In this issue The Unbroken Diamond: Nightletter to the Mujahideen
Translations by Daniela Gioseffi in Winter 2003 from Her WOMEN ON WAR: An Anthology of Women's Writings from Antiquity to the Present
In a previous issue poems by Daniela
Poetry and Politics, October 2003:
A Conversation with
William Pitt Root
By Daniela Gioseffi
William Pitt Root served from 1997-2002 as the first Poet Laureate of Tucson, Arizona, where he lived while commuting weekly to teach in New York City. Among other literary subjects, he teaches a course Walking Through The Fire: Political Poetry of the 20th Century at Hunter College of the City University. His numerous publications include Trace Elements from a Recurring Kingdom, named a 1995 Notable Book, by The Nation, and a finalist in the Pen West Poetry Award. Other books of poetry are Faultdancing (1986); Invisible Guests (1983); Reasons for Going It on Foot (1983, Pulitzer nominee); In the World's Common Grasses(1977, Pulitzer nominee); Coot and Other Characters (1977); Fireclock(1977); Striking the Dark Air for Music(1973, Pulitzer & National Book Award nominee); The Storm and Other Poems(1969, Lamont Prize nominee.) He has published over 250 poems in such journals as The Atlantic, New Yorker, Harpers, The Nation, Commonweal, American Poetry Review, Triquarterly, Poetry, among others. His poems have been anthologized many times, including in And What Rough Beast: Poems at the End of the Century 1999, Fever Dreams: Contemporary Arizona Poets 1997, Men of Our Time: Male Poetry in Contemporary America, Voices of Conscience, Blood to Remember: Poets on the Holocaust, The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology and in The New Yorker Book of Poetry. His work has been translated into many languages and broadcast on Radio Free Europe. His course in political poetry at Hunter College is in world literature. We began our conversation in 2000, and were able to finish it in June 2003. Some quotations chosen by William Pitt Root to begin our discourse:
Stanley Kunitz: Certainly the modern poets I cherish most are disturbing spirits; they do not come to coo.
Soren Kierkegaard: What is a poet? An unhappy man who in his breast harbors a deep anguish, but whose lips are so fashioned that the moans and cries passing over them are transformed into relishing music.
Terence Des Pres: Further adventures of the self-delighted self are not what's wanted.
Mamoud Darwish: We travel like other people, but we return to nowhere./We have a country of words.
Marina Tsvetayeva: Poetry is my native land.
Daniela Gioseffi: I started interviewing poets, Galway Kinnell, Grace Paley, Bob Holman, Ishmael Reed, Robert Pinsky in putting together a collection of 20th Century US political poetry three years prior to the current wars by the US in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a year prior to 9/11. Since my experiences during the Freedom Rides and Sit-ins in 1961 in Selma, Alabama, when I was abused and menaced by the Ku Klux Klan for integrating Deep South television as an intern journalist of 20 years old—I've always lived by the conviction that poetry owes its first loyalty to people and truth, not governments. It has to be political—at least at timesto sustain humanity and to say anything honest. Yet, prior to these years of the Lesser Bush, as Arundhati Roy calls him, there was often an idea that politics and poetry could not be properly wed. What would you say about this frequently debated idea regarding US poetry? We're in a very different place, nationally, than when I started this series of interviews on political poetry in 2000.
William Pitt Root:: You're familiar, I'm sure, with Camus' description of the writer's function, in his Nobel acceptance speech, to the effect that the writer, by definition, can't serve those who make history yet must serve those subject to it. And yes, it's true, we're in a time very different from two or three years ago. The wreckage of the World Trade Center towers burned the better part of a year before it could be scraped back down to bedrock. Afghanistan's been pummeled once again, and once again is orienting itself around warlords and opium crops. Our much vaunted, surgically televised, laser-guided attacks against an almost eerily unresisting Iraq have now morphed into low-tech attacks against us that are increasingly effective. Those videos of the Shock and Awe bombs bursting in air over Baghdad are history, Saddam has vanished like Osama before him and both guys are apparently producing their own videos. A recent political cartoon depicts Bush at the U.N. asking for help in dealing with this big success I've made. And it's looking more and more like the Terminator will get to have his way with California, if not with all those protesting women who've been rearing up from his past. The Poets Against the War phenomenon may've peaked, with nearly 15 thousand poems posted on the PATW website by the time the print anthology came out. Such overwhelming numbers could appear to discredit the notion that politics and poetry could not be properly wed or that American poets have been timid about including politics in the work, fearing reprisals against their career. But it's not that simple.
What's been going on recently in poetry is more like a rave or a mosh-pit than a marriage and just about as likely to last past reveille. I do like the expression you use, properly wed, because it reminds me how the relationship between poetry and politics is less like marriage than like a pair of warring lovers inseparably separate, inconsolably conjoined. They are opposites but magnetic opposites, governed by a kind of duende rather than social sanctions, by passion and compassion rather than pacts and contracts.
As for poets protesting Dubya's policies, what could be safer? Isn't it a fast-lane to a foil star on one's career crown? I mean Shrub to use Molly Irvin's moniker for him is not exactly popular among the prize-givers. And he's such fun to have fun with, this backwards wizard! Hasn't he single-handedly, before our very eyes, transformed fair weather surplus into an Ice Age of debt? Hasn't he turned global compassion into a worldwide anti-American ill-will escalating toward fury? And how about that sleight-of-mind by which he confuses being about my Father's business with being about my father's business? He's the guy who's put the B-S back in Bush, taken the F-U-N out of Fundamentalism, and tried to get the U.N. out of Understanding! Now he's exposing not only the hidden C-O-N in Conservatism but even the A-S-S in Compassionate. And on and on.
All of which misses the point. The point is risk: What happened to Mandelstam when he dared compare Stalin's moustache to a caterpiller? He didn't lose a shot at tenure or the Lenin Peace Prize, he lost his life. Or what about Akhmatova and decades later, her heir apparent, Brodsky? Neither was political, neither teased The Bear. But to the dictator who rules the world by ruling the wordeither you're with us or you're against us. Sound familiar? Akhmatova and Brodsky wrote about people as individuals, thinking and feeling, not as social cogs in a communal wheel, so one was condemned for being a bourgeois love poet, the other for being a social parasite. For her, decades of censorship and persecution; prison for him. These poets took high risks without even meaning to. Then of course there also are those who did consciously risk provocation, paying with their lives or by imprisonment or exile: Ysenin, Gumilev, Tsvetayeva, Hikmet, Ritsos, Lorca, Neruda, Jara, Holub, Faiz, Foppa, Nasrin, a long, long list. A resounding list.
Daniela Gioseffi:: What about American poets?
William Pitt Root: : In our time we really don't have poets more decorated with prizes and praises than, say, Merwin, Bly, Rich, Kinnell, or the late Ginsberg, Levertov, and Lorde, all of whom were outspoken during the Vietnam antiwar movement. Now those still alive came back to oppose the bombing of Iraq. And they join a huge younger crowd including Poet Laureates, Pulitzer prize winners, MacArthur fellows, namely those most eminently rewarded among us. Their presence lends a touch of glamour, a certain cache, to current protests. That's not meant to be critical, but to join a movement popular among one's peers, even when it's the right thing to do, isn't to run much of a risk.
Daniela Gioseffi:: I could add the names of others who've always been way out there on the limb in foul and fair weather, like June Jordan and Grace Paley. But, are you saying you don't think there are professional consequences for a political stance?
