I don’t post nearly as much personal content on this site as I used to, but from time to time I feel the need to veer off the poetry path. Now is one of those times. I feel like I’ve been watching my country slowly disintegrate since 2016, but I know that the underlying conditions that have led to today’s crises far predate the Trump administration. Overpolicing of Black communities — and in particular Black men — dates back hundreds of years. The Black Lives Matter movement dates back to the Obama administration, and the George Floyd protests make it clear that we still have a lot of work to do as a country. Trump’s not-so-tacit endorsements of white supremacist groups hasn’t helped, and neither has the continually growing wealth gap. The COVID-19 crisis and its resulting effects on the economy have created even more stresses for communities of color, who have been hardest hit by them.
I’m glad that the protests over the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd are calling attention to these issues of racial inequality. I hope that people will look behind the headlines about riots and arrests and consider the peaceful protests that vastly outnumber them. Nonviolent resistance requires discipline, self-control, and bravery. Not everyone does it well, and there are people on both extremes of the political landscape more interested in creating mayhem than in enacting lasting social change.
I’ve attended protests and demonstrations both as a young woman and a middle-aged one. I don’t have the stamina or the crowd-tolerance I used to though, and I’ve learned that it’s important to care for myself if I want to be of use to anyone else. At the moment, even a trip to the grocery store feels overwhelming, let alone rubbing elbows with protesters at a large demonstration. Masks only work so well, and they really don’t work at all if people don’t wear them properly. There are other ways to support the BLM movement that don’t involve direct action. As a white woman, I’ve had to acknowledge the privilege I’ve enjoyed throughout my life, and I’ve had to learn how to listen to and amplify the voices of people of color. There are many articles online about how to support the BLM movement and become a better ally to people of color.
I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”
A friend of mine suggested that quoting MLK is not enough and that I should donate to organizations actively working to dismantle racism. I do donate regularly — I consider it my duty since direct action is often not an option for me.
If you are able to send monetary support, may I suggest the following:
Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) can be a good place for white people who want to learn how to be allies and assist people of color as they organize direct action. SURJ Boston connected me with a sister organization that raises funds to prevent people from being evicted in the wake of the Boston housing boom. You can find a local SURJ affiliate here.
My company’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) employee organization forwarded me this list, compiled by the Employee Assistance Trade Organization. These are organizations and hotlines that can help queer folk with all areas of our lives, including coming out, advocacy, workplace issues, healthcare access, legal problems, gay-friendly religious organizations, and violence recovery. I’ve added a couple of links to organizations in the Boston area as well.
Thirteen years ago, I was working for a travel company whose corporate culture trended heavily toward Nordic beauty standards and J Crew clothing — I didn’t exactly fit in. I had a nemesis coworker who was fond of practical jokes, so when she said that someone had just driven a plane into the Twin Towers I thought she was kidding. It became apparent very quickly that she wasn’t. I will always remember the tide of horror, sadness, and fear that rose in my chest as I stood with coworkers around a TV screen and watched the first tower come down. It was a distant precursor to what I would feel in April 2013 when two brothers set off homemade bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
This poet, first arrested by the implied promise of this passage (Buzzfeed headline: “How to become a Great Poet (TM) in three easy steps”), is struck by the subtle gendered irony contained therein.
We might say that three qualities are necessary to write superb lyric poetry. First, the writer must have something of a gift: she must be able to make music, command metaphors, compress sense, write melodiously when the situation demands and gratingly when need be. She must also have something to say. There must be some region of her experience that has transfixed her and that she feels compelled to put into words and illuminate. She must burn to attack some issue, must want to unbind a knot, tighten it, or maybe send a blade directly through its core.
Given these powers — the power of expression and the power to find a theme — the poet must add ambition. She must be willing to write for her readers. She must be willing to articulate the possibility that what is true for her is true for all. When these three qualities — lyric gift; a serious theme, passionately addressed; real ambition (which one might also call courage) — come together, the results can be luminous: one gets Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” or Plath’s “Daddy,” or Lowell’s “Sunday Morning” (or Wallace Stevens’s). But without that last ingredient, ambition, nothing great will come.
