You say you wanna poli-po-asis: poetry and politics

by Edwin Torres

Yes, the word politics leaves me colorless and blech in the playground — so, I’m grateful to Sam Truitt and Michael Ruby for the invitation to play with something that I don’t understand.

To dive into poetry in politics, I’m trying to get past declaration to look at language as interruption — of form, of noise, of traction. The interrupted body is a political act — how to filter a narrative out of that fuse? An interruption of identity, a fracture released? The interrupted body redefines alignment as both a poetical and political motion — a body inversion, a bio-invention. Looking at a poem as its own class structure, interruption becomes navigation — with the poet’s body as punctuation, the argument as poeticalitical. Where is poetry in politics. Let’s take … oh excuse me, the question mark was left out. The hieroglyphed branding of aural continuation from entry to reception, how your voice goes up to imply an opening, a shift for the reader to adjust their listening from beings of declaration into beings of porosity. Here now, a chart:

Direction is its own reward, ask the herd

Isn’t the break from the going, what we remember? The line break of the sentient creature, whether poet or poem, is a word-animal filled with direction. Inside that mobility, are the landing spots that recognize your arrival by asking you to give of yourself. This year has asked a lot from us, fluctuating immersions brought to life by interruption, to discover limits either untapped or pushed too far. Poetry is filled with landing spots, politics is in the arrival.

Francis Bacon’s essay “Of Vain-glory” quotes Aesop:

The fly sat upon the axle-tree of the chariot wheel, and said, ‘What a dust do I raise!’ So are there some vain persons, that whatsoever goeth alone, or moveth upon greater means, if they have never so little hand in it, they think it is they that carry it. They that are glorious, must needs be factious; for all bravery stands upon comparisons.

I.E. you are not alone, you are not the reason for everything, you are not the outcome of one, but of many. You are one, connected to a whole. Enter poetry as the vox in populi, enter the fly, enter the landing spot, enter metaphor, enter debate.

What vanity, to be the fly landing on the pile, and to admit to the pile, that the pile, is the fly. To take from the argument the easy distraction, is to lose the substance. And this is politics. Interruption. And what is poetry? Alignment. Here now, a chart:

As Mister Smith said … More

I am flummoxed by the power beyond my grasp, unmoveth by what greater is power if not body. This thing titled politics, that I’ve never considered in my writing as poetry, preferring instead the equalizer, body. I write body not politics, so said my earlier self. To Edwinize a different essay from Francis Bacon: occasion offers its full commodity, to be consumed part by part and yet still hold its delay … i.e. wake up poet, I tell my earlier self, the body is political. This is no lyricism on a false utopia, no poetic discourse on evil. The assault on the body politic is clear, this year has been about finding healing. Healing is the operative word for 2020, evolved out of trauma, out of illness, out of systemic resolve. Does the poem look for healing before the poet? In poetry, the action is the remedy. How then, to not equate this year to the body, as a system of cellular migrations endured on a micro and macro level by every neuro-trigger received.

Biopoetics goes beyond an election year — a chaos manufactured by interruption — as a continual unearthing in the palimpsest-layering of our societal erasures, placed one over the other. It’s the body that looks for balance, within the phenomenal imbalance that society endures. A way of making political history poetical is to overlay its interruptions as both palimpsest and erasure in one, for us to doom its repeating into a sort of perpetual infinite.

Here, in the language of poetry, a word can represent a human — can a functioning body of some form represent a politic? A mind-body-geo-asis within a language system — which is how I navigate my personal operating system? But language is a slow burn, and one of the most transformative eras in our brief history is waiting, there, in the voting booth, on fire. “Everything we believe is on the line,” says VP nominee Kamala Harris, she’s right but you and I know, hyperbole doesn’t work in poetry.

