As part of the lead-up to the launch of the Winter 2012 Social Justice issue, Little Patuxent Review sponsored the Poets for Social Change panel at the Baltimore Book Festival, moderated by the guest editor for the issue, Truth Thomas. Afterward, LPR Editor Laura Shovan continued the conversation with one of the panelists, Kathleen Hellen. Here’s some of what they had to say:
LS: When I’m working with elementary school poets, I joke about the assumption that all poems are about springtime, love and flowers. Why is it important for poets, in particular, not to look away from the difficult issues facing society?
KH: One of my favorite stories is about the poet Anna Akhmatova standing outside a Russian prison during Stalin’s purges. She had little food and almost no money. Her close friend and fellow poet Osip Mandelstam was sentenced to a labor camp, and he later died there. Her son was imprisoned. Somebody in the crowd had recognized her, asked her in a whisper if she could describe this. Akhmatova said, “Yes, I can.” For me, it is something like that. To be a poet is to be engaged with the world. To witness. Because I can, I must. How can I turn away?
LS: This was the first time we met several of the panelists. What did you enjoy about speaking with them? What part of the discussion did you find most valuable?
KH: Each poet brought to the panel a unique experience and yet it struck me that we were all one voice, speaking the same story, in the same tongue. In Melanie and Derrick, the younger poets, I heard The Dream, my own dream—the insistence on changing “what is” to “what can be”—re-visioned. It was deeply gratifying to know that despite the many troubles we face as a nation—the failures of the justice system, the failures of the educational system, the failures of the health system and so on—despite these encumbrances, the young poets on the panel seized the moment to speak their truth. They would not be denied. I find great value in that. Great hope.
LS: Were you surprised about any of the topics that came up during the session? Or surprised that a particular issue was not raised?
KH: No one addressed the wars. It was surprising, since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have exacted such a toll. The loss of lives, both here and there; the veterans who have returned to find themselves unemployed, even homeless; the devastating impact on the economy. But the majority of Americans do not think about the war unless they have a loved one in service, even though there are more Americans fighting in Afghanistan now than at the peak of the Soviet invasion. The war has receded in the collective consciousness; it has become backdrop for the present economic crisis.
LS: Lucille Clifton spoke at an LPR reading about a year before her death. I remember her talking about the film The Secret, to which she objected. Clifton said putting yourself in a happy bubble where you choose not to see problems and negativity didn’t sit well with her as a poet. Instead, she told us a poet’s job is to see and bear witness. Hearing these poets speak about social justice, what do you think the role of poetry is and will continue to be?
KH: There is a great tradition of activist poets like Clifton, both here and abroad. They recognize that the individual does not exist in isolation but rather is linked to all who share the human condition. Their poems bear witness for those who cannot do that themselves. As Clifton writes about the murdered and enslaved, she identifies with them. She is murdered and enslaved and thus gives them life again. This is the fundamental role of poetry. The word “poem” comes from the Latin poēma, which was derived from the Greek poíēma, meaning “something made.”
KH: Human rights is in peril throughout the world, and too many issues require attention—inequalities of income and outcome in education, health care, criminal justice, immigration, the environment. There has been and there continues to be a war on women. Because I am a woman, I need to speak for women.
In Keats’ poem, the urn provokes a meditation on a scene of “mad pursuit,” a scene “in midst of other woe” in which maidens struggle to escape the wild ecstasies of a rape. This is rape as historical narrative. This same scene has been “witnessed” in countless rapes from ancient Greece to the Japanese comfort women of World War II to victims of the war in Dafur. The idea of a women as a trophy, as property, as a concubine. Rape as a ritual, as an archetypal symbol, as an instrument of war.
The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women is still dealing with gender equality, including women’s exclusion from science and technology, which limits opportunities for employment and exacerbates exclusion from society. It is still talking about the elimination of violence against the girl-child, honor killings and female genital mutilation. According to one fact sheet citing a 2000 UN report, one in three women and girls globally is beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime and four million women and girls are trafficked annually.
How are we to answer when the poet asks, “What men or gods are these?”
Abducted from the Keats
He’d left her without breasts
stripped her like a tree like Ovid’s laurel
dumped her in a lake in a desert in a ditch—
A swan. A trope. An open book
A virgin with their meters blank as bone
shoved down her throat
A bone-yard of her kind at the border
Take Saramba. Four
Weaponed in the war. A tribe’s retaliation
Rape as displacement. Humiliation
First Night, First Right
First of many wives in Salt Lake City
Here’s what I’m given:
No point throwing stones
at glass that always breaks
Forgive the saints
who drink you from a skull cup then repent
who feed you pearls in tales of take
Serial or strangler? What men or gods are these?
Kathleen Hellen is a poet, educator and, as Shiori, author of The Girl Who Loved Mothra. Her work has appeared in Barrow Street, Cimarron Review, The Cortland Review, The Evansville Review, The Hollins Critic, In Posse Review, Prairie Schooner, RHINO and Subtropics. She has received a Washington Square award, James Still and Thomas Merton poetry prizes and individual artist grants from Maryland and Baltimore. She teaches creative writing and journalism at Coppin State University and serves as Senior Editor at The Baltimore Review. “Abducted from the Keats” was first published in The Broome Review.
Laura Shovan is the Little Patuxent Review editor. Her chapbook Mountain, Log, Salt and Stone won The Clarinda Harris Harriss Poetry Prize in 2009. She edited Life in Me Like Grass on Fire: Love Poems, featuring 50 Maryland poets. With Virginia Crawford, she coordinated the Living Poetry Flash Mob at the 2011 Baltimore Book Festival, part of the worldwide 100,000 Poets for Change event. A Maryland State Arts Council Arts in Education grant recipient, she is co-editing an anthology of student poems.