Much has been made about the fact that in the 2015-16 election cycle, the disenfranchised voter demands to be heard. Well, I’m listening. I have been for nearly a decade, actually. Starting with the 2008 election cycle and the post-November elation/hangover/fear factor that followed it (displayed to various degrees along party, demographic, and generational lines), for a time I wanted to better understand the angry voter phenomenon, and why it seemed to be lingering in so many people I encountered, and who were part my life. That impulse led to a listening project that has wound through every election period since, and that will wrap up with this campaign season. In brief, it’s a project about the way we speak to and hear each other, the politicized non-dialogue that seems to have overtaken all forms of conversation, and the gas balloon of portent that’s escaping the seams.
Specific as artisan mayonnaise yet ubiquitous as type-2 diabetes, hyper-politicized speech only grows more inevitable for all of the complaining we do about it. It’s a twenty-car pileup of disconnects between what we know, what we mean, what we say, what we hear, and what we don’t (or simply can’t). Sometimes it’s the awkward “Thanks Obama” moment that erupts during a seemingly benign exchange with a fellow shopper about the chatty cashier holding up the supermarket line. Other times it’s a debate over taking the long way to work because someone in the carpool refuses to drive on the George W. Bush Turnpike. Or about that beloved friend who has become so obsessed with the merits of their chosen ideology (and the toxic intent or end-times scenario they see in the opposing ideology) that they post nothing but political screeds and cute animal videos on their Facebook feed anymore. Hiding the latter is always an option, but the conversation doesn’t really go away. We just start having it about them instead of with them. The impulse to even talk at all can easily get short-circuited, especially if one’s curated social media self becomes its own political statement, as evidenced by the kinds of posts liked, the products/candidates endorsed, or simply the bluish or reddish tint of the color commentary in a feed. When we see fight or flight as our only option for dealing with another person or their beliefs, a one-way conversation begins to sound better and better, I suppose.
However, this project is not about politicians, pundits, or campaigns, or the rhetorical moves they make in order to earn a vote, or tell the story of a given election. The poems you will read in this series are about everyone who is not running for office, and who/how we are to each other in an era where politics infuses everything. While campaign-speak or sloganism often finds its way into our everyday speech, this project is more about considering what it means when we adopt it, intentionally or otherwise, because at the end of the day we’re talking about each other.
I actually started this long trek by collecting data rather than dialogue, interviewing and surveying people of all political persuasions about the roots of their party affiliations and core beliefs, as well as the people and experiences that influenced their thinking on key issues at the time. I talked with people I knew well and those I did not, and attempted to distill this information into a map, charting the discontent and qualifying the dissent in some fashion. It was an interesting but rudimentary exercise, moving me only so far along in terms of understanding the how and the why of anger and vote-making, because a) I’m a writer, not a social scientist, and b) experience, beliefs, and issues are not so clearly or perceptibly linked in many lives; even if someone told me why they voted the way they did, having that information was not the same as being able to understand the path they traveled to that decision. So I decided to start listening rather than asking, and tuning in rather than broadcasting.
Which brings me to the difficult thing about this work: when one commits to opening ears fully and really hearing other people, and to not clamping off opinions or points of view with which one disagrees, the results are not always easy to digest. The poems you’ll read in this series at times invoke painful, disturbing, or offensive ideas that are nonetheless still part of the dialogue of our moment, for a variety of reasons. All content is culled from my personal experience and listening orbit, documenting and responding to conversations that people have had with me, or things they have said in my presence, for better or worse. This means that the poems reflect both what I hear (direct quotations and bits of conversation), and how I hear (tone, emotion, authority, coded language, hyperbole, and so on), and let’s also get specific about the way I am using this terminology. To hear, for the purposes of this project, is defined as receiving what others are actually saying to me directly or indirectly, because I am present physically or electronically in the conversation, whether or not I am a participant in it. So for instance, if someone is talking to me one-to-one, is speaking openly with a group at a party or gathering that I am attending, or is even a stranger speaking loudly or generally to everyone in their immediate proximity (say at a public place, like that person in the grocery checkout line), I can literally hear what they say, and they are aware that I do – no eavesdropping over here. Having an email, text, or online message exchange also qualifies as hearing for the purposes of this project, as does being part of a conversation on a password-accessed social media site (meaning one has to be logged in and part of my circle, or a friend of a friend perhaps, for me to see it), or viewing the conversation of others taking place on those sites (the equivalent of what one would do at a party). This form of hearing is technically reading, yes, but a specific dialogue is taking place regardless.
The exception to my rule of hearing and presence is this: I do not consider any random thing someone writes on the Internet as something being said to be heard by me. One could argue the comment box at the end of a blog post or news story is at times equivalent to party talk or that a troll there is just another form of someone yelling their opinions on the bus, sure, but the tangible connection between the speaker and me as the responder or listener is important. Even being in the physical presence of a stranger is a more tangible connection than simply reading comments in an open public online forum, and that personal link is key for me, even if it’s not intimate at all. Internet surfing as presence is of course a whole other ball of wax quite worthy of consideration, but not for this project. We all have our orbits, and the one I write about is mine.
Now that we’ve gotten the fundamentals and dry-mouth procedurals out of the way, here’s the schedule: this series will feature a new image and set of poems every Tuesday from now through November (one week post-election). Each subsequent post will also feature poems from throughout the project, as well as a new one written specifically for the current week. The poems are titled by number, but will not appear in order. Here we go.
I am the future
speaking myself into existence, believing negated into created
swinging revelation as my velvet rope
Other is neither, does not figure
just us, you, and them
The map is a constellation
the weather forecast a sign
the coordinates a premonition
and I am the mantle, the marker, the inevitability
by your face
We vote with our fists. We think with our stomachs. We talk with our elbows. Our child is not hungry and we will not bear you a revolution. Our own is our own. Hope is an invasion of our privacy. We will not be bullied by free medications for senior citizens or low-cost pet vaccinations. Home shopping is what the founding fathers meant. You feel at us like we speak emotion. Our deductible is warm as emergency. Quit telling people they can have what exists. Stop saving stuff on our behalf. Take the field goal and give the ball back. There is no intrigue to your conspiracy. We are not the ones we’re not interested in. We are flashing the lights as a courtesy. But you’re in our lane.
You better think about
What’s not a vegetable
Personal injury lawyers
A spiral road to something
A chart was drawn about it
There was an article I read
Freedom from liberty
My son-in-law who
In the wrong direction
The Holy Scriptures
Where did they hide my
The cleaning lady took it
Red velvet cake tastes good
Lodged in my heart
The best disaster
Pills don’t help
I’m waiting for someone to belong to.
I’m not above the influence of people who write more interesting sentences than I do.
I’m unable to understand the suffering of others.
I am going to get mine.
I’m afraid my life may pass unnoticed.
I’m not less important than I was this time last year.
I am not willing to admit that my ears work.
My brain is an amplifier not a receiver.
I am never going to get the amount of money or respect I deserve now that you’re here.
I’m terrified of becoming outnumbered.
I am a declaration stalker.
I’m unable to take care of myself and afraid no one will if I stop.
I am gum and you are sidewalk.
I’m frail of spirit and unable to cope.
I’m only here to tell my story.
I am empowered by people I meet on the Internet.
I’m the most important person in this room.
I am the person who is talking the loudest.
I’m going to stop paying your salary.
I am never going to change this record.
I am a drawbridge, not a wheelchair ramp.