It is an honor to have Margaret Randall as the second featured poet in my Political Poetry series here at CounterPunch.
In the first installment I quoted poet Bill Tremblay as saying: “the war is the war against the imagination.” Tremblay said, “A world without imagination is a world of spiritual poverty, a diminished world, a world where the sun never shines.”
Franco Berardi echoes this sentiment in his new book, THE UPRISING: ON POETRY AND FINANCE. Berardi argues that tinkering with capitalism is not going to bring about a more just and equitable world. Instead, he is looking to poets to reshape the global imagination, so that humanity can honestly address our environmental, political, and economic crises, without constantly resorting to war.
Margaret Randall has been doing exactly that for 50 years.
Born in 1936, raised in New York and New Mexico, Randall is a renowned poet, photographer, feminist and social activist whose quest for knowledge and experience has taken her around the world. In the 1960s, with Mexican poet Sergio Mondragon, she co-founded and co-edited EL CORNO EMPLUMADO / THE PLUMED HORN, a bilingual literary journal which published some of the most dynamic and meaningful writing of the era. Even then she opposed the safe and sterile take of the academic publications, one of the frightening residues of McCarthyism; EL CORNO deliberately sought work outside that box. She lived for a quarter century in Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua, with shorter stays in Peru, and North Vietnam in 1974, always searching for new ways of understanding the world and humanity.
Randall’s poetic sensibilities, and the imagery in her poetry, reflect her expansive experience and travels. The US Government, however, considered some of her books to be subversive, and upon returning to the United States in 1984, she was ordered deported. Randall won her case in 1989 and now lives with her partner, the painter Barbara Byers, in Albuquerque.
From 1984 through 1994 she taught at a number of US universities. She is the mother of four children, and grandmother of ten, whose adventures in radical political poetry continue apace. (See her website at the end of this article for details.)
I’ll be demonstrating Randall’s highly crafted style and radical politics through excerpts from three poems included in her recent book, THE RHIZOME AS A FIELD OF BROKEN BONES (Wings Press).
There is an abundance of imagery from the natural world in this book of poems, and it is fitting that the first poem, titled “The Rhizome as a Field of Broken Bones”, describes certain varieties of the plant form known as “rhizome”:
From hops to orchids,
ginger to the sanctified bloom
we call Lily of the Valley
a horizontal stem
or root mass
moves beneath the ground,
feeling its way,
choosing where it will wake and rise
in yet another multiplying mirror
we hold to history.
As Randall explains in the poem, rhizomes are survivors, eminently adaptable, and worthy of study: “We who see a field/of broken bones/view pale faces/on memory’s imprint/befriend the rhizome:/neither beginning nor end.”
Her style is alluring and lyrical in a classical way, with lovely alliterations and flawless rhythms. It is literary with perfectly placed references to historical figures and events, as well as the elements of the natural world – the things that inform our language. When properly used in poetry, they convey epochs of meaning and significance.
Randall paints beautiful pictures, but her poetry is dead serious. In the poem there is a field of broken bones like rhizomes, scattered perhaps by “the lab scientist/willing to consider/a million lives collateral damage, intent only on his chance/at the big prize.”
Memories and important lessons spring from these metaphorical rhizomes. In one instance she asks you to “Imagine you are a child/in Phnom Penh/ the skulls creeping rootstalks/one sprouting another/from its node/of ideology gone insane…”
In another instance she asks you to “Contemplate the sharp edge/ of a Rwandan machete/ and try to remember if you/ wielded the weapon or knew its steel/against your throat.”
One lesson we learn from the poem is plain as day: if you want to travel with Margaret Randall, you’ll need to “break the hold/ steep systems of convention/have on you.”
Smashing outdated and oppressive conventions with mythic logic is, of course, the purpose of political poetry. And like a rhizome, political poetry can root you in a reality that is majestic, lethal, and potentially transcendent – depending on how much effort you are willing to put into it.
In the poem “La Llorona”, the poet’s quest for knowledge leads her to seek out a ghost on the banks of the San Antonio River. A poem of great imagination and wit, skillfully crafted, it embodies an interview with a woman from another century – one of those many centuries in the Norton Anthology where women are conspicuously absent – and gives her a chance to set the record straight.
When the poet asks the ghost why she didn’t proclaim her innocence at the time, the ghost replies:
I didn’t expect that from you,
thought you were smarter than to ask,
and must know that we can talk and talk
and they still believe
only what fits the stories they write
to keep us under control.
Women’s power or the power denied women throughout history is a recurring theme in Randall’s poetry, one of several political messages that needs to be repeated constantly, for those who wish to forget, and those who have yet to learn. Power itself, as exercised or abused by anyone, is a theme that compels her. As I found reading her poems, there is always more to learn about history, as well as what is going on right now.
