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L. Timmel Duchamp
Posted on Sunday, February 23, 2003 - 11:04 pm:   

It has been a while since I've posted to the poets & Guernica thread-- not for a loss of interest, but because I've been plunged in work. I was struck, in Seattle's Feb 15 march against the war, by the wit & creativity & sometimes even graphic artistry of the many DYI signs individuals carried. Most of the anti-war signs continually proliferating through Seattle neighborhoods are ready-made, but then their purpose is to make a strong, simple statement.

In the meantime, I've read a number of articles about poetry events inspired by Laura Bush's canceling of her symposium on Dickinson, Whitman, & Hughes. & of course I've read at least a few of the anti-war poems that have been written in response. At least two of the articles quotes Jamaica Kincaid's remark, made before she began reading a poem in Manchester, Vermont, "I would like to thank Mrs. Bush for being so thin-skinned." & one of the articles continues the quote: "To think that a woman who lies down at night and has dinner across from a man who is the lord and master of weapons of mass destruction, and plans to use them, could not listen to the words of some poets who disagree with him!" (quoted by Joyce Marcel, "Peace and Poetry on Earth," which I read at commondreams.org.)

Kincaid makes an interesting rhetorical gesture when she invokes the First Lady as an actual person who exists in her own right rather than as the icon that the media's many "human interest" stories happily & constantly render her. Until now, all the stories I've read about the First Lady's cancellation of the White House poetry symposium have presented the First Lady's decision as an extension of her status as a mere icon. I presume the common assumption has been that Laura Bush either has no personal attitude about the subversiveness of those three poets, or, if she does, that that attitude is in harmony with the West Wing's agenda. Kincaid's insistence on treating Laura Bush as though she were an individual with emotions that might or might not accord with her iconic representation makes us wonder-- or at least makes *me* wonder. What is it like to be married to a man who believes he is the one person on this planet who knows what "God's Plan" is & alone can speak for God? What kind of woman can live with such a person? & what happens to one's opinions & attitudes under such circumstances?

I can't help but recall James I, who (as I note in "The Fool's Tale") proclaimed that he, "by God's grace, was a `little God on Earth.'" His wife, Anne of Denmark, detested his overbearing ways (just as James detested her being less subservient to him than he thought she should be), but then theirs was an arranged marriage. I suppose *he* took his cue from his Great-Uncle, Henry VIII, who invented a new state religion with himself as head & divorced or beheaded wives as the whim took him. Like Bush II, James I forced his will on everyone; fortunately for him, the damage bore its most disastrous results only after his death-- culminating in Parliament's cutting off his son, Charles's, head.

"The Lysistrata Project," sponsored by MADRE and Fellowship of Reconciliation, has come to Seattle. On March 3 a group of Seattle actors will be reading Aristophanes' (in)famous play. The publiclity for this event begins, "In his 2300 year-old bawdy satire, _Lysistrata_, Greek playwright Aristophanes tells the tale of women from opposing city-states uniting in Athens to end the Peloponnesian War by refusing to have sex with their husbands. Could it work today? If Laura Bush and Lynn Cheney, together with the wives of Saddam Hussein and his advisors, withheld sex in exchange for a non-violent resolution, might their husbands be convinced to use diplomacy rather than violence to solve the current crisis with Iraq?"

While I like the very idea of this event, the above application to the Bush-Iraq crisis strikes me as inherently faulty. We know, of course, that Lynn Cheney is likely to be cheering her husband on since she herself is on a mission to silence historians, literary critics, & other academics who do not meet with her ideological approval. Laura Bush's *personal* understanding of war is a mystery, but since she has been married for a long time to someone who claims to speak for God, it is likely that if her take on war differs from her husband's, he will probably be the last to know it. As for Saddam Hussein & his wives & his advisors & their wives: what possible difference could any move of his make-- short of suicide-- to the voice of God who will settle for no less than war? (Does it make any sense for Saddam Hussein's wives to withold sex in exchange for their husband's suicide?) Moreover, the Koran teaches that *husbands* should withold sex from their wives when their wives are in error. The shoe, in Muslim marriages, is apparently likely to be on the other foot.

