When I was in graduate school I took a class on poetry and politics. We read a lot of Russian and Polish poets. I loved reading Akhmatova and Milosz, but the class did not help me understand how I could write political poetry. If anything, it dissuaded me from writing anything political, because my life was so privileged in comparison to the poets and essayists we read.
The path of a poet’s career is sinuous. I found myself teaching intersectionality (the idea that everyone is affected in varying amounts by their race, class, gender, and other factors and thus their relationship to institutional power and privilege and/or oppression) to college students a few years ago. Our current president got elected. And my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, became synonymous with white supremacy.
One of the reasons well-meaning white people are racist is because we often think we are the norm. We don’t have to think about our race, because our society is designed for people who look like us and come from our backgrounds. And so we say and do and sometimes believe racist things.
I decided to write a poem about Charlottesville. I would place myself into a context rather than assuming that my experience was the universal experience of childhood. I would write about and question my own intersections. What my younger self didn’t understand was that we live in a white supremacist society, which means that our societal systems are designed for white people. (The black kids at my high school worked a hell of a lot harder than I did to be in the advanced, college prep classes, to take one example.) So I am a participant in an unjust system. This is something I can write about.
Writing about poetry writing sounds insufferable in the abstract. As does poking through assorted ideas about race and representation. But I am pleased to find a way to talk about social justice that doesn’t sound trite or borrowed from someone else. (The poem begins in a bookstore.) And if the poem doesn’t work, which is always a possibility, at least I will have begun to question how my race affects my life, which is something my younger self did not even know could be a question.
What are you questioning?
(photo by Eze Amos)