Blogging for Choice

Today is the 34th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and so it is also Blog for Choice Day. In order to examine "why I am pro-choice," I have necessarily been thinking a lot about what being pro-choice, or being a pro-choice activist, entails for me--beyond believing that abortion should be safe and legal. Here is a list of twenty things, in mostly random order, that I've come up with so far:

1. A very important element of being pro-choice is to have the courage to actually refer to your ideology as pro-choice. To neglect this important step, is to tacitly support the belief, which is fundamental to anti-choice ideology, that abortion is immoral, or should be taboo, or that having an abortion renders a woman immoral or "anti-life."

2. Speaking of the term "anti-life," I think it is important for pro-choice women to use the term "anti-choice" rather than "pro-life." This is because using the term "pro-life" tacitly implies that pro-choicers are somehow anti-life.

3. I think really being pro-choice means supporting every woman's right to choose, no matter what her situation. It means supporting a woman's right to choose abortion or abortions, as well as her choice to bear 2.5 children, many children or zero children. No one but a woman herself should determine what is best for her own body or her own life. I think it is a part of anti-choice ideology to make statements like: "Abortions are just too easy to get"; "women should only be allowed to have abortions with their husband's permission"; "abortion should be legal, but women shouldn't use abortion as birth control"; "a woman shouldn't have more than one, or more than two, or more than seven abortions"; or "only women who have been raped should have abortions." These statements are problematic for so many reasons, but this is the one that stands out most to me: Who, if not the woman herself, should judge whether she will receive safe and legal medical treatment, which is a basic human right?

4. Pro-choicers should make every effort to support inclusive, thorough sex education programs that teach people around the world how to safely prevent pregnancy, and protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases.

5. I think it is important for pro-choice people to vote pro-choice. I also think it is important for pro-choice people to donate and volunteer pro-choice, if possible.

6. I think it is important for pro-choice people, specifically pro-choice medical professionals, to educate women about the stages of fetal development, how and where to have an abortion, should they ever have the need, and what exactly different kinds of abortion entail.

7. I think that if women who are seeking or have had abortions are being attacked by Christian fundamentalist or any other group, those women should be defended and supported by pro-choicers. Women who have had abortions are marginalized, degraded and attacked in many ways, some apparent, some subtle.

8. I think it is important for pro-choice women to be cognizant of the way religious dogma supports and often authors anti-choice ideology.

9. I think, if an opportunity arises, it is important to challenge women who have had abortions, but identify as pro-life for "religious reasons," to examine the way their holy text is being interpreted by men in power in order to oppress and control women. I think women in this group suffer profound emotional and "spiritual" trauma because they are made to think of themselves as "murderesses." To read an excellent article by Chris Hedges on a related subject, click here.

10. I think it is important for pro-choice feminists to refrain from making the following comment, if possible: "I've never had an abortion and, for ethical reasons, I would never have one." First, because the comment implies that abortion is immoral, which supports anti-choice dogma. Second, because it demonizes women who have actually had abortions (and there are millions). And third, because as anyone who has ever worked in a clinic will tell you, countless women who are about to have abortions say, "I always said I would never have an abortion." And I'm sure every pro-choice woman can imagine at least one reason why she might not want to carry a pregnancy to term.

11. I think it is important to revisit the idea that a woman’s body is her own property, not the property of any man or state, and that anti-choicers subvert women’s agency and humanity with their votes, their funding, their actions, their politics, and their words. Words have power and women, especially young women, are listening. Pro-choicers should do what we can to provide a pro-choice point of view when possible.

12. I think it would be helpful to refer to abortion as a safe and legal minor surgery from time to time, to remind people of the reality of the procedure.

13. Pro-choice activists should make an effort to expose clinics that claim to provide this safe and legal minor surgery, but actually entrap, trick, or intimidate women in order to convince or shame or force them to remain pregnant. I think pro-choice activists should also work to expose the flaws of abstinence-only education that precludes teaching students about birth control.

14. Pro-choice parents should educate their daughters and sons about birth control.

15. I think abortion should be covered by insurance. I think all women should be provided with health insurance on the off chance they might become pregnant. Just as pregnancies that are carried to term are costly for many women, abortions are costly for many women. There are, in fact, women who need financial assistance in order to receive safe, legal, quality medical treatment.

