In his classic guide to literature, ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound said that “literature is news that stays news.” When he wrote that in the 1930s, Pound couldn’t possibly have anticipated the lightning pace and endless feeds of contemporary online journalism and social media. Though, as the high priest of literary modernism, he made a permanent home in poetry for fragmentary thinking. (And, convicted of treason for his profascist radio broadcasts, he may have intuited more about this moment than one would like to admit.)

That quote about literature suggests that poets are always, at some level, writing about current events, by way of the forces—personal, emotional, intellectual, cultural—that led to those events. That’s one way of thinking about how the poetry collections published in 2017 relate to all that’s happened in what is probably America’s most politically charged year in a generation. While most of these books were acquired prior to the 2016 election cycle and Donald Trump’s presidency, they speak to the forces behind them, and about the issues—race, hate crimes, sexuality, immigration, the mistreatment of Native Americans, and the very nature of truth itself—that fill our news feeds.

In taking the pulse of contemporary poetry, we wanted to explore how new poetry interacts with and responds to the news and current political realities, or how, perhaps, it explains them. Bringing a book of poems into the world in the first year of President Trump is, for many poets, a political act in itself. Poetry argues for nuance, complexity of meaning, and, above all, truth. What’s true, of course, is different for different people, and depends, for poets especially, not just on what is said, but how it’s said.

Who better than poets themselves to explain how poetry and politics go together? We asked four poets to discuss how the contemporary political situation does and doesn’t play into their writing.

Gabrielle Calvocoressi

Calvocoressi is the author of three books of poems, including Rocket Fantastic, which is due out from Persea Books this September.

How do you define political poetry?

Any poetry that works to interrogate its speaker’s own engagement with the larger world—a poetry that helps and perhaps sometimes forces the reader to see their own complicity in the way systems of power are constructed and reinforced. To me, this can be public or private. One can write a poem about walking past an azalea bush on the way to the bus that’s as political as one about the morning of the inauguration.

Do you consider your poetry political?

I am a queer lesbian living in North Carolina. So I think most everything I do is political, even when I am not consciously thinking of it that way. I do believe that putting words on paper and sending them into the world of the reader is a political act because it makes a kind of contract between myself and an unknown other. It begins to form a bond between us—which is not the same thing as agreement or understanding.

My poems may or may not be understood or “liked” or read widely. But once they are in the world they are part of a conversation about what it is to make meaning and how we make a life in this world. My poems are queer poems that deal with lesbian desire. And also the impossibility of finding a body that I can wholly inhabit, that grief and great journey of discovery.

What role does a poet have in the current political climate?

A poet’s gift and job is to look closely and to keep looking, and to bring news of that looking to the page and to readers. And this is a time when looking deeply at the world can be very hard, really exhausting.

For those of us who are white, who are aware of the incredible damage whiteness has done and continues to do to others and to ourselves, I think we have a responsibility to breathe through our shame and discomfort and keep learning how we can dismantle this prison we’ve built. I think we need to talk about not just the dismantling—which can too easily place us in the role of some kind of hero—but about our own difficulty seeing our privilege and truly giving it up.

Airea D. Matthews

Simulacra, Matthews’s debut poetry collection, was chosen by Carl Phillips as the winner of the 2016 Yale Series of Younger Poets.

How do you define political poetry?

In Plato’s Republic, there’s a reason Socrates kicked out Homer and the other poets. You don’t banish the silent and powerless. Poetry, at its core, has the ability to expose the deepest and most inaccessible realities of the individual human experience. That fact alone makes its use of language a mighty form of illumination and resistance.

Do you consider your poetry political?

I am one person in one body trying, daily, to negotiate the constructions of culture, race, time, hierarchies, lineage, form, privilege, prejudice, family structure, mental health, and personal value. Frankly, I find the simple act of waking up in the morning and praying to be a political act of personal rebellion.

What role does a poet have in the current political climate?

