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Responding to 'What Is Literary Activism?'

Poetry Foundation   |   August 21, 2015    9:05 PM ET

[Editor's Note: As a response to Amy King's recent post "What Is Literary Activism?," Wendy Trevino, Juliana Spahr, Tim Kreiner, Joshua Clover, Chris Chen, and Jasper Bernes have offered the following letter.]


Dear Harriet,

We were pleased to see your forum "What is Literary Activism?" not least for the useful and persuasive passages to be found there. Even more so, its mere existence -- or its necessity --registers a truth about the transformation of U.S poetry in recent years: away from a purported opposition between lyrical quietude and avant-garde formal ambition as the only one in town. At least there is the acknowledged possibility of the existence of an explicitly politicized poetry drawing much of its energy from significant social antagonisms.

It is this connection between lived struggles and living poets that we take most seriously, and this connection we worry is most at risk of being broken within the formulation of "literary activism." The danger, it seems to us, is in imagining the literary as a kind of autonomous sphere. In this conception, literary activism may mean efforts meant to transform the realm of literature; to be exemplary in our relation to writing and reading and publishing; to practice thoughtfulness, be just, be decent in our literary communities. We believe in all of this.

This is why we were pleased to see the question what is literary activism framed by Amy King's list of "marches, counter marches, clinic defenses and on the ground actions." Pleased to read Héctor Ramírez noticing that "No amount of specialization or distinction or departmentalization can bracket our terrible American reality or justify our terrible American imagination." Pleased to see Jeff Koo complain about the mainly white room of the poetry reading and urging "if you call yourself a curator, well, curate something-you know, think about what you're doing."

Read the full response on the Poetry Foundation website.

Living Tradition: Clare Cavanagh Talks About The Joys and Challenges of Translation

Poetry Foundation   |   August 19, 2015    1:14 PM ET

By Alex Dueben


Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area, Clare Cavanagh had no exposure to the Polish language. In graduate school, she says, she decided to take a class in Polish only because "it was a department requirement." There, her career as one of the premier Polish-to-English translators began. Earlier this year, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published Map: Collected and Last Poems, by Nobel Prize-winner Wisława Szymborska, who passed away in 2012. Cavanagh, who translated Szymborska's poetry for more than three decades, edited the volume. She spoke with the Poetry Foundation recently about the benefits of lengthy collaborations and how manners were instrumental to Szymborska's work.

Read the full interview on the Poetry Foundation website.

Poem of the Day: "Golden Retrievals"

Poetry Foundation   |   August 10, 2015   11:51 AM ET

By Mark Doty

Fetch? Balls and sticks capture my attention
seconds at a time. Catch? I don't think so.
Bunny, tumbling leaf, a squirrel who's--oh
joy--actually scared. Sniff the wind, then

I'm off again: muck, pond, ditch, residue
of any thrillingly dead thing. And you?

Read the full poem on the Poetry Foundation website.

Mark Doty, "Golden Retrievals" from Sweet Machine: Poems. Copyright © 1998 by Mark Doty. Reprinted with the permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

Source: Sweet Machine: Poems (HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 1998)

Poem of the Day: "A Woman on the Dump"

Poetry Foundation   |   August 7, 2015   11:57 AM ET

By Debora Greger

Is it peace,
Is it a philosopher's honeymoon, one finds
On the dump?
--Wallace Stevens

Out of the cracks of cups and their handles, missing,
the leaves unceremoniously tossed, unread,
from a stubble of coffee ground ever more finely
into these hollowed grounds,

the first shift coaxes bulldozers to life,
sphinxes to tease the riddled rubble
into fresh pyramids of rot. A staleness warms enough
to waft round the lord of all purveyed.

Read the full poem on the Poetry Foundation website.

Debora Greger, "A Woman on the Dump" from Off-Season at the Edge of the World. Copyright © 1994 by Debora Greger. Used with the permission of the author and the University of Illinois Press.

Source: Off-Season at the Edge of the World: Poems (1994)

Subscribe to POETRY Magazine

Poetry Foundation   |   August 5, 2015    4:22 PM ET


Founded in Chicago by Harriet Monroe in 1912, Poetry magazine began with the "Open Door":

May the great poet we are looking for never find it shut, or half-shut, against his ample genius! To this end the editors hope to keep free of entangling alliances with any single class or school. They desire to print the best English verse which is being written today, regardless of where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written.