That’s one of the distinguishing characteristics of Randall’s poetry; as with all great political poetry, it drives its message home before you know what hit you.
That is the effect of eloquence.
In our macho, militarized American culture, we often think of men as the rightful heirs to PTSD and flashbacks. This is partly because we haven’t had a war on American soil for many generations. No other nation has the capability to strike America with the type of weapons it employs – from the daggers of the vaunted Navy SEALs, to the 50-calibre machine guns of the happy pilots in the Collateral Murder video, to the drones and Cruise missiles of CIA officers and Navy commanders casually killing by remote.
This is gradually changing, as women fill the ranks in the military and witness firsthand the ravages of war America spreads, so neo-liberally, around the world on a daily basis.
Randall did not have to join the military to be blessed and cursed with the knowledge of war.
In her poem, “Our Job was to Move Their Bodies”, she describes how the pungent smells on a blistering hot day in Albuquerque transport her to Nicaragua.
“A skull came free in my hands.
Thin book of poems without a cover.”
I’ll begin my interview with Margaret Randall by asking her about this poem.
DV Thank you, Margaret, for taking the time to talk to me. In the poem “Our Job was to Move Their Bodies”, you express many feelings about the war, including regret – “a greater loss”. What happened in Nicaragua, and how did it affect your poetic sensibilities?
MR And thank you, Doug, for this conversation.
As you mention in your introduction, I went to Mexico in 1961 and spent the tumultuous sixties there. In 1968 I participated, along with thousands, in the Mexico Student Movement. The repression following that movement forced me to flee with my family to Cuba in 1969. We lived there for 11 years, during which time I got to know some of the revolutionaries from other Latin American countries who were there for military training or to heal from prison and torture. Among these were several Sandinistas, Nicaraguans who were fighting to oust their country’s long-time dictator, Anastasio Somoza.
When the Sandinistas were victorious, in 1979, my old friend Catholic priest and poet Ernesto Cardenal invited me to Nicaragua to interview the women who had taken part in that struggle. He was the country’s first Minister of Culture. I had already written several books of oral history with women. In Nicaragua I did the fieldwork for what would eventually be SANDINO’S DAUGHTERS in 1979-1980. I returned to Cuba where I wrote the book, and then decided to move on to Nicaragua. This was a brand new revolution with all sorts of challenges. I was particularly interested in how the Sandinistas would address issues concerning women and poets.
The poem to which you refer, “Our Job Was to Move Their Bodies,” is only one of a number generated by my years in Nicaragua. Every once in a while another surfaces. In this particular poem I refer to a moment shortly after victory, when the Sandinistas decided it was time to move the bodies of dead combatants from where they had fallen, and been placed in shallow graves, to proper cemeteries. I, along with many others, was part of that. There’s nothing like the stench of human death to make war real.
But here it might be important to point out that there are many different sorts of war. The domestic abuse—incest, rape, battery—to which women are routinely subjected also constitutes a war, albeit mostly condoned and socially more hidden. Hundreds of thousands of women and children in our country alone suffer PTSD similar to that what our soldiers and veterans suffer. And then too, we are now discovering the outrageous numbers of women in the military who complain of being raped by their fellow soldiers or superiors; this might be called a war within a war.
I have also written poems out of the betrayal of some of our revolutionary hopes. One such recent unpublished poem is “Everyone Lied”:
We wanted to make the world a better place
but everyone lied,
fought power with humble flesh,
and the luck of the innocent.
The enemy’s lies assaulted us, their language
diminished our numbers,
turned us against one another,
touched lovers, confused our sense
of who we were or why.
And we lied about them, claimed they were
drug dealers and murderers,
all their food poisoned,
all their streets unsafe.
Then we lied about our own,
sowed serious doubt, set fatal traps.
Of course we lied to the CIA
and others who tortured us,
but also to our parents, children,
and those who came to us
We lied by omission, convinced we must
reveal no contradiction.
The real story could only benefit
those who would destroy the dream,
who wanted us dead.
Accounts to be settled later.
We lied to protect our own and then
to justify not protecting our own.
We lied on a need to know basis,
parroted our leaders
even when they pretended genocide away.
We failed to question his disappearance,
100 knife-wounds in her body,
followed our leaders who lied to us,
then lied to ourselves:
the pain that changed our molecules.
Until later turned out to be the promise
we could not keep, a tired ghost
destined to wander hollow-eyed:
the lie that would come back to haunt
a sacrifice too big to name.
