Where We Go From Here: On “Political” Poetry and Marginalization
“But one voice is not enough, nor two, although this is where dialogue begins.” — Cherrie Moraga
Something occurred during the days after the Trump election. There was a marked difference between those who were angry and shocked and those who experienced the news of Trump’s election as just one more event in a lifelong series of such events. For the former group, who tended to be white middle class women and Clinton supporters, Trump’s election was a call-up. Many had not previously been political. They had seen themselves reflected in Hillary Clinton. They identified with her.
Many women bought buttons and hats, canvas bags, and t-shirts showing their support. When Trump won instead, it was a shock, one many people took personally. Women I know who had never before been political marched in the streets during the days following the election. One woman, a writer, emailed me to describe her experience, saying it was invigorating to walk the streets in rage, and that the march was lovely aside from some “skinny anarchist types” whose behavior she deemed “inappropriate.” I wondered, when I received her email, about this divide and why she would feel the march was sullied by what sounded like angry young activists.
I found this comment to be particularly interesting because it illuminates the difference between people already marginalized—people of color, poor people, not-abled, and queer—who were already angry and are activists by default just as they are political by default. Again, the shock or sense of disgust registered at those who seem angry, who appear to be activists, further serves to illustrate the difference between those who have the luxury to decide when to get angry, when to protest, versus those whose entire lives are built upon a lifetime of indignities or injustices. Furthermore, this argument is reminiscent of the arguments of whose political poetry is deemed worthy. The poets who can articulate clearly, from a distance, about political issues are championed while poets who write from their own, often much more complicated experiences of living in poverty, for instance, such work is deemed either too confessional or too political. It is the articulate, non-embodied voices that are often celebrated while those who are experiencing the traumas of daily oppressions are marginalized, are considered too intense.
For the latter group, people of color, poor people, not-abled, and queer, Trump’s election, though a surprise, was no shock. I, for one, grew up in poverty, without access to the powerful institutions that make or break Americans. I have lived with a chronic illness without access to health insurance. I have struggled for survival my entire life. And as someone who has existed within the margins of our society, I empathize with others who also struggle. Ours is one struggle against marginalization, against being silenced.
I have engaged in numerous activist communities since I was a teenager. As both an educator and a student, I have had students and teachers tell me the following: “We are not at war.” “There are no class distinctions in America.” “It is not true that the poor have no voice.” In other words, my classmates and teachers, colleagues and acquaintances, and I have been living in very different and separate Americas.
A number of years ago when I sent my manuscript, The Glimmering Room, to Wave Books for possible publication, I received a note back stating that Wave Books does not publish “political” poetry. My poems, as anyone who knows my work can attest, cannot seriously be considered “political.” And yet, because a number of the poems are spoken from the point of view of homeless teenagers, the poems were deemed “political.” Political, in other words, is work that refers to the lives of those who are not middle class. I imagine that when the editors at Wave received my manuscript they did not relate to the work and, as a result, the work was labeled “political.” I see the same dynamic in the classroom. Work written by people of color, women, poor, queer, not-abled or, in other words, work written outside the scope of the middle class experience is deemed “political” and other.
In the past weeks, several white, male middle class poets from the American literary establishment have published essays and posted Facebook updates insisting that now all poetry must be political. But why wasn’t my work publishable beforehand? Why is “political” poetry only important and necessary when it begins to affect the lives of white middle class poets? Matthew Zapruder, one of the white, male middle class poets who declined my manuscript, wrote and published an essay on political poetry —— in which he suggests a list of white middle class poets as experts on such writing.
What I am addressing here is the dissonance between experiences. Now that Trump’s election is infringing on the lives of white middle class Americans, the political is important. But for those of us who were already living marginalized lives, our work was deemed “political” before the election, and now that white middle class American poets find themselves affected, their work is allowed to be “political.” And so we are marginalized once again—our voices left out.
