Five in Bloom / Poetry

FIVE IN BLOOM: Poetry & Politics

by Mollie Weisenfeld

This edition of FIVE IN BLOOM features a diverse list of poets whose work reflects their political beliefs and, in some cases, their identities—for, as many people have discovered throughout history and in current times, the personal is political. These poets’ experiences come across in their work, which can be fraught, censored, but above all, vital to seeing through new lenses and into different worlds.

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Fred Marchant was born to working class parents in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1946. He transferred from Providence College to Brown University to study poetry, graduating in 1968. Shortly thereafter, Marchant enlisted in the Officers Candidate Program of the United States Marine Corps, not out of an ideological desire to fight in Vietnam, but to go to war and write about its “moral emptiness”—reasoning he now acknowledges as flawed.

While deployed in Okinawa, Marchant received news of the My Lai Massacre. Six months later, he applied for conscientious objector status and was honorably discharged in September 1970. Marchant enrolled in the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, earning a doctorate in poetry. Since then, his work has been devoted to writing about and highlighting the voices of conscientious objectors and veterans.

Marchant’s first book, The Tipping Point, published in 1993 when Marchant was 47, won the Washington Prize for best full-length poetry manuscript. He established the Creative Writing Program and Poetry Center at Suffolk University, and taught there. In addition to his own poems, he edited a collection of early poems by William Stafford, a WWII conscientious objector, and a translation of Vietnamese child poet Tran Dang Khoa’s work, titled From A Corner of My Yard. The translation project came about through the William Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences, which fostered a writing exchange between American and Vietnamese authors in the 1990s, and was led by a combat veteran.

Marchant says of his work with veterans, “writing somehow makes the more inexplicable parts of our experience a bit more approachable.” His most recent book, Said Not Said, was published by Graywolf Press in May 2017.

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Dana Gioia was born in 1950 in Hawthorne, California. His mother, a Mexican-American woman without higher education, exposed him to poetry from childhood, causing him to “never [consider] poetry an intrinsically difficult art whose mysteries can be appreciated only by a trained intellectual.” He was the first in his family to attend college, graduating first from Stanford, then earned an MA in comparative literature at Harvard, and then from the Stanford Business School. He rose in the corporate ranks to become Vice President at General Foods, where he marketed products such as Koo-Aid and Jell-O.

Gioia’s first book of poetry, Daily Horoscope (1986), was a collection of new and previously published poems. In 1991 Gioia published “Can Poetry Matter?” in Atlantic Monthly, an essay arguing poetry had lost its central status in contemporary American culture and creating a sensation across the literary world. He later turned his essay into a book-length work of the same name.

In 1992, at age 42, Gioia left his corporate position to write full-time and continued to publish his work. From 2003-2008 he served as chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts and is widely credited with revitalizing the organization, establishing programs such as “Shakespeare in American Communities,” “Operation Homecoming” for returning soldiers, “Poetry Out Loud,” and “The Big Read.” He is currently the State Poet Laureate of California and was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal by President George W. Bush. His latest book, 99 Poems: New and Selected, was released by Graywolf Press in April 2017. Gioia is also an active translator of Latin, German, Italian, and Romanian poetry.

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CA Conrad was born in 1966 in Pennsylvania. As a child he sold cut flowers along the highway and helped his mother shoplift to support his family. His father was a factory worker, who then became a janitor when he grew too old for the assembly line. Conrad’s community was poor and working class, and no one had time to read. In the mid-1980s, Conrad ran away to Philadelphia to make his own way.

In 1998, Conrad’s boyfriend, Earth, was raped and murdered in Tennessee, and the police there insisted it was a suicide. They convinced the Philadelphia police to harass Conrad (he and his boyfriend had been separated for work, but Earth was due to return in Philadelphia a few days after the murder occurred) to pressure him to drop the case. Conrad has not stopped speaking about Earth, even filming a documentary in 2016. Earth and Conrad had been together nearly since the death of Conrad’s previous boyfriend, Tommy, from AIDS.
In 2005, Conrad decided his style of creating poetry was too much like the factory system he had run away to escape—efficient, organized, and bounded by time—and he began to use (Soma)tic poetry rituals he invented to stay in the present, creating work out of deliberate experiences such as eating a single color of food for a day. Conrad now teaches workshops on (Soma)tic poetry. He was involved in the Occupy movement and saw how artistic and creative energy could be bent toward social justice. His first book, Deviant Propulsions, was published in 2008 by Soft Skull Press.