16. I think it is important for pro-choice women to educate other women that, despite what they may have heard, women actually do know whether they are emotionally, physically, financially and psychologically prepared to carry a pregnancy to term, give birth or raise a child.

17. I think it is important for pro-choice women to understand that not every woman considers carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term, giving birth, and giving a baby up for adoption to be a viable choice.

18. I think it is important to remember that for many women, abortion is a choice they need to make to preserve their own health. I think it is important to remember that this is not the only valid reason to have an abortion.

19. I think women should be considered people with rights rather than "hosts."

20. I think, at its core, the purpose of anti-choice ideology, rhetoric and action, whether defined as a part of religious dogma or not, is to control women's bodies. I think pro-choice people must encourage, support, organize, fund and otherwise facilitate the resistance.


Poetry Hash: The Trilogy

The January issue of Poetry includes a piece of prose entitled "Does Poetry Have a Social Function?" Clearly, this is a sign that it's time to finish the Barr conversation, at long last, and join that one.

In case you haven't been following the debate, it all began when my charming friend Long Duk Dong handed me a copy of Poetry Foundation President John Barr’s "American Poetry in the New Century" at a party. To read my response to Long's innocent act of photocopery, see my post entitled Whippersnap.

With Long Duk's permission, I also posted the second round of the debate, which I obnoxiously titled Setting the Barr. In it, Long supported Barr's argument and I ranted and swore a lot. (You might think the post is too long for any person with a life to read, but don't worry, it's just as entertaining as Book TV on C-SPAN2.)

Poetry fans, I believe the following exchange will be the last on "American Poetry in the New Century," at least in post form. So, if there is anything to add, please situate your comments in this post's thread.

After reading "Setting the Barr," Long Duk wrote:

There's obviously a lot to respond to in your response, but I think I can narrow it down to the meat.

First, I think you're assuming that Barr is making a personal attack on you and other poets. I don't think that's the case. It seems--and correct me if I'm wrong--that you interpret that Barr is advocating to ban MFA programs--that if it were up to him, all poets would be extradited to foreign countries to live on straw mats. I see him as pro-MFA program (he says so at the beginning of the section "Poetry as a Career") and what he's arguing for is diversity of profession. He just doesn't want to see 90 some percent of published poets working at the same job, no matter what it is: big-game hunter, financial advisor, etc. because he believes there is a strong link between lived experience and quality of writing. Maybe there is, maybe there isn't, but that's his argument. Not that MFA programs suck, not that academics suck, but if everyone is drawing their poetry from the same well of experience, then it will probably all taste the same. Again, that's HIS argument and the one we should both be responding to.

In defense of poetry, you gave a list of poets. But, according to Barr's argument, your list is not evidence. Neither is mine. We're both poets, and therefore inside (no matter if I think I'm also outside--I'm disqualified for the very reasons you listed: I write a lot of poetry and I send it out to be published) of the very world that he is claiming is too insular to understand itself. Barr's point is that no matter how exciting all of us may think our poetry to be, the outside world is not listening, and if there is truly a marketplace of ideas, ours are not interesting/entertaining enough to hold anyone's attention. The best retort to this, which you do allude to, is that there really isn't a marketplace of ideas, because no one is making poetry videogames or poetry movies, etc. Barr says that 50% with the problem with poetry right now is cultural and 50% is the responsibility of poets. Perhaps you would change that equation. I tend to think it's more like 70% Culture, 30% Poets, but still, I think we could be doing more, and that's why I was inspired by his article.

Here is my response to Long Duk Dong:

I think Barr is making a personal attack on poets because he generalizes that the work of all poets currently writing is boring, lifeless, tired, etc. And I disagree with him.

I don't think Barr seeks to ban all MFA programs (I wonder what I wrote that made you think so), I just think that Barr's arguments about MFA programs are clichéd, generalized and I disagree with them as well.

More importantly, and to put it plainly, I don't know who died and left Barr in charge of what's best for poetry. Yes, he's grumping from atop of a heap of money, but as far as I'm concerned he's no poet. He is more in a position of privilege than most in the poetry world, yet he sits in judgment of teachers and their so-called disconnect from the real world. I think Barr is out of touch with poetry, considering he thinks, basically, that nothing has happened since Modernism.
What he doesn't seem to understand about the information age is that there will not be one new movement, just like there will not be one new Walt Whitman.

