from THE POET THE PEOPLE THE SPIRIT
. . . Okay. So there you are, right there with the first, with the
natives, with the first people, the first human beings . . . on this
continent. And you don't know what to say to them. You can't say, "Well
look I'm a poet and if . . . so that means that even if I'm not, even a
good poet, I don't have to be a good poet actually. But if I'm a true poet
. . . you can trust me . . . You can trust me to be sympathetic. You can
trust me to know that you're Indian and that this man is a Negro*. And
we're not here to really . . . shame you or take bad pictures or anything
like that." You know. But I mean you can't say that. They wouldn't
understand that at all. Not at all. And I can see and I can understand
their not understanding it. It seems to me that the national life creates a
situation in which any person who goes out to do something is thwarted by
the fact that he is stigmatized already if he comes from this nation. Right
inside the nation. I'm not talking about the "Ugly American" or going to
Europe and being loudmouth and insisting on water when people don't have it
or all the crudenesses that we know do exist. That's not it; that's another
situation altogether. This is simply a matter of how trustworthy can you be
if [you] come from this context. And I assure you, you can't be very
trustworthy. Nobody trusts us. You don't have to talk about Vietnam. You
don't have to talk about South America. You can talk about Nevada. That's
much closer to home . . . .
. . . It was hard to get pictures. But these were the Indians who wanted their pictures taken. Once they relaxed and once we got to know each other they wanted their pictures taken. Not because they—you know it wasn't specious but they liked it. You know, they had an appetite for it. And we could satisfy it and get two things done at once. They felt funny about it. Because one man said to another, you know, "What are these guys taking pictures for?" . . . And this one Indian looked at him very seriously and closely and directly and said, "You want your picture taken. You wanted your picture taken." And that was very serious, I mean there was no—and so he was called. And he did want his picture taken. But he couldn't quite admit it. So there was this feeling that well, we're doing something dirty, on their part. And they were. They were doing something dirty by letting us take their pictures. We were doing something dirty by wanting to. They were going along with it and so were we. Every—that's one of the oldest American habits there is. Everybody's always doing something dirty and knowing it. I'm not pointing that out. I mean that was one of Lawrence's major themes, at least. But, one gets to think of it as some wildly literary fantasy of the mind that you know belongs in a book back somewhere. But it's right now and here. It's going on all the time. Always doing something dirty. And you call it understanding. Well, all right, let's understand these people better. You know, we'll get to know them through their images. And I believe that. It's true . . . [I] mean some of those pictures are going to be beautiful. But back of it there's a national strain that keeps it from being wholly beautiful. And it's in us. We can't and they can't . . . .
. . . Now I'd like—I want to ask myself if a poet exists except—except as he can be somewhere and with something. I really do think that . . . it's possible to have a poem. Yeah—a poem exists. We know that. But it's a much harder proposition as to whether a poet exists or not. Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn't. He may or he may not. To my mind he has to be there as much as possible. In other words he has to discharge himself into the -- some arena of life at least to the extent that—or trying to approximate the extent to which a poem can do that. And then he can be, I would say maybe nearly a poet. People can be nearly poets when they do this. Not people. Yeah, people. Anybody. People can, are poets when they are there with all of themselves. And that's—yeah that is a condition again to my mind, it's a possible condition. Never quite reachable, I mean exactly. But only, only by that condition can you have the force of a poem then. And a poem is force, that kind of force. . . .
*Leroy McLucas, African-American photographer. Dorn accompanied him on trip to Nevada "taking pictures of Indians."
[Edward Dorn. The Poet, The People, The Spirit, copyright (c) 1976 by Edward Dorn. Talonbooks. 1983.]