Poetry and politics in the USA

In this video from the USA

Martín Espada – poet, essayist, editor and translator, recited his stirring poem – “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100” on May 1, 2006 at the Amherst Common. The rally held there was part of the National Boycott for Immigrant Rights.

From British daily The Morning Star:

Planting the seeds of a brighter future

(Monday 04 February 2008)

IN FOCUS: US poetry

ANDY CROFT discovers that, despite everything, a new wave of meaningful and progressive poetry is starting to flourish in the US.

If you think that the spectacle of the current US primaries are depressing, just imagine what it must feel like if you are on the US left.

I recently asked US poets Martin Espada and Jon Andersen what they thought of the current race for the White House.

“It’s a pathetic scene, really,” says Andersen. “Bracketing aside his poetic rhetoric of change, Barack Obama‘s actual proposals and policies are simply more of the same – a capitulation to imperial policy abroad and corporate class war at home, maybe with a softer touch. The lesser evils may be lesser, but that’s about all they are.”

Espada agrees. “The Democrats and the Republicans are simply renegotiating their power-sharing arrangement. The war is extremely unpopular here, yet neither party will nominate an anti-war candidate for president.

“Now that Dennis Kucinich has dropped out of the race, a progressive perspective is barely represented at all. But God is still in the race. All the candidates are good Christians, some to a nauseating degree.”

Andersen and Espada are both well-known poets and activists on the US left. Ten years ago, Espada openly refused an invitation to take part in a Nike TV advertising campaign called the Nike Poetry Slam because of the company’s employment record in south-east Asia.

In March 2005, he discovered that Coca-Cola was funding his reading at the University of Kansas and chose to protest against the appalling labour record of Coke in Colombia by publicly donating his fee to the National Food Workers Union in that country. A former tenant lawyer in Boston’s Latino community, Espada now teaches at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

Andersen has worked as a farmhand, a warehouse worker, a gardener and a high school teacher. He and his wife Denise run Students for International Socialism in Connecticut.

Andersen and Espada both have new collections out on Smokestack Books. Crucifixion in the Plaza de Armas brings together for the first time all Espada’s writings about the history and people of Puerto Rico – his father was a radical activist in the Puerto Rican diaspora in New York during the 1960s.

Jon Anderson’s Seeds of Fire: Contemporary Poetry from the Other USA is an anthology of over 50 poets including Adrienne Rich, Fred Voss, Grace Paley, Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, Andersen and Espada.

It is unlikely that either book will end up on George W Bush‘s bedside table. But, then, it is fair to say that neither Espada nor Andersen are fans of their current president.

“As painful as it is just to listen to him,” says Andersen, “I actually don’t mind so much that he’s inarticulate and maybe a little dim-witted. The real problem is that he is a state terrorist – one of the most dangerous men in the world.”

“We should not be shocked that an oilman has plunged us into an endless oil war,” says Espada. “Bush represents major US corporate interests, openly and blatantly. His administration is a perfect brew of greed, corruption, brutality, ineptitude, fear-mongering, hubris and stupidity.” …

As writers, both men look back to Pablo Neruda, Nazim Hikmet, William Blake and Walt Whitman. “All political poets in the US,” argues Espada, “can trace their lineage, one way or the other, to Whitman.

“I refer to the Whitman who told us that the duty of the poet was ‘to cheer up slaves and horrify despots,’ who spoke for the ‘rights of them the others are down upon.’ The Whitman who proclaimed: ‘Through me many long-dumb voices.’

Japanese haiku poet Basho: here.

8 thoughts on “Poetry and politics in the USA

  1. Posted by: “lilgeorgiehas2go” lilgeorgiehas2go@yahoo.com
    Mon Feb 4, 2008 6:18 am (PST)

    Bush legacy: Setting a standard in fear-mongering

    Richard A. Clarke is former head of counterterrorism at the National Security Council

    When I left the Bush administration in 2003, it was clear to me that its strategy for defeating terrorism was leaving our nation more vulnerable and our people in a perilous place. Not only did its policies misappropriate resources, weaken the moral standing of America, and threaten long-standing legal and constitutional provisions, but the president also employed misleading and reckless rhetoric to perpetuate his agenda.