Does that mean, poetry has no place in the political system? The question then becomes about subtlety, and how culture works at a pace that breathes off the body. The nature of poetry as independent voice is to not be consumed by the masses but as individual beams of light. Poetry’s strength is not to convert but enlighten — whereas the body politic serves not to enlighten but convert. Ah, but is there not discovery in the revealed interruption … I hear you asking my earlier punk self — I think poetic selves tend to consume poetic selves, as Fibonacci cannibals. That sounds like a chart, here now, a poem:

<< the election is a virus — where is poetry — in a virus >>
<< are traumas aligned for erasure or mobility >>
<< transforming noun for verb — poetry subjugates desire for outcome >>

pandemic dictator for pandemic herd to pandemic their missing brains >> break
pandemic color for pandemic matter to pandemic our missing lives >> break
pandemic climate for pandemic change to pandemic our missing world >> break
pandemic rage for pandemic children to pandemic their missing homes >> break
pandemic lie for pandemic power game to pandemic your missing wound >> break
pandemic fear for the pandemic elect to pandemic world dominion >> isn’t
one person isn’t one society isn’t one vote isn’t one outcome isn’t form — of text
on a page, of body in a life, of reader alone, of writer alone — isn’t form
the intricacy we’ve woven into our lives — what we use to navigate the direction
we’re given? Aren’t these lines of words, arranged just so, on this screen, with this
line break, and that space, and this punctuation — aren’t we guided by interruption,
is not this year filled with punctuation, transform interruption to temporal acuity,
to chaos as balance, to an ecology — of form as outcome — as we gather —

 << the assault on the body politic is clear — to vote is our only shot >>
<< don’t weaponize my fear — don’t weaponize my vote >>
<< don’t weaponize repetition as a poetic device to perpetuate change >>

Okay, let me catch my breath — to crystallize disaster as inchoate body paradigm, is to figure out where poetry can make noise in society. In twentytwenty, during the eleventh month, on the third day, of a COVID year — is there a numerology lined up to give us insight for waking up? I know we’re preaching to the converted, it’s the nonconverts that need to hear us … and they hate poetry. Here now, a chart:

One word can change a poem, one vote?

To initiate change > find where interruption is just forming, soften it > find the texture of a body that needs change, render it > find its condition, ask it > what do you need? One way to use language to initiate a real sea change — find subtlety in revolution.

Dick Cavett had a popular talk show on television from 1968 through the ’90s. I’m going back some decades to find some root within pop culture that might help define our current state, I landed on The Beatles. John Lennon said in a Dick Cavett interview, while discussing the use of metaphor in his song Revolution, that revolutionary art is subtle. To scream all the change you want is one thing, to wake up in the morning and decide on your own to walk another path, takes a lot of inner dimension. Lennon, no doubt, had his share of inner journeying and was confidently free to express his perceptively expansive intellect. I took his dare as recognizing the sort of change you don’t recognize but just become. And for anyone to evoke that sort of transformative redirection requires an internal shift rooted in awareness … and pop culture has no time for awareness.

So where is poetry in popular culture, let alone politics? Poetry’s subtle revolution for interior alignment, spilled over the intricacies of human emotion, over the rhythmic impulse of society’s deathtrap, becomes a power grab by a boy imagining himself in power over his minions, his herd. In a response to a question about the vaccine, Trump expanded on herd immunity by rephrasing it as herd-developed. “And you’ll develop — you’ll develop herd — like a herd mentality. It’s going to be — it’s going to be herd-developed, and that’s going to happen. That will all happen. But with a vaccine, I think it will go away very quickly.”

The question of Trump’s everything has been fuel for the creative process. Systemic episodes of rage manifesting as identity have emerged as legion for untold bouts of artistry, thanks to this man. There are countless fobs of rhetoric that Trump has thrown out as fuel for the disenfranchised — the rephrased speech as weapon, becomes a subsurface to navigate. A poetic discourse on syntax rooted in disfluency. His administration, his entire mantra, is herd-developed. Can poetry find the weak spot in the herd?

