The Power and Peril of Written Words

America, A Prophecy by William BlakeI believe that it is important to intelligently question the modern relevance of our ancestors’ words. It is as important to literature as it is to government. The Second Amendment to the US Constitution was enacted on December 15th, 1791, exactly 221 years ago today.

I currently live in England — a country with no written constitution. Upon discovering this, the American comedian Jon Stewart laughed out loud, insinuating that the British were “too polite” to set their thoughts on government down in a single document. In reality, countless legal documents, and their interpretation, make up the “unwritten constitution” — allowing it to be continually debated, updated, and adapted to the practicalities of modern times by parliament.

After a hard-won Revolutionary War against a British government that restricted freedom of speech and assembly, only permitted firearms to be purchased through them in limited quantities, and also forced Colonists to quarter soldiers without warning, it makes sense that the First, Second, and Third Amendments to the US Constitution were soon passed. The First one has proved vital to a healthy democracy; the Third one seems pretty irrelevant these days.

However, as soon as you suggest that the Second Amendment, and its subsequent interpretation allowing citizens to own firearms for self-defence independent of a militia, might not be well-suited to the Twenty-First Century, you will probably be called “unpatriotic” or even “un-American.” Continue reading…

Perpetual Foreigner

Stage LightYou have played all the parts, rehearsed every line. You know the script like a memorised prayer. Yet now you are outside the play, sitting in the front row of the audience. Time has passed, and you have been in other productions since, with different dialogue, props, and sets. You realise that there are other, perhaps even better, ways to interact on stage — if only you could convince the actors to change a few lines, alter their blocking and stance.

But that is impossible. Instead you must watch the play from your darkened seat, unable to change one line of the script, to spare one moment of tragedy or prolong one second of joy.

Yet you are not at home as an actor in your new theatre company either. They are just as determined to deploy the parts they have been given, to play out their hard-earned roles, their charming traits and tragic flaws, to the inevitable conclusion. Sometimes you make a bit-part appearance on one stage or the other, but even then you are mostly just watching. The actors are people you care about, love, but they refuse for even a second to break character. After all, they are good at what they do.

Try to alter a scene even slightly, and determination flashes into their eyes, as if to say: “We are the people of this theatre group, and this is the way we must do it.” So you play your small parts. You let them play theirs. You learn to enjoy the all-too-brief moment at the end of a scene, when the lights fade to black, encompassing all of you — actors and audience — in the stillness, the same sweet dark.

Citizen of Poetry

Cactus BlossomI spent fourteen months in England, working hard to make the odd feel normal. When what is foreign feels odd, it is understandable. But when what was formerly normal now feels odd, that is perhaps the oddest feeling of all.

I now find myself, back in the US for a brief visit, ambling through coastal California towns taking snapshots — both mentally and with my iPhone — that a British tourist might take: cactus blossom, stars and stripes, the shimmering coastline. The very scenery of my childhood and early adulthood has become an archaeological dig.

The “shock” in the phenomenon of reverse culture shock occurs while driving, when I turn at an empty intersection and there is a momentary flash, in that between-lanes space, where I have to think hard to remember which side of the road I should be turning into.

Yet I always make the turn. There is a way in which intersection has become more the norm, and made the counter-shock less shocking than I feared. Sucking on a chili-covered lollipop from Jalisco, Mexico while sipping a mug of English tea, it occurs to me that I have always lived in the interstices of cultures — first on the US-Mexico border, and now as an American in England.

More and more, I feel both “at home” and “on vacation” wherever I go. Although my formative experiences will always make me an American, the context through which I relate to the world has expanded beyond my sun-drenched beginnings. For me, this is the place where poems come from — in fascinated relation to the world at large, through moments of specificity.

Perhaps, in this sense, my travels have made me a citizen of Poetry — that state governed by aesthetic appreciation of human affairs, where the tax is repaid on one’s attention by the ability to abide in liminal mysteries, living deeply, line by line.

“British Matches” in Aperçus Quarterly Online

I am pleased to have a new poem appear in Issue 1.3 of Aperçus Quarterly. I am once again delighted to be in such good company. Also, of all the poems I have written since moving to London in May, this is the first to appear in print. I wrote this poem just three weeks into my new life here, while deep in the throes of culture shock, keenly aware of the differences around me — and especially the symbols and signs. This poem came out of that heightened, almost frenetic, state of awareness.


Overcoming Poetic Culture Shock

“We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.”

-Oscar Wilde, 1887

Oscar Wilde would be pleased to know that, based on my experience so far as an American in London, Britain and America are still very much separated by a common language. More than this, as a transplanted poet beginning to send down roots into unfamiliar ground, I am discovering that the set of poetic impulses that find favour in the UK differ from those enriched by my native soil. This makes sense: so much about art is a matter of taste, and so much about taste can be cultural.

And so, even as I have been experiencing culture shock in my ordinary life, I am also going through a kind of poetic culture shock as I find my way in this new literary terrain. One of the best ways I have found to get through culture shock of any kind is to articulate and embrace what is unique about the new environment. While it would be impossible to describe, universally and categorically, what distinguishes British and American poetics, I recognise certain differences on instinct. The Americas could not have made a Seamus Heaney; the British Isles could not produce a Sharon Olds.

And so, I have been making a personal and highly subjective investigation into the strengths of each culture’s contemporary poetry, by reading and re-reading two books: The Best American Poetry 2011 (Scribner) and The Best British Poetry 2011 (Salt). I took note of the poems I liked most, then listed the qualities held in common by my favourites from each book.

Qualities of Contemporary British and American Poetry
Context and ContinuityInvention and Spontaneity
Focus on MusicFocus on Narration
Overt Intellectual CoreOvert Emotional Core
Academic InfluencePsychological Influence

Continue reading…