Emily Abendroth, whose poems appeared on THERMOS last Friday, speaks briefly here on being a poet in Philadelphia. This place-based feature, curated by Zach Savich, will continue occasionally in the future, with poems accompanied by brief commentary. Look for Emily’s first full-length book of poems, ]Exclosures[, out from Ahsahta in May. — AS
I’ve never considered myself to be a regional writer or to fit into the category of a “writer of place,” at least not to the degree that one thinks of such categories as entailing a committed affiliation to residency as a significant component of one’s artistic identity. For lack of a better way to say it, I’m definitely more a “poet who lives in Philadelphia,” as opposed to a “Philadelphia poet.”
Far more than the geography and natural environment of Pennsylvania, it is my engagement with the various communities of Philadelphia writers/artists, community organizers, human rights activists, and friends/comrades that have most impacted the shape of my artistic practices here in this city.
Further, the current dynamics of Pennsylvania politics profoundly shape my understanding of the existent obstacles that preclude our achievement of individual and collective health, well-being, self-determination, and, ultimately, emancipation (be it cognitive or physical in nature). This, in turn, informs my sense of what art has a mandate to attempt to, first, make legible and, then, to confront, even as the means and modes of art are very different from those of traditional organizing. I don’t by any stretch think this is art’s only mandate but, from my perspective, it is a primary one of them.
In the context of Pennsylvania, this includes such life-destructive details as: the widespread implementation of hydraulic fracking which is, as I write, poisoning our watershed and ourselves for millennia into the future; the insufferable fact that spending on prisons has once again outpaced spending on higher education for several annual budgets running; the dovetailing reality that this state has more people who were condemned as youth to sentences of life without the possibility of parole (or “death by incarceration”) than anywhere else in the world; and the monstrous truth that our current Governor prefers to leave tens upon tens of thousands of people uninsured and without health care access of any kind, rather than to accept the federal expansion of Medicaid to poor people.
I don’t mean to say that these intentionally engineered calamities of social neglect and outright violence either directly predict or dictate the form/voice of my poetic work in a narrow instrumentalist or journalistic way. That would be, I believe, a demoralizing defeat for the creative imagination. My poetry is not “about” these things in that strictly documentary sense; however, its concerns and contours are absolutely invaded by and responsive to those realities.