July Westhale (’13) is the author of Trailer Trash (winner of the 2016 Kore Press Book Award), The Cavalcade, and Occasionally Accurate Science. Her most recent poetry can be found in The National Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, CALYX, Tupelo Quarterly, RHINO, phoebe, Eleven Eleven, Lunch Ticket, and Quarterly West. Her essays have been nominated for Best American Essays, as well as the Pushcart prize. She moonlights as a journalist at The Establishment, and has appeared in The Huffington Post. www.julywesthale.com
The Body Politic
by July Westhale
I see this discussion as two separate threads—politics, and agenda. I myself maintain that all art is political, and that it cannot exist in a vacuum. This is true of every form of it I’ve encountered—from writing to sculpture to animation to graffiti to tattoos. And while it’s true that writing cannot exist without politics, it is also true that it can exist without an agenda.
Everything we think about is informed by the world around us (even our dreams have inner landscapes informed by realities from the waking world), which is informed by the ever-shifting existential crisis of being a human. Once, in a workshop with Nikky Finney, we were asked to create three separate timelines, spanning from the year we were born to the present day. Timeline #1 was our own narrative—in such and such year, I lost my first tooth. In such and such year, I married. And so on. Timeline #2 was a municipal/national gamut—in 1993, Bill Clinton became president. In 2001, 9/11 happened. Timeline #3 contained a global line—Chernobyl in 1986, the dismantling of the South African apartheid in 1991.
When we’d constructed these timelines, we were asked to draw connections between them all. Which is how I remembered that the year Princess Diana died (in fact, the day she died), I’d won a spoons tournament against my best friend and her family. My glory at winning was interrupted by the devastation of this most surprising news, the subsequent whodunit. To this day, I am still a quick and boastful winner, worried about stolen glory. To this day, I make associations between death and the luck of cards.
Not every occurrence of personal intersection with global events is so noticeable or direct. Because history connotes something that is past tense, we often look at events through the dishonesty of hindsight, which includes opportunities for critical thinking and the practical application of parallels. Great movements of art have arisen from collective trauma—consider post-modernism, the crisis of the atom bomb. Consider basically every Russian poet, and the omnipotent threat of exile and execution. Consider the uptick in visibility of black Lesbian poets during second-wave feminism, when the dominance of white supremacy was made painfully clear in already marginalized circles of feminism. Consider Lucille Clifton, who wrote: “come celebrate/with me that everyday/something has tried to kill me/and has failed.”
Art is a way of processing the world, the human condition, a term so bandied about that it is easy to dismiss. And yet, it’s true. And circling back to the idea of agenda—agenda meaning something that is intentionally pushing something, with awareness of both the cause and the effect—well…not every piece of political writing contains that awareness. Politics are part of the body; as unconscious as breathing. Agenda is more calculated that that.
We, as people, are constantly shifting. We’ve figured out, through the years of our own trials and errors, how to retrofit ourselves to be able to move on the tectonic plates of change—personal, national, global. We live in relative positions of power and marginalization that shape shift depending on the company we’re in—I may be the most oppressed in a group of straight, white, wealthy men, but I may be the most privileged in a group of disabled people of color. Politics and art don’t always have to do with being awake to what’s happening—a million phenomena punctuate our days, affecting how we move around in the world. We metabolize these effects in both conscious and unconscious ways. And whatever we’re metabolizing—surface-level or more profoundly deep—shows up in our work, because it is not divorced from us. Try as we might, we are not islands.
There is no question about politics creating declining literary returns. Our poet laureates have nearly all been recognized for their ambassadorial servitude to history, to archiving that which might have been erased completely. Even language poets do this diligent and steadfast work—language, after all, is a tool of conquest. Language can’t even escape the grip of loaded histories.
The problem here may be that we have associated politics with labels or boxes that are unimaginatively small. The truth is—the real, honest truth is—that politics is not always capacious enough to contain art, but art is always capacious enough to contain politics. No one describes that more succinctly than Ann Pancake, in her essay “Creative Responses to the World Unraveling.”
Personally, that’s the world I want to live in. One in which artists respond to and retell and record and resist. Because otherwise, we might fall victim to predetermined narrative, to falsehoods designed by those who hold pens with concretely indelible ink.
What are some examples of political writing that don’t have an agenda? Also, do you agree or disagree that all art is political? Please comment below.