Poets Speak: Jessica Murray and Jennifer Moxley on Poetry & Politics

Contributor Jessica Murray interviews Jennifer Moxley:

Murray: From the beginning, politics have been a large part of your poetics. How has that shaped your experience as a poet?

Moxley: Well, it’s funny, because I do not think of myself as a political poet, and yet I have always held that there is a politics to poetic form. In my twenties I believed this in a rather simplistic way, for example that certain formal decisions equaled certain “real” politics. I was informed and excited by the question of form and politics as addressed in Charles Bernstein’s 1990 anthology, Robert von Hallberg’s Politics & Poetic Value, and Michael Palmer’s essay “Counter-Poetics and Current Practice.” But these early guides also affirmed, perhaps unintentionally, my already intuitive sense that a politics of the literary world is the operative force implicit behind all such claims. This latter knowledge has shaped my experience as a poet insofar as it pushed to the fore a preoccupation with the question of how I conduct my poetic vocation. In other words, there is a politics to how one chooses to be a poet.
Upon further reflection, a corrective to my opening statement: I never think of myself as a political poet until someone boasts: politics, poetry, no connection! Then, let the argument begin! But, just to complicate things, I also believe that Auden’s infamous scribble, “poetry makes nothing happen,” is a highly political claim, not an affirmation of the apolitical nature of the art as it is often read.
I still think that there is a politics to poetic form, but I hope not so simplistically. To generalize: all culture derives (dérives?) from the polis, therefore all culture is political. This sweeping statement helps me to avoid making dogmatic claims for the political efficacy of any particular program of prosody. It is also good to remember that the political power of a poem may have as much to do with how it is written as with where, when, and how it is read, as well as by whom.

Murray: In the first poem in Clampdown, “The Price of Silence,” you conclude with the lines: “We oppress in a way we cannot pay for / in any direct or meaningful way. All is fake. // Why should we awake?” Where do we go–culturally, socially—if we acknowledge such an observation? Can poetry “plead the return / of the lost benevolence,” to borrow words from the final poem in Clampdown, or even remotely affect it?

Moxley: I can’t answer this question, because I do not have an answer. I am no longer willing to make grand claims about where poetry can lead us, or how it might save us. Indeed, I think “The Price of Silence” is not about poetry, but about being in the socio-cultural condition of empire. The poem even acknowledges poetry’s failure, “it still works nicely in poetry” (the implication being, not so in life). That said, I do believe that poetry is essential to human life, as are food and ritual. Through poetic rhythm, arrangement, sound, and syntax, meaning is made—often outside of any concern for profit or utility. Whether this “meaning” is socially liberating is unclear. I can think of certain poems/poets/historical times in which I could argue that it is socially liberating, others not so much. Which doesn’t mean that poetry is not a necessity. In the preface to my first book I wrote, “The poem offers a history of and a future for the mind’s prerogative to exist as more than a memory of its milieus.” A grand claim, but one that privileges the freedom of thought over other freedoms. I would still make such a claim for poetry.

Murray: I’d like to change tack a little and ask about two poems from The Sense Record and Other Poems. Again, in the first poem, “Grain of the Cutaway Insight,” you write, “My thoughts are too awkward, too erratic to rest/ at ease in the beautiful iamb,” and then a few poems later in “Impervious to Starlight” you write:
Their astonishment at our enthusiasm—
tantamount to calling us suckers—
is but a liability of the amazement
we refuse to proximate fame, we are
impervious to starlight,
predictable as that awkward question,
mid-sestina,
which strains the uncurious word.
During the time you were writing those poems, did you feel as though you were quarreling with traditional forms and meters in some way? Was that unavailability or quarrel part of the liability felt in the poem?

Moxley: Well, I would not use the word quarreling. I like traditional forms and meters, though not all equally, of course. When I was writing some of those poems I was trying to answer several questions about form, including traditional form (this query continued in Clampdown, but with a different emphasis). I was curious to see if there was anything in traditional English prosody that might help me express something I couldn’t otherwise say, or that might blend with a more contemporary sound to interesting effect. You see, since I wasn’t well educated, the sound of the British Tradition—capital “T”—was foreign to me. It didn’t instinctively sound like poetry (Creeley did!). Therefore, like a strange music I had to read a lot of Keats (and others) out loud to learn to appreciate the beauty of this sound. I had to study forms to recognize them. This was an apprenticeship I took up in part because I like to challenge myself formally. It is the only way I can keep interested in writing, since as far as content goes, I am woefully repetitive. Thinking about traditional form was also a way to engage with tradition, to answer back to my poetic ancestors. An echo altered.

Murray: Did you read David Biespiel’s essay “This Land is Our Land” in the May 2010 issue of Poetry?  In it, he has dire things to say about the navel-gazing of American poets and their refusal to engage politically, as poets and as citizens. I am curious whether you think there is a real dearth there or whether Biespiel may be looking in the wrong places for his political poets/activists.

Moxley: I did not read this essay, but I am familiar with the argument. It is made every few years or so. I imagine that Whitman may even have been accused of “navel-gazing” (which actually sounds like a rather pleasant activity, especially if the navel belongs to someone else . . . so yes, I am sure Whitman was accused!). But to return to my point, was the political implication of Whitman’s works visible at the time? And if Blake was, as Erdmann dubbed him, a “prophet against empire,” did anyone in his lifetime know? There are many ways to be political as a poet, and to be an activist. They don’t necessarily have to be connected. From where I sit, poets look hyperactive in their engagement with politics. Almost to the point where to demur from the caring and writing about every little nuance of mainstream politics is tantamount to poetic treason! So, perhaps Biespiel and I are in dialogue with different communities. I wonder where he is looking? Or perhaps (at the risk of being very wrong about an essay I haven’t read) he is asking for his political poet to be cast in an outdated mold (for example, a populist mold, à la Ginsberg, when there’s no populist movement to celebrate such a voice—on the left anyway). Then again, ever since the sixties there has been an assumption that poets should be activists (why? is being a poet not sufficient?). There has also been, arguably, a way of being a political poet that is very self-serving. A quote from Matthew occurs: “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are; for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.”

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