Dodge Poetry Fest Panel – Poetry and Class

Posted: October 20, 2010 in Events
Tags: , , ,

Panelists: Bob Hicok, Martín Espada, Dorianne Laux

Cited in the schedule as addressing educational, socioeconomic, and cultural issues, Poetry and Class was quite possibly the panel I was most looking forward to seeing at this year’s festival. It did not disappoint, as the panelists presented experiences and talking points with the passion and intelligence one would expect from renowned poets. The discussion started with a focus on work/jobs; moved on to language; and finished up with stylistic prejudices before an equally thought-provoking Q&A.

I’ve been trying to review this 90-minute panel for about a week now and could not bring myself to summarize too much. You need to hear Espada, Laux, and Hicok fervently detailing their arguments and reading poems. Despite there being no chance for direct interaction now, it is a conversation you can take part of none the less by listening and thinking. Likewise, this may not be a perfect summary, but it is a bridge for you to get somewhere worthwhile. And in the end, that is the purpose of a poem.

If you just want to listen to the full audio recording* of the panel and not bother with any of my own summarization/interjection (no offense taken), click here. To continue reading my summary and interjections (with a link to the audio at the end),

Martín Espada started off by noting that there is a nexus between poetry and social classes, especially through work. Having worked a number of hard-labor, low-pay jobs himself (as had all the poets on the panel), Espada likened himself to a spy – invisible to those higher-up because of his station yet witness to all he and his coworkers had to endure. As such, he felt poets can be advocates for those with no voice and took the notion one step further by quoting Eduardo Hughes Galeano, who said “I write for those who cannot read me.” Having knowledge means responsibility to share such knowledge, Espada said, especially in the United States with its illusion of classlessness. He also likened writing about class as writing about the relationship of power; that class often intersects with other issues, such as gender, language, and race; and that there are no conflicts between writing well and writing about class.

Dorianne Laux followed up, saying language doesn’t need to be brought down in any way when writing about topics related to class. There is something lost, she noted, when we lessen the language of where we come from. Laux mentioned a project where students were encouraged to write in a language of a worker as opposed to casual language of friends. This venture required interviews with random workers, and several realizations were made during the project’s execution: workers were delighted someone cared enough to ask them about their lives, and interactions spawned an interpersonal sense of community. Isolation, said Laux, contributes to a lack of compassion, and poetry can benefit immensely by focusing on those who do not focus on themselves. As an example, Laux offered a beautiful reading of B.F. Fairchild’s “Song” from “The Art of the Lathe.” She called such poems songs we have gained by “living inside Whitman’s democratic vista,” where anyone can write poems. This enables all classes can contribute their views, she said, noting that we live in a very generous time pertaining to who is allowed to write. This specifically applied to how affordable pencils and paper are and the fact that anyone in the USA is allowed to express whatever they want. Of course, just because we are allowed to write whatever we want does not mean that, due to external forces (to be addressed later), those writings will get anywhere further than our computers, webpages, notepads, heads, etc.

Bob Hicok, after reading a Gary Soto poem, noted how direct it was in terms of language and further commented on how being direct in poetry has been made to seem unintelligent. He continued, saying that the word choice cannot be ignored and makes class a part of the poem. Moreover, its language illustrates how imagery never lets the reader get away from the fundamental separations presented in the lines. Hicok noted that such social divisions, not least affected by issues of money, are a rather ingenious way of keeping classes separate. Segregation plagues us as a society, he said and noted that an astounding number of things society demands we do in order to maintain stability requires a turning away from the obvious. Hicok returned to what Laux had touched upon earlier, and said “we don’t spend time with each other. We don’t get to know each other. And if you don’t get to know each other, you don’t get to see how fucking common we are (in the best sense).”

This lead to the topic of stylistic wedges within poetry. As Hicok jokingly pointed out, “it’s not a huge pot to divide up, so why do it?” He refers to the current battle between direct vs. indirect expression and the fact that the two schools don’t like talking to each other, let along acknowledging the other exists as pertinent. Hicok dismissed the division, saying that “there is nothing that doesn’t belong to anyone…particularly regarding the myth of this country, which we fail so almost completely to live up to.” He finished by saying it is “only what you can compel yourself to do matters.”

Building on the topic of divisions in literature, someone from the audience asked about the perception of poetry as being “elitist.” Laux agreed, saying that at some point poetry from working class individuals was unofficially deemed unacceptable and that the resulting lack of identification has alienated people-at-large from poetry. Inroads to dissolve this, she offered, include poems on busses and websites in general, which are accessible in every public library if not from private residences.

Espada offered an interesting historical perspective, fingering McCarthyism to explain how working class perspectives, as seen from Whitman and all descendants (poets), fell out of favor. Espada said academia, under indirect or direct pressure from the government, more or less blacklisted poetry dealing with issues of the “working man.” Specifically, there was tension in publishing poems that spoke to what the public knew vs. what the government wanted to be heard. Another angle is that during such a bleak period in history, publishers thought lighter, non-sociopolitical work would be easier on the public’s ears and thus an easier or more likely sell.

Taking a different tack, Hicok looked at modernism as the father of elitist poetry. He claimed that each art form feels the need to purify itself, and with modernism, subject matter focused more on language itself and its own abilities rather than expression of themes, feelings, etc. This further distanced non-academic people from poetry and allowed those in control of presses and universities, over time, to exclusively promote certain kinds of work.

How can slam/performance poetry and rap be integrated into academic courses on writing was another question, to which Espada responded by looking around and saying with a grin that it’s already happening. He went on to say that there are more poets in prison than education, mainly because of two reasons: they that more time and more to say, so a way must be found to get their writings and thoughts to the public at large.

A question about the effects of inherent prejudices when writing poems pertaining to class gave way to another question about how to write about those who are afflicted if coming from a position of privilege. Specifically, how to deal with the issue of appropriation. Hicok put it bluntly, “don’t steal,” but added that writing requires an active intelligence. Not necessarily intelligence in terms of academia but in appropriately detailed expression. Writing about class issues basically stems from life experience – that which the poet has lived and seen. It was advised that, when writing about class, to never try and synthesize or steal a situation outside the realm of one’s own experience to get a point across, but rather to relate how that situation was personally effective.

If you want to hear all the panelists read and said, click or right-click-and-save this link for a full recording of the panel. *This recording is not sanctioned by the Geraldine R. Dodge Festival/Foundation but is offered in faith that 1) no-one reads this blog anyway, 2) it is for the benefit of poetry and poetry lovers that I post it, and 3) supposedly the foundation’s own YouTube channel will soon offer coverage of this event anyhoo. In short, please don’t sue. Contact me (, and I will remove the link.


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