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.

The book in which this poem was collected is titled Parts of a Wedding and the PoemTalkers appropriately consider the mentioned wedding. Joe tries out a (as it were) pedestrian psycho-geographical reading of the spot the poem seems to occupy at 10th & A. There’s a church there. A wedding is letting out? Erica is asked if this specific geography makes the poem more or less alluring to you, and observes that it could be read of a satire of what you gain when you’re married. The certain rights and certain status. And thus we are back to the rights-stipulating Preamble. 10th & A, in one sense, is an exception to the way America has interpreted the Constitution’s opening words. It is perhaps where democracy “gets really realized” at the level of the body. Zack is sure that in the “personal vision and its realization will out-ride any mode of political abstraction.” It’s a poem about feeling the democratic power of the personal while not shirking the ideological imperative.

Our recording of the poem is from Alice Notley’s reading at Buffalo in 1987. Notley’s PennSound author page includes four full readings and dozens of individual poems. And here is the text of the poem.

Our director and engineer for PT#25 is James LaMarre and our editor, as always, is Steve McLaughlin. Above, from left to right: Joe Milutis, Zack Pieper, Erica Kaufman.