by Sarah Browning
Like many white, middle-class poets coming of age in the early-to-mid-1980s, I was told by my poetry teacher not to write political poems: “The poet must love language above all else.” He liked my poems about families, about fathers’ ambivalent feelings about fatherhood. When later that semester I heard him read a whole series about his own father’s ambivalent feelings about fatherhood, I should have been tipped off to the unfortunate truth that poets too often try to refashion their students in own images. Instead, I was chastened.
I grasped the absolute necessity of creative expression
But I couldn’t seem to stop writing political poems. I had been raised in a political household – one that also deeply loved language – at a very political time, the late 60s/early 70s, in a very political place, the South Side of Chicago. My father was an English professor and a political activist. My mother and grandmother were both poets. Two of my earliest memories are marching down State Street with my father, protesting the Vietnam War, and playing hide-and-seek with my friend, Jill, at a teach-in, tumbling over the legs of stoned and outraged hippies sprawled on the floor. At age nine, I sold bumper stickers for McGovern outside the A&P – my first presidential campaign.
But just a decade later – because I didn’t have the fortitude to ignore the poetry mainstream, or because I didn’t believe that my own voice was important, or because I was unfamiliar with my poetic heritage of over a century of American socially engaged poetry (Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Muriel Rukeyser, and many, many more) – I drank the Kool-Aid. If political poetry wasn’t Real Poetry but was merely propaganda, as the voices I had internalized whispered to me, then what I was writing, what pounded up from inside of me, couldn’t possibly be Real Poetry. And I couldn’t hope to succeed as a Real Poet. So why bother?
I expect none of this was conscious, but the diktats were everywhere in the literary world at that time: the “better” literary magazines didn’t publish anything that engaged the wider world. The poets, the ones I would later come to treasure, who did grapple with the central questions of our time – how to live a moral life in a society of striking inequality, one bent on environmental destruction and a murderous foreign policy – weren’t the poets who received the prizes, the laureateships, the positions of prominence and visibility that would bring their work to a wide audience, to me.
Forgetting the Bread and Roses
So I quit writing. I became an organizer, first in public housing and then for a statewide multi-issue progressive organization, both in Boston. Both groups were filled with heroes of the progressive movement, dedicated folks deeply committed to making a difference in the world.
But I believe that somewhere along the line, the progressive movement lost its way. I believe we forgot a crucial ingredient in the recipe of social change: we forgot culture; we forgot our hearts. “Hearts starve as well as bodies,” says James Oppenheimer’s great poem honoring the Lawrence, MA, textile workers – mostly immigrant women – who struck for the eight-hour day in the Bread & Roses strikes of 1912. (I should say that here I’m speaking mostly of the white left. From the Chicano Art Movement to the Freedom Singers to the Black Arts Movement, communities of color have always put art and culture at the center of their strategies for social change.)
Working 60, 70, 80 hours every week – sitting through endless strategy meetings, picketing banks and gas stations, lobbying legislators, writing press releases, raising money – my heart was starving. We had victories along the way, but they were small, as such victories often are. Raised in the shadow of the great victories of the 60s and 70s – ending de jure segregation, stopping the Vietnam War – I had no understanding of the usual pace of change, that, as Dr. King tells us, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
As activists, we need to find ways to sustain ourselves when times are tough – and times are always tough for those on the side of the oppressed. We need hope, inspiration, vision. We need art. We need poetry. Without it, it’s far too easy to succumb to despair. We burn out. And we lose sight of what is possible, of that other world that Arundhati Roy hears breathing, on a quiet day.
That is exactly what happened to me. When my partner Tom wanted to go to graduate school, I convinced him to choose the University of Massachusetts Amherst so we could escape to the country. I truly couldn’t figure out another way to fix my life. I felt like I was running away, and I feel ridiculously overdramatic writing this, but I thought that if I didn’t physically remove myself from the life of activism I was living, if I didn’t figure out a way to put writing back at the center of my life, I would die.
Once we arrived in the absurdly beautiful small town of Montague, MA, I was crippled by fear. It took me weeks and weeks to screw up my courage, but finally I made a phone call to a group offering writing workshops that had been recommended to me by a friend, Amherst Writers & Artists. A few days later I was lucky to find myself in a workshop led by the brilliant poet and teacher Pat Schneider, who freed my voice after all those years by committing the not-so-simple act of giving me permission to write whatever was important to me to write, whatever was beating at my brain to be written.
New language to challenge and disrupt the corrupted language of political classes
Later, I was privileged to work with Pat building on her visionary work leading creative writing workshops with low-income women and children. Sitting with those women as they wrote out their anger, their isolation, the violence in their homes and on their streets, their courage and their resistance, I grasped for the first time the revolutionary power of poetry, the absolute necessity of creative expression for the liberation of every soul.
My luck continues. I now work full time (but not 80 hours per week) bringing socially engaged poetry back to the center of public life, where it belongs. Organizing first DC Poets Against the War and now a national organization, Split This Rock (named for a line from Langston Hughes), I am witness to – and help promote – a great flowering of American poetry of conscience. Poets of all ages, ethnicities, social classes, genders, sexual orientations, and physical abilities; poets from all over the country; poets who write in the greatest diversity of poetic styles imaginable – all these poets are giving us new language to challenge and disrupt the defeated, corrupted language of the political classes. These poets are naming the myriad injustices of our broken world, bringing them to our attention with compelling and vivid imagery and word play and metaphor.
Perhaps most importantly, moreover, they are imagining that other world, the one in which “the air [is] thick with confetti/from all the shredded fear laws” (Margit Berman, The Day Obama Decided) and love makes you “forget each/last defense, the guns rusting along the beach (Holly Karapetkova, Love and the National Defense). The poets, in all their crazy variety, help me every day prove Adrienne Rich’s assertion that “when poetry lays its hand on our shoulder we are, to an almost physical degree, touched and moved. The imagination’s roads open before us, giving the lie to that brute dictum, ‘There is no alternative.'”
I still burn out some times. And I still feel despair. But the poetry brings me back to the barricades, as it has countless others we’ve reached in the past eight years. As one dedicated, hard-working activist wrote me after a Split This Rock reading, “If I hadn’t gone last night, despite the tired bones and the drear rain… I know I would be not be starting this weekend with a hopeful and feisty heart.” Precisely what our activism needs now, more than ever, countless hopeful and feisty hearts.
Sarah Browning is director of Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness and DC Poets Against the War, and is the Poetry Co-Editor of On The Issues Magazine. She is the author of Whiskey in the Garden of Eden (The Word Works, 2007) and co-editor of D.C. Poets Against the War: An Anthology (Argonne House Press, 2004). The recipient of an artist fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities, she has also received a Creative Communities Initiative grant and the People Before Profits Poetry Prize. She was founding director of Amherst Writers & Artists Institute – creative writing workshops for low-income women and youth – and Assistant Director of The Fund for Women Artists, an organization supporting socially-engaged art by women. She co-hosts the Sunday Kind of Love reading series at Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC.