Disclosure: Two of the poets I talked to are published by Third Man Books. Third Man Books will be publishing a collection of my fiction this year.
I’m not a poet, but I believe reading poetry makes writers better, so I try to read my share of poems. Frankly, I’ve been having a lot of trouble writing lately. More trouble than I figure poetry can solve.
On Monday, I went to listen to poets Ciona Rouse and Kendra DeColo interview a third poet, Nickole Brown. At one point, Brown said that the job of the poet is to make the world strange. To make the world new.
This, I thought, is the problem. The world is already strange to me right now.
I don’t understand how we elected Donald Trump president. I don’t understand why we’re harassing and expelling immigrants. I don’t understand why the long con of white supremacy is still suckering people in. And on and on. By this point, the shock of the confused white liberal is its own cliche.
After Brown read some poems from her book “Fanny Says” and the discussion wrapped up, I sat down with Brown, DeColo and Rouse and put the question to them: How do you make art when the world is a garbage fire?
Brown acknowledged that the constant noise of what’s happening now can make the quieter times when she’s just paying attention to the things in her immediate surroundings feel irrelevant. “Everything else is just so big and dangerous and terrifying that it makes poetry seem like it doesn’t matter,” she said.
But Rouse said, “I don’t see it so much as being new and strange. Maybe unfamiliar and untouched before. So, all of a sudden, we’re having to touch it.”
Rouse explained that a lot of her writing travels through history. “Primarily I’ve been writing about the Atlanta child murders of 1979 through ’81. And I was born into that time,” she said. “But in doing so, I’ve just been able to get in touch with, oh, we’ve always been saying ‘Black Lives Matter.’ But now we’re hearing that phrase. We’ve always been worried about the corruptness of cops or authority. We’ve always been kind of dealing with this, but now it’s really around.”
DeColo pointed out that poems nourish people. “I’m writing this to the people I love, to keep them safe,” she said. “I became a mother basically right when Trump came into office and I want to actually weep saying that because it’s just … the two being parallel is not what I would have chosen or wanted. But I’m just thinking of writing as mothering, others and myself.”
Brown said, “Art is useless. The definition of art is that it’s not necessary. But yet, it’s the most necessary thing. So, you do something and you have no idea what becomes of it.”
I have to admit this is what I needed to hear: that even these gifted poets sometimes feel like what they’re doing doesn’t matter, but that we aren’t struggling with anything people haven’t struggled with in the past, and that creativity helps us and others through that struggle.
It reminded me how lucky I am to be here (thanks again, Alyssa!), mulling over these big ideas. So often, pop culture critics are met with “It’s just a song.” “It’s just a TV show.” “It’s just a story.” As if people make creative content just to have content.
No, artists want to move you. They want you to say “wow” or to cry or to sing along. There is no “just.” Each artistic expression is an attempt to connect with someone and to change that someone. It can be a mundane change that makes you say, “Oh, I like that actor or that director or that franchise. I’ll now spend money to see more of them.” Or it can be something as important as “this song saved my life.”
So it’s important to think about how that happens and whether the effort is successful. It’s important to be conscious of the way that giving the most space to white male creators and treating white male stories as the default affects us.
And it’s wonderful to say to someone, “Have you seen this?” “Have you heard about this?” “What did you make of this part?”
I’m glad to have had this chance to ask those questions to you. Thanks for having me.