So you’re in a writing workshop, one of those all day affairs where you do some exercises in the morning and have a communal critique in the afternoon.
You’ve written 3 bad poems, 1 seed of something, and poem that flew from your pen or fingertips so naturally that you have no idea where it came from. You’ve read the poem aloud and the group are now staring at it with vague disdain.
“It’s interesting”, one of the workshop attendees says / groans, “but it’s a little bit too political for me.” You sigh. “Yes, it is a bit” pipes up another speaker. “It feels like the reader is trying to tell me to think about something, and I don’t really like that.”
Or perhaps you’re staring at a rejection letter from one of the big magazines. “We thank you for submitting your poems” the typed letter says, “but we do not feel your poem is a right fit for our magazine.” In the margins a vague scrawled note from an Editor – “too political”.
Or perhaps you’re reading the winning entry to a big poetry competition and it’s a poem about some sexualized flowers.
Or perhaps you’re at a big poetry festival, and the committee are having a meeting in a room where you’re having a cup of tea. And they’re talking about how they’ve got a black lesbian in to help with the ticketing (“two Arts Council boxes ticked there” the chair of the committee jokes as the committee members chuckle vaguely reprimandingly). Perhaps you overhear someone say that ticket sales are down “because of this ridiculous obsession with diversity”.
Perhaps later you get treated to the same committee members explaining to you that Danez Smith’s poems are racist against white people and when you try to explain it you’re accused of being a “naïve snowflake and all that is wrong with this country”.
And the poem you wrote, at that workshop, it was a good poem. It showed and didn’t tell, it wasn’t didactic, it presented images meaningfully, it felt real to you, and it felt like it said everything you wanted to say, but it was “too political”.
A confession. I used to be someone who told others their poems were too political. I used to edit a young writers website and reject work for being “not mature”, “a voice not found” – when really on reflection it was possibly subconsciously because it was direct and political.
A poem changed my thinking of course – as poems do: ‘I woke up’ by Jameson Fitzpatrick.
I woke up
And it was political.
I made the coffee and the coffee was political.
I took a shower and the water was.
I walked down the street in short shorts and a Bob Mizer tank top
and they were political, the walking and the shorts and the beefcake…
the poem goes on – and it’s great, and I loved its audaciousness and it’s calling out of the day-to-day things that are political.
The poem ends:
I thought I was not a political poet and still
my imagination was political.
It had been, this whole time I was asleep.
In this world we live in, how can a poet not write about the political?
Another way of thinking about it: how can a poet who deliberately avoids the political not feel ashamed to call themselves a poet?
The best kind of political writing is inherently political, to the point where it is personable, non-judgmental, non-didactic.
Ilya Kaminsky and Nikola Madzirov are inherently political. John Kinsella and Ocean Vuong and Richard Scott and Andrew McMillan and Kim Moore are inherently political. John McCollough and Gregory Woods and Daljit Nagra are wonderfully political, subversive, catching us unawares.
Fiona Benson is a wonderful political writer. Caroline Smith and AK Blakemore – the list goes on forever really – and I’ll explain my views more thoroughly on my upcoming online course.
During The Personable Political we are going to read and write poems that are inherently linked to our political situations. We will do so with kindness and compassion, but with insistence.
And yes, regrettably, those poems are probably going to get rejected from the big magazines for being too political. And yes, some old conservative tosspot will probably chide you in a writing group for bringing your politics to the table, and if you read it at an open mic then some cretin will probably tell you off for saying something that needed saying.
But it won’t stop it from being a good poem.
A thought: people often complain of the poetry scene being very middle class, peopled with gatekeepers who decide who gets published and who says what.
Why try to publish in such an industry unless you want to say what you have to say?
I’m looking forward to teaching this course, and looking forward to hearing what you have to say.
Re-centre your poetics and speak truth to our fractured times on David Tait’s new online course, The Personable Political. Call 0207 582 1679 or book online.