The Poet’s Role in a Crumbling Democracy

Clearly, a little permission is a dangerous thing.
Tess Gallagher

The key was to go through with it, without needing to consider any deeper meaning. To act, trusting that if I wanted to extrapolate later, that option would be available to me. I’m referring here to reading a poem in public, not at an open mic or organized event of some kind, but spontaneously, without an announcement.

“Go through with it” is a phrase I discussed that day in October with Luping, the grad student from China I met one year ago and sit with on a weekly basis for English-language conversation. Over slices of pizza, I told her I was considering reading a poem at a coffeeshop, but that I was nervous and hadn’t decided yet. She egged me on, saying, “It is crazy but will be very interesting!”

When we finished eating, we walked over to Amherst Coffee. Jazz piped in from the speakers and I knew I wouldn’t be able to read loudly enough over the music, so I decided to run my idea by the barista. He promptly said, “There’s no one here with the authority to sign off on that,” and returned to pulling espresso shots.

At this point, we’d bumped into a friend, who happened to be in that month’s Dive Into Poetry group — the nexus of this crazy idea in the first place, as the week’s assignment was to play with “guerrilla poetry,” i.e. spreading poetry in unconventional ways in the public sphere. Lisa was with her son, who happens to speak fluent Chinese; he and Luping struck up some conversation while I looked on agape. I took this as a sign to persevere, and we the four of us decided to give it one more try, this time at Starbucks.

I recognized one of the baristas right away, a young woman with whom I’ve discussed tattoos and have a friendly rapport. “Oh, cool!” was her immediate reaction, and we waited nervously while she went to ask her supervisor. I felt mildly disappointed in myself for asking permission at all, convinced that the great guerrilla poets would do no such thing (not to mention polling Facebook friends about the odds of getting arrested, though admittedly I wanted to make sure I’d be home for dinner). She emerged from the back office with a thumbs up and a big smile: “Green light!”

And so I began, without so much as an “Excuse me, everyone” or “Hi, my name’s Jena…”

No, I just read the first line of the poem, then the next. A hush fell over the space as I kept reading, and I made a point of looking in both directions, noticing how some people were watching, others looking down at their papers or phones, but aware that there was no way not to be sharing this experience.

I wasn’t doing this for 15 minutes of anything, more as a personal challenge to recognize that what we think is scary is often eminently do-able, that we won’t die by pushing ourselves out of comfort and complacency, and yes, perhaps on a broader level to explore questions of safety more broadly, and complicity. What began as something purely creative and fun, a way to shake myself up a bit and perhaps insert some poetry into public spaces, became a window into consciousness on a more urgent level.

To read a poem in a Starbucks in a college town, even a politically leaning one, did not require much consideration. But lines like these, from my poem, All Hands on Deck

we can’t sit down
while the laws are quietly made
and trains roll steadily in

in a different context, could result in arrest and imprisonment.

We could look back 100 years to dissident poets such as Osip Mandelstam in Stalin’s Russia, but sadly, there’s no need to time travel when it comes to poetry being criminalized when it’s perceived as a political threat.

Take Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour, who is currently under house arrest by the Israeli government, accused of inciting violence and “igniting terrorism” after posting her poem “Resist, my people, resist” on YouTube. Or Yemeni journalist Afrah Nasser, who was initially denied a Visa to the U.S. to accept an a Committee to Protect Journalists award.

I’m thinking here of KKK members marching with tiki torches and calls for “blood and soil,” a Nazi slogan. I’m thinking of political protest, performance art, and hate speech.

Who decides what’s what? What is a poet’s role in a crumbling democracy? What does it mean to wake up, to rise up, to shake each other out of stupor, to incite not violence but communication, and to stand up to elected officials who are actively eroding human rights at every turn?

My little experiment yesterday carried little to no risk. In fact, some people even clapped when I finished reading my poem, and one man approached me afterwards to say thank you. “People like you are really making a difference,” he said.

But here’s the thing: If I am to move my writing more into a political sphere — a periphery I’ve circled and danced inside of for as long as I’ve been writing — I have an obligation to do so in a way that calls attention not to myself but to those who really have something at stake.

People like Lucio Perez, a 35-year-old Guatemalan man who has been in the U.S. for nearly 20 years and is facing deportation, while he and his family take sanctuary in a church right here in Amherst, Massachusetts, and DeAndre Harris, who was badly beaten by white supremacists in Charlottesville this past August, and is now facing felony charges of “malicious wounding” of his attackers.

As poets and writers, it’s our responsible to call attention in any way possible to these assaults on human rights.

I do not have the legal knowledge to parse out the complexity of the first amendment, but I do know that those of us with less at risk need to step up and make noise — in whatever platforms are available to us — about the egregious erosion of what we claim to hold as universal rights to personal safety and freedom of expression.