A hearty welcome back! to Margaret Rozga for today's post. Last year for National Poetry Month, Rozga described the process of writing her poetry collection, Though I Haven't Been to Baghdad. Today she considers what it means to write political poetry and her experiences at the recent Split this Rock Poetry Festival.
Poet, essayist, activist, and playwright Margaret Rozga brings the resources of literary craft to her writing about major social issues such as war and civil rights. In Though I Haven’t Been to Baghdad, she details in well-crafted poems her responses to her son’s deployment first to Mosul, Iraq, in 2004 and then to Bagram, Afghanistan in 2008-2009. He served in the Army Reserve as a member of the 330th Military Police Detachment headquartered in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
Her earlier book, Two Hundred Nights and One Day, tells the story of the 1967-68 campaign for fair housing legislation in Milwaukee, a civil rights movement in which she participated as a college student. This book was awarded a bronze medal in poetry in the 2009 Independent Publishers Book Awards and named an outstanding achievement in poetry for 2009 by the Wisconsin Library Association.
She has had work included in six collaborative exhibits with visual artists. Her poems and essays have appeared or is forthcoming in many journals and anthologies including Nimrod, Verse Wisconsin, Your Daily Poem, and Wisconsin Magazine of History. Her play about the Milwaukee fair housing marches, March On Milwaukee: A Memoir of the Open Housing Protests, has seen three full productions and three concert readings since its debut in 2007. A professor of English at UW Waukesha for over 25 years, she now offers poetry and journaling workshops throughout Wisconsin and nationally. She lives in Milwaukee where she reviews books of poetry for several journals and blogs about poetry and social justice.
Political Poetry: Craft and Compassion
For four splendid March days, during the recent Split This Rock Poetry Festival, I enjoyed being among poets who embrace the possibilities of poetry as a vehicle for expressing the full range of their concerns, including their concerns about public events and policy, their concerns about the social and political direction of our country and world. Readings, discussions of social and literary issues, and craft workshops filled the days and lasted late into the nights.
These splendid four days focused on what some call “political” poetry, and because it’s political, some question its poetic quality. Split This Rock refers to the poetry it celebrates as “Poetry of Provocation and Witness,” the term “political” being less precise and prompting some of the negative reaction. Still by whatever name, this poetry often has to defend itself as poetry. It is an issue that concerns me because it is the poetry I practice especially in my books, one about the civil rights movement in Milwaukee and the other about the effects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars I experienced as a mother of an Army Reservist.
The lonely poet working in isolation is an image ingrained in our culture. Writing poetry, it is true, requires concentration, and so it may be solitary. I have also found it true that many young writers turn to poetry after the isolating experience of a failed romance. But these factors do not mean that poetry must be focused on the isolated individual. Poets, like other people, have social networks and concerns: jobs, friends, family, civic issues, and histories. Poets can and do write about individual experiences. They can and do write about falling in and out of love, about the role of art, about facing old age and death.
But if poetry, defined most simply, is the art of using language most resourcefully, then why limit poetry to a handful of subjects? Writing that taps into a wide array of the resources of language ought to be free, will free itself, to explore a wide array of topics. Poetry can be egocentric, but it need not be exclusively egocentric. The “I” may not be the center either of the poet’s world or of the poetic world. A poet may find inspiration in others, in action, as well as in solitary contemplation. Rather than be exclusively egocentric, poetry can be community inclusive.
The confessional and the ethereally poetic are scarcely the whole poetic garment. Public and heroic strands, still important internationally, historically have been vibrant contributors to the whole fabric of poetry in the Anglo-American tradition. Consider, for example, the range from the heroic Beowulf, to Chaucer’s fallible nuns and priests and pilgrims on their Canterbury trek with all the baggage of their lives, to Shakespeare who made dramatic poetry out of history, to England’s tradition of poets laureate including John Dryden, who wrote the political satire “Absalom and Achitophel, and Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose work includes “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” to the work of Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Wendell Berry, and Rita Dove, to the surge of public interest in poetry following the September 11th attacks in New York. To object to the “political” in poetry seems to snip off so much of our literary heritage. It leaves us with a national cultural garment that is thread bare.
Split This Rock continues its work between the festivals it sponsors every other year. You can check their website and blog for discussions. I’ll also discuss some of the books and ideas I took away from this year’s festival on my blog.