On Poetics and Politics

The most liberating thing about becoming the first openly gay member on City Council is that you don't have to spend as much time shoveling bullshit. Once you've been elected, despite or because of your frankness on a topic that most would consider political suicide, you can pretty much say anything you want without worry. Which is why being a poet would not seem such a stretch for Houston City Councilwoman Annise Parker, who will be reading some of her work at the First Friday 25th Anniversary.

Poetry would seem to be the antithesis of politics. The former is the most personal of art forms, one that strives to expose your innermost thoughts and emotions, no matter how frightening, embarrassing or revealing; the latter is about doing your damnedest to fence off your personal life from public scrutiny. But Parker seems honestly confused when asked whether she has any concerns about reading poems that deal with past girlfriends and boyfriends, her relationship with her grandparents and incest. With Parker, you get the sense that her poetry and her politics are rooted in the same place.

"The clarity of presence and passion that might make you a good writer might also make you a good politician," says Parker, who wrote volumes of verse in high school as a form of catharsis. The practice carried over into college, though it has since become a smaller priority to the politician who now has more civic matters on her mind. "You have to bring some passion [to politics] ... or why are you there? It could simply be for self-aggrandizement or public attention, but I think most public officials ... truly have things they want to accomplish, for the good of the people they represent." Not to mention that good poetry, like politicians, should have something to say.

It was at the First Friday poetry readings that Parker was first able to put herself out there for the public to see. "I would rather stand up and read my policy speeches to 4,000 people than stand up and read my poetry in front of ten," she says. That willingness to expose herself has been an essential part of her appeal.

"The last time I read in public was in '97 during my campaign. My campaign manager thought I was totally nuts....It was a small crowd but fairly appreciative," Parker says. The councilwoman, however, is not blind to the differences between her profession and her poetry. "A campaign is like a standard blind date/interview combination....Your goal is to make some connection with every person in your audience, and sometimes you have about 30 seconds to do it. You're constantly projecting your personality out....But poetry is more about bringing people in, into words."

Parker's love of poetry began with the grandmother who raised her, a former English teacher who often read her verse. In her later years Parker returned the favor by reading to her grandmother at the hospital; they would play games in which each would try to guess the title or the next line of a poem after hearing one stanza. "I think everyone wants some form of transformative experience," says Parker, an avid supporter of arts funding. These transformations can be negative, such as drugs and alcohol, or religious, which often attempt to transport you to an ecstatic state. "And then there are transformative experiences through beauty and art, which take you away from where you are and allow you to look at the ordinary in a different way."

So Parker's happy to return to the podium once again, verse in hand, and spill her soul. "I don't think anyone will come out to hear poetry because of who I am. I think they're going to come out because they like poetry," she says. "Someone who does not like poetry will not like mine

First Friday's 25th Anniversary reading takes place -- when else? -- on Friday, July 7, at 8:30 p.m. Open reading follows. Free. Inprint House, 1524 Sul Ross. For more information, call (713)521-3519.

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Dylan Otto Krider