The poetic is the political

Berkeley-based poet, essayist and activist June Jordan paid a visit to campus last month. On April 24 at the Writers House, she responded to questions from on-site and online audience members. Jordan is the founder of Poetry for the People, a method of teaching writing poetry to people of diverse backgrounds. Here are some excerpts.

Do you ever come across people who assume that because you are a political writer, you don’t love language? How do you respond?
Black writers and political writers encounter a kind of sociological analysis. If you manage to secure a review of your work, the review will cover what it’s about. To anybody who’s a genuine artist, this is devastating. I mean, you can talk about what something’s about on a bumper sticker.

But the nice thing is that I can outlive all these people. Then when the apparent subject matter is no longer timely, perhaps people will notice the way it was said.

When you’re talking about art, you don’t say about Vermeer, Well, you’ve got these women and these windows. This is what every artist undertakes: to treat something as commonplace as a window or the actions of the window on the wall in such a way that the reader or the viewer can become excited about the possible meaning of this, and even maybe think that it would be beautiful to have a window. And that that light coming through the window, as a matter of fact, transforms the space completely.

You write many poems that could be considered political, and you also write a lot of love poems. How do you see these two types as interacting?
Putting together “Haruko,” a set of love poems, was a political action. I feel as a political animal and as a black human being that the inventions of myself which have to do with love and with a passionate intimate feeling have been denied to me again and again and again. Or if they’ve been treated at all in the mass media and so forth, they are in such a way that I am horrified. So I thought, Let’s get all this stuff together here and put it out here so that nobody misses the fact that I am interested in love — real interested.

Do you think all poems are political?
Yes, because everything you do embodies a choice that you make. By doing this, you are not doing that, and that has a political meaning because time is finite.

Shakespeare is absolutely a status quo politician. He’s constantly referring to the people in charge — king this, prince that. He was not a prince, and most of the people who came to his theatre were regular, apple-eating folks. He didn’t write about them. I’m not dissing him for making these choices, but he made them.

I think his sonnets are political in that there’s so many of them, and he felt that he could just write a riotous number of sonnets because he felt like it. And I’m glad he wrote them. I love them. It’s wonderful to see how many ways you can say I love you, or I don’t know why I love you ’cause you so ugly, or whatever. But what’s implied there is a leisure, an idleness license that I don’t have.

What does it take to be a successful people’s poet?
People who are poets and who offer those poems in political situations such as rallies become clearer as a result of trying to say something to 1,500 people who are milling around. You’re trying to talk over a very poor sound system, and people are like, What? or just walking away deciding this is an ideal moment to go find a smoothie. That on-the-streets encounter with other folks is very chastening.

When you’re undertaking to become a people’s poet, people find out in listening to your work what your emotions about “the people” are. And often it’s not very good. Pablo Neruda was absolutely a people’s poet. Except for the very end when the Allende thing was happening, you can surmise that what he felt and thought about “the people” was absolutely respectful. It wasn’t like he thought, I should simplify my images. It was like, I should make whatever I’m talking about — my socks or bread or whatever — just as beautiful as I possibly can in order to give this to the people who come to me.

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Originally published on May 3, 2001