William Pitt Root:: No, no, there are consequences, of course. Always will be. Probably not involving prison, but kinds and degrees of censorship and exclusion. According to Kenneth Rexroth, at the height of his fame Carl Sandburg was set-up then blackmailed into political silence by the great grand-daddy of the C.I.A. The deeply political Tom McGrath lived under a cloud after running athwart the McCarthy crowd, his magnificent work largely unnoticed for decades until Sam Hamill undertook to resuscitate McGrath's career at Copper Canyon. Attempts to quash Ginsberg backfired, made him famous overnight instead. Over in Great Britain, curiously, Yeats did everything he could to discredit the posthumous fame of Wilfred Owen, particularly his Dulce et Decorum Est, even declining to include him in the major anthology he was editing for Oxford and describing that poem as a sucked-out sugar stick.
Daniela Gioseffi:: And what about more recently here in the United States?
William Pitt Root:: Well, more recently, speaking of editors, for Best of the Best American Poetry Harold Bloom included no work from only one of the previous volumes, the one edited by Adrienne Rich who'd made a point of opening the doors of the series to politically conscious works. At a less visible level, hiring committees at many colleges and universities quietly pass over resumes from poets whose political themes haven't yet been made respectable by a major prize. And woe be unto young poets naïve enough to use political poems as samples of their work when they apply to M.F.A. programs.
And of course there's the Baraka misadventure. There's no doubt that it's opposition to his politics that caused the row about his New Jersey poet laureateship but who did they think they were getting? I find it sad he didn't reconsider his anti-Semitic stand long long ago, not to save his position as laureate but to maintain any credibility as a poet who thinks.
Daniela Gioseffi:: Well, to be fair, Baraka's stance against Sharon's militarism was taken as an anti-Semitic one, when he is actually concerned about the injustices suffered by the Palestinians, and not anti-Semitic, according to his own words. One of his best buddies was Allen Ginsberg, after all. Progressive or Socialist Jewish poets were his best pals. I've met him and read him and I really don't feel he's so narrow-minded and stupid as to be an anti-Semitewhich he feels is a misused word in any case. What he really feels, as a thinking person, is that current day Palestinians are even more Semite than current day Israeli peoples who are more European in heritage. I agree with Gerry Stern, former Poet Laureate of New Jerseya Jew and one of the poets who appointed Baraka as Poet Laureate of that state, by the by that it was wrong of Amiri Baraka to say what he said in that one line of an otherwise pretty good political poembut I don't think he's anti-Jewish or should be relieved of his post. I do think that line in Baraka's otherwise politically astute poemthe line about Israeli people being forewarned not to show up for work in the Twin Towers on the day of the 9/11 attackswas very misguided, and off the deep end as there is no evidence of any such thingnot even in the alternative, progressive press. As a New Jersey born poet who lives in New York City and witnessed the devastation of those monstrous attacks, firsthand, I know that many Jewish people as well as Islamic people, and innocent people of every culture, died in that criminal act of terrorbut Baraka, according to interviews I've witnessed, was more anti-Israel as a military state, not anti-Semitic. I must say as someone part Jewish and married to a Jewish person for 21 years, that he was misunderstood and wrongly labeled. He has openly and constantly disavowed anti-Semitism in interviews following the controversy. He kept trying to make the point that he was against the Israel military state and it's violent tactics against Palestinians who are, after all, also Semites. I know many Jews who want peace in Israel and disapprove of the Israeli government's militarism as much as they disapprove of terrorist suicide bombings as any sane person wouldbut I wouldn't call them anti-Semites. Baraka's problem with his New Jersey laureate post is a complex issueand most who see him as an anti-Semite haven't read the poem, or heard his explanations, especially Governor McGreevy and the NJ Legislature, but let's not get stuck on that debate as it is a whole dissertation in itself, and there are too many temporal issues involved.
William Pitt Root:: That may all be true enough, and good to hear, but I was referring specifically to the line in his poem that's one sad flat-out blunder. Not only for what it says but for what it implies: that 9/11 was either a Jewish or Zionist plot or that at the very least certain Jews, who warned only their own, were in a position to know in advance when and where it would happen. Immediately after the event the mind-boggling confusion was such that any rumor, any explanation, could seem momentarily plausible. But even if writing that notion into a poem in media res could be justified at the time as a sort of journalism, leaving it there ever after, knowing it to be false and inflammatory, is another matter. If he still believes it's true, that seems to me anti-Semitic; if he no longer believes it but continues nonetheless to spread it around, that is, if anything, worse. Am I suggesting this stumbling block invalidates everything Baraka's ever said or done? Of course not. But, with a nod toward the kitchen incident in Richard Wright's first autobiography, even the best soup, once you know someone's spit in it, is never again going to have quite the same appeal.
Daniela Gioseffi:: I imagine being a poet laureate can be sticky business and that you are scrutinized in varied and constricting ways while holding such a post. Didn't you once serve as a poet laureate in Arizona, where you continued to live for years while commuting weekly to teach in New York?
William Pitt Root:: Yes, in 1997 I had the honor to be appointed Poet Laureate of Tucson by the mayor, a post I held until 2002 when my wife and I reluctantly left Arizona to pursue an important opportunity for her. Because I was their first laureate, it fell to me to make up my own role.
The University of Arizona and the Poetry Center there have a strong reputation for several decades of getting reputable poets to read to mainstream audiences, but I wanted primarily to get poetry to and from a far wider range of people if possibleold and young, crazed and sane, in sign language, from crutches or wheelchairs, Republicans and radicals, pirates, parrots, and patriots, the good, bad or indifferent. And it worked fine once I started the annual Laureate's Free Word Poetry Festival at which anyone and everyone could read from their own work or their favorite poet's. I hosted and videotaped the readings and contributed the tapes to the public library. At the first festival, a gentleman who read there died unexpectedly a couple of days later, and I was able to get a tape in time to the local radio station so that during his funeral he could be heard reading on KXCI-FM; I also gave a copy of the video to his family. They were stunned; I was stunned; but it was a grand synchronicity that he had read work as appropriate to represent the occasion of his death as it was of his life….I was able to organize the first reading ever anywhere, as far as I know, at which key poems of the three poets for three nights running were translated not only into Spanish (we have a large Spanish-speaking minority in Tucson which is seldom served by the primary venues, so I brought it to them in South Tucson, where they live) but also in the Yoeme and Tohono O'odham languages of two of the several tribes indigenous to this region. The poets—Joy Harjo, Demetria Martinez, Leslie Marmon Silko—were as moved as the audience. I read free anywhere in town that asked; read weekly at an FM radio station; taught writing in grades 3-12 on reservations and in the heart of the city and at the U.A. Extended university as well; led the annual Poetry Crawl; helped edit an anthology of local poets, etc. etc. My wife, who is the poet Pamela Uschuk and has done a lot of work with Native American communities around Tucson, helped a lot with some of these projects.
To identify my original priorities, I wrote the Laureate's Proclamation. It catalogued my relationship with the region and its various peoples. Poetry, it begins, like rain in the desert, becomes most itself by giving itself away among the places where it is least known. It continues, Poetry goes straight to the heart of barrio and ghetto, ranch and rez, residential motels, trailer courts and the spillways of shade under shimmering freeways as well as to neighborhoods prosperously green all year and the gated communities of the foothills….Poetry can go toe-to-toe with tejano, suit up for symphony, pop for hiphop, get real for rap, blow hot and cool for jazz, get down black for blues, lock into rock, match chicken-scratch, even light that thing for good ol' country swing. And it also proclaims explicit possibilities for a poet's political responsibility: Whereas Poetry may strengthen the weak and the injured, give recognition to the neglected and dignity to the afflicted, Poetry may also give the gift of affliction to those grown arrogantly careless in their strength….Poetry does, after all, render indelible witness to the otherwise unseen, unrecorded, the socially invisible, the culturally obscene, the mob scene, the all-too-cool, fobbed-off discard of the mind's synaptic junkyard; to the last as to the first, to the worst as to the best; and to the thirst begun at birth all those hungers blindly lunging toward the grave…. The proclamation also mentions that poetry is a gift that taxes only the intelligence, meaning I received not a cent in pay.
