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American Poets in the 21st Century: Poetics of Social Engagement

American Poets in the 21st Century: Poetics of Social Engagement


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Poetics of Social Engagement emphasizes the ways in which innovative American poets have blended art and social awareness, focusing on aesthetic experiments and investigations of ethnic, racial, gender, and class subjectivities. Rather than consider poetry as a thing apart, or as a tool for asserting identity, this volume's poets create sites, forms, and modes for entering the public sphere, contesting injustices, and reimagining the contemporary. Like the earlier anthologies in this series, this volume includes generous selections of poetry as well as illuminating poetics statements and incisive essays. This unique organization makes these books invaluable teaching tools. A companion website will present audio of each poet's work.

Poets included:
Rosa Alcalá
Brian Blanchfield
Daniel Borzutzky
Carmen Giménez Smith
Allison Hedge Coke
Cathy Park Hong
Christine Hume
Bhanu Kapil
Mauricio Kilwein Guevara
Fred Moten
Craig Santos Perez
Barbara Jane Reyes
Roberto Tejada
Edwin Torres

Essayists included:
John Alba Cutler
Chris Nealon
Kristin Dykstra
Joyelle McSweeney
Chadwick Allen
Danielle Pafunda
Molly Bendall
Eunsong Kim
Michael Dowdy
Brent Hayes Edwards
J. Michael Martinez
Martin Joseph Ponce
David Colón
Urayoán Noel

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819578303
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 09/04/2018
Series: American Poets in the 21st Century Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 1,172,067
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Award-winning poet, critic, and activist CLAUDIA RANKINE is the author of five collections of poetry, including Citizen: An American Lyric, and she edits the American Poets in the Twenty-First Century series. She is the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University. MICHAEL DOWDY is the author of Broken Souths: Latina/o Poetic Responses to Neoliberalism and Globalization and Urbilly. He is associate professor of English at the University of South Carolina.

Read an Excerpt




FROM Undocumentaries

Everybody's Authenticity

Among weeds, among variants of native crab grasses. One adapts to the kinds that curl or stand up straight, the bright green and speckled yellow. I would have to leave this poem and enter the world to render a better description. Plants don't fly north or south, their migration is passive. But they assimilate rabidly, into hybrids. The dog is dismissive, indiscriminate, yet a colonizer,
by way of the paw. What you must have looked like crouched curbside, at the edge of a shopping mall, looking for that elixir a Peruvian woman taught you to boil into a tea. It's for the swollen legs, you say,
for the toes like mini chorizos, and it tastes okay, like nothing at all. Awaiting results,
you call your sister in a town girdled by the Pyrenees, where crinoline can be heard rustling through the plaza. On your end,
a blender is a welcome relief: I am sick of pounding things. It's no way to live. You want tradition? Here's the mortar & pestle.
Believe me, the point's just to pulverize.

Job #6

How to transcribe tragedy?
(A secretary, a good secretary, asks.)
Do I use a dictation machine?
Look blankly at the boss and let fingers for a moment feel reproach? How can I plan my wedding as I cross out crutch words? When will I depill my jacket? When everyone is dead will the droopy bow of compliance get caught in the teeth of inquiry? There is no line of escape,
holidays are finite systems, the rest a blur of supermarket cake into rising rent. The body charged with documentation has its own shorthand:
now the turncoat gland, now the gut's tactlessness. What's the worry?
The transcript never gets read for what it is: a stutter relieved of spare consonants,
the art of rote aversion.


Factory is something not heard but written in degrees as breath. It never signs off,
delivering you to you as a finished but minor product: something copied and stapled, slipped into your foot locker. You can't value it. All you can do is replace it with an ethnic cuisine to riddle the ancients. It's all you can do to keep from setting your face on fire. When the cat runs from one side of the house to another in an effort to find the childhood friend who died from eating old blinds, the page is left to NAFTA. Factory chases the cat out of the work though local manufacture is the aim. We should all be ashamed by the niceness of the working class: All, "Can I get you something?" Factory gives you ways to get ahead that are industrious, but uneven: Sleep with this history. Find yourself under that Volvo. The office for agents is the etymology of Factory, what we now call the conference. It reads properties for poetries. Factory is both fact and act, and mere letters away from face and story.