Meanwhile, I have been, my friends and lovers have been, struggling with survival for most if not all of our lives. I am talking here about other poets in America who also come from poverty, who are not abled, who struggle to get their healthcare expenses covered. I am talking here about my trans friends, my queer friends, who, without adequate healthcare funding, will not survive a Trump presidency. I am talking here about the families of my friends who work two or three jobs to stay afloat but are undocumented and are in direct danger. I am talking about the difference between those who found themselves empowered and filled with rage, and those who are exhausted and depleted from struggling their entire lives. Many of the people I know who have been dealing with these issues of survival, who find their work marginalized because it doesn’t speak to the predominantly white middle class world of editors and publishers, have relapsed into drinking, into eating and not eating. Many have slid further into depression. Not everyone, of course, but many. They are not able to go to marches or plan events, are not filled with righteous anger. Worn down by a life time of struggle, finding themselves in the direct line of possible annihilation, their work further marginalized, they are unable to do so.
The fact that Trump has been elected rightly enrages many, but for many more Trump’s election is a matter of life or death. It isn’t “in theory” and it can’t be put on a t-shirt. When he dismantles the healthcare system, when he destroys Medicare and Medicaid, my husband will be destroyed. My husband is disabled and without Medicaid and Medicare coverage, we will not be able to afford his $1,800 worth of medicine per month nor will we be able to pay out of pocket for his necessary medicines and doctor visits. For us, the Trump presidency means annihilation. As an adjunct professor who supports myself and my husband, we are in true danger. For many wealthy and white middle class Americans, the Trump presidency will be survivable. Money and access to power and institutions are fundamental to the American system. By “fundamental to the American system, I mean that without access to systems of power people fall between the cracks ending up homeless, without access to medical care, without consistent, well-paying work, in prison, in literal danger on the street. And yet those who have these commodities don’t see the access they have, the power they have, which means they do not see how others do not have this access. In class weeks before the election, during an exercise with a young musician, a female graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, she stated her shock that Trump in his campaigning was so filled with doom and gloom. “But things aren’t that bad,” she said to me. I explained to her how most Americans are actually struggling to make ends meet, that for African Americans and Latino/s, it is especially difficult and in fact conditions are worse now than they were during the Civil Rights movement. For queer Americans, the working class and the working poor, for those without access to healthcare, I said, things are quite bad. I was shocked at her naiveté, and yet her sentiment is what I had been hearing for many years.
The solution for many middle class and upper middle class white American women was to elect Hillary Clinton and yet Clinton did not speak to those suffering. In debate after debate, in fact, with Bernie Sanders, she argued for building a wall and deportation; she was against free education for everyone and against loan forgiveness. When those like Mark Lilla, an American public intellectual and Columbia University professor, argue against identity politics, they are missing the point — that they in fact also inhabit an identity politics, that of the white, wealthy male elite. But one argument against the identity politics argument is the projection of an alliance onto a person entirely based on their physical identity. I never identified with Hillary Clinton, a privileged, wealthy, politician who voted for the Iraq war and argued for the bombing of innocent civilians in non-European countries. That she and I both have a biological female body does not mean inherently that we are the same or that we share anything in common. Sharing the same biological body does not promise a shared set of beliefs or experiences. I, for example, also have nothing in common with Ivanka Trump. How could I? I live precariously as an adjunct with no healthcare, no dental, no savings. My concerns are not the same concerns.
The solution is not, nor has it ever been, to choose one or two women of color or queer women or other non-white middle class women, to publish in order to check off a box. The problem is that the same people are in power everywhere which means these same middle class women are making the decisions about who will and will not be published. As long as the power structures remain in place, women without access to these power structures will be ignored and excluded. The solution is not tokenism or affirmative action. The solution is a drastic reimagining. This entails a sharing, a mutual respect of differences and a dismissal, finally, of the notion that all women are the same. In her book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler addresses this issue:
The insistence in advance on coalition “unity” as a goal assumes that
solidarity, whatever its price, is a prerequisite for political
action. But what sort of politics demands that kind of advance
purchase unity? Perhaps a coalition needs to acknowledge its
contradictions and take action with those contradictions intact.
