Saturday, February 25, 2012

Minnie Bruce Pratt on The Unfinished Work of Poetry

As part of my continuing self-education as a political poet who is learning and working on my art within currents of the U.S. Left, I’ve been reading Cary Nelson’s Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left (Rutgers, 2003).

Nelson uncovers, shares, and comments on Left poets who wrote about the U.S. Depression and economic crisis in the 1920s and 30s, about the anti-fascist struggle in Spain in the 30s, about the right-wing attacks of McCarthyism in the U.S. in the 50s.

I’m hoping that the following anecdote from Nelson—and some thoughts on my own practice of poetry—could encourage readers of the Beloit Poetry Journal to share important insights from your own lives as writers and readers .

Here is an excerpt from an October 1937 letter by Fred Lutz, a volunteer in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, a U.S. fighting unit in the International Brigades that came to Spain to defend the elected government against Franco’s fascist military campaign:

Heard Langston Hughes last night; he spoke at one of our nearby units—the Autoparque, which means the place where our Brigade trucks and cars are kept and repaired. It was a most astonishing meeting; he read a number of his poems; explained what he had in mind when he wrote each particular poem and asked for criticism. I thought to myself before the thing started “Good God how will anything like poetry go off with these hard-boiled chauffeurs and mechanics, and what sort of criticism can they offer”? Well it astonished me as I said. The most remarkable speeches on the subject of poetry were made by the comrades. And some said that they had never liked poetry before and had scorned the people who read it and wrote it but they had been moved by Hughes’s reading. There was talk of “Love” and “Hate” and “Tears”; everyone was deeply affected and seemed to bare his heart at the meeting, and the most reticent . . . spoke of their innermost feelings. I suppose it was because the life of a soldier in wartime is so unnatural and emotionally starved that they were moved the way they were. (Nelson, 197)

Nelson says particularly of the poets who wrote to build support for the anti-fascist Spanish Republic that “they were not responding to the war; they were part of it.” (190)
[You can see Hughes’ translation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Romancero Gitano in the fall 1951 issue of the Beloit Poetry Journal. Garcia Lorca, a Spanish poet sympathetic to the Popular Front, who was also gay, was murdered, presumably by fascist militia, in 1936.

Poetry as an active force

Under what circumstances, with which audiences, as a result of what conversations, with what languages, in relation to what political events—do we write a poetry that is not simply a response to liberation, but instead is an active force in the process of liberation?
I began to write seriously as a poet after I came out and began to live openly as a lesbian, in North Carolina in 1975. This was a time in that state when the right-wing was violently racist, often under the aegis of the state, a de facto continuation of the fascism of segregation.
In 1979, the Klan shot and killed five white and Black communists, who were demonstrating against racism, in broad daylight in Greensboro—and were acquitted in a jury trial. My Black students had direct experience of Klan assaults on their homes and families. A coalition of left, community, and women’s liberation groups organized successfully to free Joann Little, who had killed her white jailer in self-defense when he attempted to rape her.
As a white woman committed to anti-racist action, I struggled to create poems that would do that anti-racist work in the world—poems like “The Segregated Heart” in my first chapbook, The Sound of One Fork.
The right-wing—and the mainstream where I lived—was also virulently homophobic. This was the state where I lost custody of my children simply because I was a lesbian. Much of my work at that time was about my sexuality, and I read the poetry, sometimes alone, sometimes with other women, in women’s bookstores, coffee houses and cultural centers; at regional and national women’s studies conferences; at a conference on violence against women, at a lesbian writers’ conference, at an abortion clinic, at a rally against rape; at a MCC church and in an Odd Fellows Hall; in the homes of lesbians, and many, many other places.
I was making and reading my poetry in the middle of a historic fight for sex, gender and sexual liberation, where the outcome was a matter of life and death for many, if not all, of us. 
These readings were taking place during a time when it was still a felony crime to physically love another person of the “same sex”—and many of us lost our children, our jobs, our birth families, our friends, our homes, and sometimes our lives, because of the hatred and bigotry toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.
The readings were often crowded, sometimes standing room only; they were attended by working-class women, mostly white women, who were factory workers, social workers, taxi drivers, stay-at-home mothers. These were movement events, organized by and for local lesbian and women’s liberation communities in Tennessee or Florida or Oregon or upstate New York.
Often at the end of a reading, women would come up to me and say they’d never been to a poetry reading before, but they’d enjoyed this one. And then sometimes they told me their stories. One poem I made from these conversations is “All the Women Caught in Flaring Light.” (Crime Against Nature, 1989)
Poetry as the “language of history”
Nelson says of the poetry of the revolutionary U.S. Left that “Poetry was the language of history and the story of ordinary lives” (243). During the 1970s and 80s I tried to craft a poetry that could wield the stories of ordinary lives as the language of history, as an active force in history.
Over the last ten years, I have worked on a different series of poems, which culminated in a book, Inside the Money Machine (Carolina Wren, 2011). The “machine,” of course, is 21st-century capitalism. My intention was to create poems that revealed that complex economic structure, its implications, and the possibility for resistance and change, and to do so through the stories and observed details of working-class lives.
I wrote the poems for  the “immense majority”—of which I am a part—by going out into my neighborhood and its streets and storefronts and 24/7 delis and beauty salons, and listening and noticing other working people. I wrote the poems about the economic realities of their lives—and my own life—being laid off, trying to find work, holding temporary jobs, living away from my home and my loved partner.
I wrote during an intensification of class war—the war waged by the owning class on working people. I wrote during the worst economic bust the U.S. has experienced since the 1930s—an economic catastrophe that has been world-wide. I started writing these poems at the same time I was reading the poetic prose of the Communist Manifesto for the first time. I said to myself: If the economists can write poetry, what would happen if a poet wrote economics?
This is one of the poems from Inside the Money Machine:
“The Street of Broken Dreams”

