On March 18, 2008, at the height of his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Barack Obama delivered his famous “A More Perfect Union” speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was an iconic moment in an already memorable campaign that had seen the meteoric rise of then-candidate Obama from bright young thing of the Democratic Party to international political celebrity.
In A More Perfect [ (available April 1st, 2015 from BookThug) Jimmy McInnes dismantles Obama’s iconic address into a radical poem that invites readers to investigate the inner workings of the political speech, the complicated relationship between politics and the English language, and the quasi-mystical power of political oratory to rouse and persuade. We caught up with Jimmy to talk about politics, poetics, and the ideas behind A More Perfect [.
BOOKTHUG: Your book is a poetical examination of a very specific genre of writing: that of the political campaign speech. In what genre, if any, would you place A More Perfect [?
JIMMY MCINNES: I see A More Perfect [ as a long poem, but more specifically as a procedural work of reverse-rhetorical translation within that genre. With this project, I wanted to deconstruct a campaign speech – to turn the source text inside out so the reader could see the wires of the source hang loose and understand the genre of the political speech as something as premeditated as any other work of literature.
BT: You take as your source text Barack Obama’s campaign speech from 2008, “A More Perfect Union.” Can you remind us of what the political climate was like in 2008, back when President Obama was still Candidate Obama, and still in stiff competition with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination?
JM: I imagine that most readers were following this race pretty closely, but I’ll try to briefly reiterate it.
This was the point in the Democratic Primary race where it had become apparent that whomever the nominee would be, they would be running against Republican Senator John McCain, who was at that point about as moderate a Republican as you could ever see winning the GOP nomination. McCain had a track record of working with right-leaning Democrats on legislation, and it was feared he could attract a significant amount of independent voters.
After Obama’s surprisingly strong showings in the early primaries, the Hillary Clinton campaign was looking poised to lose what was once considered an insurmountable lead over the rest of the Democratic field. The possibility that Clinton may not turn out to be the Democratic nominee led to increased scrutiny of Obama’s background and relationships. Included in this scrutiny was an ABC News investigation of years of sermons given by Obama’s former pastor Jeremaiah Wright.
Reverend Wright was the pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, a predominantly African American church in Chicago. Over the years, Wright had made a variety of controversial statements regarding American foreign policy, the 9/11 attacks, and the Nation of Israel, among other political hot potatoes. The Clinton campaign jumped on the comments, questioning Obama’s judgment. Much of the chattering class in America speculated that Obama’s relationship with Wright could make him appear too fringe a candidate to compete with John McCain in the General Election. “A More Perfect Union” was Obama’s response to this controversy.
The speech itself was a brilliant example of deflection and contextualism. Obama had to distance himself from Wright’s statements, while still portraying Wright as a complex and sympathetic character. As well, Obama had to assure less progressive voters that he was indeed a mainstream candidate, all the while actually addressing the often-unpopular issue of race as the first truly competative non-white candidate in American history. The speech was quite the tightrope act, and it received mostly positive reviews, even among conservative commentators. To me, the most fascinating moment of the speech is when he references bigoted comments made by his white grandmother in order to signal an equivalency between Wright’s statements and what the average white voter in America could understand as the by-product of a different age of thinking about the issue of race. Obama was able to do it in a way that was both compassionate and firm.
BT: What about this bit of political theatre inspired you to use the text of “A More Perfect Union” it as the basis for the book?
JM: I actually don’t think that a thorough knowledge of context of the book’s source is necessarily important to reading A More Perfect [. I chose to write this book in a way that favours the signifier over the signified, hoping that it could be read as any given speech that follows the same configuration. So, while the political theatre surrounding the source-text was fascinating, it was actually the speech’s structure and overall execution that caused me to choose it as the basis for this book.
Before I started working on A More Perfect[, I established some criteria for the speech that I would use as its source. This sort of project is one that could easily limit itself to cynical irony, and I wanted to produce something that would fire off on a number of cylinders. Had I chosen, say, The Nixon “Checkers” speech, or Stephen Harper’s apology for residential schools (which is actually a text I’ll play around with in a later book) as the sole source, the project would have been limited. I wanted to use a speech that covered the various rhetorical elements I hoped to explore, but was also a speech that I respected, and that I thought would still be influential in 100 years. The irony and cynicism is still there – as it will be with any book that deconstructs this sort of source text – but I think that this book is more rounded because of the complexity of the exoskeleton I chose to fill.
