In Frances Payne Adler's new book, poetry is politics.
Thursday, November 13, 2003
During the 1991 Gulf War, poet Frances Payne Adler heard that the United States had invented a missile and named it the "Patriot." Avidly anti-war, she responded by asking what a "Matriot" might look like. In many ways, her new book of poetry, The Making of a Matriot: Poetry & Prose 1991-2003, is how she answered that question.
The Making of a Matriot (Red Hen Press, 2003) is a book of protest. The poems'' narrators are at times variously angry, defiant, in mourning, and quietly perceptive. Yet they are never without hope. As described in her poem "Rainwater, Re-Collecting," Adler''s head is filled with dreams of "running mountain pines, streams, and wind" while her tongue is coated with the "dead spoons" and "gasoline" of social injustice.
Highly autobiographical and unapologetically political, much of the poetry in Matriot is charged with outrage, sadness, and statistical proof. It is a call to arms against what poet Adrienne Rich has called the "accelerated social disintegration" of North America.
It is an unflinching, and at times emotionally exhausting survey of overcrowded emergency rooms, war, cancer, toxic waste, prescription drug prices, homelessness, greed, divorce, the Holocaust, and more. It is not an easy read, but it is powerful and ultimately, it is empowering.
Poems such as "Blood Wash," "Cracking Open" and "The Great Lie" are vitriolic condemnations of a corrupt system. Complemented by an arsenal of sobering statistics, quotes and other data, these pieces read as if they were written to be shouted at legislators.
In 1995, Adler read "The Hearing," her stirring demand for straight talk, before Wisconsin State hearings on welfare reform. The poem directly compares the Senate''s empty promises of change with the Nazi''s chilling motto at Auschwitz, "arbeit macht frei" (work makes you free). Those hearings resulted in the passing of the first American welfare reform bill.
Wracked with doubt and despair, the narrator of "I Can" rallies by cataloguing all of the things she cannot do and, by naming them, draws the strength she needs to persevere.
In a section entitled "Possibility," she writes poems celebrating the transformation of Fort Ord into the California State University at Monterey Bay, where she now teaches and directs the Creative Writing and Social Action Program. "Who would have thought," she writes "students would now walk back and forth with their books/past these boarded windows, and inside, the eyelids/of the war dead would open, flutter like hummingbirds."
On a much more personal note, poems in the latter half of the book recount Adler''s battle with breast cancer. They begin very quietly, very personally. In "What Is It," Adler writes, "Sorrow/like spores of razor-wings/in my lungs, my eyes."
A health care worker once said to Adler that before Betty Freidan invented the word "sexism" there was no name for what so many women were experiencing. But once they could name it, they could rally around it. "With the word ''matriot,''" she told Adler, "I now have a name for what I do."
[Coast Weekly] In the introductory poem of Matriot you write, "the woman she will be/already has the woman she is/by the arm, she has been climbing her down and up the gorge of two generations/losing the shape of the woman she/was constructed to be, becoming/the woman she is." How does this book document the poet''s personal growth over the ten-plus years it was written?
[Frances Payne Adler] It''s very autobiographical, a memoir of sorts. Whereas my previous book Raising the Tents (Calyx Books, 1993) documented my transformation from a homemaker into a thinking, doing, creating individual who doesn''t just accept what is, this book documents the trajectory of a woman who catapulted herself into social action and the transformations that took place in her over that period of time.
That young woman who had never taken a public stand before, that''s a very different woman than I am today. It took courage to buck what my government was telling me. It''s not as if I knew what I was doing. I was just doing.
[CW] The book is full of statistics, data, and quotes. Explain their value to the poetry.
[FPA] It comes from listening to my audiences, collaborators, even legislators, who have heard me read. They would hear me introduce a poem with an anecdote or a statistic at my reading and then suggest I include it with the poem on the page. I used just one statistic in my first book and over the years, it has become essential to the work that I do.
I also want the transparency of my process to be in the poems. If I read Adrienne Rich or a statistic that stimulated me to write the poem, I want it in there so people have the full benefit of the information. It contextualizes the poems and builds understanding.
Also, my work at CSUMB is in the Integrated Humanities department, not the English department. We are creative writers surrounded by scholars. It''s enhanced my work and the research I do for the pedagogy of social action classes I''ve been teaching.
[CW] Political poetry is notoriously difficult to write well. Who are some poets you''ve taken cues from?
[FPA] Adrienne Rich, Carolyn Forche--I studied with her at San Jose State when she was writing her poems about El Salvador in the late ''70s and that was the model for me that poetry could be politically effective. Who else? Diana Garcia (National Book Award-winner and CSUMB colleague)--we''ve been big influences on each other. She is very important to me.
[CW] Seeking "home" is a recurrent theme in this book. What is home in Matriot?
[FPA] There are a lot of us who feel as if we''re living in exile, that there''s something missing from our lives. And that is home.
There is also a sense of home within a community, a country, the world.
Frances Payne Adler reads Thursday, Nov. 13 at 7:30pm with Bill Monning and Michael Stamp at the Carl Cherry Center, carmel. 624-7491.