Amy King on Bush, Empathy, and the Poet

“The costs – a few billion dollars a month plus a few dozen American fatalities (a figure which will probably diminish, and which is in any case comparable to the number of US motorcyclists killed because of repealed helmet laws) – are negligible compared to $30 trillion in oil wealth, assured American geopolitical supremacy and cheap gas for voters. In terms of realpolitik, the invasion of Iraq is not a fiasco; it is a resounding success.”

-Jim Holt, “It’s the Oil” []

“I think it’s bullshit how these fucking civilians are dying!” rages Jeffrey Carazales, a lance corporal from Texas, after he shoots at a building that clearly has civilians in it: They’re worse off than the guys that are shooting at us. They don’t even have a chance. Do you think people at home are going to see this-all these women and children we’re killing? Fuck no. Back home they’re glorifying this motherfucker, I guarantee you. Saying our president is a fucking hero for getting us into this bitch. He ain’t even a real Texan.

-Michael Massing, “Iraq: The Hidden Human Costs” []

What facts haunt me on a daily basis inform the direction of the words my poem stitch: the world’s population more than doubled in the last half century, our consumption of diminishing natural resources continues a detrimental route for ourselves and other species, and American democracy is imperialistically spreading around the globe. We, as a people, have not been careful in our “liberations,” fearfully following the lead of a government that repeatedly hides its true, selfish purposes in dishonest newspeak.

Here at home, the young soldiers executing the orders to secure these new democracies have been casually referred to as the “disposable generation.” This casualness towards life, its disposability, colors much of my daily outlook; I see disdain everywhere in the most minute ways and am becoming paranoid that empathy is one of those notions falling from the window’s ledge with other old fashioned, hollowed-out values like respect and virtue. But my faith is in an empathy that holds everything together.

If one doesn’t exercise the imagination regularly and practice putting herself in the position of others, one begins to cut people off in traffic, one gives into the fear in a store that there are not enough products, or lines become a competition rather than a place to pass the time with others. The struggle, strife, and fight of uninformed hate become the habitual modes of operation. In turn, one even more easily stands complicit and silent while a government, in her name, attacks the civilians of a distant country, burning their flesh with bullets and bombs as they go about their shopping, work days, watching their children play in the streets, by sheltering us from the images and atrocities with back page statistics.

Even now, politics will not save us, especially from ourselves. We will never know the enemy borne by speeches and muted news updates, we will never shirk our competitive behaviors if we look only through the capitalist lens, and we will never see the humanity in others if the vertiginous gaps of our shared media reality are not exposed and explored. Poetry serves no government, and by its historical nature, occupies the privileged, bastardized position of calling public concepts into question, making us uncomfortable by pointing out smoke screens, false bottoms, and unstable meanings, as well as revealing the similarities between enemies and allies.

Even as the political brain is guided by motors beyond the dictatorial one of logic, poetry provides a place for things we dub philosophical, political, emotional, and spiritual to meet, spar, collide, and dance, until we arrive at an odd perspective on identity that discomforts our insular “I” or sounds a desirable chord in the “other”- and the public and intimate can finally confer in unsanctioned ways. With this faith in the empathetic potential and subsequent responses, such poetic investigations may eventually throw a wrench in the traditional action-consequence routine we continue to quietly support and abide by in the name of states united. We are now a worldwide franchise, and from this condition, through the daily poetic, I want to make you safe.

Amy King is the author of I’m the Man Who Loves You and Antidotes for an Alibi, both from Blazevox Books, The People Instruments (Pavement Saw Press), and most recently, Kiss Me With the Mouth of Your Country (Dusie Press). Forthcoming from Pudding House Press is Men By the Lips of Women. She edits the Poetics List, sponsored by The Electronic Poetry Center (SUNY-Buffalo/University of Pennsylvania), moderates the Women’s Poetry Listserv (WOMPO) and the Goodreads Poetry! Group, and teaches English and Creative Writing at SUNY Nassau Community College. Her poems have been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes, and she has been the recipient of a MacArthur Scholarship for Poetry. Amy King was also the 2007 Poet Laureate of the Blogosphere. She is currently editing an anthology, The Urban Poetic, forthcoming from Factory School. For information on the reading series Amy co-curates, please visit The Stain of Poetry: A Reading Series blog, and her own site,