Last night, I had the privilege of facilitating a workshop at Goddard College in which we explored poems of protest, resistance, and empowerment. Given the current political and cultural climate, and the daily emergence of new violations and traumas, it felt essential to spend time engaging with the work of poets who tackle difficult subject matter with both justified anger and literary grace.
We dove deep into three poems, each with a different style and theme: "Dynamic Positioning" by Juliana Spahr, from her collection That Winter the Wolf Came; "The Aureole" by Nikky Finney, from her collection Head Off & Split; and "Rorschach Test" by Simone John, from her collection Testify. I highly recommend reading all three and looking at the use of repetition, myth and fact, leaps in time, and shifts between the intensive/expansive. (And, you should definitely pick up copies of these books. They will blow open your world in all the necessary ways.)
To get our own protest poetry/stories/essays going, we used a prompt based on Dorothy Allison's essay, "Survival Is the Least of My Desires," from her essay collection Skin: Talking about Sex, Class & Literature. In the piece, Allison discusses the difference between her stories that arise from an anger impulse - starting with "You son-of-a-bitch..." - and those that begin out of a desire to understand and "honor [her] dead, [her] wounded and lost." Both are important; we need rage, we need expressed anger, and we definitely don't need tone policing. But Allison explains that the stories you write out of more than rage
...begin to tear you apart even as you write them. Oddly enough, that tearing open makes possible a healing, not only in the writer but in the world as well.
So, if you care to join, your two-part prompt:
- Think of an event or interaction that has deeply personal significance to you. For 5 minutes, write a rant. Use all your rage. Begin your poem/story/essay with Dorothy Allison's opening phrase (or a version of it): "You son-of-a-bitch."
- Next, spend 10 minutes revisiting your material with the intention to "honor your dead, your wounded and lost." Focus on revising and/or expanding by using the following techniques: alternate between fact and myth; leap around in time; switch back and forth between the intensive (close up details - think zoom lens) and the expansive (wider, earth-encompassing details - zoom out).