Cheryl Caesar is a poet who was published in The Mark Literary Review in February of 2019. Her poems were protests against the Trump administration and have recently been included in her new collection titled Flatman: Poems of Protest in the Trump Era. We sat down with her to ask her some questions about her work!
Q. Have you always used politics as inspiration for your poetry?
A. No. Not at all. I wrote about certain issues that hit me hard, like gun violence and climate change. But I didn’t see my poetry as overtly political till 3 November 2016. The shock of the election changed everything. The travesty of the current “president,” and the bewilderment at seeing fellow citizens continue to support a sadistic malignant narcissist who is also very stupid -these are always on my mind.
Q. Are there any challenges that come from being so vocal about your political views? Have you gotten any hate on the internet or in real life?
A. Hate on the internet. One person looked on my Facebook page, discovered that I am a professor at Michigan State University, and threatened to “report” me – for sedition, I guess. Since the office he was threatening me with was the Financial Fraud hotline, I didn’t worry too much about it.
In real life, it’s more avoidance. A few people have stayed silent about this book, perhaps fearing that they will be targeted if they speak out.
Q. "Kanye Finds a Dad in the Oval Office" is a found poem. Can you talk about your process when writing a found poem?
I felt like Kanye’s apparent gibberish actually contained deep and hidden meanings about race, class and power, and the best way to surface these was to lay his utterances out in breath units on the page and do a line-by-line reading.
Sometimes it’s the sounds of the utterances that strikes me. When Michael Cohen said, “He’s a racist and a con man and a cheat,” that had a certain strong “lions and tigers and bears!” rhythm that seemed to translate into limericks, which then attached themselves to a melody similar to “Mein Herr” in “Cabaret.” So the origin of this poem was “found,” even if the whole thing wasn’t.
Q. Obviously these poems come out of a lot of anger you have with our current president. Did you ever get burned out while writing the poems? If so, how do you get around that?
A. I probably would be burned out if I were alone, but I’m not. So many people around me agree and support me and say the poems help by letting them release anger through laughter. I co-moderate a Facebook page called “He Is Not My President,” so I am surrounded by other resistors there. For a year now, at every poetry reading and open mic, people have laughed and cheered these poems. That gives me hope that together we will overcome this awful time.
Q. A lot of your poems are set to music. What was the inspiration for that and how did you choose the songs?
A. Don’t you always have an earworm going? And if that earworm combines with the thoughts that are uppermost in your mind – voilà!
Q. What was the most challenging part about writing this collection?
A. Finding a publisher, I think.
Q. Can you talk a little bit about the publication process for Flatman? Being such a controversial collection, did you have issues finding a press to publish it?
A. I tried for several months, from May to September 2019. Some publishers just gave a form rejection, and some said, “Try us when you do something less political.” Then in early September, I was at a welcome event for new faculty in my department (writing). I met a young PhD student, Jonny Thurston, and discovered that he had been running a publishing house for the last five years, Thurston Howl Publications. Although they specialized in horror, fantasy and “furry” literature, they had published an anti-Trump chapbook in 2018. And that’s how it happened. I think that the furry culture has an affinity for protest against the establishment, as they support the outsider and the underdog.
To writers looking to find publishers, I’d advise going to open mics, joining a writing group – just meeting like-minded people. Fortunately these kinds of events are continuing – perhaps even increasing – online during the shutdown.
Q. This collection deals with Trump's administration from September 2018 to May 2019. Do you plan to write more poetry about his administration up until the next election? If not, why?
A. I’m not planning it, although I will write down the thoughts if they come. Right now it seems like the most urgent call is to help each other live through the pandemic and the shutdown, and pay attention to what it is telling us about destroying the planet we live on. The harm he has caused is so enormous that it makes Trump appear almost irrelevant. But I will continue to work against the unthinkable possibility of his re-election.
Q. What do you hope Flatman will accomplish?
A. Keep people’s spirits up; keep them laughing. Remind them that they are not alone.