Daniela Gioseffi: : Wow, what a riff! An amazing proclaimation! But, let me ask you very specifically if you feel that literary art, that poetry, can offer social and moral teachings?
William Pitt Root:: Without a shadow of doubt, but what readers will really want such lessons? Probably not coincidentally, two of the most widely read teacher-poets of the last hundred years in the U.S. were Middle Eastern—first the Lebonese poet Kahil Gibrahn (from whom J.F.K. lifted Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country) and more recently the old Sufi master, Rumi, whose popularity shows no sign of falling off soon. More typically though, poets with the clout to speak as teachers first pay their dues in the communities they speak from. Maybe the harder put we are to survive in our world if you're Black or Hispanic, Native American or Middle Eastern, flat-out poor or gay the more likely we'll be open to poetry that shows us a new slant on things, a new way to survive. Sherman Alexie, for instance, introduced a whole new youthful spirit about being Native American that is similtaneously funny and tragic; his style, his sheer, unabashed, knowing intelligence rocks. He makes being smart fun for a people sometimes stereotyped as slow.
Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka (yes, despite my caveat), Ruth Foreman, Roger Bonair-Agard (my former student); Jimmy Santiago Baca, Sandra Cisneros, Martin Espada; Naomi Shihab Nye or Suheir Hammad (also once my student); Judy Grahan etc etc. are all powerful teachers in various communities. They speak both about those communities and for them. It's obviously encouraging, too, when writers cross racial or ethnic lines to reach the greater commonalities binding their audiences. I'm thinking, for instance, of Lucille Clifton, whose compassion is fundamental and easily crosses borders of race, age, gender. Just heard her read yet again, this time at A.W.P., to a mixed but predominately white audience so charged with admiration and affection we would have elected her to whatever office gladly. Galway Kinnell said it well that night. Lucille, you have to live a long life because we need you to help us deal with that gang of hooligans in the White House. (The poem she'd just read about 9/11, while very different than his, was on a par with Galway's own.) She's the real goodsheart incarnate and proof that a heart can be as smart as it is wise.
Here in the U.S., poets usually aren't taken that seriously and in part have themselves to blame. It's not been uncommon for MFA programs to encourage their charges to be stylistically distinctive and ethically indecipherable, in poems that resist the intelligence almost successfully. Young poets are not often encouraged to be politically literate. The unexamined worship of the cult of originality leads to what Ahron Appelfeld considers to be the narrow-mindedness of the writer in Western Civilization [who] has not become a voice of his tribe but of his (sic) individuality. Wendell Berry has long ago identified this tendency as a variant in the trend toward specialization. And in his Memoirs, Neruda is nearly as droll as he is political when he declares,
William Pitt Root: : One pitfall would be writing down to your subjects and so exploiting them. Even the term, your subjects, obviously smacks of hierarchy. You can't write down to someone you don't feel above. The unfairly neglected John Beecher started his career as poet when as a kid just hired on at a steel mill he found himself among for the first time shoulder to shoulder with the great unwashed and wrote his first poem, Big Boy, out of the vernacular all around him. That poem enjoyed considerable play among workers because he cast it in their own voices. It still works quite well alongside anything else written in the 19-teens. Another pitfall is getting sidetracked by questions of literary quality, which turn out to be largely incidental to effectiveness. A very bad novel can be a very good socio-ethical ice-breaker. Uncle Tom's Cabin wasn't well-written but had profound social consequences nothing by Faulkner, for instance, could later rival. Dickens' vastly superior novels, making people aware of child labor abuses, also helped eliminate those odious practices but first he, too, had to hook readers by their sympathies; and he did not write down to his subjects, having been an indentured child himself. Back in the U.S., muckrakers in the earlier part of the 20th Century did influence specific issues, but created little enduring literature. And while Dostoevsky worshipped at Dickens' ink-pot, he had little immediate political or social effect on his contemporaries even as he was creating the work that would influence generations to come.
Daniela Gioseffi: Your poems Under the Umbrella of Blood, Unsurprised by History, The Unbroken Diamond: Nightletter to the Mujahedeen (see in this issue) seem to be quite a departure from your earlier work, the work in your books particularly, which seem far more oriented to the natural world than to the socio-political world.
William Pitt Root: True enough. Especially if you mean the books out of Atheneum The Storm and Other Poems, Striking the Dark Air for Music, Reasons for Going It on Foot. While there were a few poems of let us say social conscience hereSilhouettes, Do You Know The Country Around Here, Teaching Among the Children of Chief Plenty-coups most of the poems reflecting those interests came out in small press books such as Invisible Guests, where you'd find By their Own Truthful Masters, Burning, The Good Citizen, Old-timers, To Whom Shall I Speak And Give Warning, Why that Girl Picking Delta Cotton Will Be A Nurse and so on. Harry Ford, my Atheneum editor, had a strong distaste for what he felt to be that inferior breed of art, the political poem. When I finally realized the curtailed range of my work from Atheneum was not effectively supplemented by my small press work it reached too few readers I tried Harry with Under the Umbrella of Blood, a collection top-heavy with just what he'd been discouraging. This was the early 80's—just after Reasons for Going It on Foot had done quite well for itself and Ford had nominated it for the Pulitzer so I felt I had some credit with him.
Daniela Gioseffi: How did he receive that collection?
William Pitt Root: Mixed. But he liked it well enough when he first called to say he'd take it…if we could agree on some cuts. Then it turned out the main cut was The Unbroken Diamond, the anchor poem. Who's going to want to read a long poem about Afghanistan, for heaven sake? he told me. I had no doubts whatsoever about that poem. I wanted it in the book.
I asked if he'd consider second opinions. He said he would. Naively, I wrote four poets I didn't know personally at that time, hoping for endorsements that would be unarguably objective. My note to Solzenitzen (sent only to Vermont, USA) went unanswered. And Galway Kinnell demurred, kindly explaining that although he was teaching my love poems just then, he was also taking some time off from doing blurbs. Daniela Gioseffi: Well, I know that is true, because Kinnell said the same to many others I know. He really was swamped with no time for his own writing, and needing time for his children and family, and having so many student poets, and everyone barking up his tree for comments at that time, but, please go on.
William Pitt Root: Denise Levertov initially worried that to be perceived then as pro-Afghan, hence anti-Soviet, was to risk seeming pro-Reagan, and wrote me three notes in two days before coming through like a champ. [This is a 'political' or 'engaged' poem written neither from left nor right, but simply from that human indignation sparked by all oppression…In our age of Terror, it forges polemical metal in lyric fire.] And lastly, Joseph Brodsky, noted for being formidably selective about the poets he chose to champion, astonished me by coming forward even more emphatically. H wrote I found 'The Unbroken Diamond' to be an extremely strong piece of work deserving to see the light of day, or more accurately, the dark of print, immediately: This country needs this poem badly. As far as I know you are the only man in the whole U.S. who had heart enough to address the subject [of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan]. Your lines may not help much those poor people; but they surely redeem this nation. I was so excited I called Ford at once. He dismissed Levertov out of hand, as an endorser of any cause (especially ironic in light of her intense circumspection), and though he was impressed by Brodsky he chose to construe his remarks as meaning that if the poem wasn't published immediately it would lose the power of its occasion…therefore he held his ground, refusing to publish it. And I held mine, refusing to put the book out minus that poem.
