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No matter what theorists say, art and politics must mix


The author Salman Rushdie has written, “When intellectuals and artists withdraw from the fray, politicians feel safer.”

The bizarre, fashionable notion that art and politics don’t mix dominates much North American writing, particularly that coming out of university writing workshops.

One can point to several reasons for this phenomenon. Certainly a major culprit is the McCarthy period, which saw political and artistic dissent crushed in the crusade against communism.

Like a victim of abuse who has not yet gotten around to therapy, our nation has yet to count the ways our political imagination suffered, and still suffers, from that beating.

I recently taught a course called “Writer as Witness” as part of a yearlong visiting assistant professorship at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Students were encouraged to explore political themes in their own poetry, fiction and essays. Our main text was Zapata’s Disciple (South End Press), a new book of essays by Martin Espada, an attorney and poet who teaches literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

“Political imagination goes beyond protest to articulate an artistry of dissent,” Espada writes in his essay, “Poetry Like Bread.”

“The question is not whether poetry and politics can mix. That question is a luxury for those who can afford it. The question is how best to combine poetry and politics, craft and commitment, how to find the artistic imagination equal to the intensity of the experience and the quality of the ideas.”

Many of the authors that I assigned to the class are Native Americans, Latinos and African-Americans.

The prosperity and power of this nation was secured through genocide of American Indians, the slave trade and the seizure of half of Mexico’s landmass. Yet the authors we contemplated write not as victims but as survivors — whose commitment to historical memory, and to healing, has, particularly in the past 30 years, created a remarkable body of literature informed by political concerns.

We read the the poet Joy Harjo and novelist Paula Gunn Allen, both Native Americans; Chicano novelist and poet Benjamin Saenz; African-American poet and essayist June Jordan; and in a unit on prisons we read Luis Rodriguez, a prominent poet/activist whose books include the nonfiction account Always Running: La Vida Loca, about his life in gangs.

Many of these author-activists came of age during the Indian, Chicano and black power movements of the 1960s and early 1970s that were nearly destroyed by the FBI’s counterintelligence program. Their literary production has added relevance at a time when progressive publications continue to focus relentlessly on white activists with roots in mostly white, male-led movements that ended in the 1960s.

Adrienne Rich, a lesbian and a Jew, was awarded a MacArthur fellowship, and has spent much of her long life championing the work of people of color. In 1997, she turned down the prestigious National Medal for the Arts, proffered by the Clinton White House.

Her stand epitomizes the writer-activist who pushes her privilege on behalf of the oppressed.

“The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate,” Rich wrote in a statement about her decision. “A president cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”

Our class was blessed with visits by writers who have devoted their lives to social change. These included Daisy Zamora, one of Nicaragua’s leading poets, who helped bring down the Somoza dictatorship as a combatant with the Sandinista Front and a voice for the clandestine Radio Sandino. She later served as vice minister of culture under Fr. Ernesto Cardenal.

Another visitor, poet George Evans, was radicalized during his time as a medic in the Vietnam War. In recent years he has brought the works of Vietnamese and other Third World authors to U.S. audiences as part of his Streetfare Journal, a project that places posters of poetry and photography in buses in a number of U.S. cities.

Evans urged students to read “dead white male writers” such as Shakespeare with an eye to the political events that shaped them — and not merely analyze a text as if it were written in a historical vacuum.

Laura Tohe is Dine (Navajo), and a professor at Arizona State University. She spoke to the class about the use of boarding schools to “civilize” Indians by enforcing brutal English-only policies. Her poetry deals with this topic; she sees her work as an opportunity to educate young Native Americans about the importance of maintaining their linguistic roots.

John Nichols’ numerous novels and books of photography range in topic from Vietnam to environmental destruction. Nichols, a longtime activist, is best known for The Milagro Beanfield War, the first of his New Mexico trilogy.

The books tell the truth about my home state New Mexico — our extremes of wealth and poverty, and the struggles of Indians and Chicanos for self-determination at the times when the Land of Enchantment has been up for sale to the highest bidder.

“How can one person make a difference?” was a question a student asked. Indeed, it was a question we asked ourselves throughout the semester.

“You’ve got to develop a class analysis,” Nichols said. “You have to understand how the system works.” We have been fooled into believing that it’s “too complicated,” but the superrich such as Donald Trump, he said, know better. They learn how the system works so that they can manipulate it.

Nichols urged the class to consume less, vote, join movements. A grasp of our economic system gives us a crack at long-term solutions, he said, and a desperately needed awareness of how policies pit people of color against one another (divide and conquer) so that we fail to act from mutual class interests.

The last thing we suspected at the start of the semester was that by the end bombs would be falling over the Balkans. I had all my students write a poem, if only a few lines, about the Albanian refugees. Thirty years from now you can pass it on to your children or nieces and nephews, I told them.

Somehow we must bear witness, I said. We can’t say that we didn’t see.

Demetria Martinez is a novelist and poet who writes from Tucson, Ariz.

National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 1999