- Why Write Poetry?
I started writing poetry as a teenager as a way to express what I felt most deeply. I could be brutally honest about my thoughts and feelings. It wasn't for others. Only later did I understand that poetry could be a vehicle for communication and social change. As a citizen of the world, I do believe I must bear witness to the immoral, to the unspeakable horror that humankind is capable of inflicting on the earth and itself. Poetry's precise, musical, metaphor-infused language can get to that place beyond the illusion of the objective, to "true" words. My early poems were a way to soothe my unhappiness. Now I know that anything deeply felt or observed can become the genesis of a poem. When I feel fully engaged in my life, poems are more likely to come than when I am in despair. Adrienne Rich has talked about writing out of a "radical happiness." She has said, "Real social transformation, real change has to come out of a love of life and a love of the world..." Of course, I don't believe poetry alone can be a change agent, but it can incite the necessary conversation.
Why do I write poetry? It's a physical thing with me. I can't not write it. Like I can't not eat, or sleep, or even breathe. That's the physical part of why I write poetry. Then there's the love of the words themselves, the music, the sound of the consonants as they [End Page 16] tip and clank and roll against each other, and the vowels, how their sounds loop the words together. And then there's the activist part of why I write poetry. Because it gets through. We are overloaded with language these days, language that is untrue, the language of ads, the language of legislators, language that has been used to manipulate. People are looking for honest language, and they know they can find it in poetry. Poetry, with its imagery and visual language, brings the reader inside the moment of the poem, inside someone's experience. It speaks to us through our senses, and breaks through our denial. So when I feel deeply about an injustice, a family without a home having to sleep in the park bushes, a man with colon cancer dying because he doesn't have health insurance, a Palestinian woman protesting the Occupation, tear-gassed to death, I write about it, attempt to get through. Poetry as a catalyst to action.
Willa, you talk about "bearing witness" and "inciting the necessary conversation." There have been those who say that politics has no place in poetry. What do you say to them?
The question is not so much what I say to them, but what I had to unlearn myself; as a poet I must use my craft to protest the untenable, to give words to the unspeakable. I had to get past what is p.c. regarding bearing witness to and who is permitted to bear witness. Only someone who was there? Someone of the same race and class? I'm "allowed" to bear witness to the experience of a Jewish-American feminist woman, because that is what I am, but can I bear witness to an atrocity I heard about second hand from an individual of an ethnicity or nationality other than my own? Carolyn Forche, in particular, was a role model for me. She gave me "permission" to write the political poem. In the '80s she worked as a human rights activist in El Salvador and spent time in areas in crisis—the West Bank, Lebanon and South Africa. She moved from a poetry of introspection, to poetry of protest. A number of poets and literary critics questioned her right as an American to write about dictatorships in which she was a "tourist to terror," and furthermore, her critics argued that the realms of the personal and the political were mutually exclusive. I worked in Cambodia for the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) from 1992 until 1993, as a...