This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Philip Metres’s Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront Since 1941 (Univ. of Iowa Press, 2007).
H. L. Hix: Your book starts with the observation that “exclusion of dissenting voices . . . has continued throughout our history” (4), but implies near the end that the exclusion may be more complete now than ever, since “war’s televisual representation . . . nullified the kinds of lyric responses upon which war resister poets traditionally relied” (197). If the exclusion is more intense than ever, what justifies the sorts of hope you express in your coda?
Philip Metres: There are at least two ways to address this question—via the personal (i.e. my own story vis-à-vis poetry and the peace movement) and intellectually. My own journey through Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront since 1941 had many stages. It was borne out of an intellectual and poetic attempt to understand the failure and despair of peace activists (myself included) during and after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when I was a junior in college. I was stunned by what seemed to me a mass psychosis, in which everyone huddled around the television (myself included) as if it were an intense sporting match—but which was a war not unlike any other, though the corpses themselves were disappeared in the official media coverage. Journalists—particularly the television media—seemed more interested in making amends for its purported liberal bias during the Vietnam War, to heal the wounds of the Vietnam defeat; I can see it now as a classic example of what Richard Slotkin called “redemption through violence,” in his pivotal work of American history, Gunfighter Nation.
Years later, researching the multiple pasts of the American peace movement, I was buoyed by the steady courage and flinty audacity of dissenters and resisters, and found myself involved in a full-scale historical “recovery project.” As I was completing the book, the attacks of September 11th caused a complete reassessment of my entire argument—in which I radically questioned every presumption I’d made over ten years and 300 pages—but eventually I returned to the abiding conviction that the peace movement (aided and abetted by poetic work within and through peace) is an essential brake in a nominally democratic society to its imperial ambitions. Once I gave up the arrogant idea that the peace movement should be judged only by whether it stopped specific wars, I was able to see its modest pragmatic successes; as importantly, I could now see its essential moral (indeed, spiritual) labor of witnessing to our common humanity. Long story short, at least for the moment, I feel as if I’ve made peace with the peace movement’s own limits, its marginality, its “ineffectuality,” its quixotic and utopian tendencies.
Incidentally, the peace movement and poetic production share their common sensitivity to the watchful gaze of the Other, the generations of the past and future. Our work is an attempt to dialogue with the dead and to create a model of being that might be worthy of our possible futures. I am haunted by a quotation from Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, at the end of her chapter on war:
Yet from a distance of many centuries, we often ask why they permitted it; for it is a universal fate of those from whom the power to author their own fate has been retracted that later populations reattribute to them the power of authorship and speak of them as ‘permitting’ it. This question is not only asked, retrospectively, of the slaves forty centuries ago, but of the concentration camp prisoners four decades ago. The same question, however unfair, will be asked of us.If there is to be an answer to those future populations, it will only be heard in the words spoken to contemporary military and political leaders, words that will have to be spoken very clearly and soon . . .(italics mine)
What words would we like to have said, what actions would we have wished we’d have committed, had we the chance? What will they say of us? (Incidentally, it is in the arena of ecological abuse—part of a larger system of domination which includes war-making—that I feel this question most loudly).
Now, the other way to answer your question is to say that you’ve conflated “dissenting voices” with “lyric responses”—and indeed, two different historical moments in the book, the Persian Gulf War moment and the Iraq War moment. On the contrary, dissenting voices are themselves increasingly accessible (to those who are looking to find them), thanks to a proliferation of digital technologies—perhaps more accessible and wide-ranging than they have been in human history; however, their availability has not substantially mitigated the enormous power blocs that they decry—the military-industrial-security complexes that continue to proliferate.
What I was referencing toward the end of the book was the way in which poetry itself—in particular, a poetry based on the illusion of authentic voice, transparent image, and containable narrative—seemed particularly outflanked by the technowizardry and media savvy of Department of Defense self-representation. In a sense, this is the argument that Language poets articulated in the period between the Vietnam War and the Gulf War 1991—which is why, incidentally, for me, the best poem about the Gulf War is Barrett Watten’s Bad History. Its poetic strategic perfectly and perversely matched that war’s representation for American civilians—one in which all dissent was ridiculed, undercounted, or ignored; in which we were invited to see the Patriot Missile as “the war’s first hero”; and in which reporters were utterly censored and kept away from the scene of battle, thus ensuring that the state could assert its own triumphalist narrative, without alternative.
Indeed, why should one hope at all, if, as Foucault argues, repressive state power has simply morphed from brute force to the discipline of surveillance and internal self-repression? Why should one hope at all, if, as poststructuralist Marxists argue, all acts of dissent and resistance are so swiftly and easily commodified (Billy Bragg: “revolution is just a t-shirt away!”).
All of this makes a certain sense. But the Gulf War did not end wars. When the Berlin Wall fell, history did not end. Things change. What is an absolutely true statement, in a few years, no longer holds. The difference between the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq—between a war of retribution and a war of imperial choice—made the peace movement reappear, as if out of nowhere. But it was always there, in the small actions of people like Cindy Sheehan, who don’t usually make the evening news, who said “our grief is not a cry for war.”
Somehow, we “hope against hope,” to use the title of Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoir, whose hope was articulated by her holding by heart hundreds of her martyred husband’s poems, whose manuscripts had all been destroyed during the Stalinist years. In the book, I articulated my hope on the level of rhetorical address, when I made the decision in the coda to shift from my discussion of the peace movement in the third person to the first person plural; in other words, I implicated myself in the possibilities and limits of poetic involvement in the peace movement. The coda, which deals with poetry and the peace movement after 9/11 and amidst Iraq, is a performative call into being that which already exists but has not been named as such—a widespread rapprochement between poets and the peace movement, between poets of various competing schools, who see a common need for a poetry that refuses to cede the story of our nation (and, of our other allegiances) to the pundits and demagogues. I’m still working out, in my poetry and in my daily activism, what that rapprochement might look like, but the Come Together: Imagine Peace anthology of peace poems was one attempt, my poetry project, “Sand Opera,” another, and the “Stories of War and Peace,” project, interviewing peace activists, yet another.
