one of the two co-editors of the anthology I GO TO THE RUINED PLACE: Contemporary Poems in Defense of Global Human Rights
Melissa Kwasny is the author of four books of poetry, most recently The Nine Senses (Milkweed Editions 2011), as well as the editor of Toward the Open Field: Poets on the Art of Poetry 1800-1950 (Wesleyan University Press 2004).
M.L. Smoker belongs to the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes of the Fort Peck Reservation. Her first collection of poems is entitled Another Attempt at Rescue. Her poems and stories have appeared in Shenendoah, South Dakota Review, Many Mountains Moving and many anthologies. She resides in Helena, Montana, where she is Director of Indian Education at the Office of Public Instruction.
Two poems from the anthology appear at the bottom of this interview.
Melissa Kwasny: The infamous torture photos from Abu Ghraib that were first released to the public in 2003 in those twenty horrific images of prisoners hog-tied, naked, leashed like dogs with bags over their heads, and posed in forced sexual positions with grinning U.S. soldiers in the back. When Christine Holbert, publisher of Lost Horse Press, asked Mandy Smoker and me to edit an anthology of poems about human rights, we immediately thought of this U.S. perpetrated and sanctioned abuse of human rights at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the recently disclosed “black sites,” that system of secret prisons around the world to which prisoners were being renditioned. In 2007, the Red Cross Reports on the treatments of detainees in C.I.A. custody were released, evidence that torture and abuse were more widespread and systematic than anyone had thought. To quote from our introduction: “We knew people were outraged, saddened, profoundly moved and ashamed. But we also wanted to reach people who had suffered violations of their own rights from circumstances across the globe, or whose families had, or for whom preventing or healing these violations had become a life’s work.”
RM: What can readers expect to find, if they buy the anthology? What do you hope they will come away with?
MK: The poems cover a range of personal experiences and responses. We received submissions addressing torture, but also violations of the rights of women, prisoners, Jews, illegal immigrants, African Americans, Native Americans. Some of them are first hand accounts; some of them are reflections on the sufferings of others. The anthology includes powerful poems by well-known poets such as C.K. Williams, Carolyn Forche, Yusef Komunyakaa, Li Young Li, and Christopher Howell, and less well-known poets. We are especially proud of the large number of Native American voices included in the anthology, something we thought imperative to include when speaking of violations of human rights here at home. What emerges is a vision of the collaboration that we are all engaged in as human beings, a testimony of where we have gone wrong and the hope for a better world. “Poetry provides a necessary space for the details that make the stories come alive–details that are lacking in much of today’s disengaged, drive-by journalism,” writes Alicia Gregory in her review of the anthology, published in Foreign Policy in Focus. Poetry, “with its precision and specificity,” can awaken us in ways that media coverage can’t and encourage us to act, perhaps the most important collaboration of all.
RM: For any readers thinking about creating a theme-based anthology, what advice can you give them: ie: what did you learn in the process that surprised you, that you were glad of, and/or were not glad of? Is there anything that you would now do differently?
MK: First, I would advise them to find a co-editor. Mandy brought to the table not only another sensibility and sensitivity, including to Native issues, but also a wide range of fellow poets she could call on. Secondly, cast your nets wide and far. We asked everyone we knew to forward our call for submission—and take your time to make sure your call is written clearly as to what you’d like to receive. We placed ads in two major writer’s magazines. We also asked for only three poems from each contributor, something that made the work less daunting and enabled us to work under deadline. Speaking of deadlines, we tried to be strict about them in accepting work. What was most difficult was rejecting work. We did so for a number of reasons, including that we had too many poems come in on a particular theme or that the poems didn’t match our intentions closely enough. But we received far more fine poems than we could use—we wanted it to be a short, potent work, one not overwhelming to read—and so, we spent extra care and time writing our rejections.
What surprised us were the number of submissions we received from incarcerated men and women. Some were finely written, some less so, but all were emotionally devastating.
RM: Was finding a publisher a challenge?
MK: Christine published my second book, Thistle, and so knew that I would be interested. Mandy had judged one of Lost Horse Press’s contests, and Christine knew of her social justice work. Because of the allegations of torture so fresh in the minds of everyone, Christine wanted to get a book out quickly in response. Because Mandy and I live in the same area, and because we are admirers of each other’s work, we were in a unique position to do so.
They have made Noorjahan stand in a hole in the courtyard,
there she stands, submerged to her waist with head hanging.
They’re throwing stones at Noorjahan,
those stones are striking my body.
Stones are striking my head, forehead, chest and back,
they’re throwing stones and laughing aloud, laughing
and shouting abuse.
Noorjahan’s fractured forehead pours out blood, mine also.
Noorjahan’s eyes have burst, mine also.
Noorjahan’s nose has been smashed, mine also.
Through Noorjahan’s torn breast, her heart has been pierced,
Are these stones not striking you?
They’re laughing aloud, laughing and stroking their beards,
there are upis stuck to their heads, they too are shaking with
They’re laughing and swinging their walking-sticks;
from the quiver of their cruel eyes, arrows speed to pierce her body,
my body also.
Are these arrows not piercing your body?
Taslima Nasrin (translated by Carolyne Wright)
Always more. No, we aren’t too ashamed to prod celestial beings
into our machines. Always more body bags & body counts for oath
&sharpshooters. Always more. More meat for the gibbous grinder
& midnight mover. There’s always someone standing on a hill, half
behind dark aviation glasses, saying, If you asked me, buddy, you
it could always be worse. A lost arm & leg? Well, you could be stone
Here comes another column of apparitions to dig a lifetime of
Listen to the wind beg. Always more young, strong, healthy bodies.
Yes. What a beautiful golden sunset. (A pause) There’s always that
one naked soul
who’ll stand up, shuffle his feet a little, & then look the auspicious,
in the eyes & say, Enough! I won’t give another good guess or black
to this mad dream of yours! An ordinary man or woman. Alone. A
or cowboy. A baker. A farmer. A hard hat. A tool-&-die man.
Almost a smile
at the corners of a mouth. A fisherman. A tree surgeon. A