The magazine has since published a new issue every month for one hundred years. Perhaps most famous for having been the first to publish T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," Poetry also championed the early works of Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Marianne Moore. It was first to recognize many poems that are now widely anthologized by poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks, E.E. Cummings, Frank O'Hara, Sylvia Plath, Carl Sandburg, Charles Bukowski, Raymond Carver, Allen Ginsberg, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Tennessee Williams, to name just a few.

Today, Poetry regularly presents new work by the most recognized poets, but its primary commitment is still to discover new voices. In recent years, over a third of the poets published have been new to the magazine. Annual translation issues deepen readers' engagement with foreign-language poetry, and regular Q&A features present conversations with poets about their work. Poetry is also known for its enlivening "Comment" section, featuring book reviews, essays, notebooks, and "The View from Here" column, which highlights artists and professionals from outside the poetry world writing about their experience of poetry.

Subscribe today to receive the print edition every month, as well as access to the complete digital archive of the magazine.

POETRY Magazine Podcast: July/August 2015

Poetry Foundation   |   August 5, 2015    4:20 PM ET


"Cranberry Cranberry Cranberry"

In this episode, the editors discuss Amy Newman's "Howl," Alice Notley's "This Fire," and a series of limericks by Anthony Madrid. Listen to the full episode on the Poetry Foundation website.

In this monthly podcast, the editors go inside the pages of Poetry, talking to poets and critics, debating the issues, and sharing their poem selections with listeners. You can subscribe to the podcast here.

Poetry Off the Shelf: For Love of Russia

Poetry Foundation   |   August 5, 2015    4:20 PM ET

Listen to poems by Anna Akhmatova set to music by Iris DeMent on the Poetry Foundation website.

Poetry Off the Shelf is a weekly audio podcast in which producer Curtis Fox explores the diverse world of contemporary American poetry with readings by poets, interviews with critics, and short poetry documentaries. Nothing is off limits, and nobody is taken too seriously.

Subscribe to the podcast here.

Poem of the Day: from "You, Part I"

Poetry Foundation   |   August 5, 2015    4:19 PM ET

By Ron Silliman

for Pat Silliman


Hard dreams. The moment at which you recognize that your own death lies

in wait somewhere within your body. A lone ship defines the horizon. The

rain is not safe to drink.

In Grozny, in Bihac, the idea of history shudders with each new explosion.

The rose lies unattended, wild thorns at the edge of a mass grave. Between

classes, over strong coffee, young men argue the value of a pronoun.

When this you see, remember. Note in a bottle bobs in a cartoon sea. The

radio operator's name is Sparks.

Read the full poem on the Poetry Foundation website.

Ron Silliman, "You" (I) from The Alphabet. Copyright © 2008 by Ron Silliman. Reprinted by permission of University of Alabama Press.

Source: The Alphabet (The University of Alabama Press, 2008)

Redressing the Emperor: Why Poets Matter

Poetry Foundation   |   August 5, 2015    4:18 PM ET

By Amy King


They say you can be a bad person and still make a great thing. They say you can use poetry cynically for your own selfish gain in the name of free speech. But what they don't say so often, because there are shaming mechanisms in place, is that this Western inclination towards abstracting one's speech actions into a removed cause and thereby exempting the speaker from accountability is a privileged thing. Such positioning pretends history doesn't count, the person's choices don't count, the pain inflicted through harmful speech acts doesn't count, only the work and its right to exist counts. Colonialism has been pulling variations of these white supremacist tricks for heaps of decades "for the good of the people," "for the sake of freedom," etc. Such maneuvers are ultimately the building blocks of how we value human lives on a hierarchy. And this is precisely why poets matter.

Generally speaking, mainstream populism doesn't attend to the Woody Allens and Roman Polanskis the way poets attend to poets and poetry. We are regularly told that the issues and conflicts we discuss are so much navel-gazing and to look at the "real world" to witness "real problems." Poets have classically tasked ourselves with the business of meaning-making, scrutinizing how meaning is made with language--and then attempting to make or conjure it. Critical acuity is cultivated by the very practice of being a poet. How many times have we heard about the poet's eye? The poet's ear? The poet's insight? Philosophers are slightly removed by working within systems of meaning, but poets are making meaning in the daily culture while also examining how it functions on a more intimate and practical level.