FROM The Lust of Unsentimental Waters

Rita Hayworth: Double Agent

In the follicles sits a dangerously coiled and coarse nature, from which the genus springs. So the body's genius zapped with a year's worth of electrolysis. She becomes a G.I.'s dream by moving the border that frames the face, by deflowering the name and firing the island extra who made the dance number a risk. Still, after ions have cooled,
they invent helpless swine to be rendered ("Good evening, Mr. Farrell,
you're looking very beautiful.")
at the spit. Or place her at the ticket booth of a Chinese theatre,
speaking perfect Mandarin. So much of her choreographed or dubbed, winking at you through a ruffled excess. But what's more natural to a bilingual girl from Brooklyn than to mouth her country's script? Or insinuate herself into its defenses?
She throws her head back, and on a long black glove slowly tugs: "Mame did a dance called the kichee-coo. That's the thing that slew McGrew." And though it's Gilda we want to bed, we catch a glimpse of something familiar from behind a curtain of hair. It's Margarita Cansino as the song ends and the striptease continues. We volunteer to lend a hand when she confesses, "I'm not very good at zippers."


for my father, José Alcalá García

The salute of this poem rides open

to a shotgun —
I carry grief blatant

as propaganda.
My father's name lifts

the hammer bucket brick

to eye level
& makes everyone

a bit uneasy for what's to come:

a parched code a cracked body

's final test.
It's a Dallas of suspicion

a ramshackle conspiracy of origins

that hides a mother so central

to the narrative and fuses time & again

melancholy to elegy to bring the madre patria back

to civil war.
This ditty like Annabelle Lee

holds the beat every foreigner can tap his foot to.

But whose feet will be put to the fire

for a democratic state?
When lost in the sway

of our sorrow?
the flag of our own names?



English is dirty. Polyamorous. English wants me. English rides with girls and with boys. English keeps an open tab and never sleeps alone. English is a smooth talker who makes me say please. It's a bit of role-playing and I like a good tease. We have a safe word I keep forgetting. English likes pet names. English has a little secret, a past,
another family. English is going to leave them for me. I've made English a set of keys. English brings me flowers stolen from a grave.
English texts me, slips in as emojis, attaches selfies NSFW. English has rules but accepts dates last minute. English makes booty-calls. English makes me want it.
When I was younger, my parents said keep that English out of our house. If you leave with that miserable,
don't come back. I said god-willing in the language of the Inquisition. I climbed out my window, but always got caught. English had a hooptie that was the joint. Now my mother goes gaga over our cute babies. Together English and I wrote my father's obituary. How many times have I said it's over, and English just laughs and says, c'mon, señorita, let's go for Chinese. We always end up in a fancy hotel where we give fake names, and as I lay my head to hear my lover breathe,
I dream of Sam Patch plunging into water: a poem English gave me that had been given to another.

Voice Activation

Do not forget that a poem, although it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information.

LUDWIG WITTGENSTEIN, Zettel, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe

