While this poetry series was inspired by various observations, it was most notably a response to the continued appeals to nostalgia in contemporary political rhetoric. Yet, I was also compelled by my own nostalgic tendencies towards times before my birth, thereby drawing from a well of collective memory that I had been unknowingly accumulating. This led me to question the ways in which nostalgia translates from the individual to the collective, and how, on each level, nostalgia acquires a political function.
II. Research and themes
Most explicitly at this intersection lies the issue of who is included in and who excluded from nostalgia for the past. In light of the theories of scholar Svetlana Boym, nostalgia is in many ways as forward-looking as it is backward-looking, as nostalgia imbricates how we craft the present. The restorative nostalgic, for instance, endeavors to revive the past into the present wholesale, without discerning or addressing its faults or inadequacies. As Boym discusses in her book, The Future of Nostalgia, this form of longing is often associated with cases of extreme nationalism and totalitarianism. The arguably “healthier” form of nostalgia is “reflective” nostalgia, which takes a more critical stance in its relationship to the past, but still grapples with how to translate the past into the present. Therefore, nostalgia is not simply a longing, backward gaze, but it is also a means with which to translate that past into the present. When we long for the past, we impact the present and future, and, if we do not question the faults of that past, we risk the danger of reproducing them. Thereby, a kind of societal “ethics” of nostalgia is continually negotiated, through which the political power of nostalgia is mediated.
Furthermore, this intersection of politics and nostalgia raises the issue of memory and history—themes I engage extensively with in my poems. To be nostalgic is to sift through memory, with memory being tinged by our placement in the present. In other words, memory is altered upon each remembrance. In this way, nostalgia is a means of revising the past, often through idealization—a means of erasure and projection within individual and collective memory.
Yet, nostalgia is not inherently negative (although, when translated into the collective, it often seems so). On an individual level, nostalgia can serve as a uniting factor among humans, as well as a means of grieving for and recovering the past, as scholar Roberta Rubenstein discusses in her book, Home Matters: Longing and Belonging, Nostalgia, and Mourning in Women’s Fiction. Therefore, as much as nostalgia is a means for erasure and projection, it can also exculpate the past and allow individuals to grieve and move forward. Notably, this is a position that still emphasizes the forward motion of nostalgia. I aim to pay partial tribute to this positive valence of nostalgia in “Sweat and Hard Earth: An Erasure Transcription of Barack Obama’s Inaugural Speech” by considering how traits of perseverance can be resurrected by our faithfulness to the past, but how this idealization of the past is still a form of obfuscation, albeit for more positive ends.
III. Technical choices
In my poems, I grapple with these questions of nostalgia, time, memory, history, revisionism, and, of course, politics. In most of the poems, I use the form of erasure poetry to understand nostalgia’s revisionist relationship to memory. This is made most explicit in the poem “Looking Backward: An Erasure Transcription of the Constitution of the United States.” In this poem, I question how vacancies in memory are created and filled, as well as who these rearrangements include and exclude. Generally, the method of erasure poetry captures the fragmentary nature of memory and the erasing/curating power of nostalgia. Likewise, nostalgia occurs on a largely subconscious level unbeknownst to us; by using this form, I endeavor to reclaim nostalgia and excavate it to the realm of conscious, writerly choice.
In the final piece, “A Poem in which History is a Self-Referencing Wikipedia Article,” I break away from the form of erasure poetry and instead try to understand what the medium of the internet lends to poetic form. In this extra poem in the series, I co-opt Wikipedia—an editable communal internet encyclopedia—as a metaphor for the malleability of collective memory. Just as collective memory is developed through societal revision and association, so too does Wikipedia develop through communal editing and continual refinement. The step-by-step guide and hyperlinks function as an alternative form of associative poetry, wherein the reader is led through a series of connected transitions and left to fill in the gaps. The content of the poem (or, rather, the Wikipedia page sequence) raises questions about epistemology, the psychological roots of nostalgia, and nostalgia as an individual and collective coping mechanism.
Iv. Inspiration and conclusion
Overall, these poems each offer a perspective on nostalgia and its political functions. They represent the culmination of nearly a year’s worth of study on nostalgia and the research of scholars such as Svetlana Boym, Susan Stewart, Janelle Wilson, and Alastair Bonnet. Moreover, the poetry and its form are influenced by the works of Travis MacDonald, Ronald Johnson, and Janet Holmes. Through these poems, I hope to prompt readers to question their own nostalgias and idealizations, specifically in consideration of how their longing impacts the present and future of not only themselves, but also those around them.