The dog lunged at me and choked on its chain,
guarding a house on the street of broken dreams.
What does it take to be safe? A sun-porch window
barred shut with a wood-spooled bed frame. Fradon
lock store down the block, a giant curlicue key
advertising sleep all night, sweet dreams. A bumble-
bee in the clover fumbling to find its damp-dirt home.

No way to tell who owns my neighborhood homes
until the for-sale-by-bank signs grow overnight,
and of course there’s the bank at James and Lodi
with the blue light, CHASE, that stays on 24/7.
On my street some people harrow a vacant lot,
green turned under into small rows, they harvest
weathered rocks and pile those up in the corner.
In another city, some foreclosed  people got so angry
the big finance company has to hide its sign, AIG.
The people were so angry. That makes me feel more
safe. The people come out of their houses to shout:

We demand. Not rabble or rabid, not shadow, not terror,
the neighbors stand and say: The world is ours, ours, ours.
Poetry and the current historical moment
I was writing to make a poetry that could take its place in the struggle that is always there. In 2011 the Occupy movement surged and called the “1%” to account—the 1% that claims as private property the productive mechanisms of the world.
Now the Occupies have been attacked, brutally, with teargas, mace, rubber bullets and truncheons, by the state. The movement has not yet been able to hold onto continuous public space as a place for mass organizing and discussion about how to struggle against and replace an economic system that is mounting endless imperialist wars and environmental catastrophes, that is killing us and the planet.
But, despite these attacks, the organizing initiated by the Occupies continues vigorously, in the U.S. and worldwide, and is linking up with other movements that were already in motion.
While the uninterrupted Occupy space was open, we know that poetry as “the language of history” was at the heart of the struggle—the witty and pithy slogans on hand-held signs, the poetry shouted at police as they moved in, seized, and trashed the 5000 books in the OWS Library.
Even now, the Occupy Wall Street People’s Library continues the fighting work of poetry with an ongoing, ever-expanding poetry anthology.
The OWS Library, together with Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, the May 1st Coalition for Immigrant Rights and many other groups, are sponsoring a LibroTraficante solidarity action to resist the racist Arizona ban on Latin@ and Chican@ culture in the state public schools. Banned books include Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and left feminist Elizabeth (Betita) Martinez’s 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures.
The LibroTraficante caravan will carry copies of the banned books from Texas across the Arizona border to set up Underground Libraries.

Poetry and the unfinished work of liberation
Now, in this month’s forum, the Beloit Poetry Journal gives us the space and the chance to have a conversation about the actions of poetry in our lives.
I’m hoping that you as readers and poets will share some of your experiences:
Would you write to share with readers of BPJ about times when you felt poetry—yours or that of others—was be an active force in the process of liberation?
Is there a moment when you’ve experienced poetry connecting you and others to the progressive struggles closest to your heart?
What are the gatherings, translations, caravans, anthologies, political actions, web sites that you want to make known to other poets—places where poetry is in motion toward a better world?
Would you describe the places where you have held and handed poetry on to others—as a tool, a weapon, a force, in the struggle against oppression and for justice?
Would you write to us about when poetry has not just spoken, but acted, in the unfinished work of a moment in your history?
I look forward hopefully to our conversation.


  1. So moved by your life and your writings...Have checked back daily to read responses only to find 0 comments... Don't understand...

