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Posted on February 15, 2008

Poems And Politics

Poet Suzanne Roberts speaks to BIJURAJ on politics and what it means to be living in America today

How popular is poetry in the U.S?
Unfortunately, many people in the United States do not read poetry. People are afraid of it. I see this with my students. They automatically think that they will not understand it, so they immediately don’t like it. Of course once we read it together, they do like it. There is, of course, a small minority of people who are very dedicated to poetry. And it seems that there are many people out there who want to be poets as evidenced by the number of MFA programs and poetry contests. I think the majority of the poetry audience is comprised of poets or at least want-to-be-poets.

What is writing for you and how did you turn to it?
Writing helps me make sense of the world. I think it was EM Forester who said “How do I know what I think until I see what I have said.” I see writing as a way to figure out how I feel about things. I also see writing as communication. I am trying to convey an idea or a feeling in order to create a connection. Writing has come naturally to me because my father was a writer. He wrote and directed Broadway plays and towards the end of his life, he wrote soap operas. I grew up to the sound of a typewriter clicking, so writing has been ingrained in me since I was a little girl. As far as style is concerned, my poetry and even my scholarly essays are narrative, and I think that is because I like to tell stories.

Your poems often mix English with Spanish. How do you evaluate yourself with cultural values?
I have a series of Latin American poems that explore what it is like to interact with another culture, including another language. The title poem of my book “Nothing to You” juxtaposes an intimate relationship with a man from a Latin American culture with the narrator’s alienation from that culture; because of the situation, she is both inside and outside of the culture. The title “Nothing toYou” refers to what the taxi driver tells her, that the money for the hotel room is “nothing to her.” But the title is also ironic because the affair, the man on the side of the road, her lost faith (the Jesus with the scratched out eyes) is everything to her. When writing the poems, the Spanish words seemed necessary. In most places, though, I tried to incorporate the words so that someone who does not speak Spanish will still understand the words in context.

There seems to be a lot of Latin American influence in your poems...
I can say that I greatly admire the works of Gabriel García Márquez and Federico García Lorca, and I can only hope that by reading them, they have influenced me. The poem “A Story” parallels the unlikely love of Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza. I think the novel Love in the Time of Cholera shows how love can make people do crazy things. I also think society has always restricted love affairs, which somehow makes them more attractive even if they were not attractive to begin with. The same is true of Lorca. In his case, his homosexuality created the automatic situation of forbidden love. Whether it is heterosexual or homosexual, the theme of forbidden love has always intrigued me.

How much can you self-expose in poems...
As far as self-exposure, I think all writing is self-exposure. This doesn’t mean that the things in my poems or stories actually happened. Sometimes the facts must be distorted in order to tell the truth. I want my poems and stories to be true to the emotion rather than true to the facts.

How does your poetry deal with the political?
All language is political. The choices we make in using language reveal our attitudes, beliefs, and politics. Many of my poems explore love and lust with the female narrator as object rather than subject. By deconstructing the usual gender roles, I am making a political statement. I think much of the injustice in the world stems from sexism. Though women are much freer in the United States and in Europe than they are in other place in the world, women are still repressed. Our media is full of images of sexually liberated women, but real women are still stereotyped and stigmatised; if a woman openly enjoys her sexuality, she is labeled as sexually promiscuous or even called names such as a slut or whore. Men, on the other hand, are congratulated for sexual prowess. Certainly it is more complicated than this, and my poems attempt to explore the feelings of shame and guilt associated with sexual freedom in a restraining society, especially for women.

How is your poetry related to your activism?
I am currently finishing a doctorate program in Literature and the Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, and my dissertation explores the connection between the oppression of women and nature. Likewise, some of my poems explore the repression of both women and nature. My poem “The Falling Sky” ponders a post-apocalyptic world where the female narrator is not allowed into traditionally “male” space even though the sky is literally falling. I hope that my scholarship and my poems will prompt my audience to question our treatment of both women and nature.

Tell us something about the state of literature in the US?
This is a hard question for me to answer because I am biased. I am most familiar with American and British literature because of my academic training. So I would say yes, American literature is up to the international standard. The other difficult part of this question is that when I read international writers, I am reading works in translation; while there are some very good translations out there, it is never the same as reading the work in the original language. As for the “masters,” I think that many of the multicultural writers have established a voice in the US. Writers such as Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, Maya Angelou, Sandra Cisneros, and Maxine Hong Kingston have shown us that there are lots of ways of being American. As far as poetry goes, I think there has been a recent trend in poetry that is intellectual and even verging on the esoteric side. Nathaniel Mackey recently won the National Book Award for his collection Splay Anthem. His poems are rich in sensual image but also very difficult and very experimental. It is hard to say because the pendulum is always swinging from difficult lyrical poetry to grounded narrative poetry. I admire both, though my own work tends to the narrative.

