Poetry Month

‘What Invites or Requires a Response’

Poet Robin Clarke reflects on the Standing Rock protests

'What Invites or Requires a Response'

April is National Poetry Month, and we’re celebrating by featuring examples of “civic” poetry from new and familiar voices. Throughout the month we’ll be discussing what it means to be civic through the art of words. Join us on Twitter at #civicpoetry.



What Invites or Requires a Response

A Response (after Leslie Scalapino)

A poem does invite, it does require. What does it invite? A poem invites
you to feel. More than that: it invites you to respond. And better than
that: a poem invites a total response.”

The Life of Poetry, Muriel Rukeyser

What’s madness but nobility of soul
at odds with circumstance?

— Theodore Roethke, “In a Dark Time”



What invites — or requires — a response

at odds — with circumstance — like howling

— in the trees — or was it eaves?

crows — bats I would look — away


— into traffic — at a certain year

I left — my body — like a hawk — more

or less — incapable of flight

simply a chicken would — soar


above its body — if it could

wherever you see crows — hawks have been

— I see crows every day — and was not — looking

at the news — out my back door


of a speckled hen — black & white — eaten

after the dog of its body — eaten — its back — by word

of mouth — about 4 pounds, size and shape

of a balloon — just before — any death, collapsed —


there should be howling — in the trees —

or is it eaves? — in my attic — the bat

— batted — its body — left

spots of red — on the new dry


wall — the word for giving birth

and having sex and the posture — of death

— she lay — the hen — her body — a woman

of subzero weather — does not repose


a woman — in North Dakota — may have to

leave — her arm — behind

and they say we hope — you’re non — violent

protestors — not my arm — not nearly — brought


to cata strophe — frost bitten — police hosed

volunteer medics being trained in — amputation —

thousands in uniforms — a blizzard — we

arrived with no plan for how — to listen


to the Elders — an occupation — of

an occupation — of — an occupation

didn’t get — the orientation — to do —

nothing — without tents — wandering — the wind up


all night howling like — strophe —

Wesley Clark, Jr — was nowhere — our sleeping bags

on the bus departed — with all our gear — veterans

are — by definition — at odds — with circumstance


when they return to “civilian” — life

and in this sense — prisoners

— the famous general — his rebel

son — was — not at the orientation


— to do nothing — unless asked —

no small feat for ones — inclined toward saving

— a woman — bisexual — runs with the troops

is a troop — runs — to tell — the Elders


— and so cata strophe — was parted — through the

middle — the Elders sat down — to ground

— the ions — hold who can’t remember

what violence — looks like — a pile of feathers


I could only say no to — wanted

the neighbor dog — gone — who had eaten

my hen — I wanted the neighbor dog — shot, except

last year I tried to steal the dog


poor — malnourished — lonely — doggy

up all night howling like — to save

from — its owner — my rage

was sometimes for and sometimes — against


— a blizzard — I could not see in

and my hen — my starving dog — who has a name

— I could tell you — I cannot say

the words my hawk — had it been


a hawk — I would have felt — what?

had it been — a hawk going after

the neighbor’s box of feral kittens —

I would have felt — what



From the poet

Robin Clarke: This poem had a few coordinates at its inception. First, my desire to write within a structure I have been obsessed by — the intense dashes of Leslie Scalapino’s book crowd and not evening or light. The first poem in that book, called “roll,” features a corpse in the river that washes past sunbathers; a dog who nibbles on the corpse; working-class men in a bar wearing “new wave clothes” (in the ’80s? or are the clothes out of fashion?); a homeless person. These images swirl surreally around this poem such that mortal commodity chains settle into the body as both consumer and consumed. That poem’s rhythmic attention to individual phrasal units draws me into the present moment of reading so intensely: reading can’t happen easily, poems here can’t be consumed, not without considerable indigestion.

Meanwhile, I watched this pet chicken who I loved get killed and eaten right before my eyes. The term “edible companion” (from the field of animal studies) haunts me. The phrase is an intervention into the binary between animals imagined as nonsensate, unsentient beings whose trauma in the meat industry we do not allow ourselves to think, versus the animal as pet: a billion-dollar comfort industry for animals.

Meanwhile, a dear friend and incredible activist here in Pittsburgh, Helen Gerhardt, told me about being one of the veterans who went to Standing Rock, and how we got this picture from left-leaning news of a miracle when the veterans came and pipeline construction under the Missouri River was halted, and how close it was to total disaster.

Scalapino’s form helped me hold all my doubts in one place.

Kristin Miller, BillMoyers.com: Do you think of yourself as a “civic poet?

RC: The word “civic” always feels like something that doesn’t exist, can’t exist or can only exist insofar as it is permitted to by the state. So yes, I am a civic poet. I am still allowed to exist quite comfortably. Were the water protectors at Standing Rock engaging in their civic duty? We saw what the state is willing to do to them.

KM: How do you think poetry can add to the public discussion of politics, society, inequality, the environment and other divisive topics?

RC: I think what is called experimental poetry can be best suited to public discourse. Thinking of Citizen and Juliana Spahr’s “Unnamed Dragonfly Species,” for example: in my experience, people who do and don’t read a lot of poetry are drawn to these “anti-lyrical” forms because the form articulates something true about how we experience language in a society saturated with doublespeak. A society must be filled with constant lies in order to support a myth of itself that is so totally opposite reality. A conventional lyric poem can sometimes feel like just another saturated performance — its task, regardless of method, is to interrupt lies.

This project was co-curated by the journalism nonprofit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and its Puffin Story Innovation Fund.

Robin Clarke

Robin Clarke is a poet and non-tenure track faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh, where she has been involved in organizing a faculty union. Her first book, Lines The Quarry (Omnidawn, 2013), won the Omnidawn 1st/2nd book prize for poetry, and she is also the co-author, with Sten Carlson, of the chapbook Lives of the Czars (nonpolygon, 2011).