    So here goes: February 16, 2003, First Congregational Church, Manchester, Vermont, "A Poetry Reading in Honor of the Right to Protest as a Patriotic and Historical Tradition," 500 - 650 people packed the church to listen to nine poets read works by Hughes, Whitman, Dickinson. Sam Hamill had started Poets Against the War and others followed. Solidarity and passion through poetry. Incredible.

    1. Thanks so much for this reminder of how poets rallied against the (Second) War on Iraq. I remember marching with thousands up Capitol Hill in late September 2011, chanting "War is not the answer--we are the answer" and then speaking to some of the crowd from the back of a pick-up truck--but--it took longer for poems to come to me about that war. Thank goodness for the work of other poets at moments like that--

  2. Thanks, Minnie Bruce, for this great post. I find poetry from the early Women's Liberation Movement a source of poetry that is an active force in the quest for liberation. Particularly, work that has now fallen out of print. I think some of the most challenging work at the time has struggled to find its way into a literary canon--even a literary canon of feminist poetry.

    In a contemporary context, I am constantly inspired by the work of the many folks at Split This Rock in Washington, DC, especially Sarah Browning, to make poetry a relevant and vital political force. Folks can check out their work--and the upcoming conference at

    Finally, given some of the work I have been doing today, I think that poetry and a variety of written expressions are vital to men and women in prison. Over the years I have known a number of people who have run programs to provide books and magazines to prisoners and I have always admired their work and their commitments. Given the increase in the number of people in prison and the way that it disproportionately affects communities of color, I think that this is a vital site for poetry to be written and distributed.

    Looking forward to more conversation!


    1. Hey, Julie--Your comments made me think of Nazim Hikmet--and his long poem "Human Landscapes"--much of it composed during his incarceration as a political prisoner in his native Turkey. He composed at night, memorized his lines--and then recited them the next day to his fellow prisoners, who were from all over the country--so that they could tell him if he had "gotten the poem right"--gotten the details of the landscape, the people, the villages, the work, the loves. I am always struck by how non-didactic, non-polemical that poem is--how even from within prison, as a political prisoner--Hikmet was working to show the most complex inter-relations of the material life of his country.

  3. The truth is, I'm not a political activist. I don't seem to be able to join, let alone lead, organizations. The only groups I do well in are classes and workshops. I beat my breast about this. A lot. I believe the work of tikkun olam, mending the world, is a job for poets. Poets can diagnose social and political pathologies more beautifully than anyone else can. And some poets know how to be out there rousing others to act. To change. I don't know how to do that. But I have been writing political poetry all my life. About the realities of pregnancy and childbirth. About motherhood. About rape. About breast cancer. About freedom. About war. About God. About the human inclination to burn other people alive. About Israel. About what it is to be a Jew. I tend to write as a means to understand things in the world and in myself --things i don't understand. Or things I partially understand and want to "go deeper," as Rukeyser says. My hope is always that my poems enable readers and audiences to see and to feel more deeply. I'm trying to remember a quote--what poet says something like "The facts of this world seen truly are seen through tears"? I want my audience to feel this. But also to want to emulate Rukeyser's "daring to live for the impossible." Which may or may not ultimately result in political change.

    Here is a poem about Israel:


    The darkness doesn’t war against the light,
    It carries us forward
    to another light….

    In my land, called holy,
    they won’t let eternity be:
    they’ve divided it into little religions,
    zoned it for God-zones,
    broken it into fragments of history,
    sharp and wounding unto death.
    -Yehuda Amichai

    -for Linda Zisquit

    And so beautiful it hurts the bones, especially Jerusalem
    With the lustre of her stones, the hurt in her eyes,
    And our hope for her children: a triangle,

    Beauty, despair, hope…the whole mishpochah
    Pulling three ways at the same time
    Like the people in so many families,

    Fighting yet joined at the hip, or call it a sandwich,
    Despair the filling embraced by the bread of beauty and hope,
    Like a manna we eat every day, sent from above…

    While on earth in Jerusalem my friend’s husband and her son
    Relax after a sabbath meal, like well-fed cats,
    Happily slumped watching the aftermath

    Of a game where the Nazareth team has just won
    and vaulted from the bottom of their league
    To the top, the players have stripped off their shirts,

    Hugging and dancing, circle dancing, belly dancing,
    Waving at the crowds in the stands to make them cheer louder.
    The coach strips his shirt from his hairy barrel chest

    Climbs a wire fence, wobbles and waves his hips.
    When someone asks how he feels about his team
    (A mix of Jews, Moslems, and one Nigerian,

    He himself is Druze), he punches the air
    And roars, “I beat them all! I beat Arafat! I beat Sharon!
    I show them we love each other!” We watch a while,

    The celebration is still going on when we quit
    To go back to the kitchen, where loaves of beauty and hope
    Stand on the counter and the cup of despair goes on the shelf.

