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. http://www.bpj.org/index/V02N1.html]
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. http://www.lesbianpoetryarchive.org/node/268
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) http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178275
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. http://www.mediabistro.com/portfolios/samples_files/21804_sQriMkoM5p9sJ4kNCRjH70azM.pdf
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. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/blog/2011/nov/23/occupy-wall-street-peoples-library
Even now, the Occupy Wall Street People’s Library continues the fighting work of poetry with an ongoing, ever-expanding poetry anthology. http://peopleslibrary.wordpress.com/2012/02/16/1913/
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. http://www.librotraficante.com/
Poetry and the unfinished work of liberation
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.