Since my last post
about measures of success for a political poet, I've had several fruitful conversations about the potential of poetry to create positive changes in the world. Thank you for reading, and for sharing your perspectives to affirm my work and the transformative work of the artists I admire.
Recently, I've also had a couple of publications include my words in their projects to lift voices for social change.
The Everyday Abolition/Abolition Every Day Project
is producing a zine all about our creativity and collective power to resist the prison industrial complex. Everyday Abolition
is "an international political art collaboration between Chanelle Gallant and Lisa Marie Alatorre, collecting stories, art, and interviews highlighting the ways PIC abolitionists practice, and live PIC abolition in our work, organizing, and personal lives."
So for the rest of 2013, Everyday Abolition is posting stories and words about what it means to live abolition, everyday. A print version of the zine will follow, and until then, you can read the posts online. So far, pieces include The Creative Spark of Injustice
, my response to the acquittal of Travyon Martin's murderer, and Isolation Cannot Heal Isolation: One Survivor's Response to Sexual Assault
, a beautiful, brave post about healing, safety, and accountability, written by Blyth Barnow, a woman I'm proud to call my friend.
Read these posts and more on Everyday Abolition/Abolition Every Day.
My words also appeared last month in an article by Andrea Abi-Karam, published on openDemocracy's Transformation: Where love meets social justice
. The article, "Political Poetry Does Not Ask Permission,"
includes interviews with me and two other political poets, Jacqueline Frost and Wendy Trevino, on the transformative power of political poetry.
This piece begins: We long for the time when we took to the streets. But now, we take those words from the streets and transform our post-occupy political daze into poetry.
Poetry’s evasion of mainstream capitalism gives it a unique, charged voice for political expression in the public sphere. Compared to other art forms, books collect dust on shelves while gallery pieces sell for thousands. Poetry’s existence outside of “economic desire” gives it the power of a voice that doesn’t seek to please anyone.
“I feel like one thing that makes political poetry so impactful is that it doesn’t ask permission,” says Bay Area poet and activist Maisha Johnson. She continues: “A lot of political poetry says: ‘This is my truth, I’m not going to wait for anybody to allow me to speak my truth. This is what I need to say – I’m going to say it.’”
Read the rest of the article and watch videos of the poets on the Transfomation website.
Artist: Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski
I'm still brimming with emotion triggered by the court's acquittal of Trayvon Martin's murderer
, but I haven't given up hope. Oftentimes, the most hopeless moments are those that inspire us to look most deeply within ourselves and our own communities, and we discover, perhaps with surprise, that we're the ones with the answers we've been hoping to find. I've been coming across answers infused with creativity ever since I asked the question of "What will we do?"
The thing is, I'm not seeking answers from the criminal justice system. I already know that what I'm searching for can't be found in courts or prisons or police departments. Mia Murietta wrote an insightful piece entitled "Justice for Trayvon Martin: Why Punishing His Killer Isn't Enough
," posted on the Ella Baker Center's blog, Ella's Voice. As she pointed out, "Our 'justice' system doesn’t deliver justice. It enforces laws. It is a legal system that creates and perpetuates the kind of structural racism and devaluing of black lives that lead to killings like Trayvon’s, Oscar Grant’s, and so many other unarmed, young Black men
." The George Zimmerman case doesn't highlight some previously undiscovered flaw in our legal system. It sheds light on what many of us already knew – that when the criminal justice system operates as it's designed, it bolsters systems of oppression and continues to harm those who have been degraded for centuries. People of color know this. Low-income people know this. Queer and trans people know this, as demonstrated in
Toshio Meronek's Advocate article, in which he frames the choices of LGBT people of color facing violent situations as "Be Killed or Be Caged?" For those of us who aren't white or upper class or straight, it's no surprise that justice for Trayvon does not exist in a courtroom. So, how can we assure our minds to believe that Trayvon can rest in peace? How can we comfort one another in these times of fear, knowing that
any one of us could be the next one murdered in a violent act ruled "justifiable"? How can we hope for change, when every arrest, lack of arrest, or verdict contributes to our loss of faith? I still don't have all the answers, but as people are gathering together to help one another through this difficult time, I'm gathering more clues as to where the answers are for me. And for me, all answers point to creativity. With creativity defined as the use of imagination