Poets have no role or purpose above demonstrating their shared humanity. We are advocates, keepers, and interpreters for one another. Perhaps we are most powerful when we incline our thinking to believe that we are not solitary beings, but rather live in community—defending human rights, protecting against harm and using our lives, our language, and our work as an example.

Is poetry affected by the dizzying pace of online news?

To me, a lot of what is considered news is just a veil that serves to obscure or distract from larger issues. Our national conversations are currently curated by whatever preoccupies social media’s collective consciousness. “45” knows that; that’s why he tweets so much.

Danez Smith

Graywolf will publish Smith’s second full-length collection, Don’t Call Us Dead, in September.

How do you define political poetry?

I’m old-school. I am a firm believer in the theory that the personal is political, and vice versa. I don’t know if it’s possible to write a poem that is not political in someone’s eyes.

Do you consider your poetry political?

Always. I’m a capital-B Black, capital-Q Queer, HIV-positive, weird, strange, funky, loud American. Even if I don’t consider my poems political, someone else will. But for me, every poem is political and can teach us something about being a better citizen of the world.

Maybe the problem is what we are calling “political” here. Does something need to be easily traced back to the news to be political? Why can’t a flower be political? Sure, if I write a poem about our embarrassment of a president, it’s political. If I write a poem for someone slain by our senseless and legalized violence, it’s political. If I write a poem about the neighborhood rapidly being emptied of its history and people, it’s political. But so is the poem about my grandmother cooking.

How consciously do you go about writing poems you consider political?

I don’t seek to write political poems. I write poems that try to tell and trouble the truth, that scream and shout and pray and sing, that move and demand movement. The idea of politics can’t be bigger than the poem. Sure, we might reach toward topics that are political to most eyes, but our duty is to write it right, not to strive towards some prescribed agenda.

What role does a poet have in the current political climate?

The poet’s role is to write what they see, try to transcribe what they hear in the streets and in the quiet hours, and to simply write. I’m against the idea of “the poet’s responsibility.” Some people are too busy trying to write themselves alive to worry about what responsibility they have to an imagined reader.

Is poetry affected by the dizzying pace of online news?

There surely is a different pulse to poetry than to online news, but I am also a champion of the fleeting poem, the poem that is an immediate response to something that is urgent, and maybe is only a “good poem” for a week or so. That’s rather beautiful to me. I think poetry can learn something necessary and something cautionary from the speed of online news.

Patricia Smith

Smith is a slam poetry champion and the author of seven books of poetry, including Blood Dazzler, a National Book Award finalist, and Incendiary Art, published in February by TriQuarterly Books.

How do you define political poetry?

I’m constantly frustrated by political poetry’s fluctuating interpretation. The definition tossed about the most is also the most cowardly—why, it’s poetry about politics! What goes unspoken is that no one has the foggiest about what constitutes politics. As far as I’m concerned, political poetry can and should explore issues of race, war, religion, government, and migration. In each of those cases, we are usually buffeted about by forces above, behind, and beyond us.

But for me it goes a beat further. A poem is political if it rattles a predictable landscape or introduces a thread of doubt into a deep-seated belief. And the personal can clearly be political. When I write an elegy about my father, at the core of that poem is the knowledge that he was part of the Great Migration of blacks from the south to the north in the 1950s. I don’t have to write that aloud, but it’s there—he was who he was, and made the choices he did, because of it.

Do you consider your poetry political?

I try not to label my poetry, because that would be cramming myself into a box that I’d then have to struggle to escape. But I can’t stop my readers from doing the categorizing. I write poetry so that I can move from one moment to the next without stopping to scream into my cupped hands. I write to celebrate, to condemn, to mourn, to be giddy and ridiculous, to bellow what’s up front in my life. But, for some, my dark skin automatically labels me political, no matter what my stanzas say.

Below, more on the subject of political poetry books.

For Better, for Verse: Poetry 2017