When young poets read Barr's piece, I just hope that they should consider the source. In case you missed it, on the comment thread of Whippersnap, Nick C. wrote:

if you've been around the poetry world of the east coast elites long enough as i have (watching from the genitalia of marginalia), you would have seen the unctuous rise of john barr.

in the early eighties i saw him as the chair of the board of bennington college, no poetry yet but worming his way to cultural positions of power. soon after, the bennington professors were stripped of tenure and there were mass firings. hmmm. then, in the nineties, barr takes over the poetry society of america as the new president following molly peacock's successful term. soon after, the psa starts to lose its prominence as a leading poetry force. wonderful projects like "poetry in the public buses and trains" cease to exist. hmmm. this is also the time when his first two books of poems are (self) published. he then finds more time, setting aside his career as "a captain of industry" on wall street, to sit on the boards of other arts organizations like yaddo and the national poetry foundation.

can lots of money (regardless of presence of talent) really buy you a career in the powerful halls of poetry? yes, it can. an interesting example is the nearby west palm beach poetry festival. hmmm.

so, the lesson you already know: you can't get rich from poetry but you can certainly buy your way into the elite status just like buying your way into a country club.

To provide what I hope will be a more acceptable defense of contemporary poetry than I previously offered, and to consider a source much more valuable than Barr, I'll quote Robert Hass. This excerpt is from his introduction to The Best American Poetry 2001:

That there was so much poetry to be read I took to be a sign of cultural health. It meant a lot of people were literate and alive. You have to have some kind of interior life to make a work of art and in a world as busy and heedless as this one we all need all the consciousness we can muster. Think of it this way. On my bookshelf there's an anthology of seventeenth-century American poetry. It's almost entirely the poetry of the New England colonies and it's over five hundred pages long. At least two poets from that time—Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor—wrote real poems, poems that can be read today for scholarly or antiquarian reasons. There are fifty-one poets in all published in the book and a substantial selection of anonymous poems. There were about a hundred thousand people in New England in 1700. So—if this were in any sense a sample of the human population: think of all the ways in which it wasn't; they had a world to build from scratch—this would imply that you might get two poets of unusual gifts and fifty or so poets in all in a population that size. If that were true, then there ought to be in the United States three hundred years later, with its three hundred million population, at least six thousand poets with some special talent and one hundred fifty thousand people or so who occasionally write poems. Of course, the gene pool doesn't seem to work in quite that way. But you take my point. There are more literate people in Kansas City today than there were in Shakespeare's London. There's no reason why every American city should not produce a writer of great interest to the rest of us.

Unless we are lazy curmudgeons, of course, who criticize, ignore or are flat-out bored by poets of special talent. Hass addressed ridiculous arguments like Barr's (several years before Barr wrote his) as well:

America has this history of buried and recovered poets…One can generalize about the health or direction of 'American Poetry' at any given moment, as if it were a corporate enterprise, but it isn't in the end a team sport. The resonances of American poetry…speak to our collective experience but they do so, almost always, in tones that come, unmistakably, from depth and silence. So that poetry not only can turn up just about anywhere, just about anywhere is where it is most likely to turn up.

Long Duk, you finished your response with this:

I think we could be doing more, and that's why I was inspired by his article.

You know, I really think that's a fair response. I think it's healthy to want to write better, promote poetry and encourage people to read more. And if you were inspired by Barr's piece, perhaps that justifies its existence. One thing that I thought was valuable about "American Poetry in the New Century" was that Barr pointed out great art—great poetry—can also be entertaining. Well, that's not exactly how he put it, but I do think it's taboo (to some) to be funny, to be silly, or to entertain in poetry. Some poets are insufferably serious. However, I do think there are lots of funny poets writing, and I am very thankful for their wit and audacity—especially in the face of crotchety, nasty old critics like John Simon, who write infuriating statements like this one in noxious book reviews:

To put my cards on the table, as Lehman would have a critic do, I declare that none of these poets [John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler] has written what I would call a single poem of any importance, although some of them have written plausible light verse. […]

It is elementary knowledge that comic verse has never fallen out of esteem, but is held, now as before, to be light verse rather than poetry.

So, to wrap it up, that's one emphatic fuck you to John Simon and a less vigorous, but still perceptible fuck you to John Barr.

And a thank you to Duk for participating in the conversation.