A site for poetry, for ways of thinking and writing that are impossible to consolidate with a political or conceptual vocabulary.
The Grapevine Telegraph by Hunter Bolin
We Believe in Poetry and We Believe in Revolt
People say poetry doesn’t “do” anything. In today’s world, there is no higher praise. Welcome to the Grapevine Telegraph.
When we first dreamed of Grapevine Telegraph, our goal was to connect the poets we knew around the world who grapple with similar questions in their writing, and more often than not in their lives. We want to make a network of poets visible to itself, to give it a place to grow in confidence and to begin conversations that are otherwise stifled in the dominant tendencies of contemporary poetry. We are inspired by poetry that aligns itself with a lively fight.
We have seen many people curse poetry because it doesn’t “do” anything, and on the flip side there is a proliferation of young poets who dwell on their own feelings as an entire world unto itself. The following letter is a brief reflection on some of the most popular currents in contemporary poetry in the English-speaking world, the coordinates we have used to orient our poetry column.
One of the things we notice is that poetry today is more popular than ever because it gives space for young people especially to write about their lives in an experimental and non-academic way. Much of this poetry has been spread through the medium of Instagram and it is worth reflecting on how this medium affects the forms of art it hosts. Think about graffiti, for example: thanks to Instagram, some people now write miniature graffiti which is hardly noticeable in real life but looks “cool” on Instagram. We could say that poetry also suffers from Instagram in the sense that the app normalizes a type of poetry that is ultimately just meant for consumption and disposal: something you can click on, spend 30 seconds with, think to yourself “that’s nice” then scroll on. The generalized narcissism that Instagram depends on for its popularity also affects the content of this poetry, and we’re often left with an uncomplicated poetry that prioritizes self-expression and easy reading.
Self-expressive poetry might be something like poetry that seeks affirmation and consolation for who one is. This serves an important purpose, especially when so many people are systematically denied recognition in the world we live in today. But it does come up against some real limits. For instance, it is hard to write against oneself when trying to express oneself. In other words, if we suggest that self-expressive poetry is based on affirmation, then where does resistance come in? We do want to struggle against the shitty selves this shitty world has made of us, we want to take risks and overcome challenges. As Hanna wrote in her “Surprise Us“ letter “we can’t break this world if we can’t first break ourselves”, or Dante’s call for “The artist/ who for the habit of art has a hand that trembles.” At no point does this add up to a disavowal of the personal. It is helpful to pull a prescient distinction that Rob Halpern makes in his book Music for Porn: the cleavage between self-expression and the personal. It seems that in our age of hyper fragmentation, personal relations are some of the most effective means for loosening up the knots of social contradictions. Of course, we are speaking from the level of micropolitics here. But to ignore this dimension is to miss out on something very fundamental in revolutionary struggle. The trust we build with others, the care we take, the support we lend, the way we dance together: we cannot do without any of these things. These are the things that make it possible for us to live fully after the riot is crushed, after the movement ends and we are sent tumbling back into the misery that is everyday life in the end of the world.
Aside from Instagram poetry, there has been a notable increase in politically engaged poetry. There was “militant poetics”, and “poetry and/or revolution” a few years ago, conversations which shaped the direction Anglophone poetry took in the years following. The call to make politically engaged art usually arises from two main objections: art is gentrification (it certainly usually is) or art is not a substitute for political struggle (certainly not). Or better yet: “Poetry doesn’t do anything.” Nothing could be easier than to say art or poetry doesn’t do anything. Not doing anything is fine with us. Not doing anything is one of the hardest things to do in today’s economy, where attention and bodies especially are hyper-mobilized, always being called upon to react to new stimuli, where there is always an Uber to catch, a match to make, a new project to start, or a Bird scooter to destroy. Tongo Eisen-Martin says something insightful in this regard, “99% of our brain’s capacity is used to communicate for survival. Poetry is what our brain has to communicate in that 1% when not tasked with immediate survival.” Contrary to some of the theses emerging from militant poetics, where poetry is theorized as an auxiliary to the struggle for survival or liberation, Eisen-Martin reserves a special place for poetry where panic and crisis can be momentarily suspended and a certain serenity is given room to set in. Regardless, we have found much of the political poetry of the last decade tremendously influential. Still, there are many different packs of wolves necessary to change the world. Sometimes we sense that attempting to overcome artist’s guilt by injecting art with political content isn’t always entirely satisfying. For example, it’s 2019 and it seems poets are the only ones who still cling to this identity of the militant. Many of the thousands of people who have taken part in and been taken apart by the movements of the last 10 years have abandoned the post of militancy or recognized it as a trap of specialization. Funnily enough it is the same trap of specialization poets try to evade by not being poets. Poetry is not always political analysis. Sometimes it is. We fear that a certain tendency to equate poetry with analysis sometimes comes at the expense of what Diane di Prima calls “the courage of the tenuous: the willingness to speak of what can’t be proved.” Art does do things, not all of which can be pointed to. Art has the capacity to cultivate new sensibilities, to open up new dimensions of time, space, to zoom in on details we pass over in our busy lives. The dimensions that poetry unfolds are not straight forward, they require experimentation and the invention of languages and perceptions. Most of all they require a belief that other worlds can and already do exist. This seems to be one of the most important lessons art has to teach us. We believe in the transformative capacity of art independently of its explicit political partisanship or its utility as propaganda. We’re not saying we want an apolitical poem, or that we don’t like propaganda. We just don’t think militancy should necessarily be a requirement for good poetry. It seems to us to be a challenge we face in poetry today.
We are excited to bring you a curated selection of poems (we are currently not accepting submissions) by poets we think exceed self-expression without denying the personal, who live in struggle and therefore write words of struggle. Much of our column will focus on poetry in translation, so expect to see work from many different languages in the upcoming issues. Each poet’s work will include a recording of their reading, since we firmly believe that poetry is not something to be read on a page by oneself, but to be read out loud and shared with others. It’s not easy to get poetry published in the art “world”. We hope to share the work of poets who don’t have much institutional or academic support, writers who haven’t called themselves “poets” for very long but need a place to share their work, alongside writers who have years of experience. We will bring you squatters who write poems and poets who are trying to meet the crazy kids in the street for the first time. We believe in poetry and we believe in revolt. Frankly, we think you really can have one without the other, but we wouldn’t want it that way.