    This week’s State of the Union proved nothing has changed.

    Besides overstating successes in Afghanistan, painting a rosy future for Iraq, and touting unfinished domestic objectives, he again used his favorite tactic – fear – as a tool to scare Congress and the American people. On one issue in particular – FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) – the president misconstrued the truth and manipulated the facts.

    Let me be clear: Our ability to track and monitor terrorists overseas would not cease should the Protect America Act expire. If this were true, the president would not threaten to terminate any temporary extension with his veto pen. All surveillance currently occurring would continue even after legislative provisions lapsed because authorizations issued under the act are in effect up to a full year.

    Simply put, it was wrong for the president to suggest that warrants issued in compliance with FISA would suddenly evaporate with congressional inaction. Instead – even though Congress extended the Protect America Act by two weeks – he is using the existence of the sunset provision to cast his political opponents in a negative light.

    For this president, fear is an easier political tactic than compromise.

    With FISA, he is attempting to rattle Congress into hastily expanding his own executive powers at the expense of civil liberties and constitutional protections.

    I spent most of my career in government fighting to protect this country in order to defend these very rights. And I know every member of Congress – whether Democrat or Republican – holds public office in the same pursuit.

    That is why in 2001, I presented this president with a comprehensive analysis regarding the threat from al-Qaeda. It was obvious to me then – and remains a fateful reality now – that this enemy sought to attack our country. Then, the president ignored the warnings and played down the threats.

    Ironically, it is the fear from these extremely real threats that the president today uses as a wedge in a vast and partisan political game. This is – and has been – a very reckless way to pursue the very ominous dangers our country faces. And once again, during the current debate over FISA, he continues to place political objectives above the practical steps needed to defeat this threat.

    In these still treacherous times, we can’t afford to have a president who leads by manipulating emotions with fear, flaunting the law, or abusing the very inalienable rights endowed to us by the Constitution. Though 9/11 changed the prism through which we view surveillance and intelligence, it did not in any way change the effectiveness of FISA to allow us to track and monitor our enemies. FISA has and still works as the most valuable mechanism for monitoring our enemies.

    In order to defeat the violent Islamist extremists who do not believe in human rights, we need not give up the civil liberties, constitutional rights and protections that generations of Americans fought to achieve. We do not need to create Big Brother. With the administration’s attempts to erode FISA’s legal standing as the exclusive means by which our government can conduct electronic surveillance of U.S. persons on U.S. soil, this is unfortunately the path the president is taking us down.

    So it is no surprise that in one of Bush’s last acts of relevance, he once again played the fear card. While he has failed in spreading democracy, stemming global terrorism, and leaving the country better off than when he took power, he did achieve one thing: successfully perpetuating fear for political gain.

    Sadly, it may be one of the only achievements of his presidency.



  2. The Case FOR Impeachment

    Posted by: “lilgeorgiehas2go” lilgeorgiehas2go@yahoo.com
    Mon Feb 4, 2008 6:24 am (PST)

    by Scott Horton
    PUBLISHED February 3, 2008


    I predict that before Bush leaves office, the case for his impeachment will and should be given a more careful hearing. It must not be pursued as a partisan remedy to force a transfer of power. Rather it should be used as an institutional remedy. Polling now shows that a large majority of Americans believe that President Bush and Vice President Cheney have committed serious transgressions against the Constitution which would merit consideration of the impeachment process. Impeaching President Bush and Vice President Cheney for their attempts to hijack the Constitution would make a clear statement about abuse of power. It would also serve to put reasonable constraints on the conduct of their successors–who are likely to be Democrats. This is a step which genuine Conservatives and Republicans who adhere to their party’s former understanding of a government with an executive of carefully limited and checked powers should welcome and embrace.

