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Poetry and Injustice

This week we pulled over from our regularly-scheduled program of. . .whatever it was I was gonna teach–maybe it was the villanelle form; anyway–we got off track in order to discuss the United States’ president’s decision to end the DACA program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). The basics: DACA promised the children of immigrants two things: 1. Since they were kids, they wouldn’t be deported and 2. they could get a college education. It was also called the Dream Act. This new president of ours killed it.

Instead of going into the D.C. politics, I prefer to begin at home: many of my students are hit by the president’s ending DACA. Some of them are Dreamers; others are relatives. Here’s a scenario to consider: On a Tuesday, María, who moved with her parents to the States when she was one year old, is taking notes in class for a physics exam. On Thursday she’s not in class, because on Wednesday ICE broke down her door and deported her to a country’s she’s never lived in. 

This rouses the rage–good. We live in a time when our rage should take the helm.

My students are pissed off. And they want to write about it; in moments of crisis–personal, communal–some of us are driven to write about it.

Let’s say I begin writing out of  rage, a good place to start. But anger, if it’s the dominant force behind the composition of a poem, might train-wreck it. It has to become more than just all-out pissed-off-ness. It has to become something intimate; ultimately, I think, for a protest poem to really work, the writer should find herself within the poem.

This brings more complexity to the verse. Instead of starting with “It pisses me off, what that bastard’s doing to my neighbor!” one might begin with an image: the speaker’s standing at the door of her run-down apartment, watching a Migra officer take her neighbor away; there’s María, from physics class, kicking, clawing cursing and begging, as the man in black clothes and midnight-iron glocks drags her down the sidewalk.

Protest. That’s what we’re talking about here. We’re living in a wronged time, and for me to go merrily along teaching you all about the aesthetics of an Elizabeth Bishop poem, without taking on what’s happening in our world today–No. We must not turn away. Especially in a liberal arts college, where we take on the world.

“A riot is the language of the Unheard.” You’re damn right, Reverend Martin Luther King. People can take only so much. This isn’t politics we’re talking about anymore, when overpaid political pundits on FOX & CNN tell us how we should think. We are now in a time of blood and screams. ICE breaks down doors now. Anyone brown is suspect. And all this is now sanctioned by the U.S. Government. Racism is legal.

Riots are loud. And, from time to time, out of the clamor for justice, a poem will rise.

You’re now writing your own protest poem. It doesn’t have to be about DACA; there’s a whole smorgasbord of evils happening today. Take the one that rouses in you the need to cry out; then take the blunt, primal reaction–rage, sadness, loss, helplessness, the will to fight–and work it through what we’re always talking about: aesthetics. The artistic endeavor to create something, yes, beautiful–a beauty that will prick at the reader’s mind, for the rest of the reader’s life.

If you speak more than one language, and wish to use it in your poetry–yes, of course! Because, at our school, most of you do. That’s yet another reason why you’re so powerful–a force to reckon with.



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