Although I can't see the current situation figured in _Lysistrata_'s frame of reference, I do think the idea of performing readings of the play worthwhile. The publicity quotes New York actor Kathryn Blume: "I wanted to organize a reading of _Lysistrata_ in New York as a benefit for humanitarian organizations working in Iraq. . . Before I knew it we were producing an international grassroots peace movement by uniting the voices of theatre artists throughout the world." Another actor & project co-founder, Sharon Bower, adds: "The response from those in politically unstable countries has been very moving. Some of them will have to hold their readings in the privacy of their living rooms to avoid danger. But they tell us it's worth the risk to be part of this movement of hope."

_Lysistrata_ is an example of literature that explores important human issues by first making the leap of imagining that What Is *doesn't have to be.* Readings of the play can excite its audience's imagination & provoke its audience to ask important & basic questions about ideas & relations that most people take as given. This event can only be a good thing.

I've lately begun rereading Deena Metzger's _The Woman Who Slept with Men to Take the War Out of Them_ (Peace Press, 1981). Metzger's novel (which is written in the form of a play) considers every sort of heterosexual relation involving men of violence (particularly that of an imagined General, whom a war widow, Ada, has sexual relations with for the purpose of "taking the war out of him"), often calling on historical examples of such relations. Metzger knows that the idea she's trying to propose needs to be distinguished from all of those relations (& also considered in light of them), as well as from the cliche of a man's being reformed by the Love of a Good Woman. "She does this," Metzger writes of Ada's approach to the General, "with the full cognizance that she is committing a political act" (11).

This is never easy reading, but the novel has some beautiful moments. My favorite is a description of what Ada says to the General when she brings him (fertile) eggs. Eggs are scarce in Ada's village (where the General's men have killed most of the men & taken most of the food & livestock, resulting in the scarcity of hens). The women in the village have been hiding their eggs from the General. Ada, however, takes him an egg that has just been laid. She tells him it is a gift he cannot eat. "Take this egg, General, which you must never eat. Keep it warm, put it in your armpit, fold it in the elbow, hide it in your groin, General. Hold it warm there between your legs by the little sack of eggs you carry. You have neglected to think of yourself as a hen, so hold the egg there by the little wrinkled pouch, the delicate brown bag, the leathery wine skin filled with other eggs, thousands of eggs, little swimming eggs, tiny tadpole eggs, devil-tailed eggs. It's not the hunger that maters, General, it's the chick"(76). Metzger treats sperm metonymically-- sperm & eggs both being gametes-- to arrive at figuring sperm as eggs, & the scrotum as a little wrinkled pouch holding thousands of eggs. What the General doesn't understand (or care to understand) is that if all eggs are eaten, there will eventually be no more. Ada's mission, in sleeping with the General, can be characterized as one of expanding his understanding of eggs-- & insisting that he, too, must (& can) learn to protect the eggs that have become so rare in the village.

Not that that's the only story Metzger offers about eggs, Ada, & the General. ("This is a book about eggs. Nothing more. And nothing less.") In another scene (& most of the scenes are deliberately offered without continuity, as different ways of imagining this story), Ada tells the General she wants to raise chickens, & he replies, "It is against the law to raise chickens. You know that. When they said there were no eggs because there were no hens, I said, `Let it be that way from now on.' So why would you raise hens?" Ada's reply? "To roost in front of your house." The novel is, above all things, a constant struggle between What Is & What Could Be.

Metzger notes that her narrative thought-experiments cannot include *all* Generals, much less all soldiers. Some are beyond redemption, & her story isn't about them. More interesting, I think, than imagining Laura Bush witholding sex is imagining Laura Bush offering her husband an egg & asking him to carry it next to his scrotum. I can just imagine the expression on his face. (Which isn't saying much, since judging by his media photos, he really seems to have only two facial expressions.)