Read the full post on Harriet, The Poetry Foundation's blog for poetry and related news.

My Life Is a Poem

Poetry Foundation   |   August 5, 2015    4:16 PM ET

By Rhymefest


Chicago is a poem written by Edgar Allan Poe. It is beautifully tragic, with its political corruption, murder, suspense, segregation, and economic disparity. "Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing, / Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before." All the while, creating from within it are many of the most prolific artists, athletes, and world figures humanity has ever encountered.

My mother was a poem written by Gwendolyn Brooks. Fifteen years old from Chicago with a baby of her own to raise, she was simple but profound. Strong in spirit yet subtle in approach.

Read the full poem on the Poetry Foundation website.

Originally published in the July/August 2015 issue of Poetry magazine.

We Will Never Leave Earth

Iain S. Thomas   |   July 21, 2015   12:40 PM ET

We will never leave Earth.

Battlestar Galactica is a lie.

Star Trek is a lie.

Alien is a lie.

We will never leave Earth.

We will never leave Earth because we will spend the time we have left and the one chance we have to leave Earth bickering over who did what to who.

We will never leave Earth because instead of building spaceships, we decided to build walls and razor wire and prisons and bombs instead.

We will never leave Earth because we aren't building space elevators and warp drives and new kinds of space suits and lasers -- just in case we ever meet anyone as petty and mean as ourselves out there.

We will never leave Earth because we're too busy building tanks to fight over the last barrels of oil and planes to drop the bombs we made on the people who disagree with us over the specifics of the story about where we all come from.

We will never leave Earth, even though all our stories agree, that heaven is above us.

We will never leave Earth. Even though Stephen Hawking says we've only got 200 years left. The last 2000 don't give us much hope.

We will never leave Earth because so many of us have agreed that passing laws about what someone else does with their genitals is more important, than leaving the Earth.

We will never leave Earth and we will sink and drown on this ship while we fight over the deck chairs.

We will never leave Earth.

The Last Starfighter is a lie.

Babylon 5 is a lie.

Star Wars is a lie.

Iain M. Banks is a lie.

We will, never, leave Earth.

We will never leave Earth and we will never be anything more than a strange thought the universe had, a moment in which it went, "Heh, wouldn't that be crazy. Na."

We will never leave Earth because the world will erupt in fire and ice while we're still debating whether or not fire and ice actually exist. We will still be arguing over whether we're burning or freezing to death when we die.

We will never leave Earth and the few robots we've sent out in our place will be our only fingerprints on the firmament, the only proof that a grabbing, desperate hand shot out of our coffin, before it sunk beneath the soil.

We will never leave the Earth and meet Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, or Pisces.

We will never touch Gemini's face and hear her say, "You look just like me. You look just like me."

We will never leave Earth because we're too busy arguing over who you're allowed to love to bother actually doing the work of love, of leaving the Earth.

We will never leave the Earth because we're obsessed with the soil we were born on and we never realised that all the dirt that we stand on and all the dirt we're made of, isn't dirt. It's star dust. Our dirt, is their dirt, and we will never ask their dirt for help and so, we will never leave earth.

Carl Sagan is a lie.

Douglas Adams is a lie.

Guardians of The Galaxy is a lie.

Space Quest is a lie.

We will, never, leave Earth.

Except as dust and ashes and minerals, returned to the sender, to be light, burning, in someone else's stars.


This poem appears in the collection of short stories and prose, "How to be Happy: Not a Self-Help Book."

The Layers Unseen

Iain S. Thomas   |   May 11, 2015   11:02 AM ET


There is magic even here, in gridlock, in loneliness, in too much work, in late nights gone on too long, in shopping trolleys with broken wheels, in boredom, in tax returns, the same magic that made a man write about a princess that slept until she was kissed, long golden hair draped over a balcony and fingers pricked with needles. There is magic even here, in potholes along back-country roads, in not having the right change (you pat your pockets), arriving late and missing the last train home, the same magic that caused a woman in France to think that God spoke to her, that made another sit down at the front of a bus and refuse to move, that lead a man to think that maybe the world wasn't flat and the moon could be walked upon by human feet. There is magic. Even here. In office cubicles.

The picture and words in this poem appear in the book I Wrote This For You. Photography © Jon Ellis.

