The furniture of writing is the furniture of the world. Or the clothing. As we dress the body so the body dresses the psyche. Am I my body? When my body dies, do I die with it? There’s a scene in the film Little Buddha in which a Tibetan monk tries to explain something of Buddhism to the middle class American father whose son may be a reincarnation of a Tibetan master. The monk fills a cup of tea but rather than offer it to the American or drink it himself, he smashes the cup against the side of a table. Holding the handle and looking around at the shards of clay, he asks the American if the tea is gone. Of course it’s not gone, it’s just not in the cup anymore. Am I like the tea? Is the tea aware of its own existence? Tea is liquid and will evaporate leaving almost nothing behind but a brown stain.
While I have worked as a journalist, I rarely set out in my poetry and fiction to comment on current events or to articulate my personal and political values. Of course those values lead me to think in certain ways and are present in what I write. My poems, driven by image and metaphor, often try to reveal what those in power would hide.
My mother grew up one of nine children on a dairy farm but after serving in the Women’s Army Corps in World War II attended normal school and became a teacher working with children in grades one to three. She never wanted to be a schoolteacher but saw it as the best escape for a woman born in 1920 into a household with no money.
It’s for my mother and father that I write.
There is a fairy tale we tell ourselves in America—anyone can do or be anything. If we work hard we can attain our goals. If we don’t, we didn’t work hard enough or we lacked the capacity for the thing we wanted to do and be. If these things are true, then the reason the US has never had a woman president is that no woman has ever worked hard enough and been competent enough to gain the office. This is one of the great lies told by people who need to believe that their gain has come only through individual effort and talent. The truth is that the vagaries of birth—money, race, religion, geography—also influence our fate and sometimes we are as lucky as we are talented. Or as unlucky.
I was a recent college graduate with a degree in American Studies—a combination of history, political theory, and literature—and I was watching the American president lie about his administration’s involvement in the burglary of the Democratic National Committee Headquarters. It seemed that the more Nixon resisted telling the truth, the more truth came out. The president had an enemies list and he used the CIA, the FBI, and the IRS against those enemies. He bugged the offices of political opponents and hired people to infiltrate groups peacefully protesting the Vietnam War. The infiltrators were to commit acts of violence so as to damage the peace movement.
President Nixon tape-recorded many of his White House conversations and, after a series of court cases, the US Supreme Court ruled that the president was obliged to release the tapes. On August 9, 1974, seeking to avoid impeachment and conviction, Nixon resigned as president. Less than a month later his former vice-president and then President Gerald Ford pardoned the president.
All this leads me to the Trump presidency, a presidency guided by the absence of guidance, by a quixotic individual and quixotic appointees who say one thing today and the opposite tomorrow. The president governs by bluster and ego. And it turns out he is willing to lie regularly, publicly, and bigly. Of late we have heard him explain the recently passed House of Representatives health care proposal in terms that are the opposite of what the bill actually says.
In his lack of commitment to the truth, the president’s actions and speech endanger our society for, in the absence of a commitment to the truth, citizens cannot know what to believe or how to respond to events. In a small way, this repudiation of the truth threatens literature by threatening the integrity of our individual and collective inner lives.
I guess I could write about it. And if I did, my thoughts on craft would be guided by the situation we’re in. I would try to speak spontaneously and personally as if to a friend and with as much emotional honesty as I could muster.