This poem, on the other hand, is activated by the sound of my voice, and, luckily, I am a native speaker. Luckily, I have no accent and you can understand perfectly what I am saying to you via this poem. I have been working on this limpid voice, through which you can read each word as if rounded in my mouth, as if my tongue were pushing into my teeth, my lips meeting and jaws flexing, so that even if from birth you've been taught to read faces before words and words as faces, you'll feel not at all confused with what I say on the page. But maybe you'll see my name and feel a twinge of confusion. Have no doubt, my poem is innocent and transparent. So when I say, I think I'll make myself a sandwich, the poem does not say, I drink an isle of bad trips. Or if I say, my mother is dying, where is her phone. The poem does not say, try other it spying, spare us ur-foam. One way to ensure the poem and its reader no misunderstanding is to never modulate. I'm done with emotion, I'm done, especially, with that certain weakness called exiting one's intention. What I mean is Spanish. What a mess that is, fishing for good old American bread, and ending up with a boatload of uncles and their boxes of salt cod, a round of aunts poking for fat in your middle. So you see, Wittgenstein, even the sandwich isn't always made to my specifications; it's the poem that does what I demand. Everything else requires a series of steps. I call the nurse's station and explain to the nurse — her accent thick as thieves — that I'd like to speak to my mother. She calls out to my mother: "it's your daughter" (really, she says this in Spanish, but for the sake of voice activation and this poem, you understand I can't go there), and she hands the phone to my mother and my mother, who is not the poem, has trouble understanding me. So I write this poem, which understands me perfectly, and never needs the nurse's station, and never worries about unintelligible accents or speaking loudly enough or the trouble with dying, which can be understood as a loss of language. If so, the immigrant, my mother, has been misunderstood for so long; this death is from her last interpreter.

Dear María

Dear Mary, Mariah, Marie Dear mamá, mamacita, and mami Dear fourth wheel of the Trinity Dear Puerto Rican Ingénue in a Red Sash Dear Off With Their Heads Dear Diva Dear Aria, missing its M (Dear Storage Engine)
Dear Ships in Your Name Dear Asteroid discovered in 1877

Dear Song by Café Tacuba Green Day The Jacksons Men at Work Blondie Ricky Martin Wu-Tang Clan
, et al.

Dear María, spoken in the bird's tail of Papua New Guinea
"How do you solve a problem like Maria?"
Dear Pool Type Reactor Dear Uranium How You Enrich Us Dear Spanish Biscuit

Dear Sacrificial Virgins,
of red or blond hair of dark brunette of the slip, apron, or veil, but never a hat of the fresh complexion turned composite of Jack the Ripper's complete works of fluency in Welsh Spanish English Quechua French

of obscure and undocumented origins

and of las colonias

Querida María (de los Angeles de la Luz,
de Jesús,
del Refugio) walking home or waiting for Transporte de Personal without executive safe routes Dear Señorita Maquiladora Dexterous, tolerant of tedium model workers for Lexmark, FoxConn,
CommScope, etc.

Dear Queen of the Plasma TV and Print Cartridge Dear Miss Stainless Steel Appliance Dear Crowned with Cigarettes/Soda Cans/Boot Prints/
Dear Left Without Nipples in the Desert Branded

Dear Virgen de Guadalupe,
hand us your sanitary napkin Blessed art thou,
your blood is on everything.

"Dear Maria" in part (dis)assembles material from Wikipedia entries on "Maria"; "Murder in Juárez: Gender, Sexual Violence, and the Global Assembly Line" by Jessica Livingston (Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 25.1 (2004): 59–76); Migrant Imaginaries by Alicia Schmidt Camacho (New York University Press, 2008); "Electrolux, Other Maquiladoras Affected Little by Bloodshed in Mexico" by Ryan Jeltema, Daily News (Michigan), March 7, 2011; "Juarez Maquiladoras Recovering Despite Bloodshed" by Will Weissert, Associated Press, January 22, 2011; and "Upheaval in the Factories of Juárez" by Alana Semuels, Atlantic, January 21, 2016.


Poetics of Not-Mother Tongue

In The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes writes, "The writer is someone who plays with his mother's body [...] in order to glorify it, to embellish it, or in order to dismember it." In doing so, Barthes draws a natural connection — by way of the mother tongue — between the body of the mother and the writer's body of work, two bodies intertwined, sharing a common language. With this assertion, Barthes also brings to mind the larger body of literature and its many literary representations of the mother's body, a genre of sorts encompassing myriad odes and elegies, myths and monstrous depictions. This perverse desire of the writer to "glorify," as well as "dismember," the mother's body, is perhaps the desire of the child to negate, in the jouissance of speech (Julia Kristeva argues), her own mother through the language transmitted by her: "mother" replacing Mother. And it is in the hurling of feces that the child expresses her great love for the mother: a love through negation.

