Rodrigo Toscano is the author ten books of poetry. His latest is In Range (Counterpath). His Collapsible Poetics Theater (Fence Books) was a National Poetry Series selection. His poetry has appeared in over twelve anthologies. He works for the Labor Institute as a national project director strategizing around environmental and labor culture transformation. He lives in New Orleans.
there’s enormous gaps in your education
there’s enormous gaps in my education
there’s a plentiful lack of giddy up in your wuh uh uh
there’s a plentiful lack of giddy up in my wuh uh uh
swing-dancing the most remotest thing to trumpism are we?
still swing-dancing the most remotest thing to trumpism are we?
well, that seems hokey these days to suggest it
well, that seems hokey these days not to suggest it
in the rain—
glasses flying off—
the left eye is burning a blurry sight’s all sensation
the left eye is burning a blurry sight’s not much sensation
slipstreams to the right
what are we going to do—
play badminton with sectarians?
Read more of “Gaps” in the print edition of Issue 153.
Reed 153 Poetry Editor
Anne Cheilek's Commentary
Toscano’s poem “Gaps” adroitly deploys the kinetic rhythms and colloquial vocabulary of the American idiom in order to explore today's deep political divide and to challenge our preconceptions about ourselves and the Other. This exuberant piece leads us down alleyways we never knew existed, ultimately suggesting a path forward, towards healing our differences and closing the gaps that have opened up in our society.
in conversation with
I love your poem “Gaps” for how well it takes on the vexed issue of America’s deep political divide, which has culminated in the rise of Trumpism. Many poets avoid writing about politics because they worry that the contentious issues will somehow crush the delicate nature of the poetic project. How do you keep your political poems from becoming strident, argumentative, or polemical?
Actually, I think much of my poetry has an imbedded argumentative dimension to it. The difference is that it’s not in a strictly partisan triumphalist mode. Though my politics are decidedly left-leaning, I punch both right and left. I feel this is necessary for an overall reckoning of the social moment we’re living in. It’s important for me to feel and express not only external tensions with views I radically disagree with, but internal tensions from “my side” as well. I’ve spent over 25 years of my life on the front lines of movements around labor justice, environmental issues and overall public health issues. I’ve seen marvelous advances that are breathtaking; I’ve also seen tremendous folly. “Gaps” is a pretty good example of my poetic desire to involve as many of those experiences as I can, in the most compact form I can achieve.
Do you think poetry can change people’s minds about politics? And if so, whose minds are you hoping to change with this poem, and how do you envision they might change?
Most certainly there have been poets who have changed people’s minds around political matters. I don’t begin from a position of trying to convince somebody of my particular viewpoint. There are poetries that attempt to do that. I just find it more valuable overall to assume that the reader/listener has grown *dull* from all the surface haggling that we all experience, day in and day out. My aim is to sharpen language, foreground it as much as possible, and aid in revealing that language itself is a sort of “master” to us all. And so, how to engage that, push back on that. Poetry for me is a risky affair at all levels. I assume that I impart some socially healthy vantage points by doing it, but also, I assume that surely I must be falling into traps along the way too, traps that might be deleterious to us all.
Was there a specific event or moment that inspired you to write this poem?
I don’t think there was a singular moment that sparked off the poem; I mean, no media specific event or anything like that. If you look at the first line, “There’s enormous gaps in my education,” I thought—hell, if that isn’t true for both me and anybody else, then what are we even arguing or agreeing about for that matter? And so the poem began as an exploration into what might be a minimal criteria for engaging anybody at all—about anything. From there, I felt a natural glide towards broaching the Great Divide of our current political moment. And so, you might say, that it was both highly personal quandary as well as a highly broad sociological one. Both, at the same time. That's for me the “sweet spot” of lively poetics.
How are you coping with the coronavirus crisis—the restrictions, the fear and uncertainty? Are you still able to write?
Virtually everything is about COVID-19 right now. My entire work day is wrapped up with it. I am working directly with the NIH and CDC on the pandemic. What I do is design models for workplace-safety protocols based on the most recent discoveries of the behavior of the novel virus. I work with organizations such as OSHA, unions, and community groups around the country. Right now, I’m also working with Native American tribes on formulating Incident Command Structures to deal with COVID-19. So, it’s lots of nail biting and trying to keep cool and remain decisive. So yeah, I am saturated by “it,” both as a program director and as a citizen. And I have to say, both are equally challenging.
I have written one poem (and one poem only) since this all began, a three-pager that I think is pretty solid, at least for a poem written in Toscanoese. But I hope there’s more on the way. And if there isn’t, there’s a reason for that. There might not be an alignment between “me” and the current moment. You know, I observe political climates like the ancients tracked weather systems—by the nose, by the eyes, by the ear. I don’t want to, you know, to simply score points off the crises. What I really want is to be on the cutting edge of an unfolding future that we hardly now understand, but, nonetheless must all take a stab at somehow.