When I wrote "Proof of Poetry," it was, in a very oblique way, a response to two trips that I'd made as a journalist: one to Somalia and Kenya, the other to Iraq. In the first instance, I'd just come back from doing a long article on Somali refugees during the famine in 2010-11 when over 260,000 people starved to death.
I was in that strange state of transition in which what I saw in Mogadishu at the IDP camps (Internally Displaced Peoples), and what I was seeing in Berlin, where I was living at the time, existed side by side: in one half of my brain, starving people coming off the desert; in the other, the cool northern sunlight of a Berlin fall.
I'd also had this sense of living a split-screen existence just after I got back from Iraq last December. While I was in Iraq, there were constant car and suicide bombings, as well as gangland style executions between Sunni and Shi'a, though often those murders were for revenge, gain, or out of greed: in other words, they were the result of "just normal human hatred," as Seamus Heaney once put it to me, when we were talking about the the sectarian killing in Ireland that lasted for close to 40 years.
After both trips, the book that I went to to help me make, if not sense out of the experience, to at least give me some perspective, was My Century, by the Polish poet and dissident, Aleksander Wat. Wat had done a lot of prison time under Stalin, particularly in Lubyanka Prison, and I've long been haunted by a passage about how he'd lost his feeling for literature.
He wrote that his years as an editor, focusing on the minutiae of stylistic effects, had eventually made him lose faith in literature as anything other than a series of calculated rhetorical procedures. He had become so accustomed to talking about literature as nothing but verbal effects that he "felt in charge only when I had taken hold of the actual end of the thread and could see an entire work unravel into its components. And I gradually became cynical about what I considered the spurious integrity and unity of a given work...."
But in the conditions of Lubyanka, literature was restored to him:
When we go back to the twenty, fifty, or hundred greatest works of world literature that we read as young people, we cannot, nor do we wish to, be freed from the charms of that initial reading. Still we were prematurely exposed. What could we have known of their roots in human life? Under conditions like those in Lubyanka—cut off from the world, aware of the vast roaring world outside, the deathly hush inside, where time slows terribly while we continue to grow terribly old biologically—under those conditions we sought to recover our initial freshness of perception, the way Adam saw when he saw that "it was good."...In Lubyanka, to my joy, I rediscovered the sense of integrity—the whole that "precedes" the parts and is their soul. I had fully recovered my ability to see things synthetically.
As I said, after my trips to east Africa and Iraq, I found this passage spoke directly to what I was feeling. And so I wrote "Proof of Poetry" as an oblique homage to Wat. And today, on the publication of Station Zed, I hope that the book sees things "synthetically," and that the joy that Wat expresses suffuses the poems, no matter how dark the experience they come out of.
And of course, my deep thanks to everyone at Graywolf Press for seeing this book through with me.