Hello! I’m back at Flatiron Coffee, which I’ve found to be fairly conducive to my writing process. I think part of it is not wanting other people (no matter how much they ignore me or pay me no heed) to think I’m goofing off, so I’d better write something. Little do they know, right now I’m typing about THEM!
Last semester I took Activist Writing Workshop, taught by Dr. Andrea Rexilius. It was the first class I had on the first day of my first semester of grad school, and for the first few weeks I was fairly nervous, unsure as to what I was doing in the midst of so many brilliant people. Eventually I relaxed, acknowledging that either I deserved to be there (as evidenced by the admissions process) or I snuck in and should make the most of it. I’ve come down now on the side of deserving to be at Naropa, and though I may not be as well-read as some people I’ve got something to contribute. (I also love my cohort and the second-years I’ve worked with, as well as the undergrads I’m slowly discovering…they’re everywhere!)
One piece of our final portfolio for Activist Writing was a poetic manifesto, a statement of our purposes and principles as writers and poets. I’ve included it below, with some light editing, as an explanation of some of my thought processes while writing.
Poetic Manifesto For My Times (Which Are Your Times, Too)
Poetry can and should be an event that causes a feeling or sensation. As popularly understood, poetry is something lyrical or rhythmic, holding some sort of connotation of song or whimsy. Poetry has been and can be again less of a static object and more of an occurrence, an event, a repeated happening that offers new life each time it is read or heard or performed or encountered.
We should think perhaps less in terms of poetry and more in terms of poets, for though something poetic may exist on its own merits (birdsong, sunset, inhalation) the poet can be the one to translate or interpret for others, to act as a sort of ambassador or messenger between the poetic occurrence and the poetic audience. So let us begin with the poet.
Before the poet, in fact, let us begin with this proposition: above all else, listen before speaking. Listening provides an opportunity to collect (input from the surroundings, thoughts before expression, et cetera) but more importantly listening before speaking allows the poet to acknowledge the other person or persons or the environment as less of an Other and more of a fellow or friend. The act of listening declares softly “I wish to hear you, first.” (Of course, the possibility exists that two practitioners of this proposition will, upon meeting, sit in prolonged silence and may never begin the next step, but in this event a naturally occurring word or prhase will suffice to end the silence; may I suggest “Thank you” as a possible silence-breaker?)
The poet, once the respect for the other has been established, then persists in challenging the other, though not always harshly. (Harshness of course has its place, and softness should never be confused with weakness, but begin from a place of unagitation before engaging in critiques or questions. [This rule, of course, does not govern interactions with others who wish to be treated as Others, or those who treat others as Others, or any who wish harm to an other. In that case, though, poetry may not be the best tool for interaction.]) The challenge at its most basic consists of upending what is considered “right,” or “normal,” or “that’s how we’ve always done it.” This can be through new grammar, provocative method, or disregarding what many consider to be poetic standards (rhyme, meter, form, et cetera). The boundaries of the page are just as confining as boundaries of language, so the poet should consider how his or her or its work can exist outside the page. How big are the margins of a megaphone? What does the word “magment” mean? Who spellchecks sobbing?
These questions were quickly formulated, but the power of the question mark should exist over the entirety of the poet’s work. At the risk of contradicting the words of the manifesto itself, the only certain thing is to be uncertain. Allow for possibility. Leave space for the audience to exist, though not without some sort of price exacted. We return to the audience through questions.
When probing (either in poetic structures or in personal communication) the most powerful question is, perhaps, “Why?” Repeated use of the word “why” in response to a stated position can drive to the center of something more directly than a lengthy inquisition, and the tone of “why” (confrontational in and of itself but also with the possibility of true curiosity) is its greatest strength. Leave the “why” present in your work, and as long as possible avoid answering your own questions. This may seem counter-intuitive or even unproductive if you think of your poetry as having an undeviating purpose, some sort of mission (“My poem will challenge the way people think about violence in this country!”) but if you allow your poetry to exist by its own rights, to engage itself with the audience with the poet as a participant but not a director, then the poem’s absolution of conclusion strengthens its arguments.
The creative process itself is worth investigating. Much of what drives my work are short phrases, misheard song lyrics, misread billboards, words appearing in my psyche like spontaneous creation (“twisted black fingers rake across the sky” – a series of chimney stacks at sunset). This is not new or unique, but I am also interested in what doesn’t make it to the page (what is lost to the moment, what can’t be remembered without a pen in hand). What does make it to the page does not always remain, and what remains is not always best. But it remains.
The concept of the audience has arisen before, and so perhaps now is the time to speak more of it. Size and composition and temporality of an audience are traits we should consider, but ultimately the defining characteristic of an audience is this: anyone who is touched / grazed / impacted / implicated in your poetry. Those being influenced by the poetry may not always know it; poetry that exists anew each time it is read will have consequences long after it is transmitted into the world.
My poetry will not erect walls, nor will it smash them down, but rather tunnel through them, or remove bricks, or write graffiti on the walls that already exist. I do not wish to burn bridges, nor build them, but rather teach people how to build boats and how to swim. I will not undam the rivers unless the life downstream has a chance to survive the flood. Action is needed, yes; passion is necessary, of course; and the conversation has begun but it started much later than it should have. None of this grants me license to destroy, or harm, or battle. I stand non-violently with those who wish to engage in this conversation and will do what is in my power to lessen their blows, to speak to those who traffic in power and pain, and change what few minds I can in what little time we have left.