Joe Weil on Poetry & Democracy

Leading up to our “What Is It, Then, Between Us?”: Poetry & Democracy event in Morristown on March 23, 2019, we’ll be sharing Q&As with some of the poets and organizations who will be part of the day. 

Today, we’re chatting with Joe Weil

Joe Weil 200 x 200How does the title “What Is It, then, Between Us?: Poetry and Democracy” resonate with you?

I like the complexity of “between us.” The expression implies that we might share something, but that there is also this separation, this space that makes each of us confront how we will enter and define what is shared and respect what is separate. This can’t be negotiated without a great deal of uncertainty and conflict. People are afraid of uncertainty, terrified of conflict, but don’t always realize a lot of their violence and failure to achieve democracy comes not from uncertainty or conflict but from doubling down on all sorts of cheap certainties and avoiding anything but their cherished comfort zones. Poetry and democracy call me to be consciously and willingly uncomfortable—to live in that space as an aesthetic and moral decision. Poetry and democracy also insist I confront the truth that many citizens have been forced to be uncomfortable all the days of their lives beyond any real choice in the matter. They don’t get to sit at the table and wax eloquent about their discomfort. They are the table rather than being invited to the table.

What many folks call trauma, is the normal pattern of the working poor from whom I came. What does my trauma consciousness do both to join and separate me from democracy and how can both the points of meeting and the points of convergence bear fruit? How can my trauma be more than a threat to democracy and contribute to it?  Have I ever lived in a democracy? Is it like Agamben’s other— another in infinite regress, while I keep moving towards? How does the body of the marginalized, the oppressed, the unseen, the mentally ill, the non-human (for humanity is a conferred privilege bestowed by power) become those who sit at the table, who truly enter the discourse? Who gets to really speak and be heard, and not just “represented” by the “best and brightest?” Who gets to be told, perhaps for the first time: “Your words are not intrinsically wrong. Your being is not a mistake.”

How can poetry start engaging conversations among people with differing views?

Simplest answer is I don’t know. Each poem might be Jacob wrestling with the angel of that question and there might be someone out there who doesn’t like my analogy of Jacob and angels. I don’t even know if that’s the right question. If I say I want to respect your right to have a different view than me, if I pretend my poems are variations on a theme by Voltaire, I best be practical about that: how far does your differing view go towards erasing me, marginalizing me, excluding me, incarcerating me, ignoring me, making me a figure of ridicule or allowing you to feel superior to me, and how far does my view maybe do the same thing to you? I mean in a bar, or at a family gathering, I might have no problem with a good argument, but when one side is able to control the discourse, or run the cops and the jails, and I am not even considered to have spoken even when I am screaming at the top of my lungs, (and you may even censor my cry of pain as a mere rant), well then I might have to say to you: “Enough already. Your view is killing me.”  That’s also democracy.

Maybe the question can be: how can poetry start making us realize all views fortified by purity and righteousness are potentially murderous, and that doesn’t mean we should stop having views, but we ought to always know that this is a possibility before we put words to paper. Perhaps poems can approach uttering as one might an animal we know has been tortured and hurt: carefully, respecting that animal’s ability to kill us, but also feeling the legitimacy of its fear, its rage. And maybe, the poem of someone who has been hated or marginalized can’t share the same poetics as the poems of someone who has been reasonably comfortable. Maybe my hydrangea bush isn’t the same as yours. Maybe your hydrangea is an opportunity for Zen silence and contemplation. Maybe mine is a place to hide from the cops, and while I’m hiding, a part of me notices how blue the flowers are, and how they reflect in the river and I grow sad at the same time I am terrified because wouldn’t it be nice to just sit here for a while and look at the hydrangeas with all sorts of deep thoughts instead of hiding from the cops?

I know we like to think we all share the same level of suffering. We enforce aesthetics we think are universal, but that’s kind of dangerous… Perspectives are by incongruity.  This isn’t empathy so much as carefulness that approaches a possibility for empathy. A friend of mine went to Monk’s funeral. All these famous jazz musicians were there, and he got excited when he saw Miles Davis so he went up to Miles Davis and said: “Mr. Davis can I have your autograph? Miles Davis said: “Man…this is a funeral.” My friend said: “I’m so sorry Mr. Davis.” And Miles Davis replied: “Don’t be sorry; be careful.”

