nada venimos de la nada y por ESO nada y por ESO nada Luis esto SI la nutricai amor por so when say Ramos we are nothing and we come from nothing but that nothing is everything if you feed it with love that is why we will triumph we are everything at mana because we come from everything so they're talking to children what has this point of view and what has that point of view and one who loves to speak in English it tells the other one to speak in English and you know just keeps in Spanish because that's all she can speak and she says we come from nothing and you know what this become from everything because we come from everything we are everything so that's why there were that peace about that border bus absolutely extraordinary and absolutely true and you have hard hard to follow that by going back to something more generally that's right I think for me I never know what I'm going to write about until I do I don't have ideas of what my subject matter are in part because I'm always looking for the next subject matter what what have I never looked at before and yet at a certain point in a life you look back and you begin to see there are things and along with the more personal themes that I think we all must deal with this poet's love loss grief the relationships of the private life the experience of the interior ERT I have been noticing and other people have been noticing that there are themes in my work I wouldn't have have realized were so recurrent and one of them is justice and from my earliest book I have investigated justice one of them is war grief I mean there's a poem from the mid-80s about a totally forgotten thing the United States invasion of the island of Grenada and and just say you know it doesn't ever stop it doesn't ever stop and it still hasn't stopped and there are homes of war grief in every one of my books not taking a side either not not you know not partisan just grief that as a species we keep doing this there are poems dedicated to this idea of so beautifully embodied in your palm of the interconnection of all beings and also our interconnection with the human hmm and so poems of the environment and the environmental crisis go through many many books and poems looking at the idea of fate and our relationship to fate and choice which i think is part of the questioning of justice you know how much is it an accident where we were born what we were born into what language were born into her country and culture were born into and how much is our capacity within this very specific life that we each lead to both embody that life and also reach beyond it and I think all of all of these themes have have pervaded my work in ways that surprised me a great dedication to internationalism in my own family you know the immigration experience was a long time ago you know especially compared to either of you but my feeling that I know I rather like that even though we're here for the National Book Festival you haven't asked us about being American poets and that's an interesting question you know because this is what American poetry looks like absolutely it is a poetry of the world of world heritage of many streams coming in together even for a Native American poet of the 21st century this would be true and so I suppose if do you want us to read read poems now to follow to follow on that so I I think I will choose a new poem which does respond to the ecological crisis we find our we find ourselves in and and are responding to that and what we do and what we what we haven't done so a poem of guilt and a poem of awareness I suppose let them not say let them not say we did not see it we saw let them not say we did not hear it we heard let them not say they did not taste it we ate we tasted let them not say it was not spoken not written we spoke we witnessed with voices and hands let them not say they did nothing we did not enough let them say as they must say something a kerosene beauty it burned let them say we wormed ourselves by it read by its light praised and it burned that sense of litany that you take us into I have a poem called all the names we will not know and it's for an artist friend of mine a vidi Annika dog and it also is a border poem going back to your ammonia before dawn trembling in air down to the old river circulating gently as a new season delicate still in its softness rustling raiment of hopes never stitched tightly enough to any hour I was almost maybe just about going to do that it girls thick dark hair brushed over one shoulder so regularly no one could imagine it not being there hair as a monument hovering pitched beloved sister maker of plans main branch we needed you desperately where have you gone here is the sentence called no no no no no come back everything grants you your freedom here in the mire of too much thinking we drown we drowned split by your echo I've been thinking about the weed round line with all the refugees and immigrants who've been drowning recently and the small children carried up onto the beach and so it goes back for me to the title all the names we will not know and all the people in desperate circumstances and and the tragedy of it and to me that that sense of protection for one another you know creating whatever protection we can through language their government is so much more important than divisive 'no sand takes possibly less energy unless anger so thank you both for your poem thank you for your

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