By Frances Sjoberg
Originally published in the University of Arizona Poetry Center Newsletter Fall 2004.
Besides their nearly identical names, what do poets Regie Gibson and Reginald Gibbons share? Gibson, a songwriter and National Poetry Slam Champion, and Gibbons, a scholar and translator, here share their thoughts on poetry’s artists, audiences, and influences.
Frances Sjoberg: Do you believe that contemporary poetry has cultural influence?
Reginald Gibbons: I think poetry and fiction are a kind of virtual place. Or a form of quiet action. They make it possible to engage and articulate language, mind, spirit, feeling, in the most humane way and with the greatest acceptance of our complicatedness as creatures.
Regie Gibson: If you hold the belief as I do that the verbal component of hip-hop, i.e. rap is poetry, then you are constantly reminded of the cultural influence poetry holds. Now, one can argue about the value of that influence, but it is influential nonetheless. The problem with this genre of contemporary poetry is that the corporate hand influences much of it. You can’t trust an entity whose myopia only allows human beings to be seen in demographic shades, and whose sole telos is to render us all into machines of mass consumption. This view, however, is a polemic in which many things can be argued.
I am not an advocate of the IT’S ALL GOOD school of poetics, which asserts that every facet of doggerel is fine because it is self-expression. I do, however, contend there needs to be some recognition of the “un-tempered” within our ranks if there can’t be an egalitarianism. Modern poetry may have lost some cultural influence because we have not infused it with cultural elements and relevance. We still tend to canonize a very specific part of our collective poetic voice. AMERICA HAS NO UNIMPORTANT VOICES. It needs all tones to sing itself fully. Whitman taught us this over a century ago.
Frances: What are the responsibilities of a poet and/or his/her audience? Should a reader have to work to "get" a poem?
Reginald: I think that a truthful responsiveness to lived experience is one of the elements of much great poetry. To present "a true image of life," Edwin Muir said. This implies that there is someone else who will concur that the image is truthful. But the poet has to be responsive also to the sheer possibilities of language and feeling and thinking. Audiences need to learn from poets; poets may learn from audiences, too, but I don't believe that poets should be obliged to hold themselves back so that audiences can catch up. Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman didn't hold themselves back, yet a few of their contemporaries did admire their poetry even on their first acquaintance with it, and at its most challenging. Very few of the great American poets of the first half of the twentieth century had more than a thousand readers. Some poets do hold themselves back, out of kindness, or a sense that their artistic project really is public, or out of a mistaken sense of what they might be doing as artists. And there are poets who really do feel a deep connection to their audience—that's the way their art works.
Others may feel that they are out of synch with their own times, with history, and so instead they experience a deep connection to language, to poetry itself, or to the task of testing meaning. Great poets of all sorts can be found. But can one be excused from citizenship?—by which I simply mean living and speaking with thought for the consequences of one's ideas and actions on others, and working to keep language meaningful as it keeps being evacuated of meaning in the public sphere. A good citizen avoids the creation or tolerance of other peoples' suffering—to say nothing of avoiding taking pleasure in it (as some people either in private life or in power clearly do). Part of the unfortunate context of poetry in all times is human suffering, and in our time, it seems to me, it's also that pleasure in other peoples' suffering resonates through "our" media and the public sphere in general in America.
Regie: A poet’s primary responsibility is to communicate “truthfully” to whatever audience the poet is addressing. The level of discourse should of course depend upon the audience and how well a poet reads it. Lorca, in his lecture “The Theory and Play of Duende,” speaks of invoking the energy of a place before a reading in order to bring all spirits into one accord. This, he believed, would enable his personal and often hermetic imagery to become accessible to the audience. Ideally, a poet should be flexible and attuned to the collective character of an audience, any audience one addresses. I always try and be aware of whom I am speaking to. I believe this is where those poets who are more performance oriented will have an advantage. Through performance one learns to sharpen intuition, improvisation, diversity of voice, image presentation, etc. The trick is to appease an audience’s sensibilities and strive for artistic excellence.
And yes, I believe an audience should be required to work to get some poems. Others should be easier to understand. When a poem summons simplicity of voice, the challenge is to write simply, but not simplistically. When the poem demands a voice, which is dense and fibrous, the challenge is to be complex but not complicated. To always guard against mistaking intellectual obscurity for profundity. I don’t have time for writers whose work consistently offers no challenge at all to the reader/listener—nor for those who seemingly believe that if they are able to be understood, then they must have written the poem wrongly. I think both are insulting. But if the reader/listener is willing to labor, then the poem had better yield aesthetic and intellectual reward.
Frances: Both of your poetries have a strong musical drive, heavy with rhyme—internal and end—and the ghost of metrical patterns emerge and retreat throughout. How do you manage to balance music and meaning in your language? Do you preference one over the other?
Reginald: Absolutely not. What we call poetry, after all, is derived from song. Poetry is art, and as such should give aesthetic pleasure to the listener. But ideally, this aesthetic pleasure is heightened when it is drafted in the service of meaning. There used to be many discussions concerning this topic between traditionalists and acolytes of the so-called L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E school of poetics.
Concerning music in my poetry—I will say that humans are creatures of sound. Many cosmologies point to this. Grand Funk-ontologist George Clinton said:
We are all biological speculations
sitting here vibrating—and most of us
don’t know what we are vibrating about.
