Good Old Frog, A.K.A Dean Rader, wrote to me with a fantastical question:
It is mid-November, and Donald Trump has been elected president. You get a call from his daughter, Ivanka, who informs you that her father, the President-Elect, would be honored if you would write and read the inaugural poem for his inauguration. It turns out, one of the staffers is a huge fan of your work and showed Mr. Trump some of your poems. He was also moved and is hoping you will help him make American poetry great again. What do you say?
He asked this same question to a bunch of poets and wrote about the answers he got here on the Ploughshares blog. He quoted from a letter that I wrote back to him. The whole letter is below (with a shout out to Julie Schumacher).
From: Judy Halebsky
Re: Ivanka Trump's invitation to read at her father's inauguration
Wow! I'm so thrilled you've asked me for a poem. Me — a nobody, a boring composition instructor living in arguably the hippest neighborhood in Oakland (on the grounds that the knitting store went out of business and was replaced by a fermentation store offering classes on how to make sauerkraut and kombucha). These credentials have gotten me readings before, ones where there are 12 poets and we're each required to bring two friends and pay in advance for copies of the anthology. But this is really something new. I'm surprised that you didn't ask Robert Hass or W.S. Merwin, since mostly my work just takes theirs and adds a whimpering confessional angle. But to the matter at hand, are there no NRA poets you can ask? I can't say that I know any personally, but there must be some. How about a Cowboy poet, they'd do you proud on inauguration day. But you know, for an audience that size, light verse might be just the thing. Am I familiar with what Donald Trump stands for and will I stand with him? Let's review.
I grew up in Canada, where instead of working we just sit around drinking tea in the reception area of the hospital lapping up all that free health care. And since moving to Oakland as a tender bamboo shoot, I bought a purple sun dress at Ross Dress For Less. I've eaten at Subway, after giving instructions for my sandwich through bulletproof glass. I've seen a guy crouching on the stairs at the train station injecting heroin directly into his neck. And now, Donald Trump asking me for a poem! I don't actually have a TV because I have long aspired to be a kind of mountain poet. So I haven't seen Donald much on sceen (except for muted on Fox in the airport terminal). But I have gone to great lengths to resist all values associated with beauty pageants. I did see the women's tennis medal ceremony in the Olympics. I couldn't help but think that their hips looked wide in those sweat pants. Why did I think that? Beauty Pageants, I don't know*. My efforts to rebel against diet culture are obviously failing. And of all the things I fear, is having a beauty pageant president one of them? Sure it is. These are old ways and we as a nation have risen above. Not without faltering but, like my poems, dusty and unread, I have aspired to over come.
As for the poem, as for inauguration day, I think it's going to hard for me to make it to the podium, what with the protestors who I'll be high-fiving as I try to get through the crowd. Can I do it in flats and lip-gloss? As a screed against capitalism? A love song to Marx? Here's the plan: I'll read my found poem composed entirely of words from Das Capital. The running time of the poem is 1 hour and 15 minutes. If you would be so kind as to permit me to take the spotlight and read my poem uncensored, I'll be there.
I can't close without voicing a request from my mother, born in 1935 in Wyoming to a school teacher and a WWI vet, has asked if you could recommend me to the other platform. If I could read a poem (short, about nature, with the word America repeated 8 times) for the Clinton campaign. She is so proud of Hillary, of Arkansas, of Wellesley, of Yale Law (which, she says, really is the better law school, sorry Barry). You might notice that Bernie Sanders is actually my father, not biologically but symbiotically as in science as in symbiosis. This is one of the ways we know the earth is warming, through science. The study of which I support after students have read novels and poems for three years straight. That's my education platform. That and Star Wars is not educational but reading comic books is. My pedagogy is complex and evolving—not enough to include Donald Trump in the list of forward thinkers, or cogent thinkers, or basic thinkers but I'm sure you'll have other voices on the podium with me.
* Note: new grammatical structure created collaboratively between Donald and YouTube. Add I don't know to any declarative statement to push it into that maybe area. So, you've said it on the record and also dusted it off your hands like breadcrumbs. What cake? I'm adding it to the spring syllabus right now.