February 27, 2003
A Poet Against the War, Chase Twichell
"Poetry's not window cleaning. It breaks the glass." Chase Twichell
According to First Lady Laura Bush, "There is nothing political about American literature. Everyone can like American literature, no matter what your party."
Besides being an odd thing for a former teacher and librarian to say (she's never seen the embarrassing list of books banned in this country for political reasons?), Bush's statement also expresses an assumption among the self-satisfied elites in this country (represented by her husband) that believe "good literature" really means "well-behaved literature."
According to this attitude, "good" literary works, and the "good" writers who create them, are above the unwashed world of politics (especially those espoused by the Left). A trait of good American literature, liked as it is by everyone, after all, is that it should not offend the reader, especially those who sip wine and indulge in polite discussion at literary receptions hosted by people like Laura Bush.
This genteel sensibility of the First Lady was clearly offended earlier this month when she learned that poets invited to a White House poetry symposium planned to voice their dissent against George Bush's plans for war with Iraq. Laura Bush abruptly canceled the reception, fearful that unruly guests would sully her nice literary event by turning it "into a political forum."
Undaunted, these uppity "leftist poets" with their "gleeful adolescent ill-manners" (as the rightwing Weekly Standard described them), have started a growing anti-war movement called Poets Against the War, (www.poetsagainstthewar.org).
Founded by poet Sam Hamill, the PAW web site has only been live for a month, but already it contains over 10,000 poems and personal statements contributed by people around the world who wish to express their opposition to Bush's war with Iraq. It is also helping to organize poetry readings/peace rallies in communities around the country and a book of selected poems from the web site should publish in time for poetry month in April.
Hamill, a Zen Buddhist who was a conscientious objector during Vietnam, says of the motivation behind Poets Against the War: "If we can save one life in our efforts -- whether it's an Iraqi life or an American life makes no difference -- then our efforts will have been worthwhile."
Chase Twichell is one of the poets who have joined Hamill's noble cause. A student of Zen herself, she calls Hamill one of her heroes, "a tireless crusader for everything I believe in." The author of five books of poetry and founder of Ausable Press, Twichell has signed Hamill's anti-war petition, donated money, and contributed a poem to the web site (an unsettling meditation on the aftermath of nuclear war; LINK: http://www.poetsagainstthewar.org/displaypoem.asp?AuthorID=281#453058220).
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass has described Twichell's poetry as "full of sharp observation...with a sinewy intellectual toughness," characteristics that come across in her political views as well. For instance, in contrast to Laura Bush's view that good American literature is apolitical and liked by everyone, Twichell says: "All good literature is political because it attempts to speak the truth, which is not what the world generally wants to hear."
Twichell lives in the Adirondacks with her husband, novelist Russell Banks, who helped draft the Not In Our Name (NION) statement last summer (www.notinourname.net). The author of a number of acclaimed novels (some of which have been made into major Hollywood movies), Banks is also current president of the International Parliament of Writers (a position once held by Salman Rushdie and Wole Soyinka, two writers whose lives have been endangered by political extremists). Banks is involved in the group's Cities of Asylum project, which establishes safe-houses in cities around the world for writers under threat because of their work. He says he is the first president of the IPW whose life has not been imperiled by a murderous regime (so far, anyway).
Both Chase Twichell and Russell Banks were kind enough to answer questions I had about the Poets Against the War movement and the role poetry and literature have in American politics.
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BUZZFLASH: As an English major during the height (or depth) of Reaganism in the '80s, I was assured by business admin. majors who drank too much at parties that poetry and literature are irrelevant in what they called "the real world." So, what's all the big stink about some poets protesting the Bushkrieg?
CHASE TWICHELL: As Doris Lessing once said, "things change at the edges." The reality is that 99% of those with political and economic power don't care one iota about poetry. Why should they?
Poetry demands that the reader give over his imagination to that of another, which is why we're most deeply moved by the poets we most trust. Persons with an agenda are rarely open to the questions that poetry asks, for those are the questions most likely to cast doubt on systems of belief.
Thus, in a sense, it's true that poetry preaches to the saved. But if 1% leans to starboard, maybe the ship will turn one one-hundredth of an iota, and that's something.
BUZZFLASH: In rejecting his invitation to the White House symposium, former U.S. poet laureate Stanley Kunitz said: "I think there was a general feeling that the current administration is not really a friend of the poetic community and that its program of attacking Iraq is contrary to the humanitarian position that is at the center of the poetic impulse." How do you define the "poetic impulse"? Why is it important?
TWICHELL: How can a political administration be "a friend of the poetic community"? Nations are not inclined to scrutinize the bases of their power. To do so would ultimately bring about their end, for all power in service to an imaginary identity is illegitimate power.
To me, the "poetic impulse" might best be described as a combination of sensitivity to language and an instinctual questioning of whatever is generally held to be true. I think that most Americans have doubts about the wisdom of a war against Iraq, but in order to articulate them they have to admit (1) their ignorance and (2) insecurity about the competence of their leaders (=parents). These are painful things to contemplate. It's much easier to run out to Home Depot and buy a bunch of duct tape and plastic.
