Liz’s Weekly Poetry Series: Kim Addonizio, from 9/11 to M.F.A.
I picked up a book of interviews with contemporary poets titled Range of the Possible (Eastern Washington University Press, 2002). The interviewer, Tod Marshall, from what I’ve read so far, has done an excellent job interviewing 20 different poets, all born between the years 1941-1959.
The first interview is with Kim Addonizio. The interview was done in the early fall of 2001, about a month after the 9/11 attacks. Inevitably the question of poetry and politics comes up. Here is an exchange that starts with poetry and politics, and ends up at the proliferation of M.F.A. programs:
Many writers have written about the relationship between poetry and politics. How do you understand the two to intertwine?
I feel very resistant to considering that issue right now. At this moment—a month after the WTC and Pentagon bombings—I’m too exhausted from talking and thinking about the world. And I just went to a museum exhibit on torture that threw me into complete despair about the innate evil of our species. About all I can muster right now is the belief that poetry is a force on the side of light, however practically ineffectual it may be at this time in this country. Our government for the most part doesn’t need to suppress poetry because it’s managed pretty much to marginalize it, to make both poetry and poets invisible or trivial to the average citizen. Anyway, I don’t feel I can speak with any special authority about the relationship of politics and culture. I’d rather hear from someone who has deeply studied those relationship, as I have not. One thing that struck me about the exhibit, though, was the statement, “The soul of torture is male.” I believe that. And the soul of war is male, too. Why is that so? And what can we do about it? I think a lot about our relationship to suffering and evil, and that’s one of the recurrent subjects of my work. I do think that poetry, some form of art anyway, is essential for our survival.
Many have also cast poetry as a spiritual endeavor, one counter, perhaps, to the masculine soul of torture. In a primarily secular age, how do you understand poetry’s relationship to the spiritual?
You know, before the events of September 11, I would have taken as axiomatic the idea that we were living in a secular age. Now I’d question that, given so-called Muslim terrorists, given that quite a few people in this country seem to be intoning “God Bless America” at every opportunity. Religion seems more present than ever, and a spirituality that is not particularly based on religion—or maybe is based more on Eastern religions like Buddhism—is also a part of American culture. The Psychic Friends Network is, on some level, is a manifestation of American spirituality. All that stuff: the UFO cults, the TV shows on near-death experiences. All of that speaks to some sort of belief in, or at least longing for, more than the material. So that’s one thing. It’s axiomatic, too, to say that the arts historically split off from their religious function. But it seems to me that art has always trafficked in the spiritual. It may confirm the doctrine of some religion or may transgress it, but it is interested in ultimate reality, in the sacred. Anyone who deeply practices an art form connects with that. From the outside, though, art has been secularized, commodified, trivialized. I experience the writing of poetry as a spiritual practice, and I bet any other poet would say a version of the same thing, even if he or she didn’t use the word “spiritual.”
Some critics have written disparagingly about the acaddemization of poetry—in a nutshell, since it’s been taken in by the university and subsidized, so to speak, by creative writing programs, American poetry has lost a meaningful edge, a truly radical avant-garde. What do you think about such assertions?
I don’t want an academic job, personally, but such jobs have provided a livelihood for a number of poets, and I don’t see that as necessarily a bad thing. A lot of the so-called “avant-garde” is in the universities, with tenure. I don’t see American poetry losing its edge. The thing about separating the academy from everything else is that you can’t. All sorts of people pass through universities and especially community colleges, where creative writing has also found a strong foothold as part of the curriculum; there’s been a trickle-down effect from all the M.F.A. programs. So you have at one level the critics and scholars trying to categorize everything and take it apart—which is fine if they’re the right kinds of critics and scholars, i.e. lovers of the art, who get it (and unfortunately too many of them don’t). And then you have the poets, some of whom are stifled by the academy, some of whom are trying to subvert it; and then all kinds of students being exposed to poetry, reading poetry and trying to write it, being taught often by practicing poets. There’s a great diversity in the supposed Ivory Towers of learning, I think. And beyond that, again the trickle-down effect: poetry is being taught in high schools, in elementary schools, in senior centers and prisons and battered women’s shelters. Why? Because all these creative writing programs in colleges and universities have nourished people with an interest in and passion for poetry who then take it out into the community since most of them aren’t going to get those tenure-track positions. There’s a whole climate now for poetry to be appreciated that wouldn’t exist, I think, had there not been this “academization” of poetry. Of course, there’s a lot of bad poetry being written now, possibly fueled by all that, but so what, really? There are a lot of terrible musicians in the world, but that doesn’t take anything away from the good ones. People do it because they enjoy it. If they get the chance to read great poetry, and study with poets, and try to improve, that’s a good thing. And you can’t kill the edge, anyway. You can’t kill poetry, or the impulse to art, or the imagination that is going to try to take it to places it hasn’t yet been.