When I was twenty, I took a poetry class. This was part of my Diploma in Creative Writing, which I was juggling with a double bachelor (Arts, Science). Creative writing was my outlet. It was a way to be true to my first identity while still studying all the other things that fascinated me, and a way to stay sane.
In the first tutorial, the tutor said, “All poetry is political.”
Frustrated and angry, at the end of the class I instantaneously invented a timetable clash (given that my enrolment spread across three faculties, I was readily believed) and swapped to another class. It was at nine in the morning – not, I feel, the best time for writing or studying poetry, but I felt it was worth it to swap.
All poetry is political, I thought to myself, a little disgusted. Give me a goddamn break.
I was wrong. He was right. It was a matter of concept and definition.
At the time I thought it was a matter of defining poetry, of forcing people to absorb and interpret poetry through a political lense, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted a kind of innocence to persist there, I suppose. In the end, though, it wasn’t about the definition or understanding of poetry; I actually had that down pretty well.
The problem is the definition of the word political. My understanding of the word politics was, at twenty, terribly naïve. I thought it referred to the people sitting in Parliament House in Canberra, or maybe the tiny politics of the people in charge of the student union at my university. I thought that was what politics meant. I thought it was a wide swathe of –isms, of the kind of cold, large-scale analysis that felt very, very far away to me and the human experience I was wading through.
I’m thirty-three now, and I’m surrounded by people who still think that’s what political means. It’s just politics, people say, and it’s just an agenda.
But it’s not. Politics is, at its heart, about human experience, and about what matters. It’s a struggle for priorities, for recognition.
I’m writing about this now because I’m tired of seeing the almighty commentariat dismissing people with an agenda, or whining about their happy fun pastime being politicised. They say “politicised” like it’s a dirty word, and they usually say it in response to people asking for recognition. For rights. For safety.
I remember when there was a big kerfuffle about the idea that conventions and conferences should have clear harassment policies. This came up because it got to the point where women (among other groups) weren’t comfortable going to a lot of conventions and conferences because of the extraordinarily high levels of harrassment they were facing: being hit on. Being cornered. Being groped. And being expected to just shrug it off, because that’s normal. And some people find it funny.
Bloody feminists, why are you politicising my conventions?
Feminism isn’t just about abstract ideals. These are important to discuss, because they feed down through the readership. People pause and consider and discuss and debate, and either accept or reject ideas. Abstraction helps to make sense of things. In reality, though, it’s also about being able to feel safe in a public space. It’s about saying, “No. You don’t have the right to touch me, or scare me, or bully me, just because that’s normal behaviour for you, and because you think that’s what women should just have to put up with.” It’s about saying, “This is not okay.”
There’s more. Same sex marriage is a good example. People start wailing about having their words and their definitions changed in pursuit of an agenda, as though you could happily substitute the word “agenda” for “ebola” and have no real shift in the level of threat. And yet, the only agenda is recognition and rights and to be treated like everyone else; to not be an outsider in your own society because you happen to be in love with a member of the same sex. The same thing happens with depictions of queer characters in popular TV shows. The commentariat wails about the agenda and the politicisation, and why can’t they have their stories without politics, when all the writers are really saying is, “Queer people exist.” And all queer viewers are saying is, “Gosh. It’s nice to be represented. I… wish that wasn’t a big deal.”
I’m circling around the issue of computer games. I love computer games. I go through obsessive phases where playing games is all I do in my downtime. I love narratives and character and exploring and maps. I’m a bit of a Bioware fangirl. I think that “Beyond Good and Evil” had the best female protagonist of all time. Are computer games fun? Yes. They can be pretty shallow. They can also be art, and great narrative. And it’s been so frustrating to see them fall afoul of some really upsetting sexism. It hurts to be erased from a world, to not ever be there. It hurts to be reduced to eye candy, or a damsel, or a martial arts sex kitten. It hurts to be told “Well, these stories aren’t for you. They’re for straight white men to enjoy, and that’s it. You can’t have any.”
And when you say, “I’d like to be included. Put us in the story. Tell more stories, tell other kinds of stories, there’s a whole world of options!” you get told that you are politicising things, that you’re making everything about politics, about something that is far away and distant and doesn’t matter, and besides, you’re overreacting.
I mean it. Stop it. It hurts.
It’s not overreacting, because what you’re saying when you’re dismissing someone as overreacting, as being political is, “Your story doesn’t matter. Your right to be recognised, to be part of the narrative that we’re in automatically – it doesn’t matter. You are being silly to want that right.”
And what I come back to is this:
It is very easy – very, very easy – to dismiss a problem that you will never have.
I’ll rephrase, just because I think this is so important.
If you will never have a problem, it will seem silly to you.
Just stop, stop and think, that maybe the person speaking to you has a different perspective. Maybe if someone tells you that an experience is upsetting, you should believe them. Maybe if you think something is political, you should be taking a big step back and looking at how you define that word. What does the word political mean to you? Does it just mean things that are far away, that don’t matter, that aren’t personal? Because for some of us, politics and recognition and –isms are very personal indeed. They’re intimate, and painful. They’re our daily lives.
There is very little that is worse than being silenced.
And that is why all our pastimes – our pop culture, our novels, our computer games, our conventions and costumes and parties and comic books – are political.
That is why all poetry is political; because political is personal.
Because it matters when people hurt.