Real thinking is hard work, and scary. It's important because it keeps us evolving as individuals capable of perceiving ourselves outside of the strictures of institutions, and thus independent and responsible voters.
BUZZFLASH: Unfortunately, poetry is, in many ways, disconnected from "every day life" in America, dominated as it is by television and Hollywood. What is the social function of poetry and how can the poetic perspective be heard above the cacophony of rightwingers and market-driven entertainment dominating our popular culture today?
TWICHELL: The purpose of poetry is not to persuade. It's to explore. Explorers will find it. Those who are looking to be persuaded, or remain persuaded, will avoid it. I doubt it has ever been otherwise.
BUZZFLASH: Kurt Vonnegut, in Slaughterhouse-Five, says that writing an anti-war book is like writing an anti-glacier book: you have the same chance of stopping war with a book as you do stopping glacial drift, he posits. Yet, Kunitz writes that the poet is an "embodiment of resistance" against universal apathy, mediocrity, conformity, and institutional pressure to make everything look and become alike. How effective do you see poetry and the arts in stopping war?
TWICHELL: I hope that the previous Q and A answers this. I agree with Kunitz that poetry is the "embodiment of resistance." Lie down in the road and see what the tanks do.
BUZZFLASH: I think it was Vonnegut who theorized that artists and poets are the "canaries in the coal mine" of a society. Just as canaries are the first to detect the toxic fumes in a coal mine, those with artistic sensibilities are extra sensitive to the early stages of toxicity in their culture. Do you agree and, if so, what are poets telling us today about life in Bush's coal mine?
TWICHELL: The difference between poets and canaries is that when the canaries died, all the miners got out of the mine.
BUZZFLASH: If you were to write a Greek tragedy about Bush, what would be his fatal flaw?
BUZZFLASH: What's your favorite poem that has an anti-war theme?
TWICHELL: How about this little prose poem by Charles Simic:
I think this poem speaks for itself. How could it be paraphrased? You know, many people think that poetry is "difficult" because the poet is being cagey, or showing off his erudition, or decorating something beyond recognition.
That's not right. Good poetry is "difficult" because we can't apprehend it with our usual faculties of logic and the touchstones of familiarity. If it's really good it goes where the poet has never been before. It excites me when I get to go along for the ride.
BUZZFLASH: In the film "Wings of Desire," one of the characters muses: "But so far no-one has succeeded in singing an epic of peace. What is it about peace, that keeps its inspiration from enduring and makes it almost untellable?" What are your thoughts? There are plenty of war epic poetry. Is there an epic of peace and, if not, what is it about peace that is so difficult to capture in poetic expression?
TWICHELL: All art has some crucial tension at its center, whether it's light vs. dark, sound vs. silence, good vs. evil, or loneliness vs. the human need for love. If you were browsing through TV Guide and saw a movie plot described as "God's in his Heaven and all's right with the world" (Browning), would you watch it?
BUZZFLASH: Poets, writers, artists, etc., were very important in the dissident movement that helped communism collapse in Russia and Europe. Do you see American poets and artists as having a similar impact on corporate America?
(A brief sidenote: Twichell's husband, Russell Banks, of course, is among the leading American writers and artists who are outspoken dissidents of Bush's corporatist administration. In response to a question I sent to him, Banks gave the following insight into his role as a literary activist: "I tried to help hone the language of the NION text so that it would be an umbrella statement that would let us bring together as many different people and groups opposed to the Bush policies after 9/11 as possible without softening our criticism of that policy. I think we did a pretty good job of it, although any number of conservative and neo-liberal critics have tried to invalidate the statement by pointing to some of the extreme left groups that managed to find shelter under that umbrella. I've had to defend myself against the old smear tactics of guilt by association -- in this case my association through NION with aging hippies, old commies, and a certain number of idiots and fools. But if this is to be a mass movement, and it is, then we're going to find ourselves cheek-by-jowl with lots of folks we might not find at a white-wine-and-cheese reception at a smart liberal arts university. Too bad.")
BUZZFLASH: So how do you think Bush's plans for war with Iraq (and the rest of the world) are going to end: With a bang or a whimper?
TWICHELL: In the last week, I've dared begin to hope that the resistance of other nations as well as the (under-reported) dissent in this country have been significant enough to raise some basic questions about the peculiar fervor of the Bush administration's "case" against Iraq, and to deflate its rhetoric enough to slow things down at least a little.
On the other hand, I have no doubt that the U.S, will continue, overtly and covertly, to do whatever its agenda requires, which evidently includes keeping its citizens misinformed, misled, and fearful. The American people, the majority of whom get their news from "USA Today" or one of the evening network broadcasts, don't seem to object to the constant packaging and repackaging of the "facts."
Isn't that strange? I often think of a comment Bob Dylan made as a very young man, when someone asked him what the truth was.
He said, "Why, truth is just the plain picture."
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
otherwise noted, all original