So when I say, "I do not write with my mother tongue," you may wonder if this negation is, also, an unconscious desire for the opposite, as did Freud of the patient who insisted, when asked who was the person in the dream, "It is not my mother," or "Die Mutter ist es nicht. You may wonder if what I truly want is for English to be my mother tongue. If I deny my own mother, twice-over, by writing her in English, and thus love her, long for her, twice-over. If when hurling feces at English by embracing the romance of my Spanish parentage, or some more expansive US-born and bred Latinidad, I am saying, "I love you, English. You are my mother."

The philosopher George Santayana, who was born Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás in Ávila, Spain, and who moved to Boston when he was twelve, justified the negation of his mother tongue by affirming that he was, in effect, negating English in English: "Thus, in renouncing everything else for the sake of English letters I might be said to have been guilty, quite unintentionally, of a little stratagem, as if I had set out to say plausibly in English as many un-English things as possible."

Gustavo Pérez Firmat, questioning the viability of Santayana's "stratagem," writes, "In English, Santayana's un-English things will lose at least some of their un-Englishness. Ultimately everything that can be said in English will be an English thing." I wonder, too, if the mother tongue I believe lives inside my poems haunts no one but me.

No, I'm sure this is a very particular ghost, and that most people assume my mother tongue is English, probably because my poems look so much like it, have similar habits and mannerisms. They were, after all, taken in at such a young age. Still, there are those who ask: where are you from, where are you really from? And if my usual response (New Jersey) doesn't satisfy them (meaning, it doesn't quite satisfy me), I begin another poem, to answer, again and again, who was that person in the dream?

It's not not my mother.


John Alba Cutler

The poetics of Relation remains forever conjectural and presupposes no ideological stability. It is against the comfortable assurances linked to the supposed excellence of language. A poetics that is latent, open, multilingual in intention, directly in contact with everything possible.

ÉDOUARD GLISSANT, Poetics of Relation

As powerfully as any contemporary poet's work, Rosa Alcalá's poems enact the indeterminacy that Édouard Glissant urges in Poetics of Relation as a moral and political expediency. Alcalá has developed a poetics in which labor, gender, migration, memory, and family converge in language that is, to borrow Glissant's formulation, latent, open, and multilingual in intention. Think, for example, of the way a poem like "Autobiography" resists the generic meaning its title announces. Rather than narrate a life, the poem explores a single word, factory, defining it as "something not heard / but written in degrees / as breath." Questions multiply. Already in the first three lines, the meaning of "written in degrees" depends on whether we understand degrees to refer to increments, temperature, or educational credentials, and hence the meaning of factory to be unfolding a bit at a time, inscribed by the breath of workers on cold days, or to emerge from the alienated subject position of the upwardly mobile poet. To read one of Alcalá's poems is to enter a door that looks innocent enough from the outside, only to find that the room on the other side defies our expectations. In one poem, the furniture has been turned upside down. In another, there is no ceiling; the walls stretch into space. We begin to question whether the problem is with the room or with our own capacities of perception.

