Carmen Bugan's essay collection articulates how poetry is an instrument of resistance
Carmen Bugan wields writing to understand and push back against the oppression and repression that she suffered while growing up in Romania in the 1970s and '80s and observed in her life and research. In her new book, Poetry and the Language of Oppression: Essays on Politics and Poetics, she writes:
This personal background experience gave me a first-hand knowledge of the power of language—how it can be used as an instrument of oppression and how it can be used as an instrument of resistance. That knowledge has shaped my voice as a writer.
Language is on the one hand very damaging and on the other very powerful. Bugan’s writing demonstrates her resilience and courage to nevertheless express herself when facing oppression.
Poetry and the Language of Oppression offers five essays based on lectures at the University of Michigan, where Bugan was the 2018 Helen DeRoy Professor in Honors and also where she’d earlier earned her undergraduate degree. The book explores language, privacy and publicness, the act of writing about suffering, creative processes, and the roles authors take when they write about oppression, all in relation to poetry.
Early in the book, Bugan defines the purpose of poetry: “The task of poetry is not merely to be expressive, but to avoid being politically partisan, so that it reaches into a kinder humanity in its encounter with suffering, as it searches for a way out of it.” This charge allows poetry to extend beyond being simply descriptive or one-sided and to serve as that “instrument of resistance.”
One way Bugan has encountered the convergence of poetry and politics is in reading the surveillance transcripts of her childhood home: her family was spied on as a result of her father’s political dissidence. The influence of those circumstances is long-reaching because it fractured the family’s trust in society. Yet it becomes clear in reading Poetry and the Language of Oppression that Bugan has persevered. She acknowledges this by reflecting, “We must appreciate that great poetry can be born from nightmares and it is born precisely to fight against those nightmares.” Bugan adeptly exercises the ability to fight through poetry.
Bugan does not focus solely on her personal experiences. She casts a broader net by quoting, citing, and discussing other works on extreme situations, such as Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, biographer and memoirist Rebecca Loncraine’s Skybound, Dante’s Paradiso, Nobel Prize-winning poet Salvatore Quasimodo, and many others. Ideally, writing about suffering should not wallow in it, Bugan notes. Instead, it should convey the depths of what happened and what came of it. Bugan shares her own reflection:
… several years after I returned from my own journey through the Romanian prisons and the Iron Curtain with my family, I reflected on the ways in which that journey opened to me, and opened me to the larger context of human suffering in tyrannical regimes, and on how much we are willing to sacrifice in order to be understood as human beings with the need to breathe freely on this Earth.
Both for the writer and the reader, words bring a greater understanding of the situation—not just the events but also the emotions and epiphanies.
Bugan asks many questions about literature and oppression and shows what she has come to understand in the process. She takes satisfaction where she is able and writes, “We do not have agency over mortality, terminal illness, and political upheaval, but we have some agency over how we engage with our social and political problems in the language of poetry. We can write ourselves free, the pen is in our hand.”
She knows how to use her agency.
Bugan has written several books of poetry and a memoir, Burying the Typewriter. She has a doctorate in English literature from Balliol College, Oxford, and currently teaches at the Gotham Writers' Workshop in Manhattan. We last spoke in early 2020 about her poetry collection Lilies From America. I interviewed her about how she composed the essays in Poetry and the Language of Oppression, what they say, and what’s coming up next.
Q: It’s great to talk with you again. The last time we spoke, your now-published book, Poetry and the Language of Oppression, was in progress and based on lectures at the University of Michigan. What did preparing the lectures involve?
A: Since 2010, when I obtained the first set of records of the secret police transcripts on my family during the Cold War (my family has been under surveillance because of my father’s political dissidence from 1961 until 1989), I have been making notes on the feature of the language of surveillance. I have been thinking about the concept of a government archiving personal, intimate information about ordinary people without their consent, and the methods of obtaining that information. (There was no widely available internet at that time and no iPhones and so people followed their “objects of observation” around, and recordings of the conversations were captured on audio cassettes.) I thought about private life, public exposure of private life, civic identity, and the desire for anonymity I experienced in the last years I lived in Romania. I thought about the distortion of narratives (of people’s lives and their civic identities) that are embedded in the records. And, of course, I thought about the legacy of the Cold War on my generation, which is one of distrust in people and government. All of this is part of my work, of my poetry, so, inevitably, the question of poetics has become central to my work. When I received the invitation to visit University of Michigan as the Helen DeRoy Professor in Honors, I was thrilled to have the chance to formalize my thoughts and my experience as a writer in the lectures, so I grouped everything in terms of themes and stages of writing over time, dealing with the Cold War and its impact on my voice as a writer.
Q: How did you go about transforming the lectures into a book?
A: I put back everything I had to leave out for the reasons of space, and I articulated more fully the ideas I presented in the lectures. I also made the “practicing poet’s view of poetics in relation to history” more intentional, so that the essays can also be read for their consideration of craft—for what goes in the mind of the writer as the material of life is being transformed. In this sense, with the book I aimed more directly for a discussion of the creative process and the responsibilities that come with poetic expression.
Q: You preface the book by noting it “will raise more questions than offer answers; and new questions will surface as part of a continuous search into the creative process inspired by the hope that poetry is of real help in providing an illumination of life.” You talk about how to express topics in poetry. Do you also make discoveries while writing?
