Matthew Rohrer, 2005 International Griffin Poetry Prize Shortlisted Poet, Opens the 2007 Awards Ceremony
I come before you all for a second time, to plead with you again for political asylum.
You probably thought I was joking last time … I understand … this is a celebration … who could have thought I was serious? I’m very serious. Serious as Wordsworth. And why do I want asylum? Why leave New York? Just because Joshua Beckman says “leave new york or the poem will kill you”? No, here’s why I want Canada to welcome me as one of its own. A friend of mine, the poet Christian Hawkey, was on his way to a poetry reading in Montreal, and when he approached the Canadian customs desk, the forbidding looking agent asked Christian what he was in Canada for. Christian said a poetry reading. A classic bonehead move. They took him to a windowless interrogation room. A man walked around him in a slow circle. The man cocked an eye at him and said you’re a poet? Yes, said Christian, in that overly-positive way that one responds to that question. How do you spell Rimbaud then? the agent said. R-I-M-B-A-U-D Christian said, a little taken aback. Then there was a terrible pause. Then the agent said slowly, It’s a shame he died young, isn’t it? Christian looked around bewildered to make sure there weren’t cameras or something – Well, he began slowly, he stopped writing when he was young but he lived for years after that – and after another dreadful pause they let him through – admitted into Canada and confirmed as a poet in one swift stamp of a passport.
Need I say more? This is where I belong. I could pass that citizenship test – I’ll be at the bar afterwards, we can discuss there what it would take to sponsor me.
So that’s it, essentially. That was all I had to say to you tonight. I thought I would get up here, use this time to arrange for a new family to adopt me, and then slink away to the bar ee; but then, the more I thought about it, I realized – political asylum for me is beside the point, because I’m already a citizen of a larger, more generous, more sensible, and more beautiful nation of people than can be found on any map.
The truth is I feel more allegiance to an abstract nation of poets than I do to the people who live across the street. In all honesty, the political events of the past seven years have made it hard to be an American with a conscience, and have made it tough for an American artist to know precisely what he or she is to do, and where his or her allegiances lie. And in staying up late to worry about it, even marching on the White House to try to figure it out (which, just in case things start to go sour for you guys and you’re planning on marching on Parliament Hill: it doesn’t seem to work), I realized that there is at least one noble nation on this Earth, a nation of poetry, and that the nation of poetry is precisely everywhere you take it – and it isn’t going away, and if tonight is about anything besides making two people really rich and five others really sad and drunk and a lot of others just drunk, then it is about celebrating our nationhood together. Unfortunately Scott, it’s a remarkably democratic republic so you don’t get to be the king, even if you should be. The point I want to make in fact is that it is nothing less than the People’s Republic of Poetry.
And now that I have introduced you to this nation, and granted all of you in this room citizenship, I have some dire news. The nation of poetry is under attack! Every year, someone pronounces that poetry is in trouble. And the danger always, always lurks within. Poetry needs to be saved from itself. We hear that every year. If only poetry weren’t written by poets, they imply, we could have some stability, some regularity, some standards. But the problem is the poets – you know, poets who have actually studied poetry in a classroom setting, poets who aren’t also blacksmiths or businessmen, you know, who haven’t lived! Well, I’m here to say, in Brooklyn-ese, that it’s all good, it’s ok. Poetry does not need to be saved from itself. Poetry, as everyone who is here tonight knows, is actually fine. Some of its leaders even have huge banners like in an honest-to-God Republic. Look at them. And just remember, those of you with the banners, when you put yours up at home which I’m sure, like me, you’ll be unable to resist doing – and people point and laugh, and keep laughing, and double over laughing and you can’t even hear them laughing because they’re laughing so hard, and fighting for breath – they’re just jealous.
The very thing these doom-sayers fear is what gives poetry its strength. Poetry is vast, and maddening, almost, in its multiplicity. Poetry IS poets who are also blacksmiths, of course. And it is also poets who can’t even lift a ball-peen hammer. Poetry is even, as much as it hurts us to admit it, poets who cheered for the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Poetry is enormous, it contains multitudes.
But these people – who ARE these people? They’ve never even been to the People’s Republic of Poetry, but they want a regime change? They want unilateralism, they want their coalitions of the willing newspapers and blogs and magazines to loyally regurgitate the myth that poetry is dead, that no one is reading it, that it doesn’t speak to anyone anymore, that it’s soft, that it’s corrupt. These people cannot stand the idea that someone is having an aesthetic experience that they aren’t. They want their narrow concept of poetry to rule all others because they don’t even understand what everyone else is talking about when they talk about the other mysterious, ineffable, heartbreaking poems that are out there. These people have never even visited the Republic, and they want to occupy it and pacify it, without gathering any real intelligence on it.
