Zack Pieper

Democracy at 10th & A (PoemTalk #25)

Alice Notley, 'I the People'

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Joe Milutis came in from Seattle for this session, and met up with Zack Pieper (wandering eastward from Milwaukee), drove down from northeastern Pennsylvania together and joined Al Filreis, our host, and Erica Kaufman (training southwest from New York) at the Writers House, where it was time to consider a poem that is either specifically about a postage-stamp-sized offbeat haven (the lower East Side of New York of a certain era) or generally about the whole America from which indeed our PoemTalkers gathered. Well, probably both.

Joe calls Alice Notley’s “I the People” a poem writing out the “agon in American culture.” Zack speculates on why Notley was embarrassed by the title (a remark she makes in introducing it): it’s “a gentle parody,” Zack offers, “of the way political language abstracts things,” but troubling is the general over-use (especially on the Left) of the term “the people” in particular. Al ponders the possibly unambiguous skeptical politics of the title (overt): the title, he contends, is red meat for those who want to see leftist politics here, but the body of the poem is less obviously in the liberal-left rhetorical tradition of talk about democratic rights.

For Zack this is a poem full of things people think when they are walking around during the day, but the result is not mundane. On the contrary, it has a mystical quality. Later, following from this, Erica offers her ideas on how this poem might be taught under the rubric of the New York School of poetry. But right away Erica says its  “walking around”-ness is an aspect of the poem she particularly likes: a glimpse at routine thoughts while at the same time a political commentary on the possessive and on the subject.

“I the People” is a poem that makes one wonder: Which comes first in American democracy, the “I” or the “we”? Joe notes that while these are “the two ends of the problem,” the vast middle ground between “I” and “we” is both intimate and fraught.

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