A: Absolutely! Trying to get one line or one stanza just right, finding the words that do the job of naming and suggesting, giving and gaining access, often leads to clarifying one’s own thoughts about what tried to get into words in the first place. I think of writing as the process of clarifying life, bringing a sense of harmony and order to it.
Q: One thread throughout Poetry and the Language of Oppression is the private and public self and emotions. The line between them can be blurry. What do you tell other writers who are figuring out how to make the distinction?
A: I often talk about the “Lyric I” in relation to the private person, who will become a poet-author once the poem is published. There are duties and obligations due to each: the private self (who is Yeats’s incoherent bundle of accident that sits down to breakfast), the public self (who is the published author), and the highly crafted “Lyric I” who comes in direct contact with the reader. In certain situations, that “Lyric I” is the very heart of that private person who speaks using “custom and ceremony,” to return to Yeats.
Q: You write poignantly about changing the language that you write in after resettling in the United States. In Chapter 3, you observe, “One is defined by the experience of losing the familiar.” How has that loss defined your writing?
A: Writing in another language is like being always at the end of the road, facing the water, or the woods, and being jealous of everyone else who is on that other road just within view. You have to wait for the low tide to swim, you fear the currents, or if you are looking at an open field or at the dark woods, you know you’d have a lot of work to do to make your path—which may, or may not reach that native, solid road of the native language others enjoy without even thinking about how fortunate they are. Yet, as I said in the chapter you are mentioning, there is also the thrill of being your own person, free and alive, after all.
Q: The chapters explore aspects of the author’s voice that writes about oppression. One aspect is the risks of expressing personal concerns, such as illness. Another piece is “whether literature that engages with politics is, or indeed should be, ‘political’, and in what sense.” You also consider the citizen’s voice in contrast to the politician. Can those be separated?
A: Yes, and no. The citizen can also take on the mantle of the politician and the politician is also a citizen. But they have separate roles in society: the citizen’s voice is there to keep an eye on the politician whose job is to represent the citizen. My children and I were watching the school board meeting just before the start of the new academic year in our district. Parents complained to the board members about a lack of communication: “We elected you, but you don’t speak to us, you don’t answer our emails and you don’t have a conversation with us at board meetings.” That is an example of the relationship or the tension between the voice of the citizen and that of the politician.
The poet—the figure of the poet—as personal as a poet’s work might be, is a cultural construct: that is to say, the poet-author, who partakes in the creation and maintenance of language and culture, has a responsibility to the audience (who comprises citizens and politicians). The poet’s voice speaks sometimes as a citizen, sometimes as a politician, but always as a cultural ambassador—a language ambassador. Good poems can be deeply political in the sense that they show the human experience of political moments, political upheaval, political movements. But because the emphasis is on the experience, the canvas of human suffering, or of human aspirations, those political poems do not function in a temporal way as political propaganda or political dissent: they are not to be classified as liberal, democratic, socialist, capitalist, etc. They are to be classified for their excellence of expression that wishes for things to be otherwise—in other words, in direct opposition to oppression and in direct support of dignity and respect for life. We want the poems to be alive and present in our moments of transformation—even as many of those transformations come about as a result of disastrous politics. This is a tough job and very few do it well. Often poems responding to politics and oppression are simple, personal expressions of anger, rather than individual artistic expressions of what is like (emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically) to feel oppressed. The individual expressions can become linguistic blueprints, the personal expressions of anger are forgotten together with the historical context which brought them into being. Hard to tell the difference, I know, but it is there.
Q: I’d like to circle back to the three words from the start of the book: repression, oppression, and expression. You’ve turned to language for expression. Did this book strengthen your faith in poetry?
A: Yes, and I suppose much of that has to do with the process of articulating that faith, with showing how the trust in poetry is built ad rebuilt. Language is so alive, you run with words and ideas as you run along the street with friends. The more you get to know your friends and the more time you spend with them, the more the trust in them strengthens. I believe that half of the battle with the sense of helplessness is won just by achieving an articulation of how it feels to be in that space. I see the book as a signpost—for myself, for my children, for whoever might be reading it. The signpost reads “Poetry National Lakeshore”—or something like that welcome sign to a place we love and where we arrived.
Q: Your book is well researched. How did you go about your research?
A: I wrote the book last summer during the lockdown (though the lectures were written during 2017 and had time to settle in my mind); all the research and references were done over many years—I wrote about what I know, rather than researching much new material. I found myself all too happy to use my personal library, and it felt comforting, like returning to old friends in a time of need: things felt familiar.
Q: Much has changed since the last time we talked. What’s on your nightstand to read these days?
A: I have been trying to make my way through ION, which is Plato’s work on poetic inspiration, edited by someone I know and very much admire, Penelope Murray. Then I have Science and the Indian Tradition: When Einstein Met Tagore by David Gosling, and alongside that I am re-reading Tagore’s Selected Poems (translated by William Radice). I am also re-reading Mary Oliver’s poetry handbook—my son just finished and loved it, too. This summer I read Lucy Newlyn’s The Craft of Poetry (written all in verse) and her amazing book of sonnets, Vital Stream, and I plan on reading Christopher Ricks’ book of essays, Along Heroic Lines, and not only because one of the essays is dedicated to my work!
Q: You have other books in the works. What should we look for next from you?
A: Shearsman Books, my English publisher, will bring out a new book of poems (a pandemic journal in poetry, I suppose) entitled Time Being. It’s a book about being in the house and listening to the quieter world outside but finding myself hearing the inner torment of the family under isolation.
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.