The analogy to politics here is too easy. In the world of bombs and money, these people are dangerous and evil; in the People’s Republic of Poetry, they come across as a big joke, that can’t even see the complete picture. So why do the newspapers and magazines listen to them and not to us?
Well, we need to stand up to them, and start by demonstrating that the republic is healthy. Here we are at Scott’s and Krystyne’s party – this party could make anything look healthy – this party could make phrenology look healthy. But Scott would be the first to tell you that the party happens because the poetry was already there to celebrate. What else can we do to show them that the People’s Republic is thriving, and has never waned, and that it is rich and confusing and full of contradictions and enemies and bitter rivalries and beauty and experimentation? You can all start by remembering that the poetry is there, wherever you are, and more importantly, wherever you take it.
That is the People’s Republic of Poetry’s blessed and mysterious power. If you read poetry, if you have a poem memorized, if you write a poem – wherever you go, the Republic is with you. If you set up a reading at a bar, if you take time out of your busy hockey player interviewing schedule to write a review of a new book of poems, the Republic is with you. When we leave tonight the Republic will disperse with all of us.
The People’s Republic of Poetry is a community of people and styles, and a diversity that is almost unknown in all the other human fields. I dare biology or dance or sociology or sculpture to tell me that they even come close to embodying the diversity of methods and styles that is what gives poetry its strength. Poetry is a community made up of an almost infinitude of smaller communities, and it is in these little communities – like Shelley and Byron in their little boat – it is in these communities that the work of the People’s Republic is done.
I think it is really these little communities that we are celebrating tonight – the communities – real or imagined – that have nurtured these seven poets, and brought them together with us.
I have been lucky to have been a part of several communities within the Republic – the Griffin prize community the only one that gave me a banner with my face on it. The little community we call the Griffin Prizes is how I have gotten to meet all of you; it’s the reason you all got to hear the seven incredible readings last night; it’s something you will all take with you when you return to your homes and in the middle of the night wake up and think: wait! that was all because of poetry! Last fall in America three poets organized another amazing and unlikely community – a bus that took poets, including myself, around the entire country, and into Canada, for 50 days, giving readings with local poets, sleeping on their couches, drinking the wine that they got for a gift and were trying to hide – being, very briefly, a part of their community. I guess I should admit here that I only went on nine days, but I think I got a pretty good idea of what 50 days would smell like. You just extrapolate. By the end of the 50 days, the Poetry Bus had delivered around 150 poets to cities all across North America – to two dentists and a handful of drunk students in Las Vegas, to the midshipmen at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, to some lizards in an empty crater in Arizona. And everywhere the bus went, people came out, except at the crater, no one was invited to the crater. But everywhere else, people came out, and poets from each city read along with the unhealthy and hungover poets from the bus, and what happened was that people saw that poetry isn’t imprisoned in books, or even in a local scene – poetry is a community that stretches across the country, across borders, and brings different people together, however briefly, in an imaginative space.
And why did this work?
Because the Republic of Poetry is based on a deeper truth – that the poem, itself, is the site of a powerful community. A powerful and a portable community. Quite simply, the poem – each poem – is a little plot of land where the writer and the reader come together, and both of them must submit a little of their sovereignty in order to meet each other halfway. This is the heart of the Republic, right here, in the poem itself.
There is a reason poetry from ancient China, from ancient Greece, from Sweden, touches us as readers. It’s because it speaks to something in us which is human and in some small way, universal. Think of it: a poem from ancient China is so terribly removed from our experience: it was written in another language which we don’t speak; it was written thousands of years ago; in an unfamiliar landscape; in a culture we couldn’t possibly fathom; and yet these poems can still move us with their simple appeal to human experience – their appeal to us as citizens of the world.
The writer moves into the republic of the poem and lures the reader in by connecting in a meaningful, tangible way with what is most human and immediate to the reader.
For the reader, the citizenship test simply asks him or her to read the poem as someone who is slightly larger in scope and importance than his or her own self. To read the poem as a Human. Shelley as we all know is of course one of the unacknowledged legislators of the People’s Republic of Poetry, and he makes it very clear what our duties as citizens are. He says “A man (and I’m sure he also meant to include his wives and lovers in this) A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others.”
As citizens of the poem, we already knew that.
What we need to remember when we leave here tonight is that our duty to the Republic is to use our imaginations, to represent the Republic wherever we go, and to imagine it always expanding in us. And not just to tell the fearful and the controlling that they’re wrong, but to show them. To imagine more rooms like this, where people come together to celebrate the immensity that is poetry.
What we should make clear to those who are so certain that poetry has lost its way, that it needs to be saved from itself, is what Shelley says to them: regime change begins at home.