“I am a black poet who will not remain silent while this nation murders black people. I have a right to be angry.”
he first time you watch a video that starts this way, you understand this is not some academic exercise. This poem means business, because here’s Samiya Bashir radiating quantum ferocity as she stares down the camera before unleashing her poem “Catch”:
… we ain’t going nowhere. instead, we trade terrified looks. search
for the pass but no one stays open for long…
and you don’t exactly know what basketball has to do with police violence, but you watch her blink-blink-blink when she says “dribble” and you see that the poem is also the catch of a gun, full of fight and fear and threat.
The second time, you realize that this, right here, is the radical center of American poetry. Mahogany L. Browne orates June Jordan’s incendiary classic, “Poem About Police Violence,” over a scene of an intense young woman donning layers of jackets like armor:
Tell me something
what you think would happen if
everytime they kill a black boy
then we kill a cop
everytime they kill a black man
then we kill a cop
Browne and Bashir are fellows of Cave Canem, the epicenter of African American poetry since its founding in 1996. The workshop has incubated or hosted dozens of poets, including a Poet Laureate of the United States (Natasha Trethewey), a Pulitzer Prize winner (Tracy K. Smith), and a couple of National Book Award recipients.
So when Cave Canem issued a call late last year for Black poets to speak out against police killings, hundreds responded. The rigorous, emotional poems in the videos — more than 230 so far — contrast sharply with the glib “Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri” published by the doyenne of literary magazines, the Paris Review. Distant and self-distancing (“I wouldn’t want to be a black man in St. Louis County”), filled with not-quite-funny jokes (a man unzips his fly and the zipper gets stuck, more than once), Frederick Seidel’s tone-deaf ballad seems to come from a world wholly foreign to the reality of #BlackPoetsSpeakOut. Indeed, Seidel himself, a 78-year-old Upper West Sider known for having never given a public reading in his life, exemplifies an aesthetic that, arguably, has driven American poetry further and further to the esoteric margins of culture. Attempting to engage a cultural moment, it instead reeks of an obsolete and out-of-touch past.
That is not to say that the poems of #BlackPoetsSpeakOut are hastily composed. Most pre-date the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and of Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y. — which is the point. “I didn’t have to write a new poem about this because I constantly am writing a poem about this because this is an ever-present phenomenon in our lives,” says Bashir, an assistant professor of creative writing at Reed College in Portland, Ore. “I have far too many poems in which black people have to face a gun. My whole life as a black woman in America, I’ve had to face white people at the other end of their guns.” The first time a white man pulled a gun on her, she says, she was 7.
That black poets have been addressing extralegal executions for decades is clear from the terrible historicity of the videos. Poems mourn Amadou Diallo, James Byrd Jr., Claude Reece Jr., and others. Multiple poets have recorded Lucille Clifton’s “4/30/92 for rodney king” and Audre Lorde’s “Litany for Survival.”
Opening window after window on my browser to watch the poems, some of the videos started playing automatically. The effect was operatic, each voice joining a chorus that Browne calls “soul-stirring,” deeply rooted in a community that has long turned to words for sustenance.
Browne draws inspiration from the Black Panthers and the African American church, from whom she says she and other poets have learned how words can resonate in the body of an audience and “shake your bones.” As poetry program director at the Nuyorican Poets Café, the Lower East Side institution that made slam poetry famous, she witnesses firsthand each week the “great unearthing” that poetry can accomplish. She shot the video in one take, and it was the first one posted, on Nov. 30. It features her daughter Amari, 17.
“She had just walked in from school,” Browne says, “and I had this image of this young woman warrior preparing to go out, putting on all this armor.”
Many of the videos are simple in composition: A poet recites into the camera, intimate and vulnerable, as if you’re Skyping with a friend. When babyfaced Danez Smith looks into your eyes and tells you of the absence, no, the impossibility of joy, the effect is heartbreaking.