Daniela Gioseffi: So, what happened next to that poem which describes the monstrous massacres of the innocent going on in Afghanistan at the time of the Soviet and US wars there over the oil in the Caspian area?
William Pitt Root: Well, the Afghan poem, having been published in Telescope, went on to be what then was the longest poem ever published in The Pushcart Awards series. In Sweden in the mid-80's that poem was translated by Sweden's foremost translator of American poetry, Stewe Claeson (now among my closest friends—how kind an unkind fate can be!) and published as a small book by Raidar Eckner's Arcturus Press. It also was published in former Yugoslavia, translated into both the Croatian and Serb languages for a literary magazine there. At about the same time, I sent a copy to a British journalist specializing in conditions in Afghanistan who said he'd see to it that the poem was translated into Farsi, Pashto, etc., and published there even if only in mimeograph format. I was, of course, ecstatic to find those who valued its point. In the 90's the Russian émigré poet Demetri Bobyshev translated it into Russian for Kontinent, published in Paris. And on 9/12/01, I happened to be in Sweden to read at the Gotenborg International Book Festival. I chose to present this poem in response to the American finger instantaneously targeting the Taliban, hence Afghanistan, for reprisal. The Taliban was the direct result of our failure to sustain aid to Afghanistan once the U.S.S.R. withdrew and the entire nation was plunged into chaos. To judge from more recent events it's not a lesson we've learned yet—of the 87 billion Bush is requesting from congress, only 1 billion is earmarked for Afghanistan despite clear evidence daily that the Taliban is gearing up to return.
But few people in the U.S., then or now, realize that according to then National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brezinsky, the Soviet invasion was, in no small measure, the result of U.S. covert operation using disinformation et cetera to lure Soviets into believing it was imperative for them to control Afghanistan in order to resist American political adventurism that might be imminent there. As early as 1982, Brezhinsky was claiming credit for setting Afghanistan up for that invasion; later he also took credit for having bankrupted the U.S.S.R. That hundreds of thousands of innocent people were killed, many in ways unimaginable to us; that millions were forced from their homes; that the replacement of ancient weapons by new succeeded in amplifying exponentially the degree of destruction which tribal warlords ever after could inflict upon each other and surrounding communities; that the internal chaos resulting in prolonged civil war gave rise all but inevitably to the Talibannone of these consequences seem to have been taken into account beforehand or acknowledged afterwards. And yet in Europe this scenario is widely understood. Doubtless in Asia as well, certainly in the Middle East. Instead of trying to answer the question Why do they hate us? we are content to ask it, as if it were unanswerable. Doesn't it seem extraordinary that among nations we are so willfully ignorant of the history of uses our powers have been put to in our names, with our monies, by officials we've elected to represent us? We've been so successful in censoring ourselves and each other that, until our current regime no additional censorship, no Patriot Act 1 or 2 was deemed necessary.
Daniela Gioseffi: Yes, the major media controls the American mind at large, though those who read alternative media with the real truth are more aware. I spoke recently, for one example, with representatives of RAWA, The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, who explained in detail how horrible things still are for the suffering civilians of Afghanistan under those same war lords. Most of them are still, now in 2003, in power outside of Kabul where conditions are still horrendous for the majority of women, children and men of Afghanistan ruled by cruel and extremist war lords who came to power during the US and USSR invasions of that country once so much more civilized, developed, and equitable for women than it is since the US and USSR interfered and created a huge human tragedy. But, what about your collection of poems, Under the Umbrella of Blood?
William Pitt Root: As for Under the Umbrella of Blood, I sent it to several other publishers who, at that time, agreed with Ford about that poem and so passed on the book. Just recently I've pulled it off the shelf to update it to send out again. Meanwhile it had grown into four books now including Terribilitia, Courage: Revising the Text, and Black Rainbow. The four books are oriented less around domestic considerations as of personal daily existence, centered more by awareness of the greater world around us past and present. The Earth household, as Gary Snyder once put it, rather than one's private address.
Daniela Gioseffi: I understand you went to Vietnam in the mid-90's, before it had fully resumed trade relations with the U.S. Did that have to do with poetry?
William Pitt Root: Originally, literally, no. But for what poet could such an adventure not end up having to do with poetry? I went for two weeks with about twenty shrinks and counselors specializing in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Many were vets returning for the first time since the war. They were part of a People To People mission designed by a therapist from Yale, intended to bring together professionals from Vietnam and the U.S. who treated P.T.S.D. so they could compare methodologies and results. My brother-in-law, John Uschuk, was both a returning vet and a therapist, and he invited me along for the ride. Once there mainly I listened and took a million photographs with a camera being literally shaken to pieces by the rattling conveyances we found ourselves on every time we set out for a new destination: Hanoi, DeNang, Hue, Ho Chi Mihn City [formerly Saigon], and other places. I loved what I saw of that country, the China Sea, the ambience of most the people I met on city streets and in the villages.
One of the first nights we were there, up on the roof of the Saigon Hotel in Hanoi, what began as a sort of orienting bull session among the veterans soon turned to memories and stories of the first trips there, the war. My brother in-law, John, read a poem, The Trick, his sister, my wife, Pamela Uschuk, has written about her response to his being over there. Pamela is one of our finest political poets—her brand new One-Legged Dancer is devoted to her experiences over the years in Mexico, especially with los indigenos and los pobres, and the effects of both NAFTA and the Zapatisa movement. She's expert at finding where wild orchids grow through the concertina wire. Anyway it was a strong poem and he was so moved he couldn't finish it, so I read it for him. Not having been in that warI was a married student at the time, with a small child and not wanting to be left out, I asked if they'd care to hear a poem by way of my introduction. They kindly said yes and I read The Unbroken Diamond and Under the Umbrella of Blood. Between those poems and the discussion that followed, I found myself admitted into the veteran contingent of the group.
A day or two later we met General Nguyen Ngol Diep, one of Ho Chi Mihn's staff, who invited the veterans to dine with him. I really wanted to attend but it wasn't for civilians. When I heard whatwent on I was astonished. When it was mentioned that a poet was traveling with them, General Diep responded that he himself was a poet, as many of Ho's top officers had been. As, of course, Ho Chi Mihn himself had been. Back in 1971 I was moved when I read H.E. Salisbury's translations of Ho's prison diary of poems. They were interesting, sobering:
Daniela Gioseffi: I sincerely doubt it, too. American males are too encouraged by team sports—play at war gamesand the worship of team sports. They see culture, dance, poetry, art as sissy endeavors, as if true men cannot be poets. It's a pity. It's not a European, Latin American or Asian mode, but a very American macho sort of thing to disparage poetry or show no interest in it. We've had few presidents or politicians aside from Abraham Lincoln, Mario Cuomo, Eugene McCarthy or Jimmy Carter, who have truly valued the nuances of the written word to the point of poetic expression. Yet, this is not true, of leaders of Latin American or European or Asian countries. Five out of ten Nicaraguans were poets during the hay day of Ernesto Cardinal and the Sandinista Revolution, and Neruda was a poet and an Ambassador for Chile! Talat Sait Halman, a distinguished poet, was ambassador to the UN for Turkey. This doesn't happen in the USA because there is a gross idea of what manhood should be here. It's beer-drinking jocks who tend to like George W. Bush, not poets or readers of literature. But to get back to your own work, in addition to your own writing of poetry, you teach a course devoted to political poetry at Hunter College, don't you?
