A. A.: What inspired you to organize Political Punch: Contemporary Poems on the Politics of Identity? Can you talk a little bit about the context and intention of the project?
Erin Elizabeth Smith: In 2014 Juan Vidal, a journalist with NPR, produced a story called “Where Have All the Poets Gone?” This was on the heels of numerous other stories that questioned the importance of poetry (an at least one yearly question posted to a resounding outcry in the literary community), particularly here, though, political poetry. Vidal went on to reference a bevy of exclusively male writers of the past and their importance within the political movements of the 1950s and 1960s. He made a call for poets to be at the front lines of protest, seeking change, as if we weren’t already.
One of the things that we wanted to do was to show the more complicated side of political poetry, a poetry of identity, of empathy, of our own lyric protests, rather than the strictly polemical. The poems Vidal cited were certainly important—“Howl,” Neruda’s “I Explain a Few Things”—but it ignored a whole swath of the argument that changed our sense of political poetry in the 1970s.
In Adrienne Rich’s seminal essay “When We Dead Awaken,” she notes the absence of so many voices in the political discourse because they are “washing the dishes and looking after children…[or they are] washing other people’s dishes and caring for other people’s children, not to mention women who went on the streets last night in order to feed their children.” Here she is recognizing not simply the absence of women in these discourses, but the absence of those who have been marginalized and impoverished in our culture.
These are the voices that we are trying to empower in this anthology.
Fox Frazier-Foley: Of course, I, too, read the Vidal essay, and it rankled me in the same ways that it bothered so many other people, and for the same reasons. I remember thinking incredulously, when I read that essay, Where is this guy buying his books? And then I thought, well, maybe it would be better if, instead of just posting my little tantrum-status on Facebook about how it annoys me personally and what greater systemic problems I think it indicates in the literary industry—maybe it would be cool if I tried to help showcase some examples of American political poetry that I find compelling. I mean, clearly someone should.
I had very recently started a column at THEThe Poetry Blog when that essay was published—I think my column went live September 1st, and that essay was published over Labor Day weekend, as I recall—and I decided that, if I could find enough interested parties, I would dedicate the column to publishing political poetry by people of color, queer people, people who live with disabilities, women, non-binary people, working-class and/or not-formally-educated people. I was really nervous at the time—I didn’t have any books out yet, and I didn’t know very many people in the poetry world, and I was going through a rather stressful personal time on top of it. I remember thinking that I probably wasn’t well-connected enough to even make something like that happen for a full week. I was a little bit afraid of looking stupid for trying (which is kind of funny to me now). CA Conrad wrote me this really sweet, supportive note in response to my solicitation, and sent me a poem, so I posted the poem and crossed my fingers that another one would come in. Which it did. CA Conrad and Lynn Melnick were both super supportive of the idea of the series concept right away (and Lynn helped put me in touch with a lot of poets to solicit, too), which I feel really grateful for: I think if they hadn’t encouraged the project and sent me poems immediately, I probably would’ve lost my nerve. Anyway, the series ended up working out pretty well—people kept emailing me, and the project picked up enough momentum that it lasted about a month. The authors who participated in the original series—I’m incredibly grateful to them, because I didn’t know most of them at all, and they were so nice to send me their work, and with such quick turnaround. The book would never have happened if the series hadn’t succeeded, and the series couldn’t have succeeded without everyone’s kind and generous contributions of such beautiful work. And those poems from the original series are all in the book. And I’m also really grateful, too, because many of the poets who contributed to the series are really wonderful people, and I’m not just happy to know their work, I’m happy to know them.
The Political Punch series ran for about a month, which was longer than I had intended. I ended up having to reject some really fantastic poems that people sent me, because I didn’t have the time or psychic space to extend the series any further at that point, and I felt bad about it. Around the same time that the series was drawing to a close, I had a dream that Erin and I were working on a book together, and the book was an anthology that had grown out of the Political Punch series. I mentioned it to her the next day, because I thought it was funny, and she was like, “Hey! We could totally do that! Want me to run it by our editorial board?” And I’m pretty sure I responded by excitedly giggling and drawling, “Hell yeah, man!” And when the editorial board enthusiastically approved it, it was very exciting to me, because the series was put together in a fairly slapdash way, and with absolutely no pre-planning. (I am someone who absolutely hates to do anything without pre-planning, so I felt pretty discombobulated through most of the process of putting the series together.) I felt like making a book would offer the opportunity to be so much more inclusive and expansive—to curate a really compelling, diverse collection of different stories, voices, perspectives, aesthetics, and lived experience. I was proud of the original series, but I knew that with more time and space, we could make something with the same core concept that would be so much better and more effective.
AA: What was your criteria for including poems/poets?
EES: We received over 2,000 individual poems for consideration for the book, so we had to determine a number of things in the reading process. We decided to emphasize four different things for our initial readers to consider when combing through submissions: 1.) Inclusivity—we wanted a mixture of poetic aesthetics and voices that expresses all different walks of life 2.) Poems that did not demonize any whole group of people different from themselves 3.) Poems with a narrative explaining the same topic from different perspectives, and 4.) Lyric and experimental poems that explored these topics.
