Michael Rothenberg, the founder of 100 Thousand Poets for Change, expressed hope today that the Arab revolutionary narrative of 2011 would inspire not just the “occupy” movement, but a swing in U.S. literary momentum, too.
Both he and 100TPC’s Terri Carrion were in Sharjah for the 2011 international book fair.
It’s been well-documented (or documented, at any rate), that poetry, chants, and songs played a key role in coalescing public courage and directing action in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya.
Rothenberg, for one, was hoping that just as political uprisings in North Africa, the Gulf, and the Levant had inspired a new political genre in the U.S., they might also inspire new poetic movements.
There is an ongoing debate over whether poetry has remained the “diwan of the Arabs,” or if the novel has taken its place. Indeed, Rothenberg expressed surprise at how few poetry collections he’d seen at the Sharjah fair. But, while poetry may not have a high profile with publishers and prizes, it certainly still has cultural clout.
Many contemporary Arab poets defy the role of “people’s poet” that was (sometimes) played by greats like Mahmoud Darwish and Amal Dunqul. Youssef Rakha, for instance, has called a certain sort of political poetry “populist propaganda.”
Others, however, have found a way to speak beautifully, complexly, clearly, and directly to the moment—such as Khaled Mattawa in his “After 42 Years.”
Rothenberg was calling for a bit more of this spirit. He felt that, after the ‘60s and ‘70s, Anglo poetry was divested of its central role in cultural dialogue and debate. After that, much of Anglo poetry (and some Arab poetry) shed clarity and purpose in favor of a certain sort of dialogue between language and language. It created beautiful poetries. But other poetries died away, shied away, or moved into music.
But now, Rothenberg thinks, the self esteem is returning to these other poetries, “the sense of the poet’s role in society.”
“Poets,” he said, “have the ability to redirect the dialogue.”
Rothenberg was hopeful that more Arab bookstores, poetry collectives, poets, cultural organizations, and citizens would participate in next year’s open-call 100 Thousand Poets for Change event on September 29, 2012.