Timmi


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L. Timmel Duchamp
Posted on Saturday, March 01, 2003 - 06:54 pm:   

Peggy Zeglin Brand & Carolyn Korsmeyer write: "Philosophers have expressed concerns about the power and value of art since ancient times. Plato warned against the harmful effects of art-- which he understood as a species of imitation or *mimesis*-- on the irrational part of the soul. (Not subscribing to any ideas about aesthetic distance, Plato feared the power of the emotions generated by art.) The pleasures to be had from art are especially dangerous on his account, because they threaten to overwhelm the governance of the soul by reason."

In the US the arts are considered to be of negligible importance-- of significance only to the extent that they can be commodified. (Which is to say, they are thought to matter only as sources of profit.) A few politicians like to argue that certain kinds of art are harmful because it is pornographic or induces violent behavior, or both. So it's interesting-- & curiously appropriate-- to see a recurring collision between the Bush Administration's determination to make war & the oppositional power of art. Trying to understand the Guernica cover-up, the White House's canceling of a poetry symposium & subsequent explosion of anti-war poetry readings, & now the Lysistrata Project, in which Aristophanes' play will be read in something like a thousand cities around the world on Monday, March 3, I can't help but wonder how to characterize the White House's war plans in Plato's terms of reference. Are Messieurs Bush, Rumsfeld, Perle, Wolfowitz, Bolton, & Rice (to mention a few of the key players-- some of whom Kurt Vonnegut has referred to as "psychopathic personalities") rational actors who are carefully considering every side of the issue, refusing to be swayed by "the irrational part of the soul"-- i.e., their emotions? At the peak of cultural feminism, I suppose I might have characterized them as exemples of a masculinist super-rationalism that valorzies death over life, in search of a glorious transcendence utterly contemptuous of the price in lives & diminishment in quality of life that others might have to pay to secure their superiority. In 2003, though, the male=transcendent/ female=immanent dichotomy no longer works for me. Somehow I just can't see either Plato *or* Socrates judging the Bush Administration as rational rulers acting for the greater Good-- but then I don't see either of them as confusing a consideration of ethics with emotion. I imagine, instead, Plato & Socrates judging these people as mad-- possessed by daimons driving them to acts of destruction no rational person would consent to perform.

Which reminds me: I have read that there's a hit play in London called "The Madness of George W." My neighbors three houses down have posted a sign on their gate: STOP THE MADNESS. . . NO W. (Unfortunately, the wind blew down the top half in a storm. So now it's only NO W.)

Drue Robinson Hagan, who made the new translation of _Lysistrata_ that will be used for the US readings, notes, "Theater, at its best, reflects the culture in which it is created, and it is obvious that there are many, many voices who oppose what looks like might become World War III."

In the wake of protests against the war by millions of people around the world, George W. Bush commented, "Democracy is a beautiful thing, and that people are allowed to express their opinion. I welcome people's right to say what they believe." But in the same breath, Bush then dismissed the significance of what people were saying they believed & said that he would not be influenced by it. Are we to understand by this that the definition of "democracy" has been changed by Bush's fiat? Has democracy suddenly become a matter of crowd control, of rulers merely *allowing* people to "express their opinion?" I have always believed that democracy is the rule of the people by the people for the people-- & *not* simply people being allowed to say something their rulers are free to ignore as they wish. By this definition, the Enlightened Despots of the 18th centuries were "democratic" rulers. Kant, in his essay "What Is Enlightenment?" urged that people "speak their minds, but *obey*." Imagine this scene in a first grade elementary school class: the teacher calls on every student in the class, asking each what they think on some particular question. Afterwards, the teacher says, that was very interesting, class. But now I'm going to tell you the correct answer. Which you must memorize & know for the next text." One could call such a scenario authoritarian pedagogy, but never *democracy.* Simply allowing individuals to express their opinions should not ever be mistaken for "democracy."