Cameron Keady   |   April 30, 2015    1:02 PM ET

A team of young poets is bringing spoken word to kids that deserve a voice.

Project Voice -- a team of educators and writers -- performs spoken word to encourage literacy and creative expression among young students. In celebration of National Poetry Month, which takes place annually throughout April, the group launched a scholarship fund to bring their art to schools with few resources for the arts.

“One of our highest priorities as educators is to be as inclusive as possible,” the group wrote on its website. “A challenge we have come up against is the difficulty of visiting schools that don’t have funding for the arts. So we have decided to try and address the issue head-on.”

When the group visits schools, they perform for students and then hold workshops to teach them how to create their own spoken word. Project Voice aims to teach students to “use spoken word poetry as an instrument through which they can explore and better understand their community, their society and ultimately themselves.”

This scholarship will help fund these interactive lessons with the intention of sparking creative thought and expression for students.

Donations can be made to the Project VOICE scholarship fund here.

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For Mom, the Yia Yia (Grandmother) of All Pontians

Thea Halo   |   April 28, 2015   11:56 AM ET


It's difficult to believe that a year has passed since we had services for my mother on April 28, 2014. After the funeral, I went back to her house and I took clippings from her fig bush, put them in three pots, and brought them to my country house. They are thriving, as if not to disappoint her. Each clipping has multiple figs and lush green leaves. Like my mother, moving from one sphere to another didn't faze them... in fact, it seems they have become even more hardy and productive. Perhaps her breath is on them, helping them grow. Now that worldly things no longer hinder her, she can move through time and space at will.

For the last five years of her life, I spent a week a month caring for my mother in her home. On warm days in spring, summer, and fall, we'd sometimes sit on her swing in the back yard and sing the songs she sang when I was a child. They are etched in my memory, even though many decades have passed since then. The sound of her sweet voice was such a comfort, assuring us the world would go on forever and she would be there baking her pies and cakes, her special rolls, her Sunday roasts, and Baklava as only she could make it. Now, I find myself singing certain lines from those old songs to myself. They sometimes just pop into my mind, such as: "What'll I do, when you are far away and I am blue, what'll I do?" Or: "You went away and my heart went with you. I say your name in my every prayer..."

She has given all of us the great gift of memory in her memoir, Not Even My Name. She has given us our shared history. And tragic as her life was for a while, she made the best of what was left of it. Her mother, whom she so dearly loved, must be so proud of her. My mother refused to hate. She refused to surrender to depression and anger. When asked how she could go through so much pain and loss and still not hate, she said: "Why should I waste my life hating when there is still so much beauty in the world?" Perhaps that's why she lived in this realm for almost 105 years.

As a child I promised her she would live forever. We must celebrate her life, not her passing, because she will never leave us. She lives on through her story and will live on through all the generations. I see her all around me in the nature that she loved--in the new daffodils pushing through the earth; the just budding branches; the spring rain. She is in the wind. She is in every blade of grass. She is in our hearts.

For Mom
May 10 1909-April 28, 2014

When I die, don't weep for me as if I am gone.
Whisper my name to someone beside you.
Whisper it loud,
so my name will be carried on the air
to all corners of the earth.

Tell my story to your young
so they remember me.
Speak of me to your neighbor
so our people will live alongside me.

Don't say I am gone when I die.
Say I live forever in your memory--
the memory of those who know me
and the memory of those who will know me
through my story--our story.

Don't speak of me as if I am dead.
Speak of me as if I stand beside you.
I will be there.
On your lips I will never die.

Speak my name often
to resurrect those who have perished
at the hands of the murderers of innocence.
I am their representative.
My story is their story.

To stop the enemy of our people from winning
speak of me and our people often.
We live on through you.

You are my breath--our breath.
You are my voice--our voice.
You alone keep memory alive.

Silence is the final stage of genocide.
Speak of me often.

Brief history:

Although my mother came from a place in the world that was too small to be depicted on a map, as the subject of the memoir, Not Even My Name, she became known to Pontic Greeks world-wide, as the Yia Yia (Grandmother) of all Pontians. To her family and friends she was a warm, sensitive, often humorous, and caring mother, grandmother, and great grandmother.

