Political poetry does not ask permission

While television, advertisements and other manicured media project a shiny, plastic vision of the world, poetry captures harsh oppressive realities without censorship.

Andrea Abi-Karam
2 October 2013


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.’”

In her 2003 collection What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, Adrienne Rich puts forward the idea that poetry is not a desirable commodity in the United States and that it therefore occupies a space, however small, of unregulated voice. She writes: “Precisely because in this nation, created in the search for wealth, [poetry] eludes capitalist marketing, commoditizing, price-fixing – poetry has simply been set aside, depreciated, denied public space.”

While television, advertisements and other manicured media project a shiny, plastic vision of the world, poetry captures harsh oppressive realities without censorship. “By speaking to the unrest of this world not being a truly equal society,” Johnson says, “political poets do have a pretty strong voice in terms of honesty and realness and being able to challenge things that are sometimes terrifying to challenge: the big systems.”

Jacqueline Frost, also a Bay Area poet, adds that poetry, as a form of realism to dispel the weak satisfaction of the status quo is “composed, generically speaking, of all these tiny tragedies that are always happening to everyone because the world is so fucked up.”

If we think about all of the misinformation that is produced by corporate-controlled mass media, poetry, as Johnson says, is a permeating, honest voice that explicates peoples’ tragedies. The political power here lies in the realism, the kind of storytelling poetry that emerges from struggle.

Although one cannot place value on the experiences that often become poetry, the craft’s position outside the sales racks leads it to suffer from lack of visibility in public space. “There’s a deletion of the word going on in public space – the maximization of the image and the minimization of text,” says Jacqueline Frost. Television, advertisements, and mass-produced media overwhelmingly dominate public space in the USA, while poetry is limited to bookshelves, readings, and the academy.

Poet and activist Wendy Trevino suggests that this unique position allows poetry to address political subjects openly: “I think one of the cool things about poetry is that it doesn’t get much attention, so sometimes people can say more in poems than they might be able to quote, say or do in other forms of art.”

Poetry may not hold much clout in the capitalist arena, but it is invaluable for creativeness and connectedness within the activist community. On an individual level, says Frost, creative expression has an “ameliorative or medicinal purpose for the individual mind; it’s healing in its own capacity, it’s an outlet for one’s own aggression or resentment.” It’s also cathartic to imagine a world not bound by oppression, but rather by the strength of community and love. People share their work and realize that they are not alone in their experience, that the personal is political. “We pass around things to each other; it’s a way that we bond with each other. It’s nice to know that people think about the same things that you think about. It can be glue, you know,” adds Trevino.

Beyond a mode of sharing experience, poetry has taken center stage at certain political actions during Occupy Oakland. Poetry readings became celebrations after direct actions. The community solidarity that developed through risk taking and marching in the streets bridges all sorts of artistic fields: it brings people together.

“During the occupations [in Oakland] when there would be a building occupied or a library or some space taken or some squat opened, there would be a poetry reading,” Frost explains. “Really randomly, it was always something everyone engaged with, it was in the meat of what was possible in those moments. To occupy an abandoned library in East Oakland, and then cheer for the poetry reading is pretty funny,” she says. A curated reading would not have created the same sense of solidarity as a spontaneous and often illegal poetry reading.

We know that poetry can be powerful, but how can we keep it accessible? In the era of hyper-individualization, the pressure to sell yourself as having unique expertise has resulted in inaccessibility to the field of poetry, since it is limited to those with educational privilege.

Frost believes that while poetry as an art may not generate significant monetary capital, it certainly thrives on social capital of the kind that “accumulates around certain people, meaning white men.” She goes on: “That kind of radically transformative language is not going to come from specialists, people who presently regard themselves as having a certain property of poetry […] all of the academics, and most of the overeducated white people.” The problem with exclusivity in an art form that aims to spread realism and political messages is that both the writers and the audiences are limited. Poetry already has a difficult enough time inhabiting public space; it should not be walled up in the ivory tower.

Once we realize that we can open up poetry beyond academia, more people can use it to share their experiences and ideas on how to transform the world. “I think my point is that, as people who identify with poetry, we really need to question whether our relationship is a proprietary one, and if that relationship comes at the exclusion of other people having access to poetry, access to transmitting or receiving transformative communications from each other,” says Frost.

How can we resist this specialization that takes people away from political organizing? If we want to create a revolutionary discourse, it should be based on our real experiences. “I guess my hope for poetry is to destroy the Poet. I would like for there to be no specialization” Trevino said, “the Poet is a specialized person, they typically have this particular kind of education, they do this one thing, and there are all these people that write poems and do more than just one thing.” Once we move beyond the idea that a Poet must have a particular kind of education, we can realize the entire population of poets who are dismissed for not having this education and expand the scope of our audience.

“I think there are a lot of people on the streets writing poetry and those poems are often not paid attention to, because […] the Poet is the one teaching in the university and getting attention in the press or whatever,” Trevino says. “I wish it was more people writing poems, and not just Poets.”

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