The globally synchronized arts events that seem to be sweeping cities & small towns around the US-- the poetry readings, the Lysistrata Project-- are oppositional expressions of opinion that are also collective makings of culture that both create community & provoke people into thinking about our world in ways the political establishment & the corporate media that propagandizes for it have foreclosed. Unlike the Bush Administration's spin, works of art are forms of expression that draw on a wellspring of ethical power & cultural authority that ordinary people-- i.e., those not included in the political class-- can both understand & invoke to speak with an eloquence that the political spin machine simply cannot touch. It has been a bitter joke from the beginning that George W. cannot speak without mangling his words. But have you ever *listened* to any of his henchmen? Like the pundits shrieking & raving on television, their "logic" is entirely closed & circular. You'd swear they'd spent their lives wearing blinders on their heads & strait-jackets on their bodies.

Here is the kernel for a political fable: in a world in which the rulers listen only to themselves & their sycophants & ignore the speech of anyone who disagrees with them, those opposing their policies devise the canny strategy of restricting their public speech to recitations of poetry, drama, & fiction, & learn to speak, also, with their bodies through performances of dance & music. Plato would be disgusted at the very idea, but since rational, "reasoned" speech has no place in the US's public sphere, his argument hasn't a leg to stand on. I say, more poetry, more drama, more fiction. Hagan says, "Laughter and creativity oftentimes have more power than warships and missiles." I don't know what Hagan means by "oftentimes." The missiles & warships are looking more ominous every day. But since democracy in the US has been, by presidential fiat, reduced to citizens' being allowed to protest while being ignored, laughter & creativity are looking better all the time.

Timmi

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L. Timmel Duchamp
Posted on Thursday, March 06, 2003 - 05:54 pm:   

A brief story posted on the CBC's website yesterday took notice of "International Day of Poetry Against War." According to the article, poets in Britain intended to deliver more than 10,000 poems to Tony Blair; in the US, Sam Hamill, Jorie Graham, W.S. Merwin and Terry Tempest Williams intended to present a collection of 15,000 anti-war poems to members of Congress, while in Canada, poets would hold readings in a number of Canadian cities. The article noted that a Michigan businessman "has created a Web site to give a forum for poets who support a U.S.-led invasion. . . out of pure frustration at seeing a bunch of poets get publicity for supporting terrorism and a murderous tyrant like Saddam Hussein."

An AP story yesterday by Elizabeth Wolfe, "Poets Present Anti-War Poems to Congress" (which gives the number of poems collected as 13,000) makes no mention of "International Day of Poetry Against War," but notes that poetry readings against the war "were to take place Wednesday around the world, from Italy to Turkey to Hong Kong." The story indirectly quotes Sam Hamill saying that "poets will have scored a victory if they start a discussion of poetry's relevance to American life and politics. Keeping the two mutually exclusive was not natural, he suggested." It quotes Hamill directly as saying "This is the only country in the world in which people can say, Why is your poetry political?" It also quotes Rep. Dennis Kucinich: "The work of these poets is in a tradition of poets throughout contemporary history who have used their art to challenge war."

On Monday, the L.A. Times ran a lengthy article by Tomas Alex Tizon, "Seeking Poetic Justice: A pacifist author who apparently ran afoul of the White House leads an online antiwar movement rooted in language and imagery." The article's author interviews Hamill in his Port Townsend office and takes note of how disruptive his poets-against-the-war activism has been to Hamill's life and work, & provides the texts of poems by Hamill, Carolyn Kizer, Stanley Kunitz, Galway Kinnell, and Rita Dove.