We are all seeking the right music. A personal system of sounds, which for us mirrors our tensions, then leads to a sense of resolution. We are like the sympathetic strings, which begin to waver when the proper chord is struck. Sound, for most of us, is indispensable to meaning. I am so pleased you chose the word meaning and not sense. They are not quite the same thing to me (they often date each other, though not exclusively). What makes sense to us in western culture is largely consigned to logic. In other words, it is about our ability to analyze, and then compartmentalize facts. Whereas, meaning is supra logical, it transcends analysis. In fact, most things that have meaning for us are not logical. Love + faith + hope = illogical. Consider dreams and the feelings we have when they are experienced. We rarely experience a dream, which proceeds in a logical Aristotelian way. Yet, they leave us with something, or the specter of something, and I believe this something has a meaning for us.
Regie: The music of words—I have spent years thinking about this, and listening for it, and have discovered for myself some of the techniques invented by poets before me—as far back as 10,000 years, which I'll talk about in one of my lectures.
Frances: Reginald, In the Warhouse is more overtly political than most of your past work. Did writing this chapbook feel like an artistic risk? An artistic necessity?
Reginald: In the Warhouse includes poems both new and old that seemed finally to have found their context in the misery and waste and error and enormous horror of yet another misbegotten war. Yes, all the poems are "political," although in different ways. I don't believe that I become a different poet when I write "political" poems, but instead I am just foregrounding certain feelings, experience, ideas, that are in all my work, but more often in the background. I hope the poems do represent some kind of artistic risk; my worry is not that they are risky, but that I'm not taking enough risks—of feeling or form—in each poem.
Frances: Regie, you phonically score dialect in quite a few of your poems. Is this a political decision? An aesthetic one?
Regie: Both. I believe this style coerces readers to hear the poem inside their own heads differently than they would if I used “standardized” English. For a moment they have to inhabit some one else’s world. I myself am caught between worlds. (After all, as a poet Orpheus, Hermes, and Elegba are my ancestors). My formative poetic influences were as diverse as my latter ones; they were the bible, Shakespeare, Poe, Dolemite (an underground venture capitalist with a penchant for poetry), and the expectedly urban and often surprisingly urbane streets of Chicago. By the time I was 14, I was reading Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and Iceberg Slim’s Pimp simultaneously. Both of these writers understood how to use dialect effectively. They understood how a character’s language could give insight into their psyches. I wish to do this as well with my writing.
Frances: What responsibility or role do poets have in times of cultural unrest and political dis-ease?
Reginald: I am always wondering if there is any way to come to rest in one position or another about all this. Everything depends on the definitions, the cultural context, the historical moment. For example, Emily Dickinson seems to have felt no responsibility at all to her contemporaries, either in the subjects she treated or in getting her work out to readers, and yet she seems to have shouldered an enormous responsibility to write for the sake of the language and for some unknown readers, however few, in some future time. Many great writers have said that the writer's only responsibility is to the language—to discover new expressive resources in it, and to restore language that has been debased by politics, advertising, family denial, all the forms of coercive mass communication, and every other pressure on us not to speak the truth, or worse, not to hear it when it is spoken (because helplessly we have invested our convictions and opinions and assumptions in lies). Otherwise very different writers like T. S. Eliot, George Orwell, W. H. Auden, Muriel Rukeyser, Grace Paley—they and hundreds of others say this in different ways.
But out of this impulse, some poetry turns out to be what we call "political" and other poetry does not. Poets and readers differ on this. I for one don't like to feel the pressure of any "community" on what I choose to say; I want freedom, complete permission to speak. Our society takes as God-given truths—aesthetic, social, political, philosophical—many false ideas and meanwhile we are saturated by the media with an equal number of illusions. These contradictory attitudes very effectively coerce our belief. There is no greater myth than, for example, "the free market," no greater illusion than that wealth is the measure of a human being, or that human beauty can be obtained by buying and using things, nor any more bloody delusion than that "God is on our side." I exist in a state of wariness and guardedness against the coercive pressures of “ nation" and religion and all kinds of communities large and small, but when I can raise my own consciousness to awareness of how heroic and generous and selfless so many people, and even some communities, are in their treatment of others and stewardship of the human community as a whole, then I am inspired to go on. And I don't think there is any time in the history of man that is not a time of "cultural unrest and political dis-ease."
Regie: To remind people of the human. The good. The bad. And, the damned repulsive. That we are more than the sum of our government’s policies. Words have either been so abused that they have lost relevance, or so co-opted by the manufacturers of public opinion, that they have become deceptively euphemistic and insidiously disingenuous. An example would be the phrase collateral damage. When we hear phrases like this we need to dig behind them. Learn to read the mouth’s fine print. We are talking about human lives here. Lives which have been reduced to a catch phrase—it’s so neutered it almost sounds like something you get with the #3 at McDonalds:
Uh, I’ll have The Office of Strategic Influence meal, uh-huh, heavy on the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. sauce, and…could you super-size that collateral damage, please. Right now, language deceives, when we need it to magic.
Audre Lorde told us that poets don’t have the luxury of doing many things. One of those is suffocating in the miasma of this dis-eased world. We have got to point to hope. The poet Martín Espada wrote one of the most effective poems I’ve read since 9/11, about 9/11. It is called “Alabanza: In praise of local 100.” In this poem he evokes and praises the human so completely that only the truly psychopathic among us are not moved. He reminds us of the human components of historic events: that numbers have families and dreams. That statistics are often calculated in blood.
We’ve got to transform the word poet from a static noun into an infinitive verb as in to poet, to make something become, to resurrect, to create. Our responsibility is not merely to speak of the world as it is, but also how it should be. How it must be.