Butler argues against the idea that in order to engage in political action a group needs to be uniform. Instead, she argues, we might acknowledge our differences and move forward. This acknowledging of our differences is paramount: we must see one another radically. This means listening to one another, when we disagree, when we have different experiences and beliefs. Listening deeply.
At a poetry reading during the months preceding the election, a fellow reader and I were discussing the candidates. When she learned that I was a supporter of Bernie Sanders, she became enraged. She went to retrieve a female friend of hers who, once she learned I was not a Clinton supporter, lashed out at me as well. When I explained that I could not support Clinton for many reasons but foremost because she is a supporter of the wall between Mexico and the United States and that she has, in fact, been responsible for the deportation of many Mexican families, the women would not listen to me. The fact that the candidate, female or not, and her platform would endanger the lives of those nearest to me, that her political platform was a threat to the existence of my own life and the lives of others was not on this poet’s, or her friend’s, radar. Our lives were invisible.
This incident is one in many that illustrate the problem I am discussing which is the blindness of privilege, of white, middle class feminists who are unable to see beyond their own identification with other middle class (or in this case millionaire-class) women. That my own family was affected by Clinton’s actions, that her arguments during the political debates against raising the minimum wage and against providing free higher education for everyone, directly affected me. When I mentioned a concrete example of something Clinton said in a debate, the women argued that she hadn’t meant it. Their identification with her was so strong that what she was actually saying and what her platform actually meant, had no effect whatsoever. Furthermore, though I was speaking, I was not seen or heard.
How shall we then move forward in our fight against this terrifying presidency? I believe a coalition is what is needed—a group of women from all classes and backgrounds, races and genders—who will join with one shared goal in mind: to protect the lives of those nearest to danger under this new presidency. Those nearest to danger are the poorest, least able, those in need of day-to-day supplies, (those without access to regular employment, food, housing, etc. ) those in need of protection from hate crimes, and those in need of healthcare and medicine. When, not if, Trump cuts Medicare and Medicaid, there will be no medicines for those whose lives are reliant on medicine. Trans folk, people with mental illness, and anyone else whose lives are saved on a daily bases because of medicine—we will need to find a way to get them this. Those in most danger of being the victims of hate crimes will need to be protected. We will need to band together to form groups to walk people from their doors to wherever they are going to.
I don’t know what other writers need to write right now. I am not one of those insisting we all need to write “political” poems especially since the definition of the political in American poetry is precarious. For the many writers I know who are suffering right now, their well-being and safety is the main priority. My own life has been political since the day I was born. Because I am Latina, because I come from a working poor/working-class family, have survived trauma and am living with chronic illness, because I live a precarious existence—living at and below the poverty line with no long-term health insurance, everything I write is “political.” Writing “politically” is not a choice or a luxury, it is not something I can choose not to do, just as I cannot choose to be someone other than who I am. “Political” is not something that happens from time to time or when events affect white, middle class writers.
We need to take good care of ourselves and we need to look and listen to one another. Those in positions of power in the literary community need to begin to be willing to give up their seats and give them to people who are not middle class, to people who don’t have access to them. Otherwise the writing world will continue to look the same—ruled by white, middle class writers with a few seats given to non-white middle class writers to keep the rest of us quiet. It isn’t, in other words, just about being a woman—issues of class and race, ableism, and gender identity do inform and affect who is hired for full-time teaching positions, who is offered editorial positions, and who gets published. All of these choices, choices made by those in positions of power, inform and determine the lives of others, often those marginalized and silenced. These decisions determine who has the access which translates to who has access to a steady income, to health insurance, and to who, in the end, will prosper rather than be ignored.
Cynthia Cruz is the author of four collections of poetry, including three with Four Way Books: The Glimmering Room (2012), Wunderkammer (2014), and How the End Begins (2016). Her fifth collection of poems, Dregs, and a collection of essays on silence and marginalization Notes Toward a New Language are both forthcoming in 2018. Cruz has received fellowships from Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony as well as a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College in writing and an MFA in Art Criticism & Writing from the School of Visual Arts. Cruz is currently pursuing a PhD in German Studies at Rutgers University. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.