    My friend and I, we don’t ask for much, we read Amichai,
    We’re not messsianic, we don’t expect utopia, which is anyway
    Another name for a smiling prison,

    But love is a good idea, we think, why on earth not.
    Simple women that we are, simple mothers cleaning up
    The kitchen after one meal to make it ready for the next.

    1. Thank you, Alicia, for this poem that moves "the cup of despair" onto the shelf--that performs that action in the poem and in the reader--

  4. I was raised on political poetry, read aloud by my parents: Neruda, Hikmet, Brecht, and have written a lot of it myself. I have much more to say about it than I have energy for at present, but want to share a couple of stories.

    I was at a writing residency at Norcroft in Minnesota on 9/11. That day two of us drove into town and experienced some of the reactions of local people, many of which made me furious. The next morning I woke up with the first lines of a poem in my head, and wrote for hours. The result was a 2400 word poem, very loosely based on the Jewish prayer, the Sh'ma,in which I called for an awakening to the consequences of US perpetrated global exploitation and violence, but also invoked our integrity and resilience. The poem went viral, circulating the internet, repeatedly broadcast on Pacifica Radio and read at anti-war demonstrations all over the US.

    As a result, I got a paid job for several months composing poetic commentaries on the news for Pacifica's Flashpoints news magazine. My title was Poet On Assignment. I had to record a couple of poems a week, so I didn't have the luxury of polishing to perfection. It was quick and dirty writing, in which I scanned the news headlines and looked for ways to make the heart-numbing horrors become personal enough for listeners to feel something. I combed the internet for small details that would make the news feel real. For instance, as the US military geared up to start bombing Baghdad, I found an item about pregnant women arriving en masse at Baghdad hospitals, asking doctors to induce labor so they wouldn't have to leave their homes in the middle of a raid. I wrote Baghdad Birthday, imagining children asking why they all had the same birthday,and celebrating the power of the birth process continuing, of a people persisting. The response to the series was overwhelming. People called in to say they had been driving and had to pull over to cry, and asked for frequent rebroadcasts. Poetry allowed them to respond deeply to the terrible events and feel less alone with them. I was at a medical appointment and a Middle Eastern doctor recognized my name and threw his arms around me. I got to experience in a concentrated way what I've known most of my life, that art penetrates the shields of consciousness and allows connection and compassion, outrage and love where we have been bludgeoned into an anesthetic state.

    The other story is about the Cuban Five, five Cuban citizens who infiltrated Miami based Cuban paramilitary groups that were actively planning and carrying out attacks on Cuban civilians in Cuba. Instead of the Us government arresting these thugs, they arrested the men trying to stop them, and they are serving long prison sentences on trumped up charges, and two of them are denied the right to be visited by their wives. While in Cuba for medical care in 1009, I learned a lot more about their case,and how passionately Cubans feel about these five people they consider heroes. A poem began growing in me, starting from "imagine your brother, your lover, your neighbor, your cousin, your friend," trying to make these men human to a propagandized US audience. The poem I eventually wrote initiated my ongoing correspondence with the Five, and has been read at many events to raise awareness and money for their defense. Again, it was poetry's ability to make political events into powerful personal experiences that made that poem so useful. So this is to say that much as I adore the careful crafting over time, the polishing of nuance, the organic growth of a poem, the urgent, roughly hewn, quickly responsive work has its own joys.

    Shema is too long to post here so I'm including a link to the web page I have it on:

    1. Aurora--I've delayed answering because I was travelling to Split This Rock--but now am home. Because I've just heard of Adrienne's death, I'm particularly glad you posted here the chronicle of how intertwined poetry can be with the workings of history--including the continuing struggle to free political prisoners such as the Cuban Five. I hope BPJ readers will follow the link to "Shema" and that readers will also read the moving book of poetry that you and your mother Rosario Morales created together, "Getting Home Alive" as well as (and especially) your "Remedios: Stories of Earth and Iron from the History of Puertoriquenas." I know that you have given your life to the struggle for justice, through the political work of art--from your earliest teen-age years! Your joining the forum with these comments inspires all of us to go forward in that struggle--

  5. Suzanne GardinierMarch 13, 2012 at 9:20 PM

    dear Minnie Bruce & all, Such a joy to read your conversation, thank you for it. Your phrase "Poetry and the unfinished work of liberation" has been ringing in my mind all day. It's making me think of how my ideas about what a poet is were formed in a way usual in most other countries but less usual in this one: by poets who saw and see their work as inextricable from addressing injustice in social life. I was lucky enough to come up in what Jan Clausen called A Movement of Poets, in the late 1970s & early 1980s; the first poetry reading I ever attended was at Sanders Theater at Harvard, packed to the rafters to hear Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich. I was seventeen years old and assumed that that's what it meant to be a poet, that that's what a poet was.