When Fox and I read through the finalists, we also started to consider other things, particularly the use of persona or the act of discussing the other in the poem. We determined that we were looking ultimately for more personal/confessional poems where the identity discussed in the poem was their own.
FFF: Yes—I think we’re both believers in the potential power and beauty of the persona poem (I know I am), but for a book like this, which is so centered on identity, it really seemed like people should be speaking for themselves, in a way. We did receive some submissions where the poems were really beautiful, both in terms of aesthetic success and also what they were trying to convey (usually a sense of trying to be a friend to someone who has been hurt, which I think is a good thing overall in this world)—but sometimes those poems, despite being lovely and well-intentioned, ended up not being right for this particular book. I think we were trying to honor our goal of not letting anyone’s story be sort of taken away from them and told by someone else. If that makes sense.
We wanted to make sure that poets of color, queer, trans, non-binary, disabled, poor/working-class, and blue-collar/not-formally-educated poets were included. Poets that talk about religious experience, poets who have served in the military, poets who are or have been incarcerated. Poets from different regions of the country, both urban and rural. Poets who use sound in their work (we have recordings via QR code of some amazing spoken-word tracks), and poets who use no sound at all in their work (we have some ASL poets included who provided video performances of their poems that appear in the book). We solicited a lot during 2015 in order to try to get the best cross-section we could of American letters.
We were also really conscientious about making sure that the book should be egalitarian in every way we could think of. We made sure there would be no physical bodies represented on the book cover, to be sure that the book never privileges or appears to give conscious or subconscious preference to any identity over any other. We also arranged the book alphabetically by author’s last name, so that no poem or poet would subjectively be given “better” placement (towards the end or beginning) in the ordering than any other. We really tried our best in every way to make the book as inclusive and egalitarian as possible. So that all that’s left is to focus on the gorgeous, wrenching, celebratory work on the pages! These poems are all so brilliant and devastating. I can’t wait for people to read them as a group.
AA: How does an anthology on the “politics of identity” contribute to—or seek to change—poetic discourse? What utility do poetics have to politics?
EES: I am a firm believer in the idea that the personal is political. That telling your story is an act of political courage. This is why I was so firmly for showing that there is so much political poetry being written, published, read, recited, memorized, loved today, but we don’t think of it necessarily in what we consider “political.”
At a time when the discourse of this political season has turned to contempt, misogyny, alienation, and sheer hatred, it’s important for me to have these poems collected in the world, because reading is one of the most important paths of the empathy, understanding, and conversation that lead to true political change.
FFF: My feeling about this are complicated, and kind of conflicted. I think of poetry in the same way that I think of prayer. I’m a religious person, so to me, prayers are actually a significant factor in seeking any type of progress, including political or social progress. Prayer and poetry, to me, are both ways of centering your consciousness, and raising both your focus and your energy. They are both, on some level, ways of howling down the parts of the Universe that we don’t entirely understand (I mean, we might name them, or tell stories about them—but I think all religious apparatus is really just a way of making somewhat intelligible to us the forces that are beyond our rational comprehension) to please come to our aid in helping us fix this situation. Prayer and poetry both bring people together, too—one person’s words can forge connections among many people, so that ultimately both a poem and a prayer can result in focusing the energy and consciousness of larger groups, in a way that creates a feeling of solidarity. To me, all of that is integral to political and social progress. I understand that not everyone sees it that way, but speaking for myself and my own lived experiences, that’s how I understand it.
But I don’t personally believe that either prayer or poetry is enough. And I feel that we do live in a society where often people with a certain amount of privilege think that writing a poem or saying a prayer is enough of a contribution towards a political cause, or towards progress, or towards helping fix terrible situations—they may write a poem or say a prayer, and then they feel sort of satisfied that they’ve done their part. But to me, that poem or prayer is just the beginning of what needs to happen. We need poetry, but we also need action.
I do think that poetics have some influence over politics; Amy King articulates this so beautifully in her introduction to the book—the ways in which political poetry, unlike the rhetoric of a politician, will use language and beauty in order to reveal truth, towards a higher purpose (or many higher purposes) than gaining personal power or prestige. As Amy puts it:
“ . . . where politicians are limited to governance of material con-
ditions and legislating morality as dictated by the status quo, poets
seek to call attention to prescribed public perceptions and engage
the imagination to expose the limitations of those perceptions,
frequently rendered in stereotypes and concepts through which we
often think we know others. [ . . . ] Whereas politics uses poetic
devices such as metaphor to appeal to one’s personal inclinations,
it is (especially in light of the lyric tradition) poetry that locates the
individual inside particular details and nuances of lived experience,
and, through that context, pushes past our myriad modes of every-
day, personal disconnect and engages the reader in the privately
joyous and personally distressing conditions of another. Poetry
locates in context.”
Beauty energizes us when we’re exhausted, and gives us hope and the feeling of having a stake in something when we feel discouraged, I think. I know that sometimes something that is honest and beautiful can feel like a source of solace in terrible circumstances—so I agree with Erin that crafting a political poem can by itself be a political act. And I don’t want to undervalue that. But I guess what I’m trying to say is that, for me, ideally, the most positive influence that I would hope to see political art and poetry exert would be to unify and energize people on a practical level, so that they would continue to feel inspired to participate in the civil processes and collective social actions that will also help lead to vital & necessary change.