or original ideas, it's no wonder that this is the source of hope for me right now. Justice for Trayvon doesn't exist in preexisting systems, so now is the time for our imagination to come to life. I see examples in the city of Oakland, where I live. Betti Ono Gallery has been offering safe space
for folks to come together in reflection and solidarity, to have dialogue about the verdict and the kind of change it calls for. Down the street, Solespace
has had Art 4 Justice workshops
to give those who are emotionally impacted by the verdict some time and space to express themselves. And I also see examples from around the world. The #blacklivesmatter hashtag
has spread throughout the internet to show that we value black lives, even if the courts don't. New pieces of art are coming into existence every day, to mourn for Trayvon
and to depict alternatives to the systems
that allowed Zimmerman to murder him without consequence. Writers are sharing their words of reaction, hurt, and healing – Vanessa Huang included my words in this found poem
, "a living monument of love." Stevie Wonder announced
that he refuses to perform in Florida while the state's Stand Your Ground is in place, and other artists are beginning to follow his lead
You see my point. When we feel lost without hope, we've got artists, musicians, and innovators to create hope for us. On the side of those who want to uphold oppressive systems as they are, they've got badges, uniforms, and gavels. That's a lot of power. It can feel like a losing fight. But then again, another definition of creativity
says that creativity is "marked by the ability or power to create, to bring into existence, to invest with a new form, to produce through imaginative skill, to make or bring into existence something new."
Sounds like a lot of power to me. Where injustice currently exists, we have the power to create something new.
Five thoughts, one question:
1) I’m in pain. Physically, I mean. For a little over a week now, I’ve been dealing with a health issue that has me confined to my bed when I’m not going back and forth to the doctor’s office. I’ve never felt so useless in my life. I can hardly do anything for myself, or for anybody else, for that matter. It goes very much against my nature – my care-taking nature and my busy nature
. I hate
2) Physical pain isn’t far removed from emotional pain. I’ve been noticing similarities between my current state of being and depression – listlessness, hopelessness, difficulty accomplishing much of anything. The longer this goes on, the less clear I am about whether it’s my body or my mind that’s having trouble.
3) Personal pain isn’t far removed from communal pain. When I heard on Saturday that George Zimmerman was acquitted
of all charges after shooting unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, I first tried to shrug it off, almost, as in, “Well, I knew this was coming.” As in, “I can’t possibly process all of the feelings I have about this, so I just need it to go away.” As in, “I’m speechless. There’s so much to say. Too much. So it just feels like there’s nothing to say.” But then the tears came. Hot, angry, frustrated, sorrowful tears. I couldn’t stop them.
4) There’s nothing I can do about it. There’s nothing I can do about it. No, really – there’s nothing I can do about it. The criminal justice system has declared that it’s legal
for a man to follow a boy he deems suspicious, and to shoot and kill that boy. I am in my bed, face down. I can’t even get myself a drink of water. I certainly can’t bring Trayvon back. And I can’t protect others like him. There’s nothing I can do.
5) I’m not ending this blog post with a message of resilience or hope or happiness. In this moment, I’m sitting with my helplessness. This is culturally, legally sanctioned helplessness. We can’t rely on our justice system to take away the pain. So now’s the time to really figure it out for ourselves: what can we do
? This is not despair. Roxane Gay wrote
, “If we despair, we are surrendering to injustice.” So this is not despair. This is a question.
What will we do?
Confession time: My name is Maisha, and I write with an agenda.
Whew. It feels good to get that off my chest.
"Agenda" is a bad word in many writing circles. Writing with an agenda might mean that you're insulting readers by trying to tell them what to think. It might mean that your work isn't as good as it could be, because you're too busy trying to shove a message down people's throats to pay attention to the quality of writing.
And I get that. I really do. I understand that for the work to be good, the writing must speak for itself. And I get that it's better to give readers questions, letting them reach their own conclusions, than to force them to accept my answers.
But I guess the problem comes with the question of how to define an "agenda." I'm no journalist, so my writing's never completely objective. It's always flavored with my own perspectives, experiences, and beliefs. And because my viewpoint is not considered the "norm," I might always come across as having an agenda. Beneath my voice there might always be a sense of unrest, of the need for change, because, to put it simply, the status quo just isn't working for me, as a queer black woman survivor.
