About Animals: On the Role of a Poet in a Country at War

I am currently rereading “Animals: On the Role of a Poet in a Country at War,” an essay by Hayan Charara, whose poetry anthology, Inclined to Speak, my students are reading, and which we are discussing in class this week. Already, my responses to the poem which opens his essay are complicated. This is also true of much of the poems in the Inclined to Speak anthology which I have assigned. We will be discussing Suheir Hammad, Matthew Shenoda, Sinan Antoon, among others. With Antoon’s spare and sharp poems, we are deep in Baghdad, and war is all around individuals who have lost everything. With Hammad, a necessary purge immediately post-9/11, as a witness, an American, a New Yorker, and an Arab.

So I want to go back to my previous blog post, regarding my dissatisfaction with ahistorical and depoliticized discussions of Asian American poetry, the oblique derision of “protest poetry,” and political poetry as arcane and irrelevant. What I told my class was that ultimately, my largest criticism of it was how low the stakes are set for our writing; why we write is portrayed as no longer about survival and necessity, but about prestige and mainstream acceptance and assimilation. This does not sit well with me on so many levels, especially as I read in it this insistence upon perpetuating the “model minority” myth. The portrayal of Asian Americans having nothing in the world to worry about, except publication in prestigious journals or admittance into prestigious MFA programs, is inaccurate, and it is dangerous.

As if all of us as citizens of the world weren’t living in a continued state of all-encompassing war.

I’m grateful for Charara’s anthology introduction to Inclined to Speak, and for his essay to give me back my perspective. Not only, then, is poetry about bearing witness, and bearing witness to what, of course that’s based upon our own subjectivities. Indeed, many of us live at a safe distance from war, but this distance does not erase war’s continued existence and gravity. Poetry is about the power of our imaginations, so bearing witness to the most beautiful and the most horrifying things about ourselves as a people, what illuminating and what terrible things we are capable of bestowing/inflicting upon ourselves and one another. And then using language, stretching our languages, and hence stretching our imaginations, which, Charara asserts, “violence seeks to destroy.”

Charara also asserts that poetry gives back an individual’s humanity, and I wish we poets would not forget this; I wish poets would not deprioritize this when stewing in the boiling pot of po-biz. What violence and war continue to take away from all of us, poetry can give back. I do not mean that we as poets should appropriate the experiences of others or invent traumas with which to fill our manuscripts. I mean to say that we are capable of doing so much with words on paper, in books, in performance, and that it’s important we do so.

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Barbara Jane Reyes

Author of Gravities of Center, Poeta en San Francisco, and Diwata. Adjunct professor in Philippine Studies at University of San Francisco.

4 Comments

  1. Barbara,
    So well stated. Your ideas about how valuable poetry is in bearing witness and returning humanity – and hence, compassion – is a belief we as writers should keep at the forefront of all we do.
    Thanks for the post,
    e

  2. hi, barbara. this is really a helpful and interesting piece. could i quote portions of it? i’m preparing an essay on filipino diasporic literature for a conference here in NYC (a conference at fordham u). sarah gambito is the organizer. salamat and hope all is well.

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