More from AWP: On long form poetry and political engagement

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Yesterday, I wrote about the long-form poetry container I have been considering tackling; today I want to address what inspired me. As I wrote in the previous post, panelists on “The Long and the Short of It” seemed to agree that the long form works really well with political assertions, minute exploration of a subject, and the ambition of the poet. We call the act of writing itself a political act. I believe, however, that the panelists were speaking of a more assertive, overtly political poetic statement.

From the “Cave Canem Poetry Prize Winners & Judges” Thursday afternoon, to the closing “A Reading & Conversation with Kay Ryan” Saturday evening, many of the poets reading or speaking at this year’s conference took clear and direct stances of a political nature. Though none read a long poem as defined yesterday, they have written and published them, with the possible exception of Kay Ryan who is known for her focus on the shorter form.

The Cave Canem reading on Thursday featured Gary Jackson, Alison Meyers, Rita Dove, and Yusef Komunyakaa, not all of whom we might attach the “political” label to. Yet each of the poets read at least one poem with a strong political statement in it. The conversation about race in America and the African American experience in contemporary society needs writers like these. Their poems not only make a point, but also bring the experience to the level of the individual that readers can easily relate to; they celebrate triumphs and examine pain with a specificity we need.

On Friday, two back-to-back readings approached the political more directly. The “Peepal Tree Press 25th Anniversary Poetry Reading” focused on the Caribbean poets who make up a large portion of its catalogue. Christian Campbell read several poems addressing the question of home, the diaspora, and the mixed-race experience in the Bahamas, bringing attention to troublesome post-independence politics and race relations in the Caribbean. Tony Kellman, Opal Palmer Adisa, and Donna Aza Weir-Soley each read poems pushing against colonial and patriarchal mandates, calling for resistance to the status quo in the Caribbean experience. These poets spoke about the constant need to question the way things are, in terms of both society and the self, and I found myself beginning to understand how the “political” in poetry can really have an effect.

The next panel, in the same room, “Dream the Dreamers Dreamed: A Tribute to Langston Hughes,” reinforced that understanding, and also sparked a need to express political outrage in my own work. Sarah Browning, Derrick Weston Brown, Jericho Brown, and Sonia Sanchez spoke briefly about Hughes, read some of his works (including from the McCarthy transcripts), and read one of their own works inspired by Hughes. The power and conviction with which these poets and activists spoke filled the room and brought a standing ovation. For me, seeing the way Sonia Sanchez managed the political, the outrageous, and the necessity of resistance in her new five-page poem opened up a renewed dedication to the path I began writing on fifteen years ago.

I will close by saying that this renewed dedication to writing, further knowledge of a form I have been considering, and a content to fill it with, have made this year’s AWP Conference worth every penny and every hour’s worth of unfinished homework. The discussion of writing the long-form poem will continue on my personal blog.