At Saturday night's Bitchez Brew Revue, I read some silly poems. I also read the poem I wrote for Trayvon Martin
. Did I have an agenda in reading it? Hell yeah, I did. I've been hearing George Zimmerman's name in the media a lot lately, and I feel that it's important to keep speaking Trayvon's name, too. Did I have an agenda when I was writing it? Damn right, I did. When I wrote it, Zimmerman had yet to be arrested. And I didn't believe that my writing a poem would get him in jail or bring Trayvon justice, no. But for me, the whole situation stirred up a kind of sadness and anger that I need to release into the world. The kind that says something needs to change, because no lives should be lost this way.
So yeah, if that's what it means to have an agenda, then I've got one. I think part of it, for me, is that I write stories that feel personal to me, about events and systems that have traumatized me, so I feel somewhat protective over those, not quite ready to leave it up to interpretation.
But it was my "mentor" Audre Lorde
who said both "I am deliberate and afraid of nothing"
and "I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood."
So maybe as I grow as a writer, I'll still have what may be perceived as an "agenda," being deliberate and unafraid to share my perspective. But maybe I'll develop the skills to be more subtle about it, and really let the writing speak for itself, even at the risk of having it misunderstood.
As I've written before, around Christmas time
and Valentine's Day
, holidays can be complicated. And today, Mother's Day, is no different. Today I'm celebrating my mom, the strong woman whose love and support helped me become the woman I am today. I'm also reserving part of the day for thoughts and prayers for those who might be struggling. Those who have lost mothers, and children.
And mothers separated from their kids - like those whose children are imprisoned
, or who are imprisoned themselves
.I'm thinking, of course, about my own reasons for having complicated feelings about this day. On Mother's Day a few years ago, I sat in a park with my mom and told her that she would soon be a grandmother. That day never came. I had a miscarriage, instead, a couple of months later. Today I'm thinking about
all the moms who've lost their children before they were born.In a way, I feel guilty for spending time on such thoughts today. I see all of the celebratory hearts and flowers and I think, today's supposed to be a joyful day. There's nothing wrong with leaving it at that. But I have a feeling that, historically speaking, M
other's Day is actually meant to hold all of these complications. Did you know about the radical roots of Mother's Day?
I've been reading up on it. First there was Julia Ward Howe, a poet and anti-war activist who began promoting Mother's Day for Peace
in 1872. Then came Anna Jarvis, a childless woman who persuaded Congress to recognize the holiday in 1914, and who grew to resent the commercialism
of the day. So, this day isn't only for Hallmark. Mother's Day is for everyone, including those who may be unable to get through it without shedding a few tears.
Today I'm holding it all, sending my mom one of these fierce Mama's Day cards
from Strong Families, and also recognizing those working for a better world
for all mothers. Thank you for reading, and for your solidarity in holding the complexity of this day.
After spending some time putting the pen to the page, many writers learn about the power of subtlety. You learn that the most horrific truths are sometimes best approached delicately. It may feel, at first, like the gentle hand isn’t doing the subject justice, but at some point you realize the subtlety puts a spotlight on the horror in the way a direct address never could. You begin to see those moments when a small hint can offer more information than a grand gesture. When silence may speak louder than words.
And of course, it’s not just writers who learn about the power of subtlety. We can learn the same lessons from life off the page. Anyone who’s been put down by oppression knows that. There are plenty of examples of racism at its most extreme, with the most dire of consequences, but sometimes, it’s just the little things that let you know how others may perceive and misjudge you.
Have we come so far?
by Lauren Quock
When it’s the “little things” at play, sometimes the impact of racism is to leave a question in the air. When you’re aware of how subtle and pervasive racism can be, it can be more difficult to just dismiss the moments that are a little unsettling and point to the tragedies as the only remaining evidence that racism still exists. After all, encounters similar to the one between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin happen every day
. If their encounter had been like so many others, ending with an unwelcoming glare, a rude word, a muttering under the breath, we wouldn’t have heard about it on the national news, but still, it would be part of a certain type of culture. It’s a culture sustained by the subtleties on a daily basis, and punctuated by the tragic cases we then point to as horrific, disastrous, and isolated. But as Keli Goff points out
, Trayvon Martin’s death can remind us that profiling, and other such subtle forms of racism, are hardly harmless.
