Participating in Ugliness: An Interview with John Ebersole

"Philly is Baltimore" protest at Philadelphia City Hall, April 30, 2015

he is still being killed in a diversity
of ways we are killed in a diversity of ways
I am killed in a diversity of ways and now
newspapers have started to write the poems
Nikki Wallschlaeger, “Sonnet (54)”

Despite the immediacy of internet culture, poetry as it is often currently practiced rejects immediacy. Poems get written, submitted to journals, and published weeks, months, years later. Not so on the Philadelphia Review of Books blog last week, from May 5 to May 7. For those 72 hours, John Ebersole, Poetry Editor for PRB, posted immediately upon submission 119 poems on the subjects of politics and race. The poems rolled out in incessant waves on my Facebook newsfeed. In his original Facebook solicitation for poems, Ebersole wrote,

This isn’t a call for submissions. Your poem has already been accepted. Take a risk: offend, be ignorant, reveal your blind spots, be raw, angry, ugly, contradictory, tender, smart, brutal, unedited, honest, boring, riotous, naked – just act like you live in this world. Be POET.

For many poets, immediacy, or timeliness, is often rejected in favor of timelessness—I think of Mark Strand’s ridiculous instruction to Jennifer Tamayo not to write war poems because they would “age badly.” Ebersole’s project points to how embracing timelessness can equal embracing inertia, holding on tight to the status quo, rejecting the need for change. In her “Sonnet (54)” posted on the PRB blog on May 6, Nikki Wallschlaeger writes, “newspapers have started to write the poems.” Ebersole’s non-call for submissions asked poets to write the poems the newspapers are writing.

Here, John Ebersole responded to my questions via email on current event poems, political discourse on Facebook, and poems MFA programs hate.

Rachel Milligan: You imply in your initial non-call for submissions that we have “yield[ed] the language of civic engagement exclusively to prose writers.” Why do you think it’s important to have a venue for “current event poems”? What kinds of things are current event poems doing that articles/prose about current events can’t do?

John Ebersole: In many ways the scope of my reaction is framed within the activity of poets online. What I noticed is that when there’s a sudden social upheaval, like Baltimore for instance, poets mostly go into “posting links to articles” mode and this is fine. On Facebook, it’s a News Feed after all. But at some point, those articles stop being news and start to reflect the poet’s fear of their own powers. Poets should be at the center of where it is most painful to accept our humanity. That’s what poems about current events do that prose pieces can’t: reveal the courage to waste their love on our suffering.

RM: The Mongrel Coalition’s success (with regard to accessing a large audience) has come from its powerful social media presence. What do you make of the power of radical groups to mobilize change through the internet? What do you think about the white poets who, as you identified in a Facebook status, are “mostly posting thoughtful articles”?

JE: The Mongrel Coalition’s social-media presence has been so refreshing and they’ve shown how the internet can transmit targeted messages to a wide audience. They were on the frontline in holding Kenneth Goldsmith accountable for reading Michael Brown’s autopsy report and that was so huge. I see that moment as a critical turning point in the direction poetry is going to take in the years to come. They should be proud of that. Confrontation smashes lethargy. Who have we become when we say reading a dead boy’s autopsy report as art is complicated and deserves a nuanced response? Fuck that.

Most white poets sort of disgust me when it comes to issues of race. They don’t personalize race—they’re good at performing the right attitudes and the right outrage and the right thinking and posting the right articles, but remain clinically unaccounted for—like somehow they’re separated from the issues on an experiential level. White poets are terrified to be truly known, to have their complicated feelings about race on display, because they’ve yet to forgive themselves for existing.

RM: How much would you say the project has to do with ephemerality? For instance, what’s your sense of how recently the poems were written? Does it seem like people are seeing your posts and writing something project-specific (as a response or no), or that people have been writing poetry dealing with these issues and there was no appropriate, immediate venue for those poems?

JE: I wonder about this too. Many people tried to send me previously published work and I understood why – it’s hard to just throw down a poem about complex issues and send it off, so I was sympathetic to that. But I didn’t want those poems. And I didn’t want to post people’s bios either. I wanted to strip away as much artifice as possible because those editorial gestures reveal a production narrative, reveal performance, and I wanted spontaneity. I was in such a rush to publish the work sent to me in real-time that I was often careless with the formatting and the poet would email me and ask me to fix it and it suddenly felt like a normal submission, a normal back and forth between editor and poet, and while I understand a poet cares about how their work is typographically presented and that form is important, it also made me want to scream: BE IMPERFECT. BE MESSY. BE OUT OF CONTROL. But I loved every poem I received for just existing. I think some poems were written beforehand and some poems were written in direct response to the project. I’ll never really know.

RM: What kinds of observations can you make about the range of topics covered in these poems so far? What’s your sense of the collective political imagination of this particular slice of the poetry community?

JE: The project was successful in that it allowed poets to articulate through their poetry aspects of the social traumas around them, And that’s important. But I want to see poets take a more personal risk in poems about politics. The conundrum of being a person is that we can imagine ideal realities. We can imagine justice. And we’re good at pointing at events that don’t meet those ideals and wailing. But I like when poets implicate themselves in those human failures, acknowledge their connection to them, and participate in the ugliness of their own limitations to change things.

RM: What other observations can you make about your contributors? In a Facebook status, you wrote, “I’m meeting so many poets I don’t know!!” Particularly in the case of those who don’t follow you on Facebook, where do you think the contributors are coming from? Is it surprising to you how word-of-meme travels on Facebook?

JE: Every time I posted a link on Facebook to one of the poems published, I was always delighted when the name I typed I wasn’t suddenly prompted to tag an individual. I mean, most of us have Facebook friends we don’t know, but many of the poets I was publishing I had never crossed paths with. And there was also the phenomenon of hearing from poets who were so clearly divorced from the culture of poetry created by MFA programs and oblivious to the ethos of cool that is so important to the online poetry community. I’ll be honest: some of the poems I published I would have rejected as a normal submission in a fucking heartbeat. They were stuffed with dramatic earnestness that is unbearable. They felt dangerous and it reminded me of Daniel Tiffany’s work on poetic kitsch. But I told myself I wasn’t going to reject or fear these poems. I wasn’t going to deny their participation. At first, I felt a pang of embarrassment for publishing them because in truth I can be a vain elitist motherfucker. I think I’m better than these poets and the poems they write. But am I? The poetry community has trained me to hate the amateur poet, whatever that means. So seeing their work next to work written by poets with MFA degrees was fucking great.

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