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Presented at AWP, Feb. 12, 2009

Poetics, Ethics and Politics: Western Poets Writing the Third-World “Other”

When poets such as Li-Young Lee, Bei Dao, and Derek Walcott write about their Third-World homelands, their poems often become metaphor-based, fragmented, stream-of-consciousness-like lyrics that move between interior and outward worlds and between Western and non-Western sensibilities. Such structures are in keeping with the reality that the characters, places, and modes of seeing the poets write about each reflect a “self” that they have lived for many years, and in important ways continue living. By contrast, in Bruce Weigl’s Vietnam-based poems, Karen Swenson’s Southeast-Asian and Tibetan poems, Vivian Teter’s “Lost Boys of Sudan,” such Carolyn Forche poems as “The Colonel,” and in my own work, the painstakingly detailed, readily accessible surface of the poems reflects in part an outsider’s concern for the clarity and external accuracy of the “testimony” the poems bring home to Western readers.

In contrast to the former group’s free-associative movements among versions of the self, or among settings and experiences that helped form these, those of us without similarly close personal ties cannot disregard the “otherness” of equatorial people and places. To do so would be as much a form of “poetic” imperialism as it would be to reduce Third-World characters and settings to otherworldly spectacles. Likewise, to do either would be a recipe for writing predictable, reductive, Sentimental, politically correct poems. To avoid the solipsism of imposing a Western vantage point on the people and circumstances we encounter, a Western poet who does justice (in both ethical and poetic senses) to Third-World people and settings cannot try to be the maker of the world he writes about. Instead, we need to rely on powers of observation, association, and juxtaposition in order to present a duality or contrast of Western and local perspectives.

As the lineage from “savages” to “heathens” to “noble savages” to “the white man’s burden” reflects, Western constructs have long reduced the Third-World “other” to a sequence of one-dimensional stereotypes, each implying the need for a somewhat different Western “remedy.” The challenge facing Western poets who would write about their encounters in equatorial countries is to move beyond the current, more “enlightened” but no less reductive perspective, exemplified by the ads and articles we’ve all seen for “Save the Children,” “Doctors Without Borders,” and other such organizations whose work deserves so much of our admiration. To reduce Franz Fanon’s “wretched of the earth” primarily to victims of poverty, disease, and genocidal or fratricidal wars that are in part our moral responsibility to stop may be helpful when it comes to fundraising for worthy NGOs or determining foreign spending priorities. When attempting to write compelling and revelatory poetry inspired by Third-World encounters, basic practices from our first good writing workshops still apply: Write about individuals: Not “peoples.” Not “a people.” Not a “cause” or “condition.” Don’t reduce a person to a composite, emblematic victim, or you will end up with some type of Third-World counterpart to Joe the Plumber. Avoid reducing a poem to barren and misleading Manichean constructs. Don’t turn the “I” of the poem into a would-be saint, a self-righteous prig, and certainly not the smug, superior know-it-all Paul Theroux comes across as in Dark Star Safari while cross-examining everyone he meets from Egypt to South Africa.

The most helpful advice I received when I began trying to write poetry about Third-World places and people I encountered is to get beyond my intoxication with what to me is extraordinary, in order to find what is ordinary to the people I would write about. Situations that are surreal and unthinkable to us—a mother on the street offering to sell her infant for cash, or a ten-year-old girl trying to sell her body, for instance—become the fabric of day-to-day life for those forced to conduct such activities on a daily basis. As Gabriel Garcia-Marquez has remarked, “In the Third World the surreal is often real.” When done well, writing poems based on such settings enables us to combine the force and grit of realism with the types of resonance that surrealism can reach.

Within what is most horrific, exotic, or otherworldly to me, I need to capture the fabric of what is most ordinary, most quotidian, in the eyes of those who would inhabit my poems. This requires a specificity and exactitude of detail I can produce only by referring to the notes I scribble compulsively, often while watching and listening. For the poems to have any perspective, I then have to work on them at home, once I’m no longer in the grip of their subject matter.

In terms of technique, depicting circumstances that are most harrowing or amazing to me, yet taken-for-granted to those I encounter often involves placing details that I find the most extraordinary into subordinate clauses, to reflect the extent to which the individuals in my poems have come to take these for granted. If I manage to focus on perceptions and actions that seem most ordinary to those I would write about, not only will the details, characters, and settings seem more “real” and less chosen for effect, but the resulting tension between my subjects’ perspectives and my own unstated, implicitly present Western point of view can become a driving force of the poem. This can be accomplished not only by foregrounding the perspectives and voices of those I meet, and the details of our encounter, but also through the inclusion of occasional, brief recollections from my life back home. Keeping my way of seeing and speaking discrete from that of those I would write about, and taking care to let their voices be heard in my poems, rather than conflating their voices and mine into what would turn into an inauthentic “voice-over” is likewise essential to preserving their individuality and “otherness.”

Respecting the individuality of people and particularity of places in the Third World, as in our own world, often requires poetry that is not reducible to easy political or ethical conclusions. Poverty, hunger, and surviving genocide may make people stronger, but do not necessarily create morally superior beings. In some regions interaction with “victims” involves almost constantly fending off scam-artists, touts, and aggressive beggars. It would be as much a mistake to screen this out of poems based on such settings as it would be to focus exclusively on it. The day-to-day experience of coping with what we see as unbearable afflictions does not involve thinking or speaking in moral categories. Its fabric consists mainly of pragmatic, moment-to-moment and hour-to-hour considerations, whether a six-year-old is trying to sell a me trinket so his mother can buy rice for their evening meal, or a father is trying to marry off eleven-year-old daughter to me for what would come to about ten days of worth of my monthly rent back home. To turn such encounters into poems that are mainly about witnessing the “plight” in question, or to project my own sense of crisis or hopelessness onto circumstances that have become routine to those involved is to reduce the particulars of the person and episode to the perspective I had before I bought my plane ticket. If instead I focus with enough detail and clarity on the individuality, voice, and immediate concerns of those I would write about, their “plight” cannot help but be present in the background. Its lack of emphasis will make it all the more disturbing, as readers are left to feel they have “discovered” this on their own. If Third-World characters are not made to be entirely heroic, the poem will be driven by the tension between the morally clear background and the more muddled but vivid foreground. If the encounter yields details that the Westerner cannot clearly interpret or morally categorize, it is helpful to recall that Keats’s “negative capability” is not about forcing explanations, but about the resonance of unanswered or unanswerable questions.

As with Aristotle’s exploration of Greek tragedy, poetics and ethics turn out to be inextricable and inseparable, but in ways not initially apparent, when it comes to Western poets writing about the “Third-World” “other.”

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