The author uses the feminine pronoun to refer to the hypothetical Great Poet.
Three out of four of the examples of Great Poetry are by male authors.
The author of the article is a man.
Since I’d rather be a Great Poet (TM) than a Women’s Studies professor, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about these facts and whether or not they indicate that Harper’s Magazine has a long way to go before its head will be completely removed from its own posterior.
Ever since moving to Boston in 1999, I’ve been keenly aware of the ways in which I am separate from the city’s mainstream culture. As a queer woman, as a poet, as a [insert any one of a variety of labels that apply to me], I’m used to feeling different, apart, separate. About this time last year though, an odd thing happened.
In the hours and the days following the Boston Marathon bombing, I began to feel like I was part of a unified whole. That the Boston portrayed in the national press, the Boston of skinny white women sporting Tiffany bracelets in the Back Bay, the Boston of drunken Red Sox fans on the Green Line, the Boston of disaffected immigrants in search of a reason for living — that all of these Bostons — was also the Boston that I know: the Boston of slam poets congregating at the Cantab in Cambridge, the Boston of nerds in black turtlenecks eating sushi and joking about obscure internet memes, the Boston of queers congregating in living rooms and church basements, the Boston of police brutality and entrenched segregation.
I’ve been largely silent regarding the issue of Trayvon Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal. As a white woman living in Boston, I don’t see the ongoing effects of racism in the same way that I did when I was living on the north side of Poughkeepsie, or growing up in a housing project in Stamford. But racism still affects me and those I love. I’d like to take a moment to honor the friends and loved ones whom I know deal with racism on a daily basis — and the friends and loved ones I never met or never got to know well because of the racist and segregated society in which I live.
While Mr. Zimmerman’s conviction might have provided an emotional catharsis, we would still be a country plagued by racism, which persists in ever more insidious forms despite the Supreme Court’s sanguine assessment that “things have changed dramatically,” as it said in last month’s ruling striking down the heart of the Voting Rights Act.
When Mitt Romney’s health insurance reform passed in Massachusetts, I was disgusted to discover that it included an individual mandate — in other words, that everyone in the state HAD to buy health insurance. At the time, I was self-employed and was barely able to pay my bills. Health insurance, especially in the days before the exchanges, was completely out of the question.
The health insurance mandate was one of the big reasons why I decided to take a full-time job with a larger company, but it wasn’t the only reason. The other big reason had to do with access to health care. During my years of self-employment, I paid for all of my health care out of pocket: visits to the doctor, prescription medication, diagnostic tests, and the rest. I’ve been living with a chronic illness since my late teens. And there were some things I just couldn’t afford, things that would have made it possible to manage my illness much more effectively. Toward the end of my years living uninsured, I could see myself getting sicker and sicker. I knew that I needed to have better access to health care; if I didn’t, I would become so sick that I wouldn’t be able to work at all.
What I find most disgusting about the national debate on health care is that the individual mandate — the very thing that Republicans and Tea Partiers wail and gnash their teeth about, the thing they decry as socialist government control — was their idea in the first place.
But what I find just as disgusting — flabbergasting, even — is the Left’s inability to effectively mobilize and stay on message around this issue. So that many of the people who most desperately need better health care coverage, the people who benefit most from the passage of the ACA, are the same people wailing and gnashing their teeth about it. Ah, well. Perhaps they’ll be happier in Canada.
It’s hard to describe Adrienne Rich’s impact on my life with grace and brevity. That’s because my relationship to her work mirrors my relationship to the literary establishment as a whole. I first heard of her when I was a junior in high school, young poet full of promise and bereft of friends after the class of 1989 graduated and scattered off to college. A precocious freshman named Deborah, with reddish hair and presumptuous mannerisms, was shocked to learn I hadn’t already read and loved her work. What Deborah didn’t know (and neither did I) was that I’d been raised on the literary canon, comprised then as it is now almost exclusively of men. Five years later I wrote my senior thesis at Vassar on her work and the arc of her life. Seventeen years later, Margalit Fox‘s obituary said it better than I ever could.