William Pitt Root: Yes, at the graduate and undergraduate levels. It's called Walking Through the Fire: Global Political Poetry of the Twentieth Century.
Daniela Gioseffi: Explain, please, what you mean by political poetry?
William Pitt Root: Thanks for asking. Since the Poets Against The War phenomenon, the push to produce and read political poetry after so many years of neglect!—hasn't yet included much thought about just what it is, or what it's been.
Daniela Gioseffi: Yes, indeed. I started this book and interview project on political poetry back in 1999, and was side tracked by putting out a second edition of Women on War: International Writings this year. Then 9/11 ensued before I could really get into or finish this project of US poets. Living as I do in site of the Twin Towers disaster, and witnessing it, first hand, I was sidetracked by editing a website in memorial to 9/11, and the possibility, also, of doing a new edition of my anthology On Prejudice: A Global Perspective, which contains much world poetry on war and genocide. But, back in the 1980's, I started Poets and Writers for Nuclear Disarmament, and collected many poems on Cold War issues. So, I was surprised to see many thinking that Sam Hamill was doing something new. Especially since I was involved with the Olive Branch Book Awards during the 1980's as a member of the nominating committee of The Writers and Publishers Alliance for Nuclear Disarmament. But, there is no single definition of what political poetry means, is there?
William Pitt Root: No, but it's easy to assume there is one, a settled definition. The range really includes everything from cheer-leader chants for demonstratorssort of like oral tradition bumper-stickers to the coolly nuanced works of Milosz and Heaney. In the broadest sense, it can all be said to be political poetry. Why not? And sometimes even the coolest heads can vent outbursts more searing than any street shouter:
Daniela Gioseffi: Can you point out some American poems that would meet such a tough specification, please?
William Pitt Root: For that pragmatist, political poetry in the U.S. would be pretty rare. Emma Lazurus might score, for her immortal Statue Of Liberty sonnet, The Colossus (Bring me your hungry, your poor, your huddled masses). Her poem went largely unnoticed for years, by the way. Now that poem, or lines from it, are among the best known articulations of those very values many of us grew up believing did in fact portray the true face—and soul of America. Next…well, there is no next. To find poetic passion with influence on a par with Lazurus' poem, we'd probably go back to Lincoln, for any of several speeches, or to Frederick Douglas, and then fast-forward to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His I Have a Dream speech, whose rhetoric is so elaborately figured and passionately fired that, even after hearing it countless times, I still have no difficulty taking it as straight to my heart as I take the speeches of Shakespeare. In other words, as poetry.
Daniela Gioseffi: You wouldn't classify any other American poems, at all, as having political consequences?
William Pitt Root: Of course. I was concentrating partly on poetry (not necessarily poems per se, such poems being so rare) that survives its occasion. If we include lyricists and song-writers—from Francis Scott Keyes to Woodie Guthrie to Cash and Baez and Dylan and the Beetles and the Stones to Springsteen to Waits etc.—then we have scads and scores. But if we hold to the standard that a major political poem will have a major political consequence, there aren't many such poets or poems. Maybe some long-forgotten works of Julia Moore, the sweet singer of Michigan, since they contributed to improved conditions for the mentally ill. Sarah N. Cleghorn's quatrain about the injustice of child labor, that little toy terrier of a poem has probably climbed a few spats in its day to nip a few blue-blooded ankles. It's still got a real bite.
Daniela Gioseffi: I doubt Laura Bush really read Whitman as Abraham Lincoln actually did. I've heard her talk about books, and she really doesn't sound like much of a reader, and her husband disavows liking to read at all. He depends for his information about the world from briefings by corporate experts like Dick Cheney of Halliburton and Lockheed Martin, and such. I doubt either Mr. or Mrs. Bush really know the works of Walt Whitman or any other poet very well. However, it was leather bound copies of Leaves of Grass that Clinton chose to give as presidential gifts, embossed with the presidential seal, to visitors to the White House. Did you know it was his chosen book? The copy he gave to Monica Lewinsky actually became faulted for its erotic nature by the prosecutors of Clinton's sex life. So, Clinton actually did read and admire Whitman, it seems. Maybe the first president since Lincoln who really did.Perhaps, Carter read him, too, though.
William Pitt Root: Whitman was deeply radical, not because he was subversive or contrarian, but because he was a true believer in democracy, that actual democracy which does not look kindly upon unfairness or intolerance or the corruptive influence of robber barons or politics as usual. This much Sam Hamill knew full well.
Daniela Gioseffi: Perhaps, but I wonder how many realize that Whitman's best self is in his poetry, as he was often somewhat bigoted towards Native and African Americans in his prose and commentary. I was surprised to find that to be so when Ishmael Reed, for one, pointed out the bigotry in his prose which can be clearly found there, according to George Hutchinson and David Drews in an article titled: Racial Attitudes in J.R. Le Master's and Donald D. Kummings' Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), Whitman did not truly transcend the racial attitudes of his time and there are many instances where he talks of African Americans and Native Americans as inferior and destined to die out in favor of the superior white man. It is all there in his writing, not just opinion, though his poetry is radical as you say, in its uncompromising pursuit of democracy. This phenomenon of his prose and commentary is not popularly known as naturally, it's his poetry that is more widely read, even by scholars.
William Pitt Root: I'd cut Whitman some slack here. Like any other poet, what he said in his poetry is what he said for keeps. I think he knew that, just as what Lincoln said in his speeches about slavery, for instance, and the importance of recognizing the full humanity of Negroes, was not said merely for effect but for the effectiveness his office could lend to the idea. In private, like Jefferson, Lincoln and Whitman had reservations; like Jefferson's they were moonlight doubts and the light of day dispelled them to the extent that he, Jefferson; he, Lincoln; and he, Whitman each put his immortal honor on the right line exactly when it counted most.
Daniela Gioseffi: True. I feel that, too. But what of other American poets you would name as politically consequential in their work?
William Pitt Root: Carl Sandburg, even though he was muzzled in mid-career. Sandburg certainly figures prominently in any account of the political poetry of the United States. Arguably he still stands as a one-man political tradition: award-winning journalist, biographer, authority on American folk-songs, and novelist as well as culture hero. As poet, he was a far kinder, gentler Whitman, a family man as opposed to Whitman's loner image; he was the Whitman who didn't scandalize and outrage his potential constituency, and he was the one who easily spoke with, as well as for his beloved roughs and jazzbo's.
On very different wave-lengths, both John Beecher and Kenneth Fearing were once powerful figures in political poetry. And then there are some surprises. For instance, throughout the 30's, Yiddish-speaking socialist poets wrote energetically about American realities for blue-collar workers but how many workers read Yiddish? Allen Ginsberg knew about that work, however, and some of the way he styles his energies in Howl indicate a debt to those anonymous forbears.
Daniela Gioseffi: Ginsberg also acknowledges, in Voices and Visions, a big debt to William Carlos Williams for Howl. He points out where Howl follows the language in a poem of William Carlos Williams as it begins in almost the same way as William's poem regarding the degradation of the American spirit of the laboring classes which William's witnessed in the industrialization and overcrowded, and poverty-stricken lives and working conditions of urban factory life in Patersonso devoid of natural beauty.
William Pitt Root: Yes, Williams is fascinating and maybe the best case for a point here. It's true that he wrote large and small about politics and the effect of politics on everyday people, immigrants, housewives, bag ladies, baseball fans, the anonymous faces lost in the wash of yachts. But he suffers Whitman's fate in that his subjects didn't read his poems about them. Maybe even more importantly he put his imprimatur on everyday American vernacular as an eloquent instrument for the American poets, who Eliot and co were suddenly turning away from their American roots and back to European sources. Williams won the battle in the long run, I think, but…hardly anyone noticed. So complete was his victory that his young heirs know neither his name nor his work. (Or if they know either it's in association with a red wheelbarrow in the rain.) They simply take for granted the vernacular voice in free verse, as if it were a natural resource.