There's a lot of resentment against the US abroad. What's your take on this?

Every time I travel outside of the US, I am reminded that people hate the US government but not necessarily the American people, a fact for which I am grateful. First off, I was and am against the attacks of Afghanistan and Iraq. I also think our current administration is to blame. Even the Republicans are now calling Rumsfeld the worst Secretary of Defense we have ever had. The polls also indicate that Bush has less than a 40% approval rate. Almost everyone I know is against the war in Iraq. With that said, I can try to explain how the American people could have allowed for this to happen in our supposed 'democracy'. After the attacks of 9/11, the entire country was in shock to the point that whatever Bush did, he could have gotten away with. Also, many people were afraid. Bush and the current administration continually feeds off that fear. Now, though, I think things will turn around. Both the House and the Senate have a Democratic majority for the first time in many years, and hopefully in 2008 we will end up with a Democratic president. I do think a shift in the president will result a dramatic shift in foreign policy.

According to you, what are the reasons behind the US invasion of Iraq?

Some would say that the US has occupied Iraq because we want others to have our freedoms and our way of life, which of course doesn’t work—these imperialistic notions destroy countries and cultures, especially when they are delivered with force. I think the occupation in Iraq has taken place because the USA consumes too much of the world’s resources, and Iraq has a lot of natural resources, namely oil. I think it more accurate to call USA oil-thirsty than to call it bloodthirsty. Many Americans, including myself, are very afraid of what Bush will do next, especially in regard to Iran and North Korea. However, now with a Democratic House and Senate, it isn’t as easy for him to whatever he wants. He is currently calling for the deployment of 21,500 more American troops to Iraq, yet the Senate has thankfully blocked his request.

Generally it is said that after 9\11, America lives with fear. What do you say?

I do think the US lives in fear. I think it is just a matter of time before the US is attacked. Of course the US would call these terrorist attacks but considering the attacks on Iraq, I would just call it the unfortunate consequences of war. I am not sure why it is war when we attack another country and when they attack us, it is called terrorism. Language is powerful, and people believe what they hear. Semantics allows people to do horrible things and smooth it over with euphemisms. The language of fear also creates powerful divides; I am sure many other countries would refer to the American attacks on Iraq as terrorism and their own actions as defense. Everything looks differently depending on your perspective. For this reason, I think it is the job of the poets and writers to expose the falsehoods of language, create awareness, and work toward establishing a common ground.

Would you like to see the coming elections will help correct the course of America?
As I said earlier, I do think it will change. People are holding peace marches and protesting the occupation of Iraq quite loudly. I do not know what the answer is, though. Some of our politicians are calling for an immediate dismissal of all US troops from Iraq. Though leaving Iraq with no infrastructure isn’t the answer either. I don’t know if there is a way for the USA to help Iraq rebuild without violence, but I hope there is. I do think the US owes Iraq much in the way of reparations and aid.

Do you expect a black or woman president in US?
The female candidate we have at the moment up for a Democratic nomination is Hillary Clinton. I am afraid, though, that many people would not vote for her because she is a woman. We still have a lot of sexism in the United States. Barack Obama is a black man who is also in the race for nomination in the Democratic party. I personally think he would have a better chance at the presidency than Hillary Clinton. Many people, however, would disagree. There are both much sexism and racism in certain parts of the United States, especially in the rural areas of the south. I would like to think we are ready for a woman or ethnic minority, but I am not sure if such a candidate would get the votes. I suppose time will tell. Chances are that either Clinton or Obama will be on the ballot in 2008.

How do people view the present administration?

Generally, the American people are dissatisfied with the government. Dissatisfied is probably not even a strong enough word. Most people are disgusted; this is evident in the 35% approval rating of the president.

To get back to your writing, w
hat are you working on now?
My collection of poetry Nothing to You will be published from Pecan Grove Press this year. I am also working on a memoir about women and hiking that will be ready for publication late next year. In addition to my creative works, I am finishing my dissertation, which will hopefully evolve into a book, on the intersections of Gothic and Pastoral literature entitled The EcoGothic: Pastoral Ideologies and The Gendered Gothic Landscape.

If you were not a writer, then what would you have been?
As long as I can pick up a pen, I will be a writer. I don’t think writers are defined by publication records. A writer is someone who writes. Most people cannot support themselves thorough their writing. Most writers teach like I do or find some other way to support themselves. If I could have been anything else besides teacher and writer, I would have been a rock star, though that is pure fantasyland since I have a terrible voice and I don’t dance all that well either!

Posted on February 15, 2008

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