Sarah Menefee is most recently the author of Human Star. Her other books include I'm Not Thousandfurs and The Blood About the Heart. A long-time activist in the homeless movement, she is also a founding and active member of San Francisco’s Revolutionary Poets Brigade and can be found leading workshops among the occupiers of Occupy San Francisco.
This interview was conducted via email, slowly, after many weeks of joyous anticipation.
Grandma for poetry: In these reactionary times, what gives a poet hope? Can poetry “occupy” our world or is the occupation of poetry something that happens only for the poet?
Sarah Menefee: Poetry doesn't change things, but it does change people, allowing them to bring out what they know but otherwise can't reach. Poetry has always been a natural way to do this, throughout human history. It reaches into the universe of song, which has always been used to express the joy and solidarity of people's being-together and their struggles. Like all true and living culture, it comes from the bottom, and though individual poets write out of their unique vision, it truly is a people's art. Through poetry the poet can more intently hear the voices of others. For me, that means being tuned in to and intensely inspired by the so-called 'voiceless' (who are anything but that!). I especially love to work with people who don't think of themselves as writers, but write or otherwise express themselves out of a burning need to do so and having something urgent to say. I started a little writing group at Occupy San Francisco, attended by the mostly young and mostly homeless protesters who are key to keeping the movement going here. It's hard to get them to find the time to sit down and write, but when they do the results are brilliant and beautiful. I believe it's truer than ever that 'without vision the people perish'. Many poets have also been revolutionaries, some organizers, even revolutionary fighters. I believe that their poetry helped bring them to that point, and then was there to express the deepest meaning of their lives and actions, even if they put the writing of it aside for a time (or even forever) to do those other necessary things. Once a poet…
When and how did you begin to marry the socio-political consciousness of the activist with the creative-consciousness of the poet?
I began writing poetry very young. The first poem I set out to consciously write, about age 9, was on the 'five emotions' (the poem is long gone, so don't remember what those five were). I've been hooked on this ever since, a process that sharpened my inner senses and also took me into a different quality of time, a very intensified state, where language and its rhythms and images were moving me, as music moves a dancer. (When someone asked Cocteau who his heroes were, he answered 'emotions'). I naturally tended to write about the things I saw around me, and my experiences as a girl and woman, a low-wage worker (in hospitals, casinos and in retail); as the wife of a traveling gambler and a stepmother to a young child; a person on this planet, someone who had been taught to be a 'bleeding heart', in horror of specifically the Vietnam War and the oppression and racism, I early on became aware of around me, and the social upheavals and liberation struggles all around – all of this shaped me. I was viscerally rebellious but not political. By the time I was in my late 30s, I was in a kind of despair, because I knew there was something I needed to understand about my life and the world around me that nothing was providing. I'm a prime example of the reality that political education needs to be introduced from outside, we don't spontaneously come to it (just to the brink of it with our questions and need). I heard somewhere that Neruda was brought to the communist movement by a woman. I was politicized by the great poet Jack Hirschman, who was in the Communist Labor Party (which re-formed as the non-Party League of Revolutionaries for a New America in 1993, to reflect the reality that an objective revolution was beginning in the US). What I learned was a revelation that explained so much that matched my experience and feelings. Because at the time I was beginning to reflect in my poems the appearance of the homeless on the streets I was assigned to work in the homeless movement, which was just kicking off. We understood early on what this represented, the formation of a new class, or proletariat, being pushed outside capitalist relations and directly against the state; this rang true to my deepest intuition and sympathies. I hit the streets and organized a SF local of the new National Union of the Homeless, which was the first homeless-run action group in the City; after that was a founding member of Homes Not Jails (the first housing takeovers), worked with Food Not Bombs (was taken to court for sharing food ‘without a permit), and now am active in the Occupy movement here. I am also a founding and active member of the Revolutionary Poets Brigade. My poetry, in conjunction with finding a revolutionary collective, led me to this work, and the work itself, and especially the people I got to know and love through it, have had the most profound influence on my poetics. The poems I like the best are those that don’t in a sense belong to me, but I borrow (hearing and seeing) from this revolutionary class of my fellows on this suffering planet, which is also our paradise.
What is it about poetry that can so easily lend itself to solidarity and struggle?
I think the important things about a poet's childhood is that it is alive and remembered, that the intense playful curiosity remains alive, that it hasn't been altogether snuffed out by conditioning and mis-education. Often people who have had their imaginations discouraged by social conditioning can lose at least conscious touch with that part of themselves, so their capacity to see the magic reality of life itself is suppressed. With that goes at least a certain amount of the ability to imagine oneself in another's place. This is to the advantage of the rulers of a system that oppresses and fosters inequality and suffering, especially by dividing people from each other based on fear and hate. Any person, not just poets, whose natural sympathies are still alive will naturally object to this system and care about what it does, not just to ourselves but to our fellows (and other life forms, the planet itself). Poetry has the unique capacity to distill these feelings, this sympathy, solidarity. It also allows the poet to tap into the joy of life that arises naturally in all living things, which unifies us in love and brother and sisterhood. Anyone not blind can see this joy in a baby or child’s eyes, and hear it in the expressions of their imagination. I see that I use the word ‘imagination’ here a lot. By this I mean the kind of clear-seeing that is done also with the heart. The open-heartedness and the ability to reach into that primal joy, wishing it for all beings, helps us hold on to the vision of a transformed world we struggle together to bring into being. Poetry can be a great expression of this, an ecstatic one, where the outcome is seen and celebrated in the process of the struggle (or the rehearsal of the poem) itself.
