Poems of Protest, Resistance, and Empowerment

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:

  1. 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."
  2. 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).

 

Goddard College, Plainfield, Vermont. You know you want to go to school here.

Goddard College, Plainfield, Vermont. You know you want to go to school here.

Doubling & Perimeters

Recently, I began journaling for the first time in 15 years. As a kid, I kept daily, obsessive diaries, attentive to every detail and eager to maintain a record of my life and thoughts to serve as a second memory. But, when I was 17, my mother went through my bedroom and read every word of my private notebooks, then inflicted punishment for what she discovered. I stopped writing any thoughts down and destroyed all my old journals. Now, I wish I'd saved the journals - what further harm could have come from keeping them? - so I could look back and encounter my kid- and teenage-mind; so I could compare the record to my memories of what it felt like to be that age.

Last week, Dominic and I spent a lazy Sunday re-watching season two episodes of Twin Peaks in anticipation of the two-hour finale of David Lynch's brilliant reboot, Twin Peaks: The Return. We ended our nostalgic re-viewing with an episode focused on Laura Palmer's secret diary: a second journal she stashed at the home of a reclusive orchid-cultivator. This kind of doubling - a different diary with different truths - shows up throughout Lynch's work; the new season is centered around Dale Cooper's doppelgänger and the impending showdown between the two Coopers.

Because journaling was on my mind, I was struck by the thought of a diary as a second self, or third self, as in Laura Palmer's case, and how through writing we create a doppelgänger out of our experience, a shadow-self. Doing so, of course, helps solidify our memory, but also the overarching narrative we build out of our lives.

A few days after our Twin Peaks binge, I came across a poem in Bat City Review by Hieu Minh Nguyen, "Punish," which focuses on a son's difficult relationship with his mother and his memories. The following lines, in particular, sent my mind spinning:

I'm trying to understand that memory/is not a technology, a full charge/will get you nowhere, if you're stuck/tracing the perimeters of your dull nostalgia//for an exit.

If I'd saved my old diaries, would my current perception of that time period be different, or would I view the writings as simply an old self, a different self, a naive self? Would I be at war with myself over which memory is the truer memory, "stuck tracing the perimeters of [my] dull nostalgia" for those records I'd kept years before? As I embark on this new habit of journaling, the idea of perimeters will be hovering nearby.

Take a look at Nguyen's entire poem, see how he brings in memory of family while questioning remembering and forgetting. Then, write a poem or essay starting with the line: "I'm trying to understand that..."

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The Intimacy of Your Surroundings

While drinking coffee this morning, all bundled up in layers of sweaters because it's finally feeling autumnal in Vermont, I came across David Whyte's poem, "Everything Is Waiting for You," courtesy of a friend's Facebook post. The lines, particularly "Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity," reoriented me to the day ahead, prompting me to not focus myopically on my work and to acknowledge the world around me that informs even the smallest task.

But what really affected me was the poem's reminder of myriad opportunities for finding beauty and inspiration in our daily lives, as we are one part of a larger, ongoing conversation. This perspective translates well into discovering ways to enrich our writing; poetry, yes, but also fiction and creative nonfiction, in which detailed observation builds depth and helps access the greater truth. Consider the following lines:

...Surely,/even you, at times, have felt the grand array;/the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding/out your solo voice. You must note/the way the soap dish enables you,/or the window latch grants you freedom.

And, later:

...The kettle is singing/even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots/have left their arrogant aloofness and/seen the good in you at last...

As I approach my writing today, I will be thinking of what the small objects in my home say, not about me, but to me. In what ways am I connected to the space, how am I less alone for the world of objects and non-human animals around me?

A quick prompt, if you care to join: Choose three objects and/or animals visible from your writing space. Compose a poem or piece of flash prose in which you give these items/creatures a voice. What are they telling you, if you're willing to listen? How do you converse with them?

Feel free to send along your work. I'll write back.

My three choices: the easel, a collection of poetry, and the groundhog visible outside the window.

My three choices: the easel, a collection of poetry, and the groundhog visible outside the window.