    But more importantly, the political stage in Washington will soon encounter facts that command the consideration of impeachment. Let me posit a scenario which I believe likely to appear before the end of this summer. The Justice Department’s Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility have concluded their joint investigation into the “Gonzales Eight,” namely the eight U.S. attorneys who were fired by Alberto Gonzales on December 7, 2006. The legal standard governing these terminations can probably be summarized this way: the U.S. attorneys could be fired for no reason, or for any reason, but not for an improper reason. But the inquiry has concluded, as I think it invariably must, that in several cases the firing occurred for an improper reason, to-wit: in order to corruptly influence a criminal investigation. In one case, relating to New Mexico U.S. attorney David Iglesias, the facts establishing an improper purpose lie right at the surface, and they implicate Alberto Gonzales, Karl Rove and George Bush. The Justice Department’s internal investigation will not address the White House’s involvement in the illegality—surely not President Bush’s and probably not even Karl Rove’s. But it will make a series of adverse conclusions concerning Alberto Gonzales and it will note that Karl Rove and George W. Bush were intimately involved in the whole process. This is because the jurisdictional remit of the investigation is limited–it can only deal with employees and former employees of the Justice Department, so Rove and the president are off bounds. But among the charges it is likely to lay at Gonzales’s doorstep is that he failed to apprise the White House of the fact that their meddling with the U.S. attorneys for purposes of influencing criminal investigations connected to elections was a crime–which it surely was. Gonzales recently engaged savvy criminal law counsel. He needs them. But the facts will point to more systematic and potentially deeper culpability within the White House than the Justice Department itself.

    If things unfold this way, it will be incumbent on the Congressional oversight organs, and particularly the House Judiciary Committee, to pick up where the Justice Department’s investigation left off: it will need to scrutinize the role that President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Karl Rove and potentially others played in the whole affair, and generally in the corrupt influencing of criminal proceedings. It’s well settled at this point that if a criminal prosecution is manipulated for purposes of creating some partisan political benefit, that is a “corrupt influencing” under federal criminal law—a felony, and in the language of the Constitution, a “high crime and misdemeanor.” It’s very rarely charged because, of course, prosecutors make the decisions to bring charges, and prosecutors very rarely charge themselves. The key question of supervision of misbehaving prosecutors is rising to the top in Washington right now in a way it never has before in America’s history.


    The use of impeachment as a device to undo the electorate’s will and install the legislature’s choice as president is a temptation inherent in democratic structures and in recent years we have seen impeachment misused or threatened this way not just in the United States, but also in other societies (Korea and Taiwan being two). The proper use of impeachment is as a constitutional restorative, just as Berger argues. And following this argument, as Bush’s term of office comes to an end, the use of the impeachment remedy becomes more, not less compelling. It can and should be used to draw a line in the sand about the arbitrary use of executive power, making clear that Bush’s abuses cannot be taken as precedent by future presidents. Indeed, failure to use impeachment has its consequences: it means acceptance of Bush’s transformation of the constitutional order. It means that the careful balance between legislature, executive and judiciary created by the Framers has been undone, and the executive has triumphed as the paramount power. Impeachment may be a painful process, of course, but Americans should consider whether their Constitution is worth saving.



  3. Poetry Like Bread:
    Poets of the Political Imagination
    Edited by Martín Espada

    In his landmark essay, “In Defense of the Word,” Eduardo Galeano writes: “We are what we do, especially what we do to change what we are…A literature born in the process of crisis and change, and deeply immersed in the risks and events of its time, can indeed help to create the symbols of the new reality, and perhaps—if talent and courage are not lacking—throw light on the signs along the road…To claim that literature on its own is going to change reality would be an act of madness or arrogance. It seems to me no less foolish to deny that it can aid in making this change.” This anthology is founded on such convictions. From Martí Espada’s foreward.

    What else but defiant, extravagant hope—political imagination—could motivate Roque Dalton, a man who suffered imprisonment and ultimately assassination, to write the words that give this anthology its title: “I believe the world is beautiful/and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.”

    softcover, 330pp, Biographical notes, Reading Guide


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