THOUGHTS: poetry and activism

by Kate Robinson

Last night I fell asleep to the sounds of helicopters overhead, a familiar sound to me at this point, having spent 4 years in this house just 7 blocks away from Oscar Grant Plaza, the center of the universe in Oakland, CA. The signs at the plaza say Frank Ogawa Plaza, but anyone who knows anything about the political happenings in Oakland over the last few years knows that it’s been called Oscar Grant Plaza since people put down the first pallets that became the foundation of Occupy Oakland.

I moved to Oakland amidst the Johannes Mehserle trial, the BART police officer sentenced to two years, minus time served for the “involuntary manslaughter” of Oscar Grant. I moved from Olympia, WA, a small town with no poetry community to speak of save for the small handful of poets teaching at The Evergreen State College and their cadres of undergrads of which I was one. My other friends, though, were anarchists who pushed dumpsters into the streets to stop military convoys en route to Olympia’s port, so I was no stranger to protest.

The poetry community in Oakland goes hand in hand with protest and activism. When the news of no indictment, no charges, no surprises, no justice came down from Ferguson yesterday my phone was alight with texts from the feminist poet text list we created this past summer in the fallout from stories of sexual assault in our community coming to light. “Are you going to the plaza?” “Where should we meet?” “I’m here, where are you!?” tumbled in across the cell phone network. Poets biked to OGP and held hands and marched with the mass of people that shut down part of the 580 freeway.

Last summer I went to see Fruitvale Station at the historic Grand Lake Theater in Oakland with what felt like half of the city. Flanked by poets on both sides I cried in the dark and sat in my seat well after the credits rolled. This morning, after falling asleep to the sounds of the copters overhead I awoke to a Facebook feed of poets expressing their outrage and sadness, talking about how they talked to their 12 year old about the killing of Michael Brown, asking for emotional support in the form of “your fav cop killer songs.”

To be completely honest, I deeply question the notion that poetry can enact political change. Poetry can stir people, of course, and poetry can force people to face things they don’t want to face, but given its limited audience I wonder how effectively it would, say, start a revolution. This morning on my BART commute into San Francisco I opened my brand new copy of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, with its evocative hood on the cover. Rankine, like a number of poets, got herself down to Ferguson when Michael Brown was killed, and you can read her New Yorker interview about it here. I’ve only just started this book, and it was hard to read through the tears welling up in my eyes, but right at the beginning she says this about being confronted with a colleague’s oblivious racism:

As usual you drive straight through the moment with the expected backing off of what was previously said. It is not only that confrontation is headache-producing ; it is also that you have a destination that doesn’t include acting like this moment isn’t inhabitable, hasn’t happened before, and the before isn’t part of the now as the night darkens and the time shortens between where we are and where we are going.

This got me thinking about something Wendy Trevino bravely brought up when we were doing all the work we did this summer around sexual assault. She said that she was grateful the community was finally having this conversation about gender and power dynamics, but she wondered aloud about the potential for a similar conversation around race. Poets are quick to run to the protest and inhabit that moment, and the work we did in Oakland this summer seems to have directly led to some serious direct action around issues of sexual assault (see stories coming to light in the Alt Lit community and recent meetings at the Poetry Project in New York), this is evidence to me that while poetry might be impotent, poets are not. Poets can make things happen if they put their bodies on the line, so the question is, what are WE going to do about this race problem? How do we not act like this uncomfortable moment isn’t inhabitable? What does it mean that this scene I circulate in is so overwhelmingly white in a city like Oakland with such a diverse population? Poets cannot stop the police from murdering unarmed teenagers in Missouri, but they can use the power of their vast networks and their ability to use words and rhetoric to figure out ways that we, as people, as bodies, can use our positions to make spaces that are inclusive and welcoming to people of color. Now is the time.

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