After my reading the other night, I had one of those experiences that leaves a question in the air. To be honest, I wanted to catch my breath and move on, know that I survived and save my energy for the big fights like justice for Trayvon, leaving the question as just a question without facing the possibilities of the truth. Then Oakland writer Roger Porter, who was also part the experience, wrote about it on his blog
, capturing the feeling of having that question on your mind. And there it was, facing me, in all of the complexity of the truth.
Of course, a writer knows that subtlety can be used for more than oppression. It can be used for quite the opposite. And that’s where I find the hope here. If racism can quietly make its way into our lives, then justice can, too. Sure, there are times when we have to make a thunderous noise to face the truth and call for change. But we don’t have to wait for the chance to do that to make a difference. We can imagine a world of true liberation, and consider what that would mean. Think of what freedom could mean, for everyone and everything, from the big changes, right down to the little things.
Last week we lost Adrienne Rich
, the lesbian poet, essayist, feminist who was unashamed of the inseparable ties between her personal life and her political perspective
. Adrienne Rich once refused to accept a National Book Award unless two of my other heroes, Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, joined her onstage to accept on behalf of all women (read their acceptance speech here
). She once declined the White House's offer of the National Medal of the Arts, writing in a letter
, "[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage."Since I found out she died, I've been trying to write a poem in homage to her. But looking back with those words in mind, it feels as if all of my work is in homage to her. I really believe I wouldn't be doing what I do without the influence of women like Rich, Walker and Lorde. When I write, I always feel like I'm taking a risk. And without the courage of these women leading the way, I probably wouldn't take the chance. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the honesty of anger, the kind of anger I felt when I wrote a poem for Trayvon Martin, the teenage boy who was killed because someone deemed his dark skin "suspicious."
I shared that poem at New Poetry Mission, and I'd like to share it with you now. Here's a video of my reading, brought to you by Litseen
. I'd like to thank Adrienne Rich for opening the doors wide enough for my anger to pass through. I'll be reading this and other poems tonight at MAPP, Mission Arts and Performance Project.
There will also be live music, theater, film screenings and more, with art and healing and transformation taking place all over San Francisco's Mission District. Check out the whole program here
, and the program for the event I'm a part of, Reflexiones, here
. This is for Trayvon.
Black woman in meditation
I’ve got this thing about anger. The thing being that I don’t like it. I absolutely hate being the target of it, which is normal I guess, but I really hate to feel it, too. It’s something I could work on. Accepting it as a natural feeling. Nothing wrong with getting mad.
My aversion to anger goes way back, to when I learned that being a good girl means being a nice and gentle person, and that anger often stems from misunderstanding and ends in regret. It also goes deep, to what it means to be an angry black woman, to embody an image that's part of both a negative stereotype
and a painful truth.
So I also tend to avoid expressing anger. I don't like to speak out of anger, for fear that I'll say something I regret, something I can't take back, hurt someone who doesn't deserve it, make someone feel guilty for something they can do nothing about.
But sometimes there is anger that I couldn't avoid, even if I tried. And it's moments like these when I remember that getting mad can be good for something.
Last night, I attended New Poetry Mission, returning to the local literary scene after a few months' absence. There were a few things that drew me back - wanting to reconnect with folks like host Sam Sax, for instance, and wanting to hear some good poetry, which certainly happened when feature Sean Patrick Mulroy
(among others) blew me away with his work.
But mostly, I wanted to go because I'd written a poem I wanted to read at the open mic. I wanted to read it, for Trayvon Martin. And I needed to read it. For the sake of expressing my own anger.
The poem was what I'd call "raw" - just finished, still rough around the edges, nothing I'd consider submitting for publication or sharing with a writing group for critique. It's not what I'd call evidence of my skill or the mastering of my craft. But it's full of my anger
. Anger that's honest, without censorship or hesitation. In a way, that means it's the best I've got.
This is the truth I cannot hide: when I look at the facts of Trayvon's murder
, I get really, really mad. It feels like the kind of anger I'd want to tuck deep inside of a place that would never see the light of day, but it's all over that poem I wrote, and rather than hiding it, I released it into the world. I can't quite say that it felt good, because it felt terrifying, like it was coming from a sad, nearly hopeless place inside of me, but it felt right.
My reading last night reminded me that anger has its place. For me, that place is in injustice. I am angry for Trayvon, and for everyone who could be in his place
. I couldn't, and wouldn't, have it any other way.