This piece was written for a panel called “The Need to Speak: Writing the Political Poem” for the Association of Writing Programs conference. I was invited by Joe Wilkins, a poet I did not know, and gladly agreed to be listed on the panel proposal because the topic of political poetry as well as the title “The Need to Speak” were of great interest to me. I found it curious and a bit misguided that the hopeful moderator had chosen three men—CK Williams, Robert Wrigley and Matthew Zapruder—and one woman (myself) to list on his proposal. I suspected that either Matthew Zapruder or Robert Wrigley had suggested me to Joe, and I wondered whether I was the token female. One of the other panelists joked about how our last names all started with letters at the far end of the alphabet. The joke made me think about how none of us was remarking to one another what else we had in common—we were all white and also (as far as I knew) all straight. The panel was accepted and as the conference grew nearer I became increasingly preoccupied with the straight-white-almost-entirely-maleness of our panel and how problematic this was. I was also, honestly, nervous about going up on stage with poets who had achieved a kind of authority in the field that I have not. I admire these poets’ work, am friendly with Matthew and Robert (I’d never met CK Williams) and still, as the time grew near, I felt increasingly unlike them—more self-conscious about my inclusion in this group and more suspicious of my own anxiety.
What, I wondered, would “the men” talk about? I wondered if they would talk about war or about other male poets. I felt a self-imposed responsibility to somehow balance what I imagined they might say, to somehow bring a different (feminine?) perspective to the discussion. The stakes seemed high to me, and I became more and more unable to formulate a thesis or point of view—I could not find my voice of authority. I wanted to get up and say something smart and convincing even though I suspected that my age, gender, stature, reputation, non-tenure track status would make it difficult for me to compete with these men. But, why, I began to wonder, was impressing the audience the goal? Why was I searching for authority or authoritativeness? In my teaching, writing, mothering, and living I was not grasping for authority. I was not hoping to bend another’s will to mine, to overpower anyone (physically or mentally). I was not in the business of trying to impose my worldview. I was trying, more and more, to listen, to ask, to be aware of the relationships between myself and others, myself and the environment. So, why then was I suddenly trying to do the equivalent of putting on a business suit for a job interview? To be clear, Joe, Matthew, CK and Robert weren’t asking me to do anything or be anything or act in any particular way. All of these expectations were self-imposed.
Even when writing prose I often begin with a notion of shape rather than an idea and after weeks and weeks the only thing I knew was that I would only allow myself to ask questions because somehow this felt like a way of subverting the norms of panel presentations and also (hopefully) might at least draw awareness to the problematic nature of four men and one woman—all white and straight—telling a room full of people what to think about politics and poetry or the political poem or the need to speak. I was also aware of not wanting to directly address or offend the other panelists who had done nothing wrong, who could not be blamed for being male or white or straight or agreeing to be on the panel. I was also aware that I was spending a lot of time worrying about the other panelists’ feelings, about the moderator’s feelings, about the feelings of my imagined audience, and I wondered if the other panelists were doing the same.
But a formal notion and a set of worries is not a panel presentation. I had the idea of questions and some of the questions, but it felt like nothing. I arrived in Chicago the day before my panel and rushed from airport to the conference; I made it just in time to see Alice Notley give a reading and answer questions. I have long adored Notley’s work and she was, on that day, magnificent. She was brazen, unapologetic, and refused to answer the questions posed to her by her interviewer. Her fierceness was a shot of courage for me and gave me the idea to include the words of my poetic foremothers (including Notley) without analyzing them. I wanted to let them speak, to call them forth to gather around me, to keep me safe or to help me not care about being safe.
I was the last to speak. I do not wish to malign the other panelists who, as I’ve said, are my friends and who I genuinely admire. They each said interesting things and spoke about politics and poetry in smart, resonant ways. They also each made certain choices individually that highlighted some of the problems of our panel. Three of them spoke only of other male poets. One of them quite authoritatively made the claim that the greatest political poem ever was written by Robert Bly. They spoke primarily about war. They made grand, authoritative statements. I was interested in and impressed by their statements and close-readings of the poets they chose to highlight. I also noticed that I felt smaller and more female and less scholarly as they spoke. When it was my turn, I got up and read my piece without introduction. I felt certain that if I went “off script” it would end up being an apology, and I didn’t want to apologize. When I finished reading [I did not read the citations at the end of the piece but added those for ewc] the audience began to clap, and as I looked up several rows were standing. I saw a few friends and poets I knew scattered about, but who were these strangers standing and clapping? Were they clapping for all of us or only for me? It dawned on me that I was receiving a standing ovation—the first of my life and perhaps the last—and I was very aware that my immediate emotional response was to cringe, to shrink, to apologize. It seemed to go on a long time and I was bizarrely aware of my own thoughts. I had shuffled to my seat and was keeping my eyes down. “Be Anne Waldman!!” a voice said in my head. “Look up and see it, take it in!” the strong voice said. “I can’t,” said a smaller voice. “Please stop clapping!” said the smaller voice. “Oh dear,” said the small voice. I tried to look up, to “be Anne Waldman,” but I could not. That small voice was too persistent. That small voice told me that the audience’s response was due to some witchy manipulation on my part—“cheap shot!” said the small voice. “You used your femaleness (and Jewishness?) as a kind of sympathy card and have offended perfectly lovely poets who will now hate you,” said the small voice. “Shut up!” said my mental version of Anne Waldman to the small voice, “Shut up, small shrinking female fear-voice! You didn’t tell them what to say or do and you’re not in control of the audience’s response! Take some pleasure and responsibility for your own power and let the rest go.” The audience stopped clapping and sat down long before these voices stopped arguing. I’ve thought about that panel—writing my piece, speaking it, my response to the audience’s response—for months and am still not sure what to make of it or make out of it.