Saturday, March 7, 2009

God Bless (the ex-president): Skyping Harvey Hix

Yesterday my Poetry & Politics students and I interviewed Harvey (H.L.) Hix on Skype about his book God Bless. Half of this recent book consists of George W. Bush's speeches "crow-barred" into poems (including sonnets, villanelles, sestinas), set alongside poems written in the voice of Osama Bin-Laden. The second half of the book is made up of interviews, the first of Hix himself by his publisher, and the rest by Hix of academics, poets, journalists, and others who think about the divide between the US and the Arab world. Hix has made a book of the profoundest of impasses; by setting Bush next to Bin Laden and vice versa, he does not open a dialogue between the two. Instead, he confirms their inability to speak to one another. Bush dismisses Bin Laden, and Bin Laden ratiocinates in ways Bush cannot begin to think through. The reader of Hix's book, then, is put in the position of "mediator" (the book is a self-proclaimed "mediation" of "political/poetical discourse," rather than a "book of poems") between parties who refuse to engage one another on their own terms. This is couples therapy gone incredibly terribly globally wrong. But my students' engagement with the book suggests that Hix's goal of opening a dialogue might just be attainable, if only between members of a class or other group of Americans (Hix admits that his book will be read exclusively by Americans).

Toward the end of our conversation, Hix referred to contemporary politics as "the big language country." One of my students immediately joked that "that sounds so Wyoming!" But what struck me more than anything about Hix, whose work I am new to, is his reverence for language at a historical moment when it has been debased by politicians, advertisers, all the many marketers of greed. "Reverence" is an appropriate word, as one of his interviewees, Paul Woodruff, writes about the significance of reverence, more than faith, to honest thinking about the world.

That reverence for the word led Hix into a project of perverse proportions; he ended up reading every word that Bush uttered in his first four years in office, from the early unacknowledged legislations of "regime change" to the later patriotic bombast. From that mother lode of rhetorical nightmare he consolidated the words into poems. When I alluded to the way in which Hart Seeley made Donald Rumsfeld into a comic, light character by doing something ostensibly similar, Hix responded that he had wanted precisely NOT to do that, despite the temptations of creating yet another calendar of Bushisms. His poems are, instead, complicated vehicles of humor (the laughing at kind), irony, and false folksiness ill at ease not only with governance, but with the forms into which Hix pours "his" words." The question of intentionality came up when we asked Hix if these are poems, or some other creature. I wondered if it did not matter that Hix mediated Bush into poetic form, rather than Bush performing that act himself. As he did with many of our questions, Hix responded by saying he did not have answers. "And we went to all this trouble to set you up on Skype!" I said.

And what are we to make of this project? For this reader, the crucial distinction came at the very end of the interview section, where Pheng Cheah, a rhetoric professor at Berkeley, makes a distinction between achieving consciousness of one's complicity in economic injustice (her example is IKEA) and actually doing something about it. That something can never be complete, as we are always (already!) implicated in a system we cannot exit, as we exit the box stores where we think we are saving money, but we can mitigate our own complicities a bit. This is not well summarized on my part, as I left my book in my office yesterday in my haste to get to family dinner, but I wanted to take down some notes on this valuable conversation before it evaporates as completely as a Skype session, albeit lacking in electronic cricket songs.


Anonymous said...

This man wrote in the voice of Osama Bin Laden!

I am buying this book.

Lyz Soto said...

This is why I am a believer in turning the internal external. . .Our current reading, Leonard Schwartz's Language as Responsibility, puts this in my mind. Can circumstances like the holocaust, the walls in Isreal/Palestine/Mexico/United States, the drug cartels that are terrorizing Central and South America, the internment camps of wwii/slavery/domestic violence. . . .can any of them happen if those who are aware of the system refuse to be complicit with its always attractive offer of pleasure/safety/comfort/ease?