Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Listen to This, Listen to That: Women Political Poets

by Dan Froid

I studied neither American history nor government in high school, not really. For enterprising students who desired to put off their vacations, my high school in northeastern Nebraska offered a rather bizarre version of summer school, a system whose existence is puzzling. A week or so after the end of the academic year, we gathered at an old, old building. I believe it had, unsurprisingly, been the school for those with learning disabilities—which not only placed them spatially far from other students, but relegated them to this dump. The building was, in fact, a dump. Only the classrooms nearest the entrance were usable; the rooms further back were riddled with mold. One door which bore the label “Janitor’s Closet” opened onto a steep staircase; the same door bore a second label, bright orange, warning that what lay beyond was hazardous: “Asbestos Hazard.” Nobody goes there now. It still stands—I see it when I visit home—but it’s long since been officially condemned.

The courses, in addition to the building, were odd. Some of us were there to make up credits; others to earn them in advance. I, ever earnest and eager, fell into the latter category. I opted to do extra classes so that I could take more classes during the regular school year: more of what I wanted to take, British literature and journalism and creative writing. What qualified here as alternative high-school-level American history was a textbook about as old as I was and a bundle of packets. I and my fellows read through the chapters, filled in the packets, handed them in, and, if they had few enough errors, were given the next set. There may have been a simple test or two. In four days I rushed through all the packets, earned an A, and began my summer break.

They were a mere four days, and yet they stick in my mind as distinctly as anything. They could have been an entire summer. Their sharpness has a clear cause: I was listening to a great deal of politically oriented music, specifically Ani DiFranco. There was what seemed like a significant consonance between my rage at what I learned and her music, which I pumped into my ears. Is it incredible to say that it was only at that point that I seriously considered, for example, Native American genocide? Perhaps not. I’m sure mine was not the only school proffering outdated textbooks, outdated histories. It was because of my reading, for myself, the facts of history, coupled with the Ani DiFranco, that I became a toddler feminist. I was spinning my training wheels.

It seems that for angst-filled teens it’s very often Ani who provides the training wheels. Imperfectly was my jam. I felt manifestly sinful for listening to “What If No One’s Watching?”, her musical exploration of atheism. A heretofore-unknown sense of solidarity and identification accompanied the queer-lust folk-anthem “If It Isn’t Her.” And it felt joyous, righteous, to nod along to “Make Them Apologize”:

Because the music business
Is still run by men
Like every business
And everything
But we can sing like a sonofabitch
Make them twitch around their eyes
Make them apologize

It’s true! Everything is run by men! I don’t mean to be facetious. But it’s amusing to look back at my newly awakened, naïve political indignation—a sentiment which seems for many (based on anecdotal evidence) heavily tied to discovering Ani’s music.

I’m thinking about all of this because of “Women Political Poets,” Episode 36 of Air Schooner.  Many artists, like Ani DiFranco and Joan Baez and Neil Young, would not apologize for their politics, or for placing politics at the forefront of their art. Others shy away from such labels. Allison Hedge Coke discusses why some prefer not to declare themselves political poets: “they don’t want to be compartmentalized . . . they feel it will limit them.” Or “there could be people who are against [their position] who will make things more difficult for them.” Or “maybe they don’t know if they’re always going to be involved that way. They maybe don’t want to name themselves in that direction.” If you declare yourself a political artist, then you open the doors to questions, debates, arguments if not attacks. On a similar note, Dawn Lonsinger suggests that some poets believe that “nothing should compromise the arts . . . or the poetics.” And writing explicitly political poems “would somehow make our art more facile.” Politics is dirty, I guess—but it’s also true that, as Hedge Coke points out, people rarely cease to evolve and think and reconsider. At least one reason why some people phase out of Ani’s music is because they find their beliefs changing. They change their minds, and see her as tied to a younger self they must reject. (At the risk of breaking the rules of this aurally inclined column by telling you to read something, this excellent piece explored that very issue.) Maybe that’s the fear with some poets, too.

In her work, Lonsinger attempst to be political, but not overtly. Her poems are informed by her beliefs: “The Case of Lydia,” Lonsinger says, is related to her interest in “the body as a site of contention”:

She leans against glass, tries to comprehend legs like lost roots in the water project . . . Lydia swims in the solitude of observation, divinely plotless diorama . . . Eventually the glass takes her shape, begins to slip cellphone around her skin, Lydia vessel, Lydia capillary, Lydia Lydia . . . frozen in an aquarium of Lydia.

It’s a beautiful poem, whose politics are perhaps somewhat subtle—at least compared to, I dunno, “Make Them Apologize”—but integral to the meaning of the poem. 

Nikki Giovanni reads from her poem “The Rosa Parks,” and she tells us why she will continue to write about Parks. Textbooks often characterize Parks as a passive, tired woman—her passivity was, somehow, her resistance, which is of course untrue.  Giovanny says, “I had become incredibly disenchanted when people were saying, Oh, she was just tired. She didn’t know what she was doing.” In the poem, Giovanni writes of Parks, “No longer would there be a reliance on the law. There was a higher law . . . the sun came resting on her shoulders, bringing the heat and light of truth.” This is Giovanni’s point: to show us that Parks was certainly aware of the existence of a higher law, that her resistance was active, volitional. One function of Giovanni’s political poetry is simply to clarify history, to let us know what actually happened.

Today, yes, I say I’ve outgrown Ani, that her politics are outdated, simplistic. But she was an entry point. What started with Ani, really, was my own small effort to listen to such women, who—surprise!—are a hell of a lot more insightful than decades-old American history textbooks.