The only known survivor of her family of 15, including parents, grandparents, siblings, and aunts and uncles, my mother's extraordinary memory brought to life the details of how the Pontic Greeks lived in mountain villages of the Black Sea region of Turkey in the early 20th Century, how the Assyrians lived in small hamlets in southern Turkey, and how the Armenians lived in Diyarbakir. Her memory also allows us to see and feel her community's devastating death march to exile in 1920. To help her survive, her mother left 10-year-old Themia in a small hamlet in southern Turkey, with a woman who promised to care for her. After her mother's death, young Themia was treated as a slave. With the loss of her family, community, and finally her name, changed to Sano by her cruel keeper, Sano ran away to Diyarbakir at age 12. There an Armenian family took her in. When they fled to Aleppo, Syria to avoid further massacres, they took young Sano with them as their daughter.

Sano's future husband, Abraham, an Assyrian who had also fled Turkey and emigrated to the U.S. in 1905, traveled to Aleppo in 1925 to visit exiled cousins and to find a bride. To give Sano a chance at a free life in America, at just 15 years old, her Armenian family arranged Sano's marriage to 45-year-old Abraham. On their arrival in New York City, Sano became mother to Farage, Abraham's 10-year-old son from a previous marriage. Sano and Abraham raised 10 children of their own. I am the eighth.

My mother had once opined, "If I could only write, I'd tell the world what happened." Although I had made my career as a painter, after our trip to Turkey, I decided to be my mother's voice. Not Even My Name was published by Picador, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, in 2000. In 2002, Sano Themia Halo was given the New York Governor's Award for Excellence in Honor of Women's History Month, Honoring Women of Courage and Vision, for making known to the American public for the first time, the history and tragic fate of the Pontic Greeks, a people who had made Asia Minor their home for almost 3,000 years, until their massacre, death marches to exile, and finally the Exchange of Populations in 1923 pursuant to the Treaty of Lausanne. Sano is also featured in a number of documentaries, and has received numerous other honors and awards in the U.S., Canada, and in Greece. In 2002 I established The Sano Themia Halo Pontian Heritage Foundation with the intention of building a living museum in Greece to help future generations know how the Pontic Greeks lived in the Pontic Mountains along the Black Sea. So far our plans have been hindered, but I am still hopeful it will be built.

Although a resident of New York City since her arrival in 1925, neither I nor my mother, nor most of the country, were aware that over 40,000 Pontic Greeks made their homes in Astoria, L.I., with further Pontian communities in Connecticut, Chicago, Ohio, Canada, and elsewhere.

In 2009, for her 100th Birthday, Greece awarded my mother and me honorary Greek citizenship. "Now everyone will know I am Greek," my mother said, referring to a U.S. passport that depicted her place of origin as Turkey, without identifying her as a Greek.

Although my mother's story of loss of family, home, country, and finally even her language and her name was so tragic, she never held any animosity towards the Turkish people. After returning from our 1989 pilgrimage back to Turkey to find her home she said of the Turks we met along the way, "Everyone treated me like family." She said they had lived side by side in peace. "They are people like any other people. They want to raise their families and prosper. You must place the blame where blame belongs, with the Ottoman government. Ataturk. He was the one. Not the only one. But he was the one."

The Ottoman genocide of over three million of their Christian citizens: Greeks, Armenians, and Assyrians under the Young Turk and Kemalist regimes from 1913-1923 took the lives of 353,000 of the 700,000 Pontic Greeks, and a further 700,000 Greeks of Anatolia and Thrace in Ottoman Turkey. It also took the lives of 275,000 Assyrians, more than half their population, and 1.5 million Armenians. In 2007, the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) passed a Resolution affirming the Genocide of the Pontian and other Asia Minor Greeks and Assyrians as comparable to the Armenian Genocide. Since then the Parliaments of Sweden 2010, and The Netherlands 2015, have each affirmed the Genocide of these three historic Christian peoples in their own resolutions.

When asked if she wanted restitution from the Turkish government for the loss of her family and her home, my mother responded that she wanted an apology from the Turkish government. "We had everything to live for and they sent us to die on the roads," she said. She never received that apology.

In 1976 my mother moved from NYC to Monroe, NY. Above all, she was devoted to her family. She often said, "my family is my life."

Sano Themia Halo is survived by seven of her ten children, plus her many grand- and great-grand children. She was buried with my father, Abraham, in a private family ceremony at Woodlawn Cemetery in Bronx, NY.

More info at: www.notevenmyname.com