Alcalá's poetry pressures ordinary syntax and semantics in ways that are indebted to US avant-garde poetics, particularly the New York School, but in the service of a political project firmly grounded in a specific historical and socioeconomic situation. As she explained in an interview for Letras Latinas, "When I started [writing Undocumentaries], I wanted to write about factory work because suddenly, as a first-year tenure track assistant professor, I knew no one who worked in a factory, even though almost every adult I knew growing up, including my parents, were factory workers. My father worked in a dye house, my mother in a number of small assembly-line jobs. I lived surrounded by factories." Indeterminacy is not valuable for its own sake in Alcalá's poetry, then, but rather as a way of posing and responding to material historical circumstances — specifically, neoliberal policies that have had deleterious effects on the working class. As Michael Dowdy explains, neoliberal theory "ties all valences of freedom to the market, dismantles collective forms of organization and ownership, converts states into servants to capital, guts social safety nets and the public sphere, and relentlessly commodifies culture, including modes of resistance." Indeterminacy in Alcalá's work reflects the contingency these developments produce. As unions are disempowered and populations displaced, working-class life is governed as much by the unequal distribution of risk as by the unequal distribution of wealth. These concerns are central to Alcalá's poetry both thematically and formally, as indeterminacy paradoxically focuses the intersecting concerns of class, gender, and migration into the intimacy of individual encounters.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments Introduction by Michael Dowdy ROSA ALCALÁ Poems from Undocumentaries Everybody's Authenticity Job #6 Autobiography from The Lust of Unsentimental Waters Rita Hayworth: Double Agent Patria from MyOTHER TONGUE Paramour Voice Activation Dear María Poetics Statement Poetics of Not-Mother Tongue Rosa Alcalá's Aesthetics of Alienation, by John Alba Cutler BRIAN BLANCHFIELD Poems from Not Even Then One First Try and Then Another If the Blank Outcome in Dominoes Adds a Seventh Side to Dice from A Several World According to Herodotus Edge of Water, Nimrod Falls, Montana Pferd Eclogue Onto an Idea from series "The History of Ideas, 1973–2012," A Several World Education Ut Pictura Poesis Eclogue in Line to View The Clock by Christian Marclay Open House Edge of Water, Moiese, Montana Poetics Statement from "On Abstraction, Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source" In the Dark with Brian Blanchfield, by Chris Nealon DANIEL BORZUTZKY Poems from The Book of Interfering Bodies The Book of Interfering Bodies from In the Murmurs of the Rotten Carcass Economy Decomposition as Explanation Illinois from The Performance of Becoming Human Let Light Shine Out of Darkness The Performance of Becoming Human Poetics Statement the continuum: a broken introduction Pardon Me Mr. Borzutzky / If, by Kristin Dykstra CARMEN GIMÉNEZ SMITH Poems from Odalisque in Pieces Prepartum from Goodbye, Flicker Hungry Office Hans Hated Girls from Milk & Filth (Llorona Soliloquy) (And the Mouth Lies Open) from "Parts of an Autobiography" from Be Recorder from "Post-Identity" Poetics Statement "The Call for Reversal is Native": The Paradox of the Mother Tongue in the Work of Carmen Giménez Smith, by Joyelle McSweeney ALLISON ADELLE HEDGE COKE Poems from Off-Season City Pipe The Change from Blood Run Skeletons Ghosts Skeletons from Streaming We Were in a World America, I Sing You Back Poetics Statement Quipu: a poetic Resurrecting the Serpent, Reactivating Good Earth: Allison Hedge Coke's Blood Run, by Chadwick Allen CATHY PARK HONG Poems from Dance Dance Revolution Roles from series "St. Petersburg Hotel," Dance, Dance Revolution 1. Services Song That Breaks the World Record from Engine Empire Ballad in O Ballad in A Market Forces Are Brighter Than the Sun Notorious Poetics Statement Building Inheritance: Cathy Park Hong's Social Engagement in the Speculative Age, by Danielle Pafunda CHRISTINE HUME Poems from Musca Domestica A Million Futures of Late from Alaskaphrenia Comprehension Questions Hume's Suicide of the External World from Shot I Exhume Myself Induction Poetics Statement Hum Utter Wilderness: The Poetry of Christine Hume, by Molly Bendall BHANU KAPIL Poems from The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers from Incubation: A Space for Monsters from Humanimal, a Project for Future Children from Schizophrene from Ban en Banlieue Poetics Statement Perpetual Writing, Institutional Rupture, and the Performance of No: The Poetics of Bhanu Kapil, by Eunsong Kim MAURICIO KILWEIN GUEVARA Poems from Postmortem Postmortem from Poems of the River Spirit A City Prophet Talks to God on the 56C to Hazelwood The Easter Revolt Painted on a Tablespoon from Autobiography of So-and-so: Poems in Prose Self-Portrait Mirror, Mirror A Tongue Is a Rope Bridge The American Flag from POEMA Against Metaphor At rest Pepenador de palabras Poema without hands Poetics Statement Mauricio Kilwein Guevara's Scavenger Infrapoetics, by Michael Dowdy FRED MOTEN Poems from Hughson's Tavern Rock the party, fuck the smackdown five points, ten points from B Jenkins gayl jones william parker/fred mcdowell frank ramsay/nancy wilson from The Feel Trio from series block chapel [whenever I listen to cornelius I think of cecily] [welcome to what we took from is the state] from I ran from it and was still in it [I burn communities in shadow, underground, up on the] [I often amount to no more than a stylistics. airrion] [I am foment. I speak blinglish. at work they call me] from The Little Edges the gramsci monument from The Service Porch it's not that I want to say Poetics Statement Sounding the Open Secret: The Poetics of Fred Moten, by Brent Hayes Edwards CRAIG SANTOS PEREZ Poems from from unincorporated territory [saina] from aerial roots from aerial roots from aerial roots from aerial roots from aerial roots ginen aerial roots from aerial roots ginen aerial roots Poetics Statement Tidal Poetics: The Poetry of Craig Santos Perez, by J. Michael Martinez BARBARA JANE REYES Poems from Poeta en San Francisco [objet d'art: exhibition of beauty in art loft victorian claw tub] [Kumintang] [why choose pilipinas?] [why choose pilipinas, remix] [galleon prayer] [ave maria] [prayer to san francisco de asís] (āzhə fīl) from Diwata The Bamboo's Insomnia Polyglot Incantation The Villagers Sing of the Woman Who Becomes a Wave Who Becomes the Water Who Becomes the Wind In the City, a New Congregation Finds Her Aswang Poetics Statement To Decenter English Acts of Poetry in Troubled Times: Barbara Jane Reyes's Anticolonial Feminist Voicings, by Martin Joseph Ponce ROBERTO TEJADA Poems from Exposition Park Debris in Pink and Black from Full Foreground Untitled [Not a word of my surrounding] Untitled [Impulse in the great organism of terror] from Why the Assembly Disbanded Kill Time Objective Poetics Statement The Acoustic Uncanny Marginal Erotics: Roberto Tejada's Sexiness, by David Colón EDWIN TORRES Poems from The PoPedology Of An Ambient Language Dirtspeech The Theorist Has No Samba! Barrio/Barrier from Yes Thing No Thing Of Natural Disasters And Love from Ameriscopia And In Trying Viva La Viva from "Dome" Poetics Statement Bodycatch/Mindtrap: No Edge But In Things The Us Is Porous: Edwin Torres in Other Words, by Urayoán Noel Contributors Index