AA: What, if any, are your hopes for the institution of poetry, or the poetry community, moving forward? [This ties into any upcoming projects you might have imo]
FFF: I want inform my answer by quoting an essay by Carmen Giménez-Smith, “Four Parts of an Idea About White Privilege,” which is forthcoming in Among Margins: Critical and Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics, an anthology I edited that’s coming out from Ricochet Editions later this year. In her essay, Carmen articulated, in such a beautiful, satisfying way, a thought/feeling that I consider my own, as well. She writes:
“Here’s a little fantasy I have: a professor teaches a whole pile of
books by writers of color without it being a thing. I teach men all
of the time without self-congratulation. An editor of a magazine
publishing more writers of color than white writers without it being
a thing. A friend recommends a whole list of books by women with-
out mentioning gender. A publisher publishes more books by
writers of color than white writers without it being a thing. Being
inclusive without being exclusive.”
This is something I’d really like to see happen in the literary and academic communities, going forward. It’s already happening, on some levels, but I would like to see these industries fully shuck the ingrained idea that there’s this “standard” identity for an author—a white, straight, able-bodied, highly-educated, middle- or upper-middle-class, smugly secular, cis male— and that “diversity” means including any author that in any *single* way departs from the criteria of that identity. There are lots of identities, and there shouldn’t be one or two that are somehow considered the “standard.” Again, I realize that we’re already starting to get away from that, especially in the indie-lit scene, but I would like to see it wholly gone. (And I don’t mean that I would like to see the presence of those types of stories or writing wholly gone—I am not trying to tear down writing by white dudes. I read, and have read, plenty of their stories and poems and plays and essays.) What I am trying to get across is that I would like to see that attitude gone: the one that privileges certain identities over others, and makes it harder for so many other types of stories to be told.
I’ve gotten a lot of satisfaction out of enacting my own ideals on the matter, via Agape Editions. We’re a new imprint of Sundress Publications, focused on publishing interfaith/intercultural work. I’m working with a super-amazing team—Saumya Arya Haas (Social Media Manager), Jasmine An (Editor), Ruth Awad (Blog Editor), and our new Blog Intern, Julianna DeMicco—that also values this approach, and I feel like we’re really doing the work that we want to do, the work that our mission statement describes. And part of that work is embracing many voices and viewpoints/lived experiences in our catalogue.
I’d also like to see us, as a community and an industry, more effectively address classism. As of right now, I think the main way that I’ve found to try to help is through the Morning House chapbook series, which is run/published jointly by Agape Editions and THEThe Poetry Blog. The Morning House chapbook series is available as free, downloadable e-chapbooks, available as PDFs from both the Agape Editions website and THEThe Poetry Blog. I believe that we make ourselves better writers by reading; if you’re so broke that you don’t have money for transportation during some weeks of every month (which makes it difficult to get to a library, if you don’t live near one), and you don’t have disposable income to spend on books during many months of the year, that puts you at a disadvantage. I realize, obviously, that this probably isn’t the biggest or most serious problem that anyone faces—but it’s a problem I’m personally familiar with, and I thought it was a problem that I could try to help alleviate. And being part of the Sundress family inspired me, because Sundress Publications has been offering an amazing library of downloadable chapbooks for a long time. It’s an embarrassment of riches!
As long as I’m talking about Morning House, I should add that we’re having a chapbook contest this summer (our first), and Sundress author Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo is going to serve as Judge! I’m excited to be working with her & Erin on it. And really excited to see what kinds of submissions we’ll get.
EES: I’m hoping to see more dialogue between members of our community rather than the sometimes aggressive knee-jerk reactions that the internet and social media are prone to. I think there needs to be the telling of more stories without necessarily the tearing down of all of the others. I believe in the power of empathy and the belief in a community that can continue to grow and support one another rather than falling into a culture of shaming, jealousy, and insensitivity.
I hope that this collection helps to begin part of these conversations.
Fox Frazier-Foley is author of two prize-winning poetry collections, Exodus in X Minor (Sundress Publications, 2014) and The Hydromantic Histories (Bright Hill Press, 2015), and editor of anthologies Political Punch: Contemporary Poems on the Politics of Identity (Sundress Publications, 2016) and Among Margins: Critical and Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet Editions, 2016). She is founding EIC of the small literary press Agape Editions (an imprint of Sundress Publications) and co-creator, with Hoa Nguyen, of the forthcoming Tough Gal Tarot deck.
Erin Elizabeth Smith is the Creative Director at the Sundress Academy for the Arts and the author of two full-length collections, The Naming of Strays (Gold Wake, 2011) and The Fear of Being Found, which was re-released from Zoetic Press this year. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Mid-American, 32 Poems, Zone 3, Gargoyle, Tusculum Review, and Crab Orchard Review. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing and teaches a bit of everything in the English Department at the University of Tennessee. She serves as the managing editor of Sundress Publications and The Wardrobe.