In 2016, Conrad was interviewed by the Library of Congress, but the organization eventually declined to publish the conversation, claiming it jeopardized the neutrality of the Library. Perhaps because the Library is a government organization, it was not permitted to publish anti-government work, and from the first answer of his interview, Conrad is critical of the United States, saying “I am a citizen of the United States of American and my nation’s military and police kill people every single day with guns and bombs and drones.” Conrad immediately found a publisher (Bloof Books) for the honest, incendiary interview. As he says, “THAT IS OUR JOB! Have you ever met a neutral poet?” The publication is dedicated to Chelsea Manning and Amy Goodman. Conrad speaks out against the military, contending that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’s repeal was not a success—it simply allowed the military access to further recruits for its agenda of imperialism, colonialism, and oppression.

Conrad’s newest publication will be released in September 2017 from Wave Poetry. While Standing in Line for Death details eighteen (Soma)tic rituals and poems. He is a Pew Fellow, an award granted to those dedicated to “fostering a vibrant cultural community in Greater Philadelphia.”

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Staceyann Chin was born in 1972 in Jamaica, and is of Chinese-Jamaican and Afro-Jamaican descent. She is a spoken-word poet and LBGTQ activist. Chin and her siblings were raised by their grandmother and attended several Catholic schools. She moved to Brooklyn in 1997 after experiencing life-threatening homophobia in Jamaica. Among other incidents, she was nearly gang-raped by anti-gay Jamaican men as a “corrective” measure. She is a lesbian single mother who became pregnant with her daughter in 2011 via in-vitro fertilization.

Chin performed and co-wrote on Def Poetry Jam and appeared Off-Broadway in Border/Clash, a one-woman show, as well as at the Nuyorican Poets Café. She is the host of Logo’s After Ellen internet show, “She Said What?” and teaches at Saint Ann’s School.

Chin’s first book, a memoir called The Other Side of Paradise, was published by Scribner in 2012. However, chapbooks of her work, as well as anthologies in which her poetry appears, and videos of her currently competing (and winning) spoken word competitions, are also available. Her work deals with being an outsider (lesbian, Black, Asian, immigrant, single mother, child abandoned by parents) with a foot in many worlds, as well as with social justice. In 2015, Chin was named one of thirty-one gay icons for Gay History Month.

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Ma Lan was born in Meishan, Sichuan, China, a member of the Hui ethnic nationality. She worked as an accountant at China Construction Bank before emigrating to the United States in 1993. She also lived in a Thai village whose name translates to “Bent Neck,” and which is featured in many of her poems as a rural, poor area being invaded and colonized by non-native savior society. Much of her work deals with Chinese society and culture, and how the repression of emotion has a detrimental effect on humanity.

Ma Lan’s first works in English appeared in the magazine Modern Poetry in Translation from King’s College, in their Summer 1996 issue. She has teamed up with Charles Laughlin, the Chair Professor of Chinese Literature at the University of Virginia, for numerous translations of her work, as well as those of other Chinese writers whom she curates. Their most recent publication is Lan’s first book, Poems, forthcoming this year from Argos Books. Lan currently serves as an editor of The Olive Tree, the first online Chinese literary journal. Laughlin also taught at Yale University, Beijing University, and Tsinghua University.

Here is a stanza from Ma Lan’s poem, “Writing a Love Poem for a Broken Tooth”:

Translation:
2. As I am the freshly minted 2003 Poet Laureate of Bent-Neck Village, my dentist is a Yale PhD.
He insisted that I do a deep cleaning.
He stands on the Himalayas teaching Nepalese children to brush their teeth.
Brushing in the sunshine and smiles—modern industrial society takes smiling seriously
The snowy mountains flow downward.

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Mollie Weisenfeld is an Editorial Assistant at Weinstein Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group. She is also an editor at Curiosity Quills Press. Her poetry has been published in Folio and Lilith Magazine, and she has a children’s story forthcoming from Ember: A Journal of Luminous Things.

Cover image of CA Conrad via poetrysociety.org

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