May 13, 2010

Carmen Gillespie
Carmen Gillespie, professor of English.

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(Editor's note:  "Ask the Experts" will resume weekly publication in the fall. Until then, please enjoy this edition originally posted this past spring.)

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Welcome again to "Ask the Experts," a regular web feature that highlights the expertise of various Bucknellians in a range of topics related to current news events and other timely subjects. || Ask the Experts archive

This week, we asked Professor of English Carmen Gillespie to talk about the importance of poetry in our daily lives. Essence recently named Gillespie one of its "Forty Favorite Poets" in honor of the magazine's 40th anniversary. Gillespie was recognized for her poem, "Lining the Rails," about her maternal family.

Q: What role does poetry play in literature and in our lives?

A: Poetry serves many functions, but primarily it is a way that we are able to use language to process the complexities of our lived lives in an artful, playful, complex fashion that in some ways mirrors our experiences. Sometimes people think poetry is esoteric and removed from ordinary speech, communication and language. I would like to invite reconsideration of that perception. Ideally, poetry presents humanity with imaginative challenges that encourage us to understand the world in more evocative and enriching ways.

Q: Does poetry help us communicate better? And how does it come into play in speeches and other forms of communication?

A: Writing and reading, experiencing poetry in all of its permutations allows us to develop fluency with language. If you are able to understand the techniques of poetry, the formal conventions of poetry and, sometimes, the sublimity of poetry, then those skills and ways of reading can translate into an ability to communicate more effectively and also the ability to understand more complexity. Historically, poetry is one of our first literary forms, and I don't think that's accidental. Poetry evolved from song, arguably the primary human art form, and it became a kind of expressive mode that enables a unique synthesis between human expression and lived experience.

There is a distinction between reading poetry and speaking poetry. One of the early functions of poetry was to help people remember narratives. It's easy to remember the various phases and parts of a story if it's written in rhyme or meter. Poetry is a repository for the human experience and a way of recording, not in a journalistic sense but in an artful sense, the myriad ways in which we walk through, perceive, remember and interpret what we call life.

Q: Particularly during the time of slavery, many African-Americans did not have access to language in the written form. Is the African-American experience with poetry different from that of other cultures?

A: Earlier in the semester, the Stadler Center for Poetry sponsored a session called "African-American Poetics." The panel included (guest poet) Patricia Smith, (Center Director and Associate Professor of English) Shara McCallum, (Poet-in-Residence) Tim Seibles, (Assistant Professor of English) James Peterson and me and had as its focus exploration of precisely that question. It's a valuable question, but I am ultimately going to say there is not a final or completely satisfying answer.

One way of answering the question can be found in the story of Phyllis Wheatley, the first African-American woman poet to publish a book of poetry. When Wheatley wrote her first book, she was brought before a tribunal, a group of white men in her community who didn't think that she had the capability to write her poems. They put her through a rigorous examination to see if she could prove to their satisfaction that she had the intellectual qualifications to compose poetry. Ultimately, they determined that she had indeed written her book, but the incident illustrates the negotiation with literacy and art that distinguishes the African-American experience of writing poetry and of writing in general.

Particularly in the early phases of the African-American experience, writing functioned both as a way for African-American artists to compose their works and also as a means for their art to be a conduit through which to claim intellectual facility and, more fundamentally, personhood and the right to citizenship.

Q: How does poetry remain relevant in the age of the Internet and social media? Is it getting lost or finding new homes?

A: There's an interesting conundrum going on with poetry right now. If quantity is any indication, there appears to be a resurgence of interest in poetry facilitated by the Internet. If you look at the number of people who have created blogs or their own poetry sites, there is a proliferation of publishing and public conversations about poetry. In some ways that phenomenon is very vibrant. On the other hand, book sales of poetry are dismal and poetry journals are suffering, so there's this odd contradiction regarding the health and state of poetry. It seems to me there is an increase of interest in poetry and engagement with poetry but at the same time consumption of poetry in the traditional ways is lagging.

But if you accept the premise that poetry is a conduit to experience and also an art form that functions as a repository of human existence, then it will always be primary. As an art form and as a genre, one could argue that the novel has in fact supplanted poetry as the dominant form of literature. On the other hand, despite all of the assaults to the writing and production of poetry, it persists. As evidence, one might look at our most solemn public occasions, an event like the presidential inauguration. At these events, there is almost always a poem read, and we seem, at those moments, to have retained a traditional embrace, even reverence, of poetry. As long as human beings are engaged in artful creation and are interested in exploring the complexity and imaginative possibilities of language, poetry will always be with us.

The Internet has been and will continue to be a critical vehicle for poetry, particularly for younger poets who see electronic media as a primary way of communicating. I am interested in the intersections between the Twitter and Facebook phenomena and poetry. It seems technological innovation is perhaps changing the way we use poetry and use art in general, but the significance of the art remains the same. Poetry is an ancient form and yet has this ability to provide access to complicated ideas and renderings through traditional and nontraditional forms. That flexibility engenders the facility, perhaps, to attempt to piece together the insane crazy quilt of contemporary culture.

Q: Who are some of the new poets who are breaking new ground and what are they doing differently or the same as others in the past?

A: Some poets I admire include Harriet Mullins, Claudia Emerson, Tyehimba Jess and Cornelius Eady. Harriet Mullins is an experimental poet who is interested in the complexities and formal nuances of language. Claudia Emerson is a fairly traditional narrative poet and a part of the neo-formalist movement. In some ways they represent the opposite extremes of contemporary poetry, and their works bring new understandings and open up possibilities for the genre.

Increasingly, we are hearing poetic voices and expressions from diverse communities, and that inclusiveness brings another layer of understanding and dimension to the mosaic we call poetry. Tyehimba Jess has a wonderful book of poems called Leadbelly, in which he creates a poetic dialogue between the African-American folk singer Leadbelly and the various figures, situations and demons of his life. Cornelius Eady has a book called Brutal Imagination where he takes the character of Susan Smith, the woman who drowned her children in South Carolina, and creates as his narrator the fictitious African-American man she blamed for kidnapping her children. Eady uses the police composite that was created as the result of Smith's description and uses him as the narrator of his book, so the narrator of the book becomes the reflection of the subconscious fears of America regarding racial difference.

I have to say I greatly admire my colleagues, too. Shara McCallum, director of the Stadler Center for Poetry, is a fabulous poet, as are my colleagues, (Assistant Professor of English) G.C. Waldrep and (Associate Professor of English) Paula Buck. We've been really lucky this year to have Poet-in-Residence Tim Seibles. What is admirable to me about Tim's work is that it is very accessible yet leads to the revelation of profound questions. Shara, in some ways like Tim, has a way of seeing the world that is readily accessible but always surprising. A particular gift of her works is the ways in which her writing allows the reader to enter one of her poems and to occupy the spaces it creates even though they are not necessarily familiar landscapes.

These are a few of the contemporary poets I most admire. They build on the best of the traditions of the past — Shakespeare, Blake, Wordsworth, Brooks, Clifton — and help to move us forward along this journey that, like it or not, we are all on together.

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