HH: Each chapter of the book is illuminating, but I was especially taken with the chapter on William Stafford, which will send me back to his poetry and will send me to Down in My Heart. One of your paragraphs about Down in My Heart includes the observation that “resisting war in contemporary America necessarily includes grappling with the difficulty of representing resistance” (62). That seems to me one of the central insights of your book, that a necessary condition for successful resistance is successful representation of resistance. So is Stafford’s memoir a representative case, in that his poetry of resistance needs also an apology of sorts?
PM: William Stafford, to me, is our preeminent pacifist poet, whose poetic practice and war resistance dovetailed inextricably, crystallized in his years undergoing alternative service as a conscientious objector during World War II. Though he is a minor figure in American poetry, his lifelong working-through of the problems of pacifism in poetry, in story, in essay, in teaching, in his daily life is a vital, untapped resource. I’d highly recommend not only his memoir Down in My Heart, but also Every War Has Two Losers: William Stafford on Peace and War. Stafford’s memoir articulates the struggle to resist not to differentiate oneself from the socius, from others, but rather to claim a shared humanity between the war resister and the society at war. (After all, Stafford maintained a lifelong closeness with his own brother, a bomber pilot during World War II). It is Stafford I return to, in his notion that the peace activist (each of us, in fact) must not settle for “being right,” but to do good. And the difference between these two positions is the difference between rhetoric and poetry, as Yeats formulated (“out of the quarrel with others, we make rhetoric, out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry”). When peace activists have been able to represent themselves as the “ourselves,” as part of the collective, their witness and outlook have spread more widely.
Arguably, the same is more or less true for poetry. Though we need dissenters and poets whose visions radically challenge our very assumptions about the true and the good (not to mention, the status quo), we also need activists and poets willing to speak representatively, as if it were possible (knowing, as the post-structuralists know, that such a stance is itself probably impossible). That’s why I am particularly enamored of poets like Blake, Whitman, Stafford, Neruda, Ginsberg, Ashbery, Lowell, Rich, Spahr, Nowak, among others (my novelistic heroes being Cervantes, Tolstoy, Melville, and Twain)—because they refused to cede the fundamentally social valences of poetry, articulated by Aristotle as mimesis. These poets call into being the radical dream of a shared, communal life. What worries me about contemporary poetry is that it appears we have ceded a large territory, the territory of representation, and of narration, to other literary forms, to film, to mass media, and have circled our wagons around language itself as the only defensible territory. When an art becomes completely self-referential, it ceases to be art. Now, I’m not saying that this has happened, that this is the end of poetry—clearly, there are many poetries that resist this sort of retreat—but much of the scene seems to participate in a post-structuralist madness of our own premature demise.
War resistance poetry reminds us that poetry is not only for itself, but both a medium and an end, and the endless wrestle between these two aspects of all art.
HH: Another moment in your book that I find especially arresting is your observation about June Jordan that “her work challenges the peace movement to abandon simplistic notions of peace” (195). This seems to make the project of resistance much harder, not only in itself (we can’t take our aim as self-evident), but also in regard to representation: it’s one thing to represent resistance if “peace” is obvious and simple, and another thing altogether if “peace” is complex and difficult. Is this part of the importance of poetry as a means of resistance?
PM: It makes me a little crazy when I hear retreads from the 1970s—or commodified versions of said retreads—say “peace” is a simple idea, a self-evident act or way of being. Whenever power is at stake, conflict arises. If we were to live in a world of total abundance, then perhaps peace would be a simple idea. But insecurity, vengefulness, cupidity, are ancient feelings wound, it would seem, in our very DNA. Robert Bly, in a forthcoming film on William Stafford, said (and here I paraphrase), there is something in us that wants a big war, a war in which we kill lots of people. What is that in us that wants such a thing?
Because of what June Jordan experienced in her life (the violence of her father), because of the color of her skin, because of her outspokenness, she never could feel that peace was an easy thing, disconnected from the struggle for justice, for human dignity. She is a key figure in war resistance poetry because of how—through her poetry, her essays, her pedagogy—she renders visible the American peace movement’s traditional limits, its relative protection from actual attack, its ideological blindspots, its (occasionally) bourgeois whiteness. This is not to say that there are no black voices, no poor voices, in the peace movement; on the contrary, there are many.
Poetry is again both a means of resistance and a mode of resistance in itself. (Some have argued that poetry is poetry insofar as it demonstrates a resistance to paraphrase, to easy meaning!). Jordan’s particular gift hearkened back to the prophetic tradition, in her own version of the jeremiad, scolding the people for their moral lassitude, for their failures to answer to their (our) better selves. A self-described woman warrior, a warrior for justice and for peace, Jordan widens the field of peace activism into resistance, into the struggle for human rights.
Philip Metres has written a number of books, most recently the chapbook, abu ghraib arias (Flying Guillotine 2011), winner of the 2012 Arab American Book Award, and To See the Earth (Cleveland State 2008). His work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including in Best American Poetry, and Inclined to Speak: Contemporary Arab American Poetry. He is the recipient of an NEA, a Watson Fellowship, four Ohio Arts Council Grants, the Anne Halley Prize, the Arab American Book Award, and the Cleveland Arts Prize. He teaches literature and creative writing at John Carroll University in Cleveland.