in conversation with BENNINGTON REVIEW
Your poem “The Leak” could not have existed without Donald Trump. In what ways do poetry and politics connect for you? Can they be separated?
The phenomena of Donald Trump did, for sure, inform “The Leak” but in some ways the poem feels inevitable to me.
Yes, “The Leak” pointedly references the behavior of one Donald Trump who was elected to office in fall of 2017 despite nineteen completely credible allegations of sexual misconduct against him and his own caught-on-national-TV boasts of sexual assault and harassment of women. Yes, there is something sort of astonishing—perhaps unprecedented in the public behavior of this president—how unapologetic and open he has been in his abuse of women (not to mention people of color, LGTBQ people, immigrants, people with disabilities).
However, the poem tries to reveal systemic abuses of power. In the poem, the President is and is not Trump. He is the mythologized President, the ultimate symbol of patriarchy; unfortunately, he, the character of the poem, closely resembles the genuinely greedy criminal currently in the White House. Which is to say, while our particular President bullied his way into the ultimate power grab of patriarchy, his rise did not occur in a vacuum. Various of his appointees, other elected officials, lawyers, titans of industry, and other power brokers of privilege aggressively create, bolster and participate in systems that encourage the abuse of women and other vulnerable groups. Rape culture intersects efficiently with a justice system that is biased toward domestic abuse and sexual abuse survivors; unequal employment opportunities; and inadequate healthcare.
As for poetry vs. politics, I don’t worry much about trying to separate them (and they seem to connect unavoidably in my mind, triggering my impulse to put fingers to keyboard). Not all my poems direct their energies toward a politician yet they could still be considered political in that they are often about power, and I tend to mock those who have it and use it for destructive ends (“Abuse of power comes as no surprise,” to quote Jenny Holzer).
The speaker in “The Leak” is violated in ways that echo current, necessary headlines in the news. What do you think of the speaker’s role in poetry? Can the “I” in a poem be separated from the cultural climate in which it is written?
The speaker’s role in poetry? To provoke and unsettle, to quicken the pulse of that reader that lives somewhere in the future. I wasn’t thinking of it as being a headliney poem as I wrote it but I did feel urgency and anger and I felt driven to respond to the most openly misogynist American government of my lifetime. I also felt stirred and anguished by the many women who have come forward with their stories of violation, some of whom are only being taken seriously or listened to after decades upon decades of attacks (and many have not survived).
So an initial impassioned response is to say that the “I”—or speaker of the poem—cannot be separated from the cultural climate in which they are created/written. Just as the poet (Suzanne Wise) who creates the “I” cannot be separated from their cultural climate. The notion of a poem or a personae disconnected from cultural climate is not very appealing to me. I worry that it echoes what I learned in college: that great poems impart universal themes, and these themes just happen to have been developed by cis white male hetero poets.
Yet, in some ways “The Leak” tells a story that is age-old: the violation of women. And I do sometimes cultivate speakers that are not completely fixed to my identity and specific moment/place, but their rhetoric echoes our moment while also echoing other appalling moments. This perhaps undermines the notion that a particular time period or milieu has advanced from or is more civilized than other barbaric cultural climates. “The Leak” begins in a setting that could be from previous centuries—the den of a ruler who has the power to violate women and the world at large. I wanted that initial suggestion but then I do add in echoes of the horror-meister-in-chief and his minions, the menacing political rhetoric, and the 21st century news cycle, with our short attention spans and outsized detachment.
Are you working on a new manuscript? Do you see it as a new direction in your work, or a continuation of the work in The Kingdom of the Subjunctive?
I am working on new manuscripts (plural!). It seems that I have several concurrent projects. They are discrete from The Kingdom of the Subjunctive, though some of my obsessions continue—namely explorations of power dynamics and inequities.
Because I feel like I don’t have clarity about my projects while I am in the midst of them, I did an interview with my close friend and reader of all my works-in-progress, Sarah Messer, and she says that the new projects maintain my propensity to “borrow/mimic/mock the language of authority” yet the new work is “less interested in personal history and inheritance and more focused on gender and power,” and it focuses on “the act of communication itself -- speaking, writing, hearing, listening.” This includes the inability to successfully communicate, and according to Sarah, some of the inability explored in my newer poems “points directly at the patriarchy and corporate (male) and economic power structures.” “The Leak” is part of this manuscript that Sarah describes, and she outlines the themes very accurately. (I recommend to everyone that they ask their best friend/poetry reader to describe their new/current work—it’s so helpful!)
The other two manuscripts must remain top secret until they have given me their permission to be unveiled.
Are there particular writers, contemporary or not all contemporary, with whom you find your work to be in dialogue? What have you been reading of late that has engaged your thinking?
I don’t know about dialogue. I feel I am talking to myself much of the time. There are more and more extraordinary poets entering the field every day, and I am trying to find my way to them while also still listening for my own voice.