So, if Whitman invented American poetry in the mid-19th Century (and he did, though once again few people noticed at the time)it was also his voice that was passed down, through Sandburg and Williams, to Ginsberg's in the mid-20th Century to show the world the quintessential American poet. Full-blooded, unshorn, fully charged both spiritually and sexually, and wholly radicalized. That image of the essential poet, far from being representative of the facts, serves a certain kind of truth well enough: While it's not what the American poet is, maybe it' s what the American poet should strive to be again. Poets from nearly every nook and cranny of the globe know those two, far more than they know Eliot, and are pleased to accept their influence.
Daniela Gioseffi: Well, I, for one, would take Whitman and Ginsberg—but Dickinson, too, a rebel in her own right and known throughout the worldas influences over the precious and pretentious, and truly bigoted, ex-patriot, Eliot who longed so to be an Englishman over an American, at any rate. Though I wonder if the English really want him. Eliot's anti-semitism is far more palpable than Amiri Baraka's but no one is trying to strike Eliot with his mean spirited poem, Blitstein with a Cigar, from the Canon, and not enough are decrying Pound's stupidity and anti-Semitic bigotry either! But there are, of course, scores, if not hundreds, of poets, good poets, writing politically conscientious poetry today in America, and certainly you are one. What about them?
William Pitt Root: To get to the enormous mass of poems we usually mean when we say political poetry we have to re-tool our standards. Poetry becomes political when it renders either the conditions (injustice, repression, poverty) that give rise to large scale change or to the process of change itself (re-cognition, reform, revolution, or war); and it can be written in retrospect, in media res, or as a kind of prophecy. Most is of the first sort, written after the event, and what's political about it is the content, as history rather than current event. It's a record of events rather than a cause. Rita Dove's Celery (about Dominican Republic dictator Trujillo) or Robert Pinsky's The Shirt (an homage to the notorious Triangle Shirt Factory fire a century ago).
Daniela Gioseffi: Yes, and The Shirt is so similar in content to Thomas Hood's poem, Song of the Shirt, about the same event, and everyone has forgotten poor Thomas Hood, but he provided the prototype for what is arguably Pinsky's best poem! But, go on! Please forgive the interjection.
William Pitt Root: Huh, I'll have to remember to look at that Thomas Hood poem. Interesting. But, as I was saying, in political poetry of the retrospective kind, at its best, as in Epitafios by the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos, a silenced history may, through poetry, come alive again to alter both the present and the future. And sometimes, of course, history, used as analogy, is both a potent and a prudent way to critique contemporary conditions too hot to address head-on. The Twentieth century Turkish poet, Nazim Hikmet, did so brilliantly in his Epic of Sheik Bedruddin. Copies of Neruda's Spain in My Heart were carried by soldiers in the Spanish Civil War, as were works by Vallejo, some of which he personally passed out in mimeographed copies to troops hunkered behind barricades.
As for current event poetry, Kinnell's or Baraka's or Clifton's 9/11 poems are strong examples. Very different approaches. Also, from American Scholar circa Fall 2002, there's one hell of a prose poem called The Leapers. I'm sorry to say I didn't recognize the author and don't remember his name. There was, as you well know, another 9/11, in 73, in Chile, when our C.I.A., in which the elder Bush was, I believe, second in command, helped overthrow the legally elected government of Salvadore Allende in order to improve trade prospects for U.S. concerns. Allende was assassinated, thousands were arrested and many, including Victor Jara (Chile's Bob Dylan), were executaed. Neruda died less than two weeks later in part of heartbreak, and we installed Pinochet, a dictator who took care of our guys quite generously. There are current event poems about that 9/11, too, collected in the anthology For Neruda, For Chile, edited by Walter Lowenfels.
Daniela Gioseffi: Yes, there was that 9/11 and also the Attica Prison Riots which killed and injured many on 9/11 also! What is it about the September date that makes it live in so many infamies?! But, back to political poetry! You are far more articulate on this subject of political poetry than many, if I may say so.
William Pitt Root: Why thank you… I think it's important to note that contrary to a popular misconception, political poetry, the real thing, is very seldom an open cry of revolt in the face of a tyrant. If that tyrant is a tyrant, you wouldn't hear the cry twice. As Kierkegaard pointed out very early on in Either/Or, power is power in part because it's so good at neutering opposition. It even has ways to convert its critics into entertainers:
Daniela Gioseffi: Do you think political poetry is obliged to offer solutions, as well as opposition?
William Pitt Root: You know, it seems to me poems that are prescriptive rather than descriptive tend to be verse rather than poetry, and cheer-leading slogans tend to be doggeral rather than verse. When we hear the spirit-boosters of march-wearied protestors, tried-and-true chants like One two three four, we don't want your racist war, we see it's not only evil that can be banal. In the 70's it was fucking war. Not PC but it sure had punch.
Daniela Gioseffi: How true! I collected all the slogans written on signs by people marching in the huge demonstration in New York City on February 15th, 2003, against the US unilateral war on Iraq, and strung them together, titling them The People's War Protest Poetry. It was published by Jackie Sheeler on her website Poetz.com, but as clever and humorous as some of the sayings were, I'm not sure they rose to poetry.
William Pitt Root: The exiled Chinese poet Bei Dao, now at U.C. Davis, has remarked that When politicians go crazy they want to foist their ideas on others and poets decline the honor. Declining the honor just may be one of the American poet's strongest weapons: Bly and Merwin turning down literary prizes awarded during Vietnam, Hamill turning down an invitation to a literary tea with Mrs. Bush, those gestures will be remembered a long time.
Daniela Gioseffi: Yes, and Adrienne Rich declining the U.S. Medal of Honor, too! And, with a political statement about poverty and injustice, too! Let's not forget her!
William Pitt Root: Yes, and the One Hundred Poets who accepted Jimmy Carter's invitation to the White House, after their quick official celebrity, have long since been absorbed back into prima materia of the literary world.
Daniela Gioseffi: Well said!
William Pitt Root: The ephemeral political poem serves a purpose usually of preaching to the converted, to help keep spirits up by offering company. Even if they blow away overnight they earned their night. At 9/11 readings in New York you could feel that process strongly, the cathartic need being met even by patently awful writing. I remember back in the late 1960's, one of the fatter anthologies of protest poetry was Campfires of the Resistance. I thought it was awful bandwagon farebut it did have early Sonia Sanchez and Marge Piercy in it, real markers for what was possible.
Daniela Gioseffi: So occasional poems do often pass with their occasions?
William Pitt Root: Those that do obviously don't matter much in the long run. But, there are burning exceptions. Yevtushenko's Babi Yar, for instance. It's a brilliant account of the execution by Nazis of hundreds of Jews in the U.S.S.R. Although the Soviet Union was/is itself terribly anti-semitic (in fact, suspicions subsequently were raised that this atrocity may have been committed by Russian rather than Nazi troops), the poet invites his countrymen and women to take the highroad with him, inveighing against the inhumanity of the Nazi's toward the Jews. He's speaking, of course, to an audience who knows full well the brutality of the Nazi's. By the end, he declares himself to be a Jew, inviting his audience to make the same identification. It's a brilliant gambit, one of the poet's finest moments.
