by Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo
Those who have chosen to answer the call to write activist poetry before the fall of 2016 are familiar with the naysayers of the elite poetry world. Especially those poets who chose to venture into MFA programs to write this type of activist, political, witness, cultural representation poetry. They did so while enduring endless articles, words from mentors, and books that warned against the dangers of writing political poetry for its seemingly fleeting topics and didactic over lyric sensibilities. But now that the political climate is what it is, suddenly many of those naysayers are scrambling to find ways to write and teach political poetry because as has been the call on social media and beyond, “Now more than ever, we must resist!”
But for those poets who pursued poetry from the beginning as a call to action and resistance, it is because the poetry is their truth, because their truth helps them exist in a world that wants to destroy them, and because resisting has always been a form of survival. These poets have been long at work studying histories, recording stories, invoking the names of the past, and they are not surprised by what has become of our country. Heartbroken, yes, but not surprised. These poets have always known today was possible because they have never stopped fighting for their own existence, and though they are tired, they will be keep fighting and keep writing.
It is as Pinoy poet, Carlos Bulosan, wrote in his memoir, America is in the Heart, about the moment he discovered he could write poems: “Then I knew surely that I had become a new man. I could fight the world now with my mind, not merely with my hands. My weapon could not be taken away from me any more. I had an even chance to survive the brutalities around me.”
But why poetry and what is the connection between politics and poetry? Like many (not all) politicians, the poet has the gift of language and the ability to use language to envision a new future for an audience. Politicians can choose to use this gift to bolster support for programs they wish to champion like John F. Kennedy did in his speech for the space program. But too often the politician uses this gift to inflict fear in citizens in order to pass or uphold unjust laws, maintain power, or gain support for an international war such as George W. Bush did after 9/11 with his “weapons of mass destruction.”\
And so it’s often the poet that is tasked with battling political abstractions and rhetoric with lyricism, symbolism, and personal stories of witness.
What we are seeing today is not new. There is a long list of poets from around the world and throughout history who have endured threats of imprisonment, exile, and even death in order to speak out against unjust governments, to right a wrong, and fight for the survival of their people.
Here are four poems that have supported important movements in the US and beyond with reflections from contemporary activist poets that I admire. This is in no way an extensive list of political poems.
ID Card by Mahmoud Darwish
Write it down!
I am an Arab.
I am a name with no honorific.
Patient in a land
Where everything lives in bursting rage
My roots were planted before time was born
Before history began
Before the cypress and the olive trees
Before grass sprouted
My father is from the plough clan
Not from the noble class
My grandfather was a peasant farmer
Had no pedigree
Taught me the pride of the sun
Before teaching me to read
A shack to guard groves is my home,
Made of branches and reeds
Are you pleased with my status?
“Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish was the voice of an entire country of people who lost their voice when their land fell under occupation by the newly established Israeli military government in 1948. Darwish’s ID Card, written in 1964, stokes a blazing fire that still rages on today. His repeated exhortations of ‘Write it down, I am an Arab,’ spits in the face of political leaders who demanded all Arab people living in Israel be registered and all travel be monitored. This poem echoes loudly today here in the United States in a surreal time where the sitting President has threatened the Muslim population repeatedly. Whether it’s a registry, a travel ban, or monitoring locations where Muslim people gather like mosques and other community centers, Darwish’s poem reminds me that I am an Arab, that I am a Muslim, and I have a duty to express myself and the experience of my people.”
– Ramy Eletreby, a contributing author to Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex and Intimacy
Yo Soy Joaquin by Rodolfo Corky Gonzales
The thundering hoof beats are my horses. The chattering machine guns
are death to all of me:
I have been the bloody revolution,
I have killed
And been killed.
I am the despots Díaz
And the apostle of democracy,
“Yo Soy Joaquin is where a lot of us began. It’s the crack and rumble that precedes the tectonic shift toward Chicanx consciousness. In the Google age, I am Joaquin is an Intro to Chicanx Studies class in eight center-justified pages. You could tumble down the interweb rabbit hole looking up each reference, each name, and place throughout the piece or just marvel at the decolonized gymnastics the mouth is forced to perform when articulating words like Tonantzin, Tarahumara, and Chichimeca. Without question, Corky, like Homer, gave Chicano letters our first great epic.”
– Joseph Rios, author of Shadowboxing: Poems and Impersonations is the book forthcoming in October 2017 from Omnidawn
I, Too by Langston Hughes
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
“The longing in I, Too always talks to me. The inclusion the speaker opens and closes with is longing that sees into the future of this country, hoping for a better place than the present for all “darker brother[s].” In my own work this is vital, because like I, Too, my work seeks to heal without being disparate. Like I, Too, my work longs for learning and self-empowerment, uplifting and leaving no one behind. And the redemptive shine in the second to last stanza—the reason all poets pine over Langston’s work.”
– F. Douglas Brown, 2013 Cave Canem Poetry Prize recipient for Zero to Three (University of Georgia 2014) and co-author of Begotten (Upper Rubber Boot Books 2016) with poet Geffrey Davis.
Puerto Rican Obituary by Pedro Pietri
Here lies Juan
Here lies Miguel
Here lies Milagros
Here lies Olga
Here lies Manuel
who died yesterday today
and will die again tomorrow
that they are beautiful people
The geography of their complexion
“I was lucky to have a faculty member at my high school invite Pietri to perform at my school a few years before his death in 2004. At the time, I had no real sense of Puerto Rican literature and had no idea that there had been a vibrant Nuyorican poetry scene in the 1970s. Pietri’s performance was my introduction to that movement. He was irreverent, hilarious, and political. I was already confident enough to code-switch among friends and family without any self-consciousness, but I had never experienced that aesthetic as art. I was deeply moved and went up to Pietri and introduced myself. He handed me a copy of his book Puerto Rican Obituary. You can imagine my surprise and delight a year later when I was assigned to read the title poem of his collection for my first ever Latino literature course at Yale. In that class I learned that he had recited “Puerto Rican Obituary” at a Young Lords meeting in 1969, making it the poem of the movement. The poem itself rails against a capitalism, racism, a Catholicism that depends on blind faith, self-hate, in-fighting among Puerto Ricans, and various other maladies that keep Puerto Ricans in New York struggling. The hopeful ending imagines an alternate space where Spanglish is the norm, where Negrito means love, where there is, in essence, the possibility of community, hope, acceptance, and love.”
– Li Yun Alvarado, author of Words or Water
Xochitl’s class, Writing Poetry for Social Change starts Monday, March 3rd and there are a few spots left!
Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo is the 2013 Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange poetry winner and a 2015 Barbara Deming Fund grantee. She has work published in American Poetry Review, crazyhorse, CALYX, and Acentos Review among others. A short dramatization of her poem “Our Lady of the Water Gallons,” directed by Chicano activist and Hollywood director, Jesús Salvador Treviño can be viewed atlatinopia.com. She curates the quarterly reading series HITCHED and co-founded Women Who Submit. Her debut poetry collection, Built with Safe Spaces, is forthcoming from Sundress Publications.