I had the good fortune to have lengthy email discussions with Kwame Dawes when he was preparing some of my poems for publication in Prairie Schooner. I found his input valuable, inspiring, and stimulating. From these discussions, and knowing his poetry, I thought we could create something poetically together that would open conversation out to others. Issues of identity, belonging, alienation, exclusion, privilege, vulnerability, home exile, wandering, the violence of authorities, the oppressions of a too frequently racist and bigoted world, a desire for a just response to suffering, the degradation of the natural world, the beauty of ‘insignificant’ moments, the momentousness of the ‘trivial’... all of these ‘issues’ and more drive us to dialogue through poems, to illuminate our respective worlds and lives, our witnessing of trouble and trauma, to create cycle of poems that articulate what is so often lost in the rapid-fire exchange of newspaper comments sections, or in angrily sent of responses on social media. Really, how to deal with issues of anger and frustration in dealing with the appalling wrongs committed by individuals and the state daily, the exploitations and indifference... how to deal with these and retain equanimity, the ability to find positives in an over-determined world.
That’s the real purpose behind these exchanges of poems — to debate, discuss, share, and make sense of our own existences.
There is dialogue. There is agreement. There is difference. There are angles on the same material. There is different material. Different ways of seeing a world where commonality reveals itself because it has to, because it is so. The language is so close but so very distant. It coalesces. From different spaces, different culturalities, there is the overlap of modernity, of travel, of sensibilities, of concerns about the 'state of things'. Such different places illuminated, made more different in the telling. But then a conversation about the nature of how and why respond to these places in the way we do. What we read. What our senses tell us. The right and wrong of it all. Collaboration.
In our concerns for justice and equality, for respecting difference and creating points of contact, we discover the limitlessness of poetic perception. In responding, reacting, departing, exchanging, introducing the unexpected, we build a freedom of expression. Anything can be discussed, and such different life experiences come into play. And such different journeys - personally and socially. But always the points in common, which resonate and work as refrain through the growing works. Iterative works.
We follow, we lead, we dwell. Each poem is another place in the house. Outside. A picture builds and we find secret passages, plants and animals we didn't know were there, new and old friends, the intensity of self focalised through family. The societies we are part of rejecting us in various ways.
There are many ways of not belonging, which is never to demean or reduce the unbelonging that brings direct pain, attacks from society. The poem exchange is a search for a language of peace and mediation when language is violent and destructive and being deployed against minorities, traditional owners, the marginalised. We write statements against hate by showing how hate works, how it corrodes even the most beautiful. We look for a faith, a right to believe.
We invite others to participate. To join the exchange. See the ground shifting under out feet and to ask why - what is necessary, what is not. What are our vested interests, how and why we should understand them. Comprehend others through comprehending ourselves. Consider the poem exchange as a means of conflict resolution. This is not 'just another book' of packaged product, of arts curious, of items for the delectation or opprobrium of the reader: it's a cascading set of possibilities, a realm of portals. Move in and out of the text. Argue with it. Maybe agree at points. Maybe empathise.
Who are we? Why are we writing these poems, creating this chain of poems? These are questions worth asking. Why bother with poetry at all? Because it can bring change. It can open discussions too hard to open. It is not a war zone.
*John Kinsella wishes to acknowledge the use of Robert M. Durling's bilingual edition of Petrarch's Lyric Poems (Harvard University Press, 1976)