Others engage the medium of video to powerful effect, as when Rachel Eliza Griffith intercuts a soundscape with news footage and graphic questions (“America is this correct?”), wrenching Amiri Baraka’s 1969 poem “Incident” into the present.
Bashir used free software to create a constantly moving, radiating halo that evokes extraterrestriality. “Today it’s Ferguson, tomorrow Staten Island, last week Portland, tomorrow Detroit — so I could be sitting in my transporter and go anywhere in this country and it’s happening right now,” she says. “I wanted to create a capsulization from which to speak out.” A red stripe down the center of her lips creates a sensation of speaking through blood.
As a collective outcry, the videos showcase what poetry does best: distill, with maximum wheat and minimum chaff, the roiling emotion and argument of the day. Now they are moving offline, to live speakouts in Brooklyn, New Orleans, St. Louis, Washington, D.C., Austin, and elsewhere.
On January 1, the poets began sending their videos to President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, calling for immediate action against police violence. Among their demands are federal prosecutions of cops who kill, stripping of federal funding from police departments with patterns of racist violence, and passage of ERPA, the federal End Racial Profiling Act, which has been pending in Congress since the 2013 killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by an armed security guard.
The moment is remarkable because American poets have, by and large, played almost no role in the country’s public and political life. Despite occasional bursts of excitement, they have never risen to the level of visibility that political poets in other countries have, from Pablo Neruda in fascist Chile to Lech Walesa in Poland’s Solidarity movement. Walesa was so popular as a trade union leader and poet that he eventually became president of liberated Poland, a phenomenon nearly impossible to imagine in the United States — where most successful poets seem to have retreated further and further into the obscure corners of the academy.
Bashir notes that mainstream poetry venues such as the Academy of American Poets have not mentioned #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, even as the movement continues to draw hundreds of thousands of viewers to tune into serious poetry. “These places are specifically trying to update their image and be engaged, yet there has been no conversation about this at all,” she says. “It astounds me. The reason #BlackPoetsSpeakOut has taken on a life larger than the first few of us and keeps growing is because this is what people are looking to poetry to do.”
Even as the rest of America is tuning in to the poems and their rigorous, radical testimony, the world of poetry seems as oblivious as ever. A few poetry outlets have mentioned the viral phenomenon and re-tweeted videos, but a serious treatment of the importance of the work as poetry has yet to appear anywhere. No major poetry publication has tackled the question of poetry’s role in the national conversation about race and racial violence.
Still, as you watch the videos, as you keep tuning in for new ones, you begin to see how profoundly poetry contributes to the dialogue. The growing list of videos is being catalogued by Browne on tumblr and by poet Jonterri Gadson on YouTube. As the poems rise up one by one, they coalesce across generations, seeming to insist on becoming a new canon of their own.
One of the latest videos is by 68-year-old Marilyn Nelson, a grande dame of American poetry, author of 12 books and winner of multiple awards. In the clear voice of unembellished authority, she reads two poems from her “heroic crown” of Petrarchan sonnets. Such a “crown” is no casual exercise; it is a set of 15 rigorously formal poems, linked so that the last line of each sonnet is picked up and echoed by the first line of the next. Hers are dedicated to Emmett Till, who was 14 years old when he was lynched in Money, Mississippi, in 1955 for talking with a white woman. Nelson was 9 years old.
In lines addressed to Till’s mother, Nelson says:
Your only child, a body thrown to bloat,
mother of sorrows, of justice denied. …
Would you say yes, like the mother of Christ?
Or would you say no to your destiny,
mother of a boy martyr, if you could?
The right to be angry opens up, as in this poem, to so much more: the right to grieve, to speak, to be heard; to mourn and remember and agitate for change; to embody, to create community, to defy what seems like incontrovertible, unbearable reality.
And this is how you know that, in America today, real poetry is neither marginal or obscure; nor is it a chaste academic exercise, a luxury of the elite. In the words of poet Audre Lorde: “It is a vital necessity of our existence… carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”