    That reading was so powerful in part because of the ways everyone in the room was struggling to locate and claim despised identities, to repossess those powers and somehow fold them into the stream of the possible, to try to alter the suicidal course our world seemed bent on. But/and your words also make me think of another poet who approached this terrible challenge from a slightly different angle, who seemed almost translucent when I shook his hand in a crowded downstairs restaurant in Ramallah five years before he died: Mahmoud Darwish. He was someone who knew 'identity' as both ground-note and prison--someone who insisted on using language not only to make direct, provocative social statements but also to try to find a place beyond statement, beyond identity, that place we get glimpses of at street demonstrations, in love, beyond all horror and injustice, what is it? 'Farther' was one of his favorite words. The people who came to his readings came to hear his early direct poems but also to hear the sound of his voice ("Every subject is an alibi," he said, an excuse to sing), looking for a world beyond this one, a world his words brought nearer--maybe a world his words helped begin to make, which for me is what poetry does and is.

    1. Muriel Rukeyser said, in "The Life of Poetry": "The only danger is not going far enough." I thought of that when you said that one of the favorite words of Mahmoud Darwish was "farther." In my own struggle to go "far enough" as a political poet, I am challenged to create the poem as a place where the readers can go with me, not just to the heightened awareness of something otherwise numbingly familiar, but to a new, "farther" place created by the "argument" of the poem, the back-and-forth between what-is and what-is-longed-for. As I write this, I'm thinking of Adrienne Rich, how she made her statement about the function of poetry as a political act by refusing the National Medal of Arts (from Pres. Clinton) by saying: "Art means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.”

  6. I love the idea of "poetry as a tool" and I suppose I don't look backwards to see where and when that did happen (although that's very helpful) but I'm so frustrated that we ever stopped using poetry as a tool.

    Poets should be demanding to be present- why aren't there poets on Saturday Night Live every week? Why aren't poets on CNN discussing the language of the housing crisis? Why aren't poets being taken to the bottom of the sea instead of filmmakers? WHy aren't poets judges on Iron Chef?

    This is what I want and I want it because it is the work of poetry- to see itno; to travel in, out, beyond and to return; to tell, talk, and write of what we see; to voice what we have the privilege of voicing. While some of that would be overtly political work, much of it would be work of angle, interpretation, and translation. That's political work as well, albeit on a different level.

    My question is why did we as poets ever give it up? Why don't we demand it back? Why do rock stars and chefs and filmmakers claim that now?

    1. Hey there, Tanya! And what a great riff on all the places poets could be working. But I'd have to add this--which is some of what I said in the BPJ Poets' Forum at Split This Rock--if poetry is a tool, then like all tools it is "double-edged"--a knife can kill, a knife can cut the ropes that hold someone captive. So, if poets were on CNN, for instance, commenting on the economic crisis, we can't assume that all the poets would be taking the same political (or economic) position. I think one of the answers to your question about why poets aren't in public venues is that the poets that accept the status quo don't need to be there--they simply endorse the system-as-is by not challenging or questioning power in their poems. The poets that challenge the system-as-is aren't going to be asked to talk on CNN, any more than the leaders of street demonstrations against home foreclosures usually make it to CNN. Every once in a while, those in power make a mistake and do invite politically critical poets to show up--as Laura Bush did with her plans for a White House poetry program at the height of the U.S. war on Iraq--and then the critical, political poetry in opposition briefly has a moment to step into the public spotlight, as did Sam Hamill and the Poets Against the War, organized as an answer to the Laura Bush evening. And again, when Pres. Clinton offered Adrienne Rich a National Medal for the Arts, she was able to make her political position clear in her refusal, saying: "Art means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.” The invitations to speak on CNN don't usually come when one's position of political opposition is clear and known!

  7. Dear Minnie Bruce Pratt, Your "Someone is Up" is poignant almost beyond comment. It captures the present reality better than anything I've ever read. With respect, D. E. Steward

    1. Thank you, D.E. Stewart. I wrote this poem on one of my daily morning walks, going across James St. from my apartment and walking through Rose Hill Cemetery, where many fighters for the abolition of slavery are buried, and also many poor people, buried with no marker in the 19th century. I think of all those lives when I walk there, and of course of Frederick Douglass, who said "Without struggle, there is no progress."