One of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s many jewels, “The dissenter’s view is to try and not write for today, but for tomorrow.” She is emboldening dissenting lawmakers into writing history’s foreground, holding a torch for pathmakers venturing forth into the unknown. And is not poetry the definition of language in dissent? To write today of temporality’s immediacy, is a job at odds with the hard facts of a voting outcome.

Transparency’s mystery is in the palimpsest of our deepest entanglements. To reframe portals, is the job of the masses. Television has provided our reckoning for isolation, way before a virus. The shared binge-watch is to numb resolve and call it culture. The Reality TV genre taps into a virtual workout for the home-bound brain. One example, which stirs xenophobia towards a supremacist machine is America’s Got Talent. A variety show which champions “The Best of America” as variety in entertainment — what Makes America Great is that we have so much talent, you see. Judged by accepted forms of hierarchy, transformation fits quietly under interruption — once given its score, by experts, for comparison. So that revolution becomes a level of competition surgically redistributed by culture as familiarity … whereas poetry makes language unfamiliar.

Lay out the undercarriage of time to realign the vector points of erasure that come so easily to the interrupted, to the minor influence of blood over the major influence of skin. Entire lives interrupted with erasure, the entire narrative of the American field worker, is variety as entertainment. The cinematic reach of this country which feeds such indelible growth by its endless vistas, is a torn expanse, a reality born of fractured interruption. Captured seamlessly through poetry’s own endlessly breathable fractures — our landings, as poets, as citizens looking for openings, is to embody a landscape mid-form. How then, to regulate an arrival into somewhere new — a clearing out of revolution, waiting for a voice that needs to enter?

This year, for the first time in fifteen seasons, the winner of America’s Got Talent was a poet, a spoken word poet who competed against singers and acrobats, and who was deemed to have enough “talent.” In that framework, is where these questions are positioned; what can poetry do when rewarded as entertainment? Where is poetry’s dialogue in a mainstream that doesn’t know what to do with interruption? What sort of language can break established codes to affect change? Where does poetry work in culture and can that lesson be carried into politics?

I’m not pretending to have a solution here, by the way, I exist as a symptom of questions, a systemic layer of my time. Is there enough of a vox populi to join a mutual listening for change? Is the collective that exists as a question, more herd-developed, than a collective who knows the answer? Would that be considered a two-party system, a neuro-binary in action? Where does poetry fit in? Here now, a chart: note dokey with elephat (sic, the missing ‘n’s):

Again again, is ancient text

There’s a structural problem in policing a word, a life for that matter, in a poem. To dismantle the role of poetry in culture is to unfold an interruption in mid-form. The puzzle of the unfolding is where poetry survives, the emotional reveal lurking underneath language.

And a Democracy facing systemic destruction is no longer a puzzle. Centuries of displacement pose questions of belonging that get buried by fear. When a body has survived systemic upheaval, the scars remaining are mirrors of deep realignment. The battles of a nation, worn on an election year, are impossible to hide, and in fact, are what define us.

I was going to close by trying to learn from ancestors. “Where The Two Came To Their Father” is a Navajo Indian origin tale presented as a series of sand paintings; one of them depicts a battle where The Great Evil, defeated by his own lightning arrows, trickles blood from his death mountain down to the people’s lake — the unpurified water, a fitting connection to this year’s election. But a brief synopsis of sacred text is not needed to unveil interruption as a life-force during this election year. In fact, there’s a chart for that; just look out your window, on Nov 4.

Join Edwin on Nov. 4 as he hosts a post-election group poetry reading at Radical Poetry Reading with Edwin Torres

Edwin Torres’s books of poetry include The Animal’s Perception of Earth (forthcoming from Doublecross Press)Xoeteox: the infinite word object (Wave Books), and Ameriscopia (University of Arizona Press), and he is the editor of The Body In Language: An Anthology (Counterpath Press). Anthologies include: American Poets in the 21st Century: Poetics of Social Engagement, Who Will Speak For AmericaPost-Modern American Poetry Vol. 2, and Aloud; Voices From The Nuyorican Poets Café.