Daniela Gioseffi: Marina Tsvetayeva did the same with great irony referring to all the state-sponsored murder at the end of her Poem of the End where she says, Ghetto of the resolute!/ In this most Christian of worlds, / all poets of truth are Jews!
William Pitt Root: She was something, that one. And that's your translation, isn't it? Later, Plath would later follow suite, as would C.K. Williams and Bill Heyen.
Daniela Gioseffi: Yes, but C.K. Williams is Jewish I believe-and born in the melting pot of Newark, as I was!
William Pitt Root: In the poem of his I'm thinking of, I think it's called Anne Frank, in Heyen's Generation of 2000, I'm not sure, did Charlie say he was Jewish…or that he was Anne Frank?
Daniela Gioseffi: And Heyen is attempting to overcome the bigotry he suffered as a German during World War II here in America when nasty people painted Swastika's on his childhood home, just because his family was German-American. But, Yevtushenko taking his cue from Marina Tsevteyeva, friend of Mandelstam took a certain risk himself, didn't he, in declaring himself to be a Jew, before an anti-semitic Russian readership?
William Pitt Root: Yes, he did. Risk is clearly an element of what we appreciate in poetry, in poets. We speak of being on the edge as if it were a passport. You can, of course, be on the edge within yourself as well as teetering on some precipice of history, but…they are not quite the same. Forche, making the cut for her monumental Against Forgetting, preferred, when possible, work by survivors over work by observers writing from positions of relative safety. And why not?
Daniela Gioseffi: Yes, and she has been unfairly criticized as taking advantage of suffering and sensationalizing it as a careerist, but that is so wrong about her. She is for real and deserves our thanks for her book The Country Between Us which woke many up to the horrors our country was committing in El Salvador and Nicaragua. We owe her a debt, not shallow, stupid criticism for her work! Her poem, Return for Josephine Crumb, is as moving today as when it was written, and is one of many great political poems I include in Women on War.
William Pitt Root: And if by political poetry we do indeed mean poems that in the face of real menace provide us with the courage to face danger, then we enter a select cadre of poems and poets: Whitman as nurse and witness in the Civil War hospitals, Vallejo in the Spanish Civil War distributing mimeographed copies of poems to soldiers; Neruda's poems being published and distributed during political turmoil both in Chile and in Spain, or Neruda reading his poems to miners and other workers en mass, and, as a firebrand senator, in the Chilean senate, where his J'accuse nearly got him disappeared. And in the Soviet Union, Mayakovsky and later Tsvetayeva, and, later still, the samizdat poets all provoked fate by attracting attention. They raised their voices to rally the hearts of others.
Daniela Gioseffi: Yes, and Akhmatova's Requiem, too, of course!
William Pitt Root: Saddest of all are those whose final works were written with no hope of publication, no hope really even of witness. But written they were, even so. In order that what befell did not obliterate; to provide empirical evidence that what destroyed the speaker could not destroy the voice, the spirit itself. I mean of course poets such as Radnoti, Vaptsarow, Haushofer.
Daniela Gioseffi: And Daniel Varoujan, the Armenian poet who died in jail in 1915 writing his poetry protesting the too often forgotten Aremenian genocide, and Tsi Wen Ji the literary pearl of 2nd Century Chinese poetry, abducted and imprisoned by the Huns. And Chi'u Chin revolutionary warrior woman of Chinamany say the Shakespeare of China, a poet beheaded by the Emperor for her political poetry and struggle against oppression. And Fadwa Tuqan, Palestine's great woman poet who writes against injustice; and Nina Cassian of Romania who's books were burned and life threatened by the dictatorship; Gioconda Belli of Nicaragua; Ani Pachen of Tibet imprisoned by the Chinese! I could go on naming them!
William Pitt Root: Plus all those souls Bruce Weigel and his coeditor disinterred from anonymity in Vietnam. The mute, inglorious who were not all Miltons…. And, speak of the devil, there's Milton himself, in On the Late Piedmont Massacre (Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints), a cry from the heart, from the depths of a soul, if ever there was one. Read it aloud and you still hear among the long terminal O's of all fourteen lines the death-throe groaning of the lost.
But there's an equally important sort of poetry that is political not because of this or that cause or event but because it is a soil-builder, compost for the changes yet to come, the celebration of a communal voice not previously heeded or heard beyond the community's bounds, starting, maybe, in this country with poets like Paul Lawrence Dunbar and James Weldon Johnson, progressing through Claude McKay, Zora Neal Hurston and Langston Hughes, forward to Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and Alice Walker (each as capable of criticizing their peers as their opponents) and finally arriving at integrated voices of Rita Dove and Yusef Komunyakaa. Langston Hughes, for instance, did write directly political poems, especially later on in The Panther and the Lash when the Black Power movement was already in motion, but his strongest, most effective, and most highly risky work came much earlier, and laid the groundwork for those later advances, in the revealing portraits of Harlem life. That made him enemies among the Black Bourgeoise, just as his refusal to limit himself to such portraits alienated him from some of his white patrons and readers. The man so popular now as to be an unassailable icon lived a life of unrelenting risk, being cut down incessantly by Left and Right, Black and white, his whole life long, finally dying broke, lonely, and, he feared, forgotten.
Daniela Gioseffi: So, which is closer to being your idea of a good sociopolitical poem: one so well-wrought that it snares literary prizes but changes nothing, or one that effectively alters attitudes toward its topic but consists of doggerel verses?
William Pitt Root: Well, my druthers would be…a well-wrought poem that'll alter attitudes. And if it'll also cure the blind, heal the halt and the lame and make Rush Limbaugh hear again, but this time really hear, that'd be okay too. More to the point I believe Milosz' remark that in a roomful of lies a single syllable of truth rings out like a pistol shot goes nicely along with Tsvetayeva's A good poem goes like a well-aimed bullet straight to the heart.
The Spanish poet Jimenez was not reluctant about making such a distinction. He called Neruda the world's greatest bad poet. Some of any prolific poet's work is bound to be bad. But Jimenez meant the work we like, not the stuff we ignore. Such as I'm Explaining a Few Things, which recounts his memories of the years in Spain before the civil war contrasted against what came next, Guernica and what that portended. It ends with one of the saddest invitations ever uttered. Come and see the blood in the streets, repeated again and again. It's overwhelming. [Incidently William Carlos Williams, who translated some Neruda, uses the same revolving door line-breaks in his repetitions of They taste good to her.] Otto Rene Castillo's Apolitical Intellectuals is almost devoid of any prosodic devices and breaks most of the rules of poetic etiquette, and it works like a blow straight to the solar plexus. From the moment I read that poem decades back I knew I would never forget it or be able to throw off its argument, bald as it was. At the time I had no idea what had become of the poet, and when, years later, I learned how he and his comrade, after being on the run, eating roots and grubs for weeks, were captured, tortured several days, then burned alive, I was aghast. Then furious. And then, many years too late, I found myself moved to tears I couldn't help. And why would I want to?
So now I'm thinking of Joy Harjo, whose best poems count among the finest, most indelibly powerful poetry being written in English. I've seen her read many times and I recall two readings in particular. One was in Tuba City, Arizona, at the high school one night. It wasn't a literary event so much as a battle of the bands, and the audience was teenagers, mostly Navajo and Hopi. [Tuba City, by the way, is the home-town of Pfc. Lori Piestewa, the first American service-woman to die in Iraq. At the time, Tribal chairman Wayne Taylor said , When a Hopi is deceased, she comes back to the home mesas in the form of precipitation. As it turned out, the very day news of her death reached the people, clouds forming on the horizon moved to drop rain upon those mesas, breaking a long-standing drought.]