Poems can negotiate being careful, but they can’t be safe. There’s no need to be careful when you’re safe, is there?  Safe people aren’t careful. They get to act like they own the joint. Care is respecting that things are tentative, and you don’t own them.  No poet owns the language. Hell, a poet doesn’t even own the poem they write. True carefulness is knowing it’s a matter of life and death that you show respect where it is due and disrespect where it is necessary. If I can’t speak to you, and if I can’t listen to you, we might both die. If the one who is having a sublime experience of the hydrangea doesn’t at least try to understand the one who is hiding from the cops, we may as well give up. Maybe a good poet can bring each of those readers into the same room, because when you look at a hydrangea, that’s a sort of reading, isn’t it? Maybe a poet needs enough care to at least want to have different readers come to the hydrangea and get something out of it—even a reader the poet might not be consciously inviting. I doubt Wallace Stevens was waiting with bated breath for me to come along and read him.

What are some of your favorite poems or who are some of your favorite poets that engage with poetry and democracy?

My favorite poems change over the years. Recently Wanda Coleman’s “Wanda, Why Aint you Dead” is a favorite because I think it beautifully expresses how people’s expectations and assumptions and judgments are, in some respects, always attempting to murder us  or silence us and then they are amazed when we aren’t  dead. It’s funny, it has a great sense of voice and humor, but it is accurate, too, especially about what it means to be othered.

There’s a poem by Muriel Rukeyser I read in a Longman Anthology many years ago and I loved it. I want to mention this because I can’t remember its title and that means it’s like someone I saw and fell in love with who vanished in the mist. I almost don’t want to remember its title… A sister is cutting her brother’s hair at the kitchen table. It’s during the Great Depression and she’s calmly telling him he’ll get a job today, but you know she and he realize it’s a lie. The lie is a form of love between them and it blew me away because Rukeyser caught something for me of what it means to wager love against futility.

Poems for me are not always on the page, so my grandmother saying: “Never marry a short man; they’re a bag full of cats,” is a poem. My daughter Clare, who is autistic and largely non-verbal, looking out the window and saying, “ I see the night,” is a poem. I love Whitman’s Sixth part from Song of Myself, but it’s dangerous to think “I receive them the same” is necessarily hopeful. It could just as well be interpreted as, “the only time people are allowed to be equal and things are democratic is when everyone is buried”—and that may be true. We at least have to entertain the possibility that it may be true.

To me all these poets, including my daughter, are engaging with democracy. If I remember my daughter’s voice, which shocked and moved me with so much emotion in the middle of my ignoring the dusk, and if I remember how much I loved her, and how much of a momentary but true poem her speaking was for me, maybe I won’t be as big a jerk as I was before and that has to help democracy, doesn’t it?

What does democracy mean to you?

It means a ferocious longing to be allowed to fully participate in what I feel is just and for the good of myself and for the other. Robert Hayden in his poem “Frederick Douglass” saw the promise of democracy as “where none is lonely, none hunted, alien.”

I have a student right now whose brother is being deported. He’s been in America since he was two, but undocumented through no fault of his own. He had some trouble with drugs like a lot of our teenagers and, let’s face it, he’s been here since two, so to me, that means we formed him. Of course, they invoked the more than two-hundred-year-old immigration act about good moral character, which I could maybe see if the kid came here as a teenager or grown up, but he came here at two. Our society created him, not Argentina. His “character” is native to this soil. How the hell can we deport him? It is such garbage to me.

Lonely is a strange term, I guess, to pair up with democracy but I think the lack of freedom and the lack of being allowed to enter into the workings of freedom does make us feel exactly that: lonely—cut off from both others and from our own full humanity. That kid shouldn’t be deported. He should be offered rehab. My student shouldn’t have to apologize to me for missing a few poetry assignments. She was so kind, so apologetic when she came to my office. I hadn’t asked her for the make-up work. I don’t want her heart to be broken. Damn. She’s living one of our worst and most disgraceful poems.

Democracy to me is measured by how we practice the laws of Xenia: How we treat the stranger. I think we’re getting a big fat F. If this is making America great again, it’s the fake greatness of the Cyclops: a grotesque, devouring and feeble giant who is blind even before it is blinded.

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