Poets whose experiments with form are driven by political and social engagement always inspire me. I love documentary and investigative projects (though I am not pursuing that mode in a front-burner way in my poetry at present). I also love and need poetry that addresses the personally harrowing, the idiosyncratic, the existential. I like a loud rant, a good joke, a great sorrow, an unsolved mystery, a righteous fury. I like poetry that settles a score with meritocracy, even within the well-pruned field of arts and letters. Speaking of which, I am interested in poets who write about writing and the opposite of writing (death, dearth, abyss, emptiness). Week to week, the reading list shifts. Recent reads that are hitting the sweet spot are Renee Gladman, Kate Greenstreet, Ray Johnson, Bob Kaufman, Lynn Emanuel, Layli LongSoldier, Sarah Messer, Mónica de la Torre. Next week, there will be additional names!
You have been involved in a variety of ways in American poetry culture for a significant length of time. In what ways do you feel American poetry, and the conversations around it, have changed over the past twenty years?
I have worked for many years in literary arts administration and I have also taught a little at various colleges (both of these modes of employment mixed in among other modes). And I have lived in New York City—mecca of poets—for many years. I’ve also done my fair share of residencies and therefore have collided with other poets across the country. Despite what might sound like an embedded vantage point, I feel often uninvolved and isolated within American poetry’s larger culture, entirely because of my own disposition. I am shy; I suffer from migraines and depression; I dislike networking and club joining. I also do not love writing workshops. I moved to New York City after college and found a diverse world of creative, neurotic people living minimally, often taking a vow of poverty for their Art. And this appealed to me. I had a very Beat generation attitude toward being a poet without knowing anything about the Beats. I had no interest in the burgeoning MFA track, but eventually received an MFA fellowship that paid me enough to move out of the city and leave behind my terribly paid job. Since then, I’ve continued a life of literary admin and adjunct teaching and similar gigs that kept me in the orbit of American poetry culture because those flexible gigs enabled me to have poetry at the center of my life. I have followed to some degree two mandates that Stacy Szymaszek, exiting director of the Poetry Project, once set out for herself: “Never let anything become more important than reading and writing poems,” and “Live as frugally as possible to have this life.” At the same time, as Szymaszek says, “’Career’ is a word that makes me squirm.’”
What I would note from my particular vantage point within American poetry culture is the prevalence of a widespread, unswerving, doubt-free pursuit of Poetry as a Career. More and more people are eager to stuff themselves into poetry conferences. Even many of the most alternative of poets, poetry editors, and poetry rabble-rousers are getting on planes, booking hotel rooms, marching their wares into grim corporate convention hall settings, elbowing their way into off-site after parties etc etc. I understand the why of it—in a capitalist system, of which more of the poetry world is a more and more active participant, you have to compete for resources of attention and money. Yet, what is not acknowledged enough is that because it costs Money to go to such conferences, they exclude the many that do not have the resources to attend and this keeps American poetry culture insular and elite.
I am eager for news of resistance, and I see some signs. There is a thriving DIY spirit nowadays. Poets are not only starting their own presses and publishing their own books and magazines, but there are more readings in more different kinds of venues (at least in NYC). I find particularly exciting the work of people organizing around—and writing at the intersection of—political engagement, identity, and poetry. I admire the folks participating in Vida, Belladonna, and the Dark Noise Collective, (and there are many more out there I need to discover). Several young poets I know who work by day as interns at Poets House (in addition to barista work and ESL teaching etc) have quietly created an awesome ecopoetics-oriented literary magazine Bomb Cyclone. Other poets and writers have started nonprofits that serve those beyond the usual suspects of MFA programs, prizes, and assorted literati; two favorites are the New York Writers Coalition and the Community Word Project. These efforts are essential for maintaining poetry as a revolutionary art for and by the people.
In general, I think that younger writers are doing more grass-roots producing of literary life. This is a fantastic evolution. My generation was much more passive I think and too respectful of a top-down hierarchy. I do worry about whether sometimes the activity is a frenetic attempt to be heard in the echo chamber of the social media-ized literary world, where numbers of jobs and opportunities do not match the multitudes flowing out of MFA programs. Many a bio reads that so and so runs a small press, runs a nonprofit, runs a reading series, serves on a nonprofit board (or several), teaches, produces a podcast, is a twitter celebrity, and more more more. I worry about burnout—emotional, psychic, physical—on the part of those working so hard and doing so much. And I worry that if this is how the system now works—that visibility and entrance into publication and other opportunities demands this amount of activity—that it excludes those who may not have the health/youth/stamina/time/resources required. That said, I am grateful for all those who are animating the poetic landscape, and I want to do more myself to create poetry community.
SUZANNE WISE is the author of the poetry collection The Kingdom of the Subjunctive (Alice James), and the chapbooks The Blur Model (Belladonna) and Talking Cure (Red Glass Books). Her poems are also published or forthcoming in American Letters and Commentary, The Awl, Bomb, Bone Bouquet, Cura, Green Mountains Review, Guernica, Ploughshares, Quaint, and Touch the Donkey.
MATTHEW TUCKNER is an editorial assistant at Bennington Review.