What People are Saying About This

Michael Davidson

“Dowdy and Rankine have provided a poetics of recognition as well as of disobedience. Their excellent selection of poets and critical commentary offers a screen shot on an era of economic inequality and racial violence, but also of new alliances and resurgent activism. Poets in this important volume testify to the fact that poetry makes something happen by imagining a new plural subject—resistant and disobedient in equal parts.”

Stephanie Burt

“It’s not about what to do next so much as it’s about what we can imagine, and what our social positions and personalities….let us imagine, given the carnage outside. These poets help us think, not about vote tallies, not about one or another incident of injustice, but about the society we have, the way that identities form within and against it, the attitudes we can examine if we want to know how to stand up, or see more clearly, or fight back.”

From the Publisher

"It's not about what to do next so much as it's about what we can imagine, and what our social positions and personalities.let us imagine, given the carnage outside. These poets help us think, not about vote tallies, not about one or another incident of injustice, but about the society we have, the way that identities form within and against it, the attitudes we can examine if we want to know how to stand up, or see more clearly, or fight back."—Stephanie Burt, professor of English, Harvard University

"Dowdy and Rankine have provided a poetics of recognition as well as of disobedience. Their excellent selection of poets and critical commentary offers a screen shot on an era of economic inequality and racial violence, but also of new alliances and resurgent activism. Poets in this important volume testify to the fact that poetry makes something happen by imagining a new plural subject—resistant and disobedient in equal parts."—Michael Davidson, author of Concerto for the Left Hand: Disability and the Defamiliar Body

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