DV You have a new book out, CHE ON MY MIND (Duke University Press). Please tell about your experience in Cuba and the effect of the Cuban Revolution, and perhaps Che in particular, on Latin American poetry.
MR As I said, my family and I lived for 11 years in Cuba. This was during the revolution’s second decade: 1969-1980. Much had been consolidated, but much remained to be done. It was a privilege to be able to raise my children in that country, where young people were “the spoiled ones of the revolution” (los mimados de la revolución), and values of justice and fairness were emphasized. Today I see those values not only in my own children but in theirs; in how they have raised my grandchildren. I have written a memoir about those years: TO CHANGE THE WORLD: MY YEARS IN CUBA (Rutgers et University Press, 2011).
The Cuban revolution profoundly influenced life in general and poetry in particular throughout Latin America. The Cuban revolution was a beacon of hope, living proof that liberation from local oligarchies and US control was possible. In Cuba itself, from the beginning all sorts of artistic expression was encouraged and supported. People often commented on the fact that the new Cuban poets weren’t writing socialist realist verse. We don’t have to write about the revolution, one young poet told me at the time, we are the revolution.
Argentinean Ernesto Che Guevara, because he took part in the Cuban revolution, is associated with that country. But he transcends the Cuban context and has become an icon of my generation and of others in terms of standing for liberation, justice and nonconformity. I never knew Che personally; he died before I went to live in Cuba. But I got to know several of his family members, and his children went to school with mine. More importantly, he was a symbol of human dignity, and of the capacity to follow through on one’s ideals.
I have long been fascinated by Che, and last year found myself writing about him. My book is not a biography; there are more than enough of those. Rather, it is a feminist poet’s reminiscence of a man and his era, which is also mine. The book is impressionistic, but includes some stories that have never before been told. And I also add some of my own political analysis.
DV You spent time in North Vietnam. The US did a lot of damage there, as well as in neighboring nations Cambodia and Laos. We rarely hear anything about Southeast Asia. What was your experience like there? Did you meet poets?
MR The United States War in Vietnam really defined my generation. I was living in Cuba in 1974, and as I say I had written quite a bit of oral history with women. The North Vietnamese Women’s Union (the country was divided back then) invited me to come to interview women who were participating in all areas of the war effort. I was able to travel from Hanoi all the way down to Quang Tri, below the 17th Parallel. It was a formative experience, especially for someone like myself whose country was waging war against the Vietnamese people. I was there just six months before the US was defeated. I did meet a number of poets and writers on that first trip; I spent one whole day at the Vietnamese Writer’s Union. But I also met many ordinary people who loved poetry, who could recite long poems from memory.
Twenty-eight years later I returned to Vietnam with my partner. It was very moving to see how the country had rebuilt, and how most people had reconciled with those years of horror. And we made a subsequent trip quite recently, on which we also visited Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. These last two countries also suffered greatly during the US war in Southeast Asia. It was particularly emotional to be able to visit the Killing Fields in Cambodia.
I should say that after that first visit to North Vietnam, in 1974, I was unable to write a successful poem about the experience. I just couldn’t find the words. That can happen sometimes. Following our most recent trip, I did better. I have a chapbook called WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?, that speaks to some of what I felt then.
DV What in particular did the US government find so subversive about your work? What was it like going through that experience in 1984 and while you were trying to re-establish yourself in America?
MR In Mexico, in 1967, married to a Mexican citizen and with three small children to support, I had taken out Mexican citizenship as a way of obtaining a better job. In the process, I inadvertently lost my US citizenship. This made it possible for the US government, so many years later, to try to deport me under the 1952 McCarran-Walter Immigration and Nationality Act. It declared some of my writing to be “beyond the good order and happiness of the United States” (the actual language of the Act).
Like any immigrant, I had to apply for a Green Card. I was ushered into a room at the Albuquerque office of INS, and interviewed. Seven of my books were open on a table, with passages highlighted in yellow magic marker. These passages contained opinions contrary to US policy in Southeast Asia and Central America. In many cases they weren’t even my opinions, but the opinions of women I’d interviewed. I’ve never believed that the government really found those opinions so extreme; they were being expressed, after all, by many people through the country at the time. I think they were trying to punish me for having had the audacity to live in places such as Cuba and Nicaragua, or having visited North Vietnam during the war. They didn’t like it that I had disseminated information hard to come by in the corporate press.
DV Please speak about the art of translating poems, and how that influences your own poetry.
MR Translation is an art in and of itself. I have done quite a bit of Spanish/English translation, mostly poetry. I’m not sure translating has influenced my own poetry, but it has certainly made me more aware of language, how it is used, how it expresses ideas. Translation is also extremely personal. A few years ago someone made an interesting poster with a brief poem in Spanish and eight or ten different English translations. Reading some of them without the original, you would have been hard put to recognize them as the same poem.
