Dear Emily Post-Avant,

I was wondering if you’d seen this new micro-interview in The Believer, with U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, conducted by Believer Poetry Editor, Jericho Brown, A Micro Interview with Tracy K. Smith

Smith is serving under an Administration that clearly doesn’t even care if the world is turned into Venus in 100 years, and yet she seems intent on being all polite and shit so “we can all understand each other.” I was wondering what you thought, since the Believer seems to think that is all perfectly cool, too.

–A Poet from Topeka




Dear Poet from Topeka,

You’re not Ben Lerner, are you? He’s from Topeka, too. Or maybe you are Nick Twemlow, or Kevin Young, or Ed Skoog, or Anne Boyer, or CA Conrad, or Cyrus Console, or Gary Jackson, or Thomas Fox Averill, or Matt Porubsky, or Leah Sewell, or the current Poet Laureate of Kansas, Eric McHenry? (Imitating Jill Bialosky [also from Topeka], author of Poetry Will Save Your Life, I just plagiarized the list from Wikipedia, which proposes that Topeka may be “the most poetic city in America.”)

Yes, I saw the interview. About six months ago, I briefly met Jericho Brown, actually, and had him sign a book. Seems like a nice guy. Nathaniel Tarn was on stage with him, and when Tarn mentioned spending a day with Charles Olson in Gloucester, Brown sat bolt upright and, interrupting Tarn, shouted, “What?! You knew Charles Olson???” It was a sweet, poignant moment. Tarn, 90-something years old, gently congratulated him for being a 30-something poet who had actually heard of Charles Olson.

To his credit, in the interview you reference, Brown asks Tracy K. Smith,

>“How do you navigate being the representative for poetry in a nation that some would say has chosen government representatives whose aims are antithetical to poetry?”

And Smith responds,

>“I feel fortunate to be able to speak publicly and on a national scale to the power and the necessity of real language—language that is unafraid to describe the world and the self with utter honesty. And I think readers crave this; they crave language that goes in pursuit of what is necessary and what is difficult. They crave language that speaks to the great questions, joys, struggles, losses, and hopes that we live with. On the road, I’ve been struck by the extent to which people, no matter who they are, are interested in pondering the lives of others. That’s one thing poems allow us to do, and I think it’s a valuable and necessary alternative to the language of mere “tolerance,” and the language of division that has infiltrated American politics.”

Which is all very nice and soothing, like the outstretched, benign spirit of George HW Bush, now hovering lovingly over all of us, with background music from CNN.

The first thing to point out is that the wishy-washy, protocoled messaging on display here (i.e., “let’s all just stop being so divisive and become more accepting of each other”) is perfectly, innocuously suitable to the institutional powers–political and cultural–who appointed her. And it is qualitatively not all that dissimilar, dare I say, from the self-serving obsequiousness of a Kenneth Goldsmith (then the unofficial Poet Laureate of U.S. avant circles) at the Obama White House. Only that in the case of Smith, given the emergency stakes of the day, and considering poetry’s honorable legacy of brooking no patience for tyranny, the timid decorousness is even more egregious.

Such anodyne language from our current PLOTUS, as above, is no anomaly. It’s been, really, Smith’s consistent MO since accepting to serve in the laureled position under the Trump Administration. In fact, in an interview with CBS shortly after her appointment, she candidly expressed her relief that the position was “beautifully remote from any kind of political obligation.” Her job, she said, was not to openly challenge extant power, but to proffer more complex alternatives to “pre-fabricated language,” as in “advertising,” or “clickbait on the internet.”

Which sounds like something Barrett Watten or Ron Silliman might have said, in their dying defenses of Language poetry’s social relevance, in spring of 2003. (Actually, an ironic index of Smith’s cautious acquiescence—a quality that seems also expertly cultivated, in this era of institutional-absorption-on-steroids, by her former Dark Room Collective colleagues Natasha Tretheway and Kevin Young—is that even as staid a figure as then-Poet Laureate Billy Collins could state, during the Poets Against the War upsurge, that, “If political protest is urgent, I don’t think it needs to wait for an appropriate scene and setting and should be as disruptive as it wants to be.”)

And speaking of Language poetry, Topeka paprika, you probably know that Dispatches from the Poetry Wars has been pretty dogged in calling-out poets and critics in that loose circle for their longstanding, semi-annual Avant Lit Tours to China, during which they are feted, elegantly and triumphantly, at the obliging expense of the one-party state, which is always eager to feed its cultural soft power machine. Not once have any of them (Charles Bernstein has headed up these delegations) uttered a word of protest—either there or here—against the ongoing persecution and abuse of pro-democracy and human rights writers and artists. Unless I’ve missed some statement of principle by her on the matter (and I will apologize, if so), Smith seems clearly set on following in the footsteps of such ethical pusillanimity.

Indeed, her first trip abroad as Poet Laureate was to China, in October, 2017. Her sanctioned, gala reading there was given but three months after the heroic Nobel Peace Prize winner, the human rights activist and poet Liu Xiaobo, died in jail. At the time, his long suffering widow, the poet and artist Liu Xia, was locked away, secretly, under house arrest. The YouTube video shows that not a word for them or for the dozens of other prominent jailed intellectuals (see PEN’s China page) was uttered by Laureate Smith, who stuck to her general script of gently critiquing “pre-fabricated” language and urging non-divisive “understanding,” or whatever. To make matters even more mortifying, the person reading with her, the Chinese poet Anthony Tao, courageously read–with not a little risk to himself–a poem for Liu Xia, inspired by a line from Liu Xiaobo, whose very name is virtually proscribed in China. What risk did Smith run for speaking up, saying a few words of solidarity? None whatsoever, except possibly visa denials for future visits to Beijing. Her description in a later news story about her trip was, “It’s all so beautiful.”

So I agree, Topeka paprika (sorry, I like that), that this is hardly the kind of Poet Laureate we require. Not a Court Poet, gently admonishing internet clickbait, while enjoying the pomp and perks of her station. Not someone uncontroversial who plays nice to everyone as the world burns. What we require, rather, is someone who does totally impolite shit to get herself or himself fired from the job.

Is such attitude out of the question? No, it is not. At present, such bearing should be the very duty of any poet in such position. Over across the pond, we have an example of the kind of attitude I am talking about—one that couldn’t be further in spirit away from the comfy-cozy precincts of Smith. Here’s the steadfast stance of a writer widely seen as in the final running for the next Poet Laureate of England. Smith might want to give him a tweet, and ask for some advice: Benjamin Zephaniah Will Not Work for Oppressors as Poet Laureate

Anyway, if I’m ever in Topeka, paprika, may I call on you, darling? You could show me the city’s Poets Walk of Fame and the new 50-foot tall statues of Ed Dorn and Amiri Baraka, outside the Art Museum. Then we can go to a dive bar of your choosing. You can still smoke in Kansas bars, right? I’ll bring the Euchre deck.

—Emily Post-Avant