Activist Poetry

Things have changed considerably since I was a graduate student in creative writing at a big state university. I was advised to write poetry for its own sake, and quickly concluded that that was the best course of action. Collect ideas in a journal; write in the journal daily; write a new poem at least once each week. Creative writing workshops, while immensely helpful in helping hone the craft, encouraged homogeneity and discouraged political engagement. When I submitted a draft poem about the famine in Ethiopia in the eighties, for instance, I was told that was sweet, but “Stick to what you know.” It became apparent that my humanitarian, spiritual, and feminist concerns would only be supported when presented as personal experience.

But the poetry scene has changed. (Imagine if no one felt permitted to write about the situation in Egypt, for instance, unless he or she was there for the uprising?) Last week I attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Washington, D.C. Along with major, established writers like Joyce Carol Oates, Rita Dove, Carolyn Forche and Junot Diaz, newer writers presented their poetry, prose, pedagogy, presses, and writing programs from universities, nonprofit organizations, and communities. Much in the poetry community–if there is a single one–defies categorization; and now there is also much in the “poetry of witness” category–poetry that speaks for the voiceless, the oppressed, even the oppressor, in order to understand the roots of injustice and galvanize resistance to it.

One luminous example was Split This Rock, a D.C.-based nonprofit that harnesses the creative and activist energies of established and newer poets alike to support human rights issues and promote poetry. Despite supporting a table at the conference’s book fair, my friend Sarah managed to slip out on February 3rd to lead a march on the White House in support of an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I met founder Sarah Browning in the ’90s at a writers’ colony in Vermont before she moved to D.C. and began what is now her calling. Split This Rock garners support from poetry heavyweights like Sonia Sanchez and Jericho Brown, who read poetry by Langston Hughes last week.

Another example of the acceptance of the idea that the poet, if well informed, should be free to adopt any subject or persona arose in the session on persona poetry led by Cornelius Eady. He famously penned poetry using the persona of Susan Smith, the young mother who drove her car into water in 1994 and drowned her two young sons, only to blame a fictitious black man for the deed. Eady made the point that, if the poet uses persona for a legitimate purpose, in the service of a theme, he or she should own that choice. “I give you permission,” he said, to laughter and applause. This might sound like a small thing except that poets have long been told that it is somehow unethical or inappropriate to “appropriate” others’ stories and voices in poetry. That, we were told, was the province of novelists and short story writers, not poets. Why one creative writer should be empowered and another disempowered to use the same literary device never made sense to me.

So go to your journal, poets, and pen a persona poem. Just don’t settle for doing it with cliches, or doing it without research, or doing it just to get published. Do it if it serves a larger and literary purpose.


About Kathleen McCoy

I'm a poet, a professor, a mother, a wife, a bit of an activist, a lover of the word at Poetry books include Ringing the Changes (Finishing Line Press, 2019), Green and Burning, Glas Agus a Dho (Word Tech, 2016) and More Water Than Words (chapbook, Finishing Line Press, 2017). Books are available from the publishers or Amazon, or order from your local bookseller.
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