DV: Please speak about women joining the military. Will women soon be writing poems about that?
MR: Women have long written poems about war, very powerful ones. Although not in as great a number as men, women have fought in wars, been important members of underground struggles, smuggled messages and weapons, nursed at the front, and much else. Recently the rape of women during war has been recognized as a crime against humanity.
As I have gotten older, war—all war—seems more and more counterproductive to me. It never solves anything and always causes great trauma and destruction. Of course I want women to be able to do all that they want to do, including fighting if they so desire. But that’s not my thing. As you mentioned, I didn’t need to go to war to know war. I have an old poem (1982) called “All Last Week,” which I think illustrates the horror of war for young women. It appeared in my 1988 book MEMORY SAYS YES (Curbstone Press), and is dedicated to my youngest daughter, Ana, who was 12 at the time:
All last week you preened before the mirror
viewing emerging breasts, then covering them
with gauze-thin blouse
and grinning: getting bigger, huh?
The week before you wore army fatigues
leveling breasts and teenage freckles,
tawny fuzz along your legs. A woman. Beginning.
Today you don fatigues again.
Today you pack knapsack and canteen,
lace boots over heavy socks
and answer the call Reagan and Haig
have slung at your 12 years.
Yours and so many others
—kids 14, 15, 18, so many others who will go
and some of them stay, their mothers
shouting before the Honduran Embassy:
Give us our sons’ bodies back,
give us back their bodies! At least that.
All last week you preened before the mirror,
moving loose to new rhythms
long weekend nights. Junior High math. Sunday beach.
Today you go off
to the staccato of continuous news dispatches.
And I, in my trench, carry your young breasts
in my proud and lonely eyes.
DV Final question, Margaret. Please tell me a little about your craft, and how you write poetry.
MR My process has varied throughout my life, in accordance with what else I was doing at the time. When I was very young, I believed—as many young poets do—that writing was all about inspiration. I waited for the inspiration to come. In my middle years, as someone who always had to work for a living and who chose to have four children, my writing was relegated to late at night when all the other chores were done (and I was usually extremely tired). This was especially true during my Cuban and Nicaraguan years, when helping to build a new society also demanded time and energy. As I’ve grown older, have been able to retire and my children have moved fully into their own lives, I’ve had the great luxury of making my writing my primary activity. Today I know that poetry needs inspiration and a whole lot of hard work.
I’m a morning person so I get up early. By around seven I’m usually in my studio. And I write 8 to 10 hours a day. This time frame includes study, of course—a lot of reading about the subjects with which I’m grappling. My poems may be sparked by an idea, an image, something I read in the paper, a particular feeling. I get that down in some immediate way (that may not even end up in the finished poem, usually doesn’t in fact) and then I begin to “riff.” As I shape the poem its form begins to suggest itself, at this point in my life almost automatically. In fact it sometimes suggests itself too directly, and then I have to intentionally break it up, even toss parts of it altogether, to get where I want to go. My poems easily go through 20 to 30 revisions or drafts. I’m one of those people for whom writing on a computer has been truly wonderful; cut and paste is such a useful tool. When I think I finally have what I want, I consider the poem “finished.” But changing a word here or there, or even a whole line, sometimes doesn’t end there. Reading in public is one of my favorite activities, and I can feel the audience’s energy acutely. I’ve been known to change a word or leave a whole line out in the middle of a reading, as a result of audience response.
I think one of my dilemmas is still about when something I want to write about demands a poem or would be better served by an essay or some other sort of prose text.
One last thing I guess I should say is that the term “political poetry” really doesn’t resonate much with me. I know most people make the distinction between poems that address political issues and those that don’t. But to me, everything is political in the broadest sense. A good poem can be about anything. It will of course reflect the poet’s philosophy. In this sense, a poem about love or landscape can be highly political.
DV Thank you, Margaret Randall.
Please visit Margaret’s website http://www.margaretrandall.org/ for information on her books, including CUBAN WOMEN NOW, SANDINO’S DAUGHTERS, and SANDINO’S DAUGHTER REVISITED. Titles out this fall include MORE THAN THINGS (essays), CHE ON MY MIND (reminiscence of Che Guevara), and DAUGHTER OF LADY JAGUAR SHARK (poetry). Contact Margaret at email@example.com
One of Margaret Randall’s poems will appear in the forthcoming anthology With Our Eyes Wide Open: Poems of the New American Century (West End Press, March 2014). Please email Amanda Sutton at firstname.lastname@example.org for information about pre-ordering the anthology.