BT: Did anyone’s work in particular influence you to write this kind of poem?
JM: I can’t peg the influence behind this project to one particular author, but I can say that I’ve been heavily interested in the tradition of long-form procedural and appropriative works for quite some time now. Some of the texts that greatly influenced my trajectory towards this form are the classics of the genre, books like Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Ron Silliman’s Ketjak, Christian Bök’s Eunoia, and Jena Osman’s An Essay in Asterisks. I enjoy investigating the limits of poetic form, find that I’m happiest when I establish an exoskeletal modal for the text beforehand. I then follow the procedure, reacting to whatever strange places it brings me.
BT: In January President Barack Obama gave his sixth State of the Union Address. How have things changed since “A More Perfect Union”? Are you or have you ever been an admirer of Obama’s speechwriters—guys like Jon Favreau or Cody Keenan?
JM: As a lefty political observer, I enjoyed the rhetoric of the most recent State of the Union, and thought it was delivered with a sort of exuberance that we haven’t seen from this president since slightly before his re-election campaign. Obama seems to have embraced the role as a “lame duck” president, and knows that he can get some progressive measures addressed before inevitably conceding the presidency to Clinton/ not Clinton. His emphasis on climate change was firmer than it’s been in a while, especially when highlighting the overwhelming scientific consensus of the problem. Obama’s reference to trans-rights was a huge step forward as well, and was one of the pleasant surprises of the address. From a president whose policies often disappoint progressives, this was a good return to form on the oration front.
As far as Jon Favreau and Cody Keenan go, yes, they impress me. I’m especially impressed by how young they both are, and how well they’re able to mimic the speaker that they have to deal through. Like all orators, Obama has a very particular cadence, and it’s impressive that they were both able to work through it.
BT: In civilian life you work for the Ontario New Democratic Party. Are there any particularly salient political lessons you learned from the writing of this book.
My work for the NDP on both the provincial and federal levels, plus some dabbling in municipal politics, did a whole lot to prepare me for writing this book. I mainly work as a fundraiser, so my day-job is to convince people that they should invest their hard-earned money into a form of incremental social change. I’ve always argued that the practices of poetry and politics aren’t too dissimilar – each depends on the manipulation of language, especially in the information age. When I use the word manipulation, it’s not necessarily meant to be read in a pejorative sense. Instead, it’s meant to be read as the skillful management of influence, in this case through language. Human beings organize their realities through language. Both poetry and politics deal with language in a very cerebral way, and when the presentation is mismanaged, you can end up with either an ineffective poem, or a political message that simply doesn’t connect.
Praise for A More Perfect [:
Barack Obama’s eloquent and iconic 2008 speech on race, “A More Perfect Union,” is the master text underlying Jimmy McInnes’s ingenious poem. In the course of laying bare the devices of political rhetoric, McInnes presents an intricate lattice of tropes, formulas, gestures, and contexts. A More Perfect [ reads like a performance theory handbook, a poet’s theater script, and a grammar manual, all rolled into one concatenating barrel of tricks.
— Charles Bernstein
We know language is littered with heinous tools to obscure, evade, and punish. Through passive euphemism and doublespeak, malapropism and catachresis and plain old gibberish, those who wield power—our politicians, advertisers, reviewers, friends—use words to fill space, making noises without referents, all according to comforting pattern and script. Why are we so shocked, red-faced, to see the scaffolding? McInnes tears away the colour and flesh of distraction to show all that spooky structure—the rehearsed rhetoric of those who lie for a living (we the 99 percent). When he reads this book live, he infuriates, galvanizes, but who can deny the concurrent sparkle of a language stripped to its constituents? Never have noun, verb, adjective held so much basic, mesmerizing radiance. It’s still ours, after all. Take it back.
— Spencer Gordon, author of Cosmo
According to Thomas Hobbes (via Rachel Zolf’s Neighbor Procedure), power is the “capacity to give names and enforce definitions.” Jimmy’s reverse rhetorical procedure on President Obama’s speech does two things: first it demolishes the monologic power of the spectacle and then it returns that power (now made dialogic) to the people, to the demos, and to language itself, by inviting us to participate in his gleeful and meticulous parsings. A More Perfect [ is a gift of open form.
— Mat Laporte
Excerpt from A More Perfect [
by Jimmy McInnes
(Available April 1st from BookThug)
[Contextualize Your Person]
Contextualize your person in relation to your father, his race, and his country of origin.
Contextualize your person in relation to your mother, her race, and her state of origin.