Tizon's article also quotes Dana Gioia, who was to have been introduced as the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts at the First Lady's (canceled) Poetry Symposium. Significantly, Gioia, a poet and literary critic, is "best known among fellow poets," according to Tizon, for his 1992 book, "Can Poetry Matter?" Tizon writes: "Gioia's answer was `no,' at least not in the current state of American poetry, a world he describes as insular, esoteric and self-marginalizing, populated by elitist literary snobs writing for other elitist literary snobs. Writing poetry for political purposes, some critics say, is just another way to further alienate the public." It is not clear from Tizon's article whether Gioia himself would agree with that last sentence. In the next paragraph, Tizon quotes Yale professor John Hollander insisting that poetry should be more than an expression of opinion. As I puzzle over the order of Tizon's sentences and his paragraph breaks, I find that I can't be certain that Hollander is saying that poetry must not ever "make a political statement," or that he's arguing against poems that make arguments, or even that he's simply dismissing bad poetry because it's bad. A quick reading would lead one to assume that Gioia & Hollander & other poets & critics are saying that poets should never expressly address "political" matters (which is what, exactly? For some people-- the Pope among them-- this war is not a political, but a moral matter) because poetry should be kept separate from the world. But although Tizon may place the sentence about "some critics" saying that "writing poetry for political purposes" is just another way to "alienate the public" after a paraphrase of what Gioia says in his book, in the end, Tizon does not directly quote any critic or poet condemning *all* anti-war poetry on principle. Instead, he makes general statements on the order of "Hamill and his colleagues have been roundly criticized by pundits and other poets for mixing poetry and politics." Who are these poets & what words, exactly, do they use to criticize this mixing? The interested but careful reader would like to know. Tizot certainly implies more than he actually delivers.

A correspondent of mine mentioned to me this morning that about fifty or sixty people showed up on his campus yesterday for a poets-against-the-war event, while about two hundred had attended a rally in the falling snow. That the poetry reading got as much as one-quarter of the attendance of the rally certainly surprises me. My correspondent remarks that three of the poems read were bad. When one recalls Sturgeon's Law & considers that 13,000 poems were delivered yesterday to the US Congress & also notes that a certain number of bad poems seem always to turn up in general poetry readings (where the poets are aren't all poetry-world celebrities), that some of the poems against the war being written (& read) are bad seems logically to follow. With an output of 13,000 poems in one month, those who are calling themselves "poets-against-the-war" presumably encompass far more than the "elitist literary snobs" our new NEA chair says inhabit the world of current American poetry, "a world he describes as insular, esoteric and self-marginalizing" (as Tizon reports). This movement of poets-against-the-war is a "world" that includes poet laureates past & present, Pulitzer Prize winners, & even Language Poets, as well as the occasional poet, the teenaged poet (for many, many people write poetry as teenagers that vanishes from their memories when they become adults), the Hip Hop poet, & so on. As I write this, it suddenly occurs to me that many of the people I know (including myself!) have written poems at one time of their lives or another, though very few of these people could ever be called "poets" (or even want to be). & some people I know who do not consider themselves poets still occasionally write poetry. It seems to me that the impulse to write poetry may be like the impulse to sing or dance. We aren't all good at all of these things; talent, discipline, & training can make a great difference to the performance of each of these creative impulses. But except in cases of disability, anyone can do these things for the sheer joy of it, even when they *aren't* particularly skillful or a pleasure for others to see or hear.

