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Complexity in Creative Politics

How far should our writing be political, social, polemical? That’s a tough question for all creative writers whatever their genre. If we’re writing about people, places, events we can’t really avoid any of these even if they are not among our prime intentions. And in the month of March 2017 when Brexit is about to be triggered and we are still worried about what effect Trump might have on the democratic world, wouldn’t it be childish and frivolous if as writers we simply played around with words, wrote sentimental stories, and feel good plays and poems?
Alex Clark in the Guardian of 11 March mentions two protest novels that deal with the political situation today: Ali Smith’s Autumn which has already been published and Howard Jacobson’s Pussy which will be published later this year. This means pretty speedy writing and you can’t help wondering whether such novels will have meaning and value in a few years time or even months time when the political issues may have changed. Coincidentally, Graham Swift in an article (in the same issue of the Guardian) on immediacy suggests, for novelists, that doesn’t mean writing about what is happening at the moment but bringing whatever moment you write about alive for readers whenever they happen to read your work. Writing about the past may have more immediacy than writing about the present. An example of that may well be George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo about Abraham Lincoln visiting the cemetery where his son Willie had just been buried.
But back to the question of politics. This arose in some of the discussion following a blog I wrote in September where I was recommending the use of images and symbols rather than explanations, particularly in poetry but also in prose. To illustrate this further I can remember one of my early poems on the police killing of Blair Peach in 1979 when he was on an anti-war march in London. This coincided with a police recruitment visit to the school where I was teaching. In my poem I linked the two together in an ironic comment, understandably not very favourable to the police. Some time later I showed the poem to the poet Jon Silkin in a workshop he was doing for teachers. “That’s a very good piece of polemic,” he said, “but it’s not a poem.” I’ve since learned to be more subtle and I suppose I would recommend subtlety to all writers: don’t shy away from the political point but do it through image and symbol, not through explanation . See my blog
In the comments that followed that blog I pointed out that writers in countries where there is oppression on grounds of race, class or gender, writers may well feel they need to write with explanations and often see the use of imagery as a technique which can only be indulged in by European and American writers who live in countries with a free press.. I have argued this point with poets in South Africa, one of them Dennis Brutus, whose poetry tells of the horrors of apartheid and subsequent injustices. I find his poetry overly explicit but then I haven’t been shot in the back by the police, spent 16 months on Robben Island and years in exile away from my own country and family. I’m impressed that he had the spirit to write a poem like If this life is all we have ( https://sueddie.wordpress.com/2013/04/27/if-this-life-is-all-we-have-a-poem-by-dennis-brutus) and admire him for his courage but I think his poem is more polemic than poetry.
You can read a lot more of his poems here and see what you think.
A recent controversy on racism arose between two American poets, Tony Hoagland who is white and Claudia Rankine who is black about one of Hoagland’s poems. Rankine accused Hoagland of racism: Hoagland replied that the views expressed by the narrator of a poem are not necessarily the views of the poet, and that the poem was not racist but “racially complex.” I’ll give the poem here in full because it’s an interesting issue and again perhaps if you are a white male in the USA you can afford to be “racially complex” but maybe if you are a black woman writing about a black tennis player, that complexity is just a white male poet’s indulgence which a black woman poet cannot afford. I’ll leave readers to decide. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/dear-claudia-letter-response
The Change Tony Hoagland
The season turned like the page of a glossy fashion magazine.
In the park the daffodils came up
and in the parking lot, the new car models were on parade.
Sometimes I think that nothing really changes—
The young girls show the latest crop of tummies,
and the new president proves that he’s a dummy.
But remember the tennis match we watched that year?
Right before our eyes
some tough little European blonde
pitted against that big black girl from Alabama,
cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,
some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite—
We were just walking past the lounge
and got sucked in by the screen above the bar,
and pretty soon
we started to care about who won,
putting ourselves into each whacked return
as the volleys went back and forth and back
like some contest between
the old world and the new,
and you loved her complicated hair
and her to-hell-with-everybody stare,
and I, I couldn’t help wanting
the white girl to come out on top,
because she was one of my kind, my tribe,
with her pale eyes and thin lips
and because the black girl was so big
and so black,
so unintimidated,
hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation
down Abraham Lincoln’s throat,
like she wasn’t asking anyone’s permission.
There are moments when history
passes you so close
you can smell its breath,
you can reach your hand out
and touch it on its flank,
and I don’t watch all that much Masterpiece Theatre,
but I could feel the end of an era there
in front of those bleachers full of people
in their Sunday tennis-watching clothes
as that black girl wore down her opponent
then kicked her ass good
then thumped her once more for good measure
and stood up on the red clay court
holding her racket over her head like a guitar.
And the little pink judge
had to climb up on a box
to put the ribbon on her neck,
still managing to smile into the camera flash,
even though everything was changing
and in fact, everything had already changed—
Poof, remember? It was the twentieth century almost gone,
we were there,
and when we went to put it back where it belonged,
it was past us
and we were changed.

Posted by author: Liz Cashdan
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4 thoughts on “Complexity in Creative Politics

  • I wonder, as I have often done, why a post such as this is directed at a solitary discipline where it could easily rest with all student/artists.
    So, from the lens that I use I have found it difficult to extricate myself from what is happening all around, to not include what I feel about Brexit, Trump et al. This became manifest when I started a new project last year as I began to work as a volunteer bus driver for a community service. I began to record that short “walk to work” and realised after I began to consider the work that it resonated with my feelings toward the rhetoric around “fake news”. Whether it worked or not is beside the point, which is that, as an artist, it is difficult to not try and communicate your emotional connection with what is around us, what we feel strongly about – writers, visual artists et al.

  • Since seeing Ways of Seeing in the 1970’s I have considered all artistic endeavour to be political, even if it is only by default. From the apparently apolitical Fabergé egg to Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God some art just quietly reassures that a political system based on massive accumulation of wealth is OK. As Dylan sang ‘money doesn’t talk it swears…’
    This Saturday however I was lucky to come across two examples of directly political work which I admire. The first was hearing Salena Godden reading the, admittedly abrasive, poem Citizen of Nowhere. The second was rather different, it comes in the beautiful film currently on the BBC iPlayer Paula Rego: Secrets and Stories and concerns work prompted by another referendum. Well worth a watch.

  • “wouldn’t it be childish and frivolous if as writers we simply played around with words, wrote sentimental stories, and feel good plays and poems?”
    Sentiment and good-feelings are part of the human experience too. Some might say they are the most important part of the human experience. It’s important to write stories that give hope, that show the best sides of humanity, that teach us how to love our families, how to find happiness in small things. It’s important to write stories that simply give people an escape from grim reality for a few hours.
    What might seem frivolous to you could be a lifeline to others. My own experience of severe clinical depression was helped enormously by reading romance novels. Books where I knew I was guaranteed a happy ending, books that would still leave me able to sleep at night, books where problems were overcome. I needed those books then and I still need them now.
    Political commentary, books with social agendas, serious literature – they’re important and I wouldn’t want anyone to stop writing them. But please don’t dismiss other kinds of books as childish or frivolous. Those books are important too.

  • Very interesting blog and it’s good to see this as a question for creative arts students. I have wrestled with the idea of how a student might deal with a topic of significant importance as part of their level 3 studies. The importance of addressing some part of the complex and charged world we’re living in raises difficult questions around approach and interpretation. Certainly your example Liz presents these challenges for writer and reader and I look forward to looking out for this in future encounters within contemporary politically orientated work.

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