Contextualize your person in relation to your grandfather, his race, the economic circumstances of his day, and his history of military service.
Contextualize your person in relation to your grandmother, her race, and her place of employment during your grandfather’s history of military service.
Contextualize your person in relation to the quality of your domestic education.
Contextualize your person in relation to the economic situations of the various countries in which you have had residence.
Contextualize your person in relation to your spouse, their race, and the curious duality regarding [unanimously hated act of racial subjugation] apparent in their genealogy.
Contextualize your person in relation to your daughters, an adjective describing their value, and their relation to the curious duality regarding [unanimously hated act of racial subjugation] apparent in your spouse’s genealogy.
Contextualize your person in relation to various immediate and extended family members, their race, their skin-tone, and the amount of locations they can be found across the globe.
Contextualize your person in relation to your life’s duration, the strength of your memory, and the probability of your personal narrative occurring in other nations as opposed to [relevant nation].
Contextualize your personal narrative by acknowledging your personal narrative is unprecedented when compared to the history of candidates for [relevant office].
Contextualize your personal narrative by stating that your personal narrative has internalized the notion that [relevant nation] depends upon the collective-we.
Contextualize your personal narrative by providing a common phrase that illustrates the notion that [relevant nation] depends upon the collective-we.
Contextualize your personal narrative by reiterating the notion that [relevant nation] depends on the collective-we by providing a second common phrase.
Contextualize your message as it pertains to the last approximately three hundred and sixty-five days.
Contextualize your message in relation to commentator’s evaluations regarding the people of [relevant nation].
Contextualize your message in relation to commentator’s evaluations regarding the perceived market value for [abstract concept].
Contextualize your message in relation to a commentator’s evaluations regarding the issue of your racial history.
Contextualize your message in relation to commentator’s evaluations regarding the issue of your racial history by citing unspecific instances of appealing to those of a differing racial history.
Contextualize your message in relation to commentator’s evaluations regarding the issue of your racial history by citing a specific instance of appealing to those of a differing racial history, as well as to those who share your personal racial history.
Contextualize your message in relation to commentator’s evaluations regarding the issue of your racial history by citing a specific instance of appealing to those of a differing racial history while highlighting the presence of an icon symbolic of the history of [unanimously hated act of racial subjugation].
Contextualize your racial identity as it pertains to your current status as a candidate for [relevant office].
Contextualize your racial identity in relation to commentator’s evaluations that yours is an extreme example of that identity.
Contextualize your racial identity in relation to commentator’s evaluations that yours is an example of that identity that is not extreme enough.
Contextualize your racial identity in relation to a specific example of your racial identity having a negative impact in a particular political region.
Contextualize your racial identity in relation to media analysis done in order to gauge its effect on your status as a candidate for [relevant office] among various different ethnic communities.
Now, take a moment from contextualizing your person in order to highlight the fact that only within the last approximately fourteen days has the issue of [relevant ethnic origin] become problematic as it pertains to your status as candidate for [relevant office] of [relevant nation].
Take a moment from contextualizing your person in order to highlight commentator’s evaluations that your status as candidate for [relevant office] is merely an example of [relevant policy initiative].
Take a moment from contextualizing your person in order to highlight commentator’s evaluations that your status as candidate for [relevant office] is merely a reaction to [unanimously hated act of racial subjugation] by [relevant political ideology].
Take a moment from contextualizing your person in order to address the opinions of a specific figure from your life as a private citizen.
Take a moment from contextualizing your person in order to address the negative effects that the opinions of this specific figure from your life as a private citizen could have on racial issues.
Take a moment from contextualizing your person in order to address the negative effects that the opinions of this specific figure from your life as a private citizen could have on [list of abstract concepts] regarding [relevant nation].
Take a moment from contextualizing your person in order to address the negative effects that the opinions of this specific figure from your life as a private citizen could have on the sensibilities of [relevant dichotomy].
[Pause for applause]
Jimmy McInnes was born and raised on Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula. His first chapbook, Begin Speech With, was released by Ferno House in the fall of 2013. His poetry has appeared in various journals, including This Magazine, ditch, The Puritan, Descant, and the Capilano Review Web Folio. His work has been shortlisted for the Great Canadian Literary Hunt and the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. He lives in Toronto, where he completed his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph, and is currently employed as a political hack. A More Perfect [ is his first book-length work of poetry. Connect with Jimmy on Twitter @JimmyMcInnes.