Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: In “State Song,” the intersection between nationalism and public education is a very prominent theme. How did you approach writing a poem about that?

Guiseppe Getto: Well, like many writers do when they’re composing something, I wasn’t really thinking about any of that when I wrote this poem. My thinking went along the lines of: “Hmm, that’s weird that I had to learn my state’s song when I was in middle school…” I agree there is a theme of indoctrination into a kind of nationalist (or statist) civic pride in the poem, but this is also blunted by the fact that the speaker was indoctrinated to remember the names of plants, animals, and landmarks. I think what I was really reflecting on here is how a lot of the things we’re indoctrinated into within public education, at least the public education I experienced growing up in the rural desert southwest, is meaningless. Rather than learning valuable skills, or, heaven forbid, how to be a better human being, we have things like the state’s song drilled into us. My experience of much of public education was like this: being force-fed a curriculum designed to turn me into a compliant cog rather than a human being.

RR: For us, the poem’s line breaks and rhythms evoked the same rhythms used in many rote learning strategies, and we loved the mimetic aspect of that structure. Were you intending to have that effect or otherwise how were you thinking about absorb-and-repeat education in this poem?

GG: Ah, you caught that! This was intentional but I wasn’t sure if it would come across to the reader or not. A lot of this poem was written in one long draft. I’ve revised it since, but as I started to write it I realized that I was sort of droning on like you would if you were learning a song by rote. I liked this effect as it mirrors the absurdity of the learning situation, so I went with it. 

In some ways, this poem is atypical for me because of this strategy. I actually tend to hate sing-songy poems, but I was trying to be clever with this one by making it somewhat sing-songy and I’m glad it paid off.

RR: The experience of memorizing a “state song” resonated with those of us who grew up in public school. What role do you think poetry has in exploring socio-political issues? 

GG: I also wondered about this. Growing up in the rural desert southwest (Nevada, specifically) was such a singular upbringing that I worry some of my experiences won’t resonate with readers who grew up outside of this region. I’ve never asked anyone else, for example, if they had to memorize their state’s song or if that was just some weird thing that we did in Nevada. I do remember that we memorized the state song in a class on Nevada that was mandatory for all publicly-educated middle school students, which I think is unique to that region. My wife went to public education in Michigan, for example, and wasn’t required to do an entire, year-long class on Michigan.

As far as the socio-political, I think the way this comes across in my work, in particular, is through socioeconomic class. I grew up working class, really working poor, and that lens has continued to define much of my work, even though as a college professor I’m no longer working class. And yes, there is something sinister for me in indoctrinating poor children without a lot of career options into following whatever an authority figure says. It smacks of creating compliant workers who will be okay with working all day in a factory or in the fields and won’t complain about the working conditions because that’s just what you need to do to get by.

RR: How has your career as an educator impacted your writing?

GG: Interesting question. If you look at my bio, you’ll see that I’m far from a professor of poetry. I’m a communication professor, so I tend to teach things like memos, reports, and PowerPoints as opposed to poems. Personally, I enjoy my vocation and get a lot out of it, but it’s very different from someone who teaches introductory creative writing or poetry writing, specifically.

As far as how this has impacted my writing? I honestly think it’s made it better, which a lot of creatives would probably be shocked by. True story: I looked back at my own MFA thesis recently and it was a bit horrifying to see what I thought was good poetry when I was in my mid-twenties. Learning how to teach concise, mundane writing like a report on an engineering project has had an impact on my writing, including my poetry. I’ve become much more concise, less flowery, and much more suspicious of adjectives.

Interestingly, I was able to teach a poetry writing course when I was in my MFA program and instantly knew it wasn’t for me. The vast majority of students in the class thought they were some kind of literary genius and completely ignored my feedback and the feedback of the other students for the entire class. I was completely unprepared for this and I’ve never run into this kind of problem teaching professional communication. I much prefer teaching communication.

And, of course, their “poems” were basically song lyrics, because that’s what the average college-age person thinks of as poetry. So, they weren’t very good. Of course, I told them this which was also the wrong response. My teaching evaluations for that class were terrible.

RR: What do you think is the most important thing for children in elementary school to learn?

GG: I think the answer is supposed to be poetry because I’m a poet, but I honestly think it’s critical thinking skills. I get people as students starting at eighteen and I can see the impact of public education on them. A lot of them struggle to solve problems, to think through a messy situation and to determine the best course of action. This goes hand-in-hand with writing for me. If you analyze a problem through prose and write out a solution, you’re thinking through the problem as well.

Of course, I think middle schoolers should learn poetry, and not just the “greatest hits” model where it’s the same ten poems we all learn in middle school. I think they should be introduced to contemporary poets writing today. I didn’t really learn about contemporary poetry until I was a sophomore in college. I didn’t know that people still wrote poetry before then! I thought it was something from the olden times.

I don’t really understand why our public school curriculum tends to assign creative works from 100-200+ years ago over stuff that just came out. This has much to do with the bureaucratic model of public education where they’re afraid of offending anyone (read: parents), so they assign bland works from decades ago that have little relevance to the lives children are currently leading. Imagine them reading something like “America Is a Gun” by Brian Bilston or even the work of someone as recent as Lucille Clifton and you see the issue. I think art mirrors the society that creates it, so we don’t see more contemporary poetry in public schools because this would cause our young people to encounter objectionable parts of our society like gun violence or racism.

Better that they read “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge or “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Frost, the kind of stuff that is either easily misrecognized as being about nothing scary or subversive or so distant from their experiences (how many twelve-year-olds know or care who Kubla Khan was) that it’s not going to really get their minds working.

Because that’s what we’re really talking about, right? A lot of public education is a system for producing compliant citizens who will put up with whatever society dishes out. The closer the writing is to their everyday experiences, the more subversive it will feel because they’ll (heaven forbid) relate to it. And, of course, this goes along with the omnipresent specter of book banning and America’s deep fascination with letting parents micromanage their children’s education.

I want to be clear: I do not think public school teachers are the problem. Teachers are working professionals caught up in this whole mess. Some of them are indeed very bad at their jobs, but a lot of them are great and they work in terrible conditions to educate our young people and get nothing but grief for it. The problem is the bureaucrats who run public schools and who are more interested in pandering to parents than in serving the public good.

So, yes: ultimately this poem is about all those things, but also about none of them, because “the speaker” in the poem is really me, as many narrative poetry speakers are really the writer. I was that kid in that classroom having things drilled into my head and I hated it, but: it also worked because I can still recite my state song from memory.


Read “State Song” by Guiseppe Getto in Issue 11.1.