In his 1987 book _The Jaguar Smile_, at the beginning of the chapter titled "Poets on the Day of Joy," Salman Rushdie quotes (now former) President of Nicaragua Daniel Ortega: "In Nicaragua, everybody is considered to be a poet until he proves to the contrary." Ortega made this statement in reply to a question from Rushdie about a poem Ortega wrote while in jail (viz., _I missed Managua in miniskirts_), to indicate that although he had written poetry, he did not think he qualified as a poet. Rushdie describes first the "Day of Joy" commemorating the fall of the vile Somoza dictatorship & then the "Night [of Joy]" that followed the Day, in which Managua's celebrations included a music festival & poetry readings. "[S]even women poets were reciting in the ruins of the Grand Hotel. Most of the hotel had collapsed in the earthquake. What remained-- a central courtyard overlooked by balconies and open, now, to the sky-- served the city as a cultural centre. The ruins were crowded with poetry-lovers. I did not think I had ever seen a people, even in India and Pakistan where poets were revered, who valued poetry as much as the Nicaraguans." Rushdie focuses on two poets in particular, Vidaluz Meneses & Giocanda Belli, whom he describes as "winner of the prestigious Casa de las Americas prize. Her poetry was at once extremely sensual and politically direct." Rushdie quotes the latter as saying she had decided to make her work for the revolution "the best poem I can write," while he notes that Vidaluz Meneses, the former, told Margaret Randall in an interview that on the contrary, the work of rebuilding the nation had to take priority over their private needs as poets. I have a vague memory that the Sandinistas' literacy campaign used the reading & writing of poetry as an incentive. In any case, a beautiful calendar for the year 1989, published by Nicaragua's Interior Department, still hangs on the wall of my study, featuring a different (Nicaraguan) poem & drawing for each month. In a later chapter, Rushdie describes a gathering at Ortega's house composed of most of the country's leading poets & intellectuals, in which an argument broke out when Carlos Martinez Rivas, whom Rushdie characterizes as one of Nicaragua's "most fresh, innovative" poets, attacked poet & culture minister Ernesto Cardenal's "nationwide poetry workshop scheme, under which ordinary people-- Cardenal was particularly fond of pointing to the large numbers of participating policemen-- could write and discuss poetry." "Poetry has strangled Nicaragua," Rushdie says Martinez Rivas claimed. "Nobody reads any more. They only open _Ventana_ (the literary supplement of _Barricada_), when they've got something in it. And then they only read their own poems. Anyway, with these workshops, everybody has started sounding exactly the same. Nobody's trying new things, nobody's looking for a new language."

Tizon, in his "Seeking Poetic Justice," quotes not only poets, but some politicians, also, including my Congressperson, Jim McDermott. "Poets affect society in a much greater way than, say, people who build buildings," Tizot quotes McDermott. "Poets, he [McDermott] says, affect society indirectly, by instilling readers with ideas and images and inspiring them to act, the notion behind Percy Bysshe Shelley's statement that `poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world'." I have heard a lot of (self-described) hard-sf fans & writers make the same claim for science fiction. & I remember, in February, 1980, a computer programmer making that claim to me about code: insisting that he was "subverting" the DOD through his code. Are any of these claims true? "Indirectly" (to use McDermott's qualification)-- perhaps. But I read this morning that British soldiers in the Persian Gulf have been told that they will be making a land invasion on March 17, & that the bombing campaign will start four days before that. The material reality of bombs & of the various gasses the US plans to use on the Iraqi population seems at this particular moment a great deal more powerful than than ideas & images-- until, of course, one recalls that ideas & images were necessary for the production of those bombs & gasses. H. Bruce Franklin, after all, makes a convincing argument that sf "helped engineer and shape America's war in Indochina" (See _Science-Fiction Studies_ #52)-- particularly since the person who designed the infamous Operation Phoenix was himself an sf writer, one Roy L. Prosterman (who has at least one _Analog_ publication to his credit).

Curiously, we seem now to be caught in a battle of words on one side-- words like "PEACE ON EARTH" printed on a tee-shirt & considered banned language in a mall in New York State-- & the physical presence of 200,000 warriors & an ominously huge arsenal of weapons of mass destruction on the other. It *looks* like an opposition between words & images on the one hand & the means to make war on the other. But when the onslaught begins, the US media will begin *its* production of images-- images of war, of technology, but never of death-- images designed to keep the war as unreal as possible. We'll need the "ideas & images" of poetry & other literary arts even more, then.

Timmi
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Josh Lukin
Posted on Wednesday, March 19, 2003 - 12:27 am:   

Ahead of your time as ever, Timmi, you seem in your remarks on this thread to have anticipated the themes of the March 24 issue of The Nation --Alterman and Goldstein on Artists and Politics, Kushner’s little play about Laura Bush reading Dostoyevsky to dead Iraqi children, and, on the Lysistrata project: “What a pleasure it was to have fun, vitality, humor and sex on our side, not to mention the literary canon, the glory that was Greece and the majority of the world's population, and leave the other side stuck with Confederate flags, Bible study and bigoted prom queens like Ann Coulter.”—Katha Pollitt

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