The University of Iowa

Interview with Andrew Ridker, editor of 'Privacy Policy: The Anthology of Surveillance Poetics'


Drones, phone taps, NSA leaks, internet tracking — Privacy Policy: The Anthology of Surveillance Poetics (Black Ocean, 2014) responds to all these timely and crucial issues through the voices of over fifty contemporary poets, including Robert Pinsky, Jorie Graham, John Ashbery, Rae Armantrout, Nikki Giovanni, and D.A. Powell.

This weekend, Prairie Lights will host a reading from the anthology on Saturday, Oct 18 at 7pm, featuring the poets Micah Bateman, Paula Cisewski, and Dana Roeser. Book signing to follow and Q&A hosted by anthology editor, Andrew Ridker.

The Writing University had a chance to talk with Ridker before the upcoming reading. We discussed the background, how the anthology came about, the poets and work that inspired him, and difference between 'reporting' and 'witnessing'.

Can you tell me what sparked the idea for the collection?

The project began in the summer of 2013, when Snowden and the NSA were all over headlines nationwide. I was at Boston Review magazine then—it seemed that politicians and pundits weren’t doing a great job explaining the issue of surveillance, and nobody was quite sure what the damage was. I turned to poets, thinking that the medium was ideal for such a complex issue. And poets are, after all, professional observers of a kind. Initially, the idea was to reach out to a small handful of poets, and a few would contribute work for a short magazine feature. But nearly every poet I reached out to had an existing poem about surveillance, or a poem-in-progress about surveillance, or took the solicitation as an opportunity to write one. And so the project snowballed from there, until I reached out to Black Ocean about the possibility of a full-length anthology. The issue was—and remains—on everyone’s minds.

Was there a specific poem (or poems) that guided you/inspired you? 

I was fascinated by Jenny Kronovet’s poems, which approach the intersection of language and technology not just as themes but as method. Her poem about emotionless language and email censorship concludes with a censored and emotionless missive, and her poem detailing transcript conventions lets a story bloom within a shorthand code. Nikki Giovanni’s poem practically blows the whole book apart; it focuses on unrecorded domestic abuse, beautifully subverting the book’s mission, in a way.

When you first started working on the collection, did you know how many poems about surveillance were out there, or were you surprised?

I was shocked. So many poets were writing about the issue, and I just got to them at the right time. Many of the poems are appearing in print for the first time in this anthology, and others have appeared in journals or collections very recently. And, of course, once you frame things in a surveillance-poetics light, many poems reveal concerns with watching and being watched that might have gone previously unnoticed. I would never suggest that each poem should be looked at exclusively as a work on surveillance, or exclusively through any frame, but that lens, so to speak, can reveal new dimensions to poems that deal with surveillance less directly.

Which poem was the most surprising to you?

That’s tough. Emily Abendroth’s “Reflection #2: Mugshot Movements” taught me a fascinating history of early mugshot photography and forms of bodily resistance. Andrew Durbin wrote a short story of sorts about a conspiracy surrounding Katy Perry. No two poems in the book are alike.

Writing poetry is already a very coded event – with symbols, metaphors and images working to relay ideas – what makes a poem about surveillance different?

Working towards a definition of “surveillance poetics” has been a fascinating process (and one discussed a bit by some contributors and myself on The Believer Logger). Many of these poems take techno-governmental practice and language into account in the composition process. Perhaps a surveillance poem is one with a meta-awareness of poetry’s codes and observations, and one which manipulates this awareness into art.

I was struck by the line “having thought of Timothy as ‘not a threat’” in Micah Bateman’s poem. What does it mean to be a “threat” or “not a threat” as a poet?

I think Micah’s use here (and forgive me, Micah, if I’ve got this wrong!) of “threat” is a bit ironic. The categorization of one’s friends, especially such a non-threatening “Timothy,” as threats and not-threats is a paranoid and yet not unrealistic way that civilians might replicate the thinking and language of the state. As to whether poets themselves might present a threat—on the one hand, poetry is a marginalized art form. So the damage—or impact—is minimal. On the plus side, that marginalization allows for complete freedom of expression. Bringing as many people into the artistic and political conversation is the ultimate goal. In DC this October, I’m giving a reading with Judge Patricia Wald, who sits on Obama’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. So there’ll be a great opportunity to bring poetry and politics into direct contact.

In Tomaz Salamun’s poem, there is the idea of 'reporting' (“I’d love to report to him/ what I saw”). Do you find that ‘reporting’ is different than ‘witnessing’ in these poems?

If witnessing is the act of seeing, then reporting takes it a step further—communicating what is seen. In a sense, every one of the poems in the anthology reports on something. Which is why poetry is such a fantastic way to deal with surveillance. Poets are, by definition, witnessing and reporting every time they put pen to paper. Participating in a culture of surveillance, of the public and the self. We’re all complicit in some way, and that’s not something to condemn, but explore.

Thanks Andrew!


Edited by Andrew Ridker
Paperback / 200p. / Poetry
Find it: Black Ocean Press | Prairie Lights Bookstore