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ON MY LOVE FOR THOSE WHO REFUSE SILENCE Part 1
—for Javier Zamora, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, and Christopher Soto
While teaching a course on Wallace Stevens at the University of Chicago, poet Mark Strand told me and a group of students to not write war poems because they would age badly. He shared anecdotes about poet-friends who during the 60’s and 70’s wrote war poems, got political and then faded into obscurity. Those poems didn’t last, Strand would say. I remember writing in my journal: war poems boring. This was in 2003 during the US invasion of Iraq. I was 19.
It’s not hard to see how these dynamics are related: being at war; being young; being told to not write about the war; being squashed by the white supremacy of creative writing programs and higher education; being told that art, good art, is apolitical; being, of course, depressed. Being banished.
How can I say this once and for all: writing “political” poems—or poems about political struggles—is not a choice; it doesn’t feel like an “aesthetic” either—it is the only possible step toward liberation.
Recently I volunteered to support the Undocupoets Petition by reading at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop alongside four other poets whose writing and activism I am featuring front and center in part two of this post. I cried during the entire reading—it was the first time in a long time that I really, really gave a shit about poetry and poets. I feel shame writing this because I go to so many readings and I have so many poet friends—but mostly I leave those other readings feeling like, what is this thing we are doing? what is this thing I’m doing? what is the bullshit glitter of the nyc poetry scene? This is not always the case, but often.
For me, this was a special reading because it was the first time I publicly shared my immigration story. It was the first time I had been invited to share this part of me with others like me–and as a result, it was the first time I felt this story had the possibility of being heard and not trivialized or gawked at. I had this same feeling reading Cha’s Dictee in a graduate school course and sensing my peers didn’t fully grasp, couldn’t fully grasp the “obsession” with “having your papers”—the literal grasping of papers that comes with just as much shame and resentment as they come with privilege. Yes, we “political” poets can play and experiment with language etc., but don’t you forget, for some us, these are our fucking lives. We can do both.
I feel shame writing this too. Like, a Mark Strand-esque character is going to come shush me.
I spent the night after the AAWW reading mentally formulating e-mails asking the organizers to destroy the video of my performance. Alone in my room, I didn’t feel empowered anymore; I just felt anxious. I also kept considering the reading attendees. I knew a total of three people in a crowd of 40ish. Where were my colleagues? My label-mates? My poetry friends? Was this event “too political” or not politically cool enough? Or, the more telling perspective: where have I been? What types of communities have I been participating and contributing to that most of this crowd was a stranger to me? Shame on me for fucking sure.
Finally, while on the topic of shame, a direct address to the National Poetry Series: shame on you for not amending your discriminatory guidelines that require “proof of citizenship” for publication. If you feel the same, tweet at “SHAME” @NPSpoetry. <3