Your work is so firmly grounded in the image that I am compelled to ask what is the role of painting/ the visual arts in your work?
I painted [oils] for about twenty years, from an early age. I studied painting in college, and was very passionate about it, painted obsessively. I was writing poetry all that time, but considered myself a painter and expected to follow that. After I married and started traveling around, it was no longer practical to do the art. Also, I wasn't able to fully express all the things I wanted to through that medium, I knew what my vision was and couldn't quite reach it, my ability fell short. Yet struggling with it gave me some of the most ecstatic moments of my existence. Yes, I am very centered in the visual, as you astutely remark. I sometimes feel that I'm trying to do with words what I desired to do with drawing and painting. Language gives a shorthand and the reader visualizes. There is something iconic about my poetry I think, often a figure against a background that stands for much that's unsaid. That figure is usually of someone who has been stripped of everything, ‘homeless’, existentially naked, the new arising ‘figure’, the essential human (or you could express that as the new proletariat – the objective revolutionary). This figure/reality haunts and obsesses me and my poetry. When I think about writing something else I look up and see him or her, know through my politic – but not in some separate way – who that is (it’s us) - and know there’s my poem. It’s an acutely visual thing, an esthetic thing too, because I see the beauty of all the levels of that being, the overwhelming beauty of the world exactly as it is, the paradise and the material utopia already contained in existence, we are creatively struggling toward: the visionary as clear-seeing (‘prophetic’). The voice that’s heard in the poem is both mine and the other’s – I don’t feel a separation.
And what of everyday speech? In your work you often summon the speech/ the music of the everyday and turn it into a music to out-sing the noises of oppression.
I so much love the liveness and rhythms and truths of the language where it's most alive, unmediated, rude, irreverent, loving, elevated, ground-level, fed by the many expressions and languages and slangs and dialects of our many people - where it’s used to subvert the assumptions and can’t of privilege with its humor and talk-back. I love the voice of Anonymous (in the old sense of that), that great inspired genius! It is a mix of the people's wit gathered from everywhere, always singing if you keep your ears tuned to it. Other poets, comrade poets, poets I know, living and dead. Old songs, rhythm and blues. Nursury rhymes. Aesop’s fables. Jokes. Seeing, hearing. Natural spoken syntaxes and rhythms. Certain sights and sounds trigger something and start to form a poem inside of me. I think those voices always out-sing the noises of oppression and commodification (which are so ugly and discordant and dimensionless, they shut down the heart and soul and the living mind). I consider all poetry love poetry, heart-to-heart connection to whatever I’m writing about, or my opening to the voice of the universe and its residents. I’ve written so much about war and suffering, especially in the past ten years, but also before that, so that’s a very different kind of love poem. Perhaps more in sympathy with the innocent victims (and we’re all that in a way) than a dialectical exposure of the systems of privilege and power that cause an overwhelming amount of the suffering, the capitalist system of profit-making and exploitation, the merchants of hunger and war. I recognize that this is a limitation in my poetry. I guess my politic is more assumed than explicated in many of my poems, just by what I put in and what I leave out, so to speak – what I’m wrapped up in and what I care less about. A stripping away more than a saying, sometimes. The role of the silences between the words, the faith that anyone with a heart can grasp how deep the simple things go, down to the bottom of existence.
You describe your activism both in the Occupy Movement and in the Homeless Movement as the writing of one collective poem. I love this. Activism as language-material, language as action-material. In this context, where do you see poetry going next? Must we move toward a more performance-based poetry, a poetry of activism beyond the confinement of the page?
Now that this movement has come into being I'm writing less because I feel that I'm living inside a great living poem, each of us a syllable of it, so being part of that is giving me a lot of the exileration that writing poetry normally does (or being in love). This is the spirit I’m finding down at ‘Occupy’, especially among the brave, noble and so expressive and irrepressible - mostly ‘homeless’ - occupiers, many of whom are writers, artists, musicians, poets, fire dancers, magicians, and dialectical thinkers and debaters – all struggling to form the seed of a new way of being, based on cooperation and mutal aid, out there in the naked street, as the police take everything they need to live and stay warm and shelter themselves from the rain. I’m just happy to be a small part of this right now. As a practicising revolutionary, needing to pass on some things that were taught to me, and as part of the human family – and yes as a poet, of course.
As for how poetry will be created and communicated in the future, I think it’s going to be openly and freely shared through the connected and social media, as well as face to face wherever we gather. We can also self-publish – as I do in a very small way, with computer & printer – or publish each other, do magazines & zines, tabloids, etc – that’s in full swing and I don’t think it’s going to stop, I think it’ll be done more and more outside the publishing houses and the money economy, at least till the economy itself is radically transformed. Some of us are still ‘on the page’ – and I think that will continue in some form or other (just judging by how many people I see with journals and pens, writing away – even people who have almost no other possessions). But I do think that’ll be only one element in a many-dimensional practice of poetic expression that involves new forms I can’t even dream of. There’s been a great revolutionizing of poetry, an evolution and a restoration of its common root with song, music, dance, etc,and with revolutionary struggle and politics, in the last several decades. Hip-hop, spoken word and performance are global languages of resistence and positive struggle, one of the most profound and universal cultural revolutions ever – the passionate voices of the younger generations who see they have no stake in this dying order, and powerful visions of a transformed future. Where all can be the poets we all are, however we practice it.