But back to Joy Harjo reading in Tuba City. When Harjo and her band came up, I was worried how they'd do. These were kids wired for music, not words. But when she began they listened, they listened very closely, and as she went on they fell so silent and still that it was like seeing thirst finding a well. Harjo made no attempt to amuse; she was all instruction, example, gravitas and grace. They heard what she had to say and their applause was a grateful thunder. At the 92nd St Y, I'd seen her do pretty much the same kind of thing before an audience of the well-heeled come to hear Poetry's elder states-men and-women passing their torches on to younger poets. Most elders there that night chose rather safe younger editions; there was little challenge, no threat. Gwendolyn Brooks and Adrienne Rich were the exceptions. Adrienne chose Joy. And when Joy came on it was as if a wolf had suddenly appeared among an assembly of poodles and sharpei's. Quietly, effortlessly, she tore up the joint. Until then I had been feeling a short-changed regarding the current state of letters implied by most of the old-timers' choices. Whereas most of their hand-picked progeny had been content to flick their monogrammed Bic's through a polite verse or two, when Harjo read She Had Some Horses, her lyric anthem, those refrains began to build upon each other, ascending until they rang out like flaming tongues of acetylene. And those, as they say, who had ears that night heard.
Daniela Gioseffi: Wow! What can one say to that? Is there anything else you'd like to add to the ideas around the above themes? What themes have motivated you most to write your work, or what driving beliefs are behind your urge to write poetry?
William Pitt Root: My first verse was written in Minnesota in the 7th grade, in response to an assignment to write a radio ad in rhyming couplets. Mine began, Use Ma Fletcher's Girdle Grease/ And your snap will never cease. Until I read that poem which went on, and on I'd been the new kid at school. No reason for anyone to be aware of me at all. Later, in 11th grade, I wrote my first poem, Equality. It was inspired by the movie Ramona, which I'd just seen on TV. It was about prejudice. Equality had about 10 lines, all rhyming with the title, and my passions were as molten and raw as the rhymes were insipid. I read it aloud in my honors English class and won from my classmates an interesting mix of interest from some, shunning from others, as if I'd committed a breach of etiquette for broaching the topic.
Daniela Gioseffi: Can you talk about a couple of your poems that contain sociopolitical ideals or longings for justice? How you felt about writing them or after writing them? Where do you feel your inspiration for being a poet has come from?
William Pitt Root: Writing has been many things to me. In the beginning, however, when I was a kid in grade school, it was about stories, about anticipating the adventure of life by dramatizing it in terms more intense than those by which I was actually living it. I wrote about a boy who got into various life-threatening scrapes: alligators, quicksand, sharks, kidnappers and was saved usually by a wild creature he had befriended, a wolf, eagle, cougar, horse.
The big leap came when I was 11. My father was killed. Everything changed. We were bankrupt, lost the farms and jeep and tractors, the house. So we moved from our home in the part of Florida where the Everglades met the Gulf, where all my friends were, and we landed in Minnesota. I soon came down with what was suspected to be rheumatic fever. My temperature shot high enough that I was near delirium. Home alone one day I heard a book drop through the mail slot, from Book Of The Month club. It was Old Man and the Sea. I'd never read a grownup book. My childhood was fading but I certainly wasn't a man, had little notion what that might involve and wanted so very desperately to know. I was in mourning both for my father and for my lost chance ever to become a man in his eyes. Knowing our land and home had been gobbled up cheap by my father's friends and some of our neighbors aided by our lawyer, having seen even his relatives turn their backs on our need, my trust in people was badly damaged. I longed for the wilderness of the swamps and the salt water expanses, and I missed the amazing wild creatures who might kill me but never with lies, never with smiles, never as they pretended to befriend me. I truly felt I might be dying and it truly didn't frighten as much as I knew it should. That's how I felt when I opened the book.
By the time I finished it that night, I felt transformed. At the time I certainly couldn't have articulated any part of what that book meant. But set as it was in a place I felt to be very familiar, among two characters, the old man and the boy, each of whom was struggling with what decency, honor, and manhood might mean, that story enabled me to witness for the first time the whole arc of a life how one could fail yet succeed, how a boy could help a man who had helped him, how the great beautiful creatures of the sea contended, how a spirit could be seen as defeated when it fact it has prevailed, and I saw how ultimate victory might not manifest in a form one could use to prove oneself to others. I was not discouraged. Quite the contrary. I was heartened. I felt someone had been terribly honest with me about the nature of life, and I felt the generosity in the author's willingness to share the vision would leave me forever in his debt. As it has. And I wanted, more than anything, to write. And I wanted to write about all the things that those people sitting comfortably eating and drinking in the harbour cafes of the world did not know concerning what they had seen that day yet failed to witness. Where they scoffed at an exhausted old man and the useless scaffolding of bones hung from the side of his boat, there was such a knotted truth of wonder, grace, brutality, beauty, humility and courage as I had never imagined. It was in gratitude for being confirmed in the mystery of those things that I shed what may've been the last tears of my childhood that day. Or maybe those were the first tears of what was to be my manhood.
Daniela Gioseffi: What's the most important point you've discovered in this discourse with poetry? Can you crystallize it here at the end, please?
William Pitt Root: Well, the first thing I notice is how writers don't necessarily encourage by trying to be encouraging. Art strengthens our hearts not by concealing what is ugly, dreadful, terrible, or tragic, but by revealing it in a context where the mysterious manifestations of the imagination can eventually prevail, not by eliminating what's negative but by creating its counterpoint, establishing a balance of forces— and that even the mere act of witness can be such a counterpoint.
The other is this: Maybe we don't come to poetry to learn only about poetry or poets; maybe we come to discover parts of ourselves that are hidden, to recognize aspects of ourselves yet to be revealed.
Daniela Gioseffi is an American Book Award winning author of eleven books of poetry and prose. Her first, Eggs in the Lake (BOA Editions: Rochester, NY) won a New York State Council for the Arts grant award in poetry. She has also had a NYSCA grant for performance poetry and reads widely throughout the USA and Europe, appearing on NPR,WNYC, Pacifica Radio, East and West, as well as other radio and TV stations. Her second and third collections, Word Wounds and Water Flowers, and Going Onwere published by VIA Folios/Bordighera @ Purdue University West Lafayette, IN, and her latest 2002, Symbiosis, is from Rattapallax, NY. An independent voice on the literary scene for many years, her work appears in The Paris Review, Chelsea, Antaeus, The Nation, Prairie Schooner, The Cortland Review, among many magazines. Her Touchstone/Simon & Schuster anthology, Women on War: International Writings, was reissued in an all new edition by The Feminist Press, NY, 2003. It has been met with exemplary reviews from Booklist, Library Journal, The New York Times, as well as become a best seller for The Feminist Press. Daniela edits www.PoetsUSA.com/ and publishes literary interviews and criticism in varied venues, including Hungry Mind Review, Poet Lore, American Book Review, Philadelphia Inquirer among others. Her verse was inscribed in marble alongside that of William Carlos Williams and Walt Whitman on the wall of the 7th Avenue Concourse of PENN Station, 2002. Her anthology of world literature, On Prejudice: A Global Perspective, from Anchor/Doubleday, NY, 1993 received a World Peace Award from The Ploughshares Fund at the United Nations, 1993. This conversation is from a series of conversations on political poetry with American poets, i.e. Galway Kinnell, Grace Paley, Robert Pinsky, Ishmael Reed, Bob Holman, and others.
Copyright © 2003 by Daniela Gioseffi. All rights reserved. May be printed by permission of the author.