What Sparks Poetry & Poetry Daily!
Many, many months ago, before everything changed into grief and horror, I was asked to write a column for the “What Sparks Poetry” feature on Poetry Daily. This is a really great project; poets write about a poem that matters to them and then offer a prompt inspired by the text they’ve just discussed.
I decided to discuss Zbigniew Herbert’s “Envoy,” which is one of his Pan Cogito persona poems. I’ve been fascinated by Herbert’s work for many years but became increasingly obsessed with Pan Cogito about three years and a half years ago, after the last presidential elections. Herbert wrote deeply coded poems, often in the voice of his alter ego, Pan Cogito, in Communist Poland; he frequently used mythology and other literary references as a way to (obliquely) critique the regime.
The following year at AWP, I delivered a small presentation about Herbert’s work on a panel about “contemporary mythopoetics.” Around the same time, I also began to ask myself, what if, one day, the First Amendment ceases to exist? And asking this question is how I came to write my book, American Samizdat, a collection written in the voice of an imaginary poet in a near-future America where free speech has been erased.
In working on my “What Sparks Poetry” piece, I thought about the fact that, perhaps, my little American Samizdat is a good thought experiment for all of us. Maybe we should all be thinking about what would be left of our voices, if we had to maneuver around state censorship. What techniques would we use to avoid redaction? How would we use myth, folklore, and literary allusion to speak in a way that was simultaneously opaque and accessible? So, I hope this exercise will be as fruitful for others as it has been for me. You can read the prompt here.