Kenneth Rexroth wrote an essay in 1936 called “The Function of the Poet in Society” which I have been reading ever since I discovered it 25 years ago. It was shortly after a writing teacher (a white, straight, cis male writing teacher) told me that poetry could never matter. I took this to mean that I would always be powerless, without agency. Rexroth essentially says that an oppressive society has no use for the poet. We are disenfranchised because we are engaged in a most radical and threatening activity; we reorganize the language (of control). This is the work I think of when I hear the words “poetry” and “power” together.
However, I slam up against the notion of poets as disenfranchised. You hear iterations of this often: the great artist is a solitary figure; going against the currents of the time; lonely. I think this message serves the language mongers of the state, and we tend to eat it up. I did, for too long. How do we, as poets, not replicate systems of power that are corrupt? Isolating human beings and causing them to feel that it is their fate is a play of a corrupt system. Poetry is, in fact, my agency in the world, the thing that has taught me about the shape of my capacity for joy and connection, how to use “the erotic as power” (Audre Lorde) of and in my lesbian poet life. I’ve had jobs in arts administration since 1999, where my motivating question is: what can we as poets do individually and collectively to create the conditions for our creative work to be possible? What kind of spaces do we need, physically and psychically, to serve as our touchstones?