Critics, scholars, people who want to sound smart, and others who are just generally interested in artistic trends are obsessed with each generation's great literary movement. Relatively recently in the Western tradition, we've had the Romantics, the Modernists, the postmodernists—or are they really just late-Modernists?—as well as tons of other schools situated within and around those larger movements. These distinctions are academic, but they're useful lenses we use to see how writers used to see the world, and how they see it now. So, what is the big movement happening in literature right now? Where is it happening? Who's doing it? Do they have enemies? Rivals? Physically, do they fight? Those are some of the questions that might be on the table at the Activist Poetics in the Digital Age Symposium, which is scheduled for 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. at University of Washington's Allen Library this Friday. The very good poets speaking at the symposium will also give a reading at Central Library that evening.
Though a considered discussion of activism in literature seems particularly relevant in a moment when people are all but trying to buy anti-Trump breakfast cereal, UW-Bothell interdisciplinary arts professor Sarah Dowling told me the idea for the symposium started percolating last year, largely in response to literary conversations about appropriation.
Dowling cited poet and scholar Cathy Park Hong, who argued in The New Republic that we're living in a new literary era, one she described as "the poetry of social engagement." In essence, activist poetry is the new avant-garde. The Boston Review (and many other magazines besides) picked up this conversation. It's been in the air and in the creative writing workshops ever since.
The work of Whiting Award-winning poet Layli Long Soldier sprang to mind, Dowling says, when she and her colleagues were talking about poets who might fit in this movement.
In December of 2010, Obama issued a formal apology "on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native peoples by citizens of the United States." Instead of apologizing in a public forum, he slipped it into a defense appropriations bill.
Dowling says Long Soldier's poem, "Whereas," "picks that [apology] apart, and uses legalistic language to look at the history of attrocities committed across the centuries."
"That poem speaks back to politics, and seeks to investigate issues that are only becoming more intense and prominent," she adds.
If you're saying, "Wull, hold up. That section of Long Soldier's poem in Poetry magazine is incontrovertibly gorgeous and powerful and funny and makes me have thought-stars and I want to read it all the time, but does a strident critique of U.S. colonialism in a poem constitute an act of activism? Is using the language of colonialism to deconstruct colonialism a formal tool that fits only in the activist poet's belt? Couldn't a colonialist use the same move to deconstruct anti-colonial poetry? What does that mean? How do spoken word / slam poets feel about this sudden strain of 'activism' now currently trending in 'literary' poetry? Was Percy Shelley an activist poet? Isn't ideology the enemy of art? Do activist poets sell books, and, if they do, how they feel about participating in capitalism? Didn't Language poets think they could change the world through formal 'innovation' and don't most Trump speeches sound like Language poetry?" then you are not alone and should go to this conference / reading.
You should also go if you're one of those people who find it difficult to keep up with Trump's onslaught on the American psyche. Downing: "Even though this administration has only been in place for only two weeks, people are beginning to feel tired and depleted emotionally, and they don't know how to react. Turning to some of these art forms that don’t move so quickly might help."