Janae is a poet living in Brooklyn, New York. She is a Hedgebrook and Vermont Studio Center alumni and proud Cave Canem Fellow. Her poetry and prose have been published in the American Poetry Review, Bitch magazine, Sixth Finch, Plume, the Nashville Review, and Waxwing, among others. She is the author of After Jubilee, published by Boaat Press. Visit her website: www.brionnejanae.com.
The world is an ugly place. I have spent the majority of my adulthood learning and unlearning this lesson as I, like many of us, have struggled against the urge to succumb to the bitterness that daily threatens to pull us under, like quicksand thickening at the ankles. During one of my most memorable lessons I was teaching several community poetry workshops in Boston. It was the day after the 2016 election, and I entered my evening workshop to find that my students were as hurt and heartbroken as I was. Where the results of the election, and that 53%, had rendered me wordless, they in turn were ready to write poems that grieved, poems that screamed and set fire, poems that would curse the then-president-elect into the ground, where he belongs.
There is a long illustrious lineage of this poetry which works to document what is ugly in our world. Poems that rage against and weep for the individual and systemic violences and erasures endemic to the lives of people who exist at the margins. The cannon of resistance or protest poetry is as long and varied as it is gorgeous and important. And in times like our current political moment, when the world is not more hideous, but simply more visibly, unavoidably awful it can appear as if every poem and poet worth reading is writing as an act of resistance.
Of course this issue of what is visibly awful must be addressed. For Black people who have continuously been shot dead in our homes, churches, and streets, by agents of the state and homegrown terrorists alike, for Black and Brown people who have been locked up like animals, for Brown people who have been harassed and harangued and thrown into cages for breathing on the wrong side of some white man’s border, for indigenous people who are still fighting to protect the sanctity of their sacred spaces, the visibility of all that is ugly in the world has never been anything worth questioning, and it is only whiteness in all its innocence that is just being made aware of the nightmare.
That the world has been obviously horrid for some and only newly horrid for others is reflected in our art. White poets have had the privilege to write about nature, about joy, love, lust, and transcendence while others of us have been subsumed by the literature of struggle, violation, and overcoming. And while I do believe the move to invite the poetry of resistance into our cannon is monumentally important, as it marks an important shift away from the racist gate-keeping of those who would wish to keep the cannon old, pale, male, and pasty, I worry at times that it is presented as marginalized writers’ only option for poetry, that the only way for Black or Brown or queer writers to be read and read widely is for them to centralize and elevate their pain over all else in their writing.
I’ve heard poets say they feel pressure to write poems about police brutality or lynchings because that’s what’s expected from them. I too, have felt at times this nagging sense of guilt for not writing poems to elegize the latest victims of white supremacy though I have read their stories, marched in the streets in protest, and grieved for them as if they were my own blood and bone. I know this feeling of guilt is not unique to me, and I refuse to let it shape the way I art. If I spend all of my time reacting to the white supremacist patriarchy when do I get the chance to write the poems I want to write? That I am called to write? And to be clear, I don’t think anyone is called to write protest or resistance poetry. Not because it is, in any way, a lesser art form, but because I simply don’t believe anyone is called to oppression. Oppression is not a calling it is a situation, and while for many of us it is not temporary it is not the only thing that makes up our lives, and so, should no be the only thing that makes up our art.
Yet I fear that for many POC poets and writers there is this sense that all we can write, all we have emotional energy for, is our struggle. I have often heard poets of color saying things like, “how am I supposed to write about being in the forest and looking at trees when Black people were literally strung up from those trees for something as trivial as gazing at a white woman?” Or, “How can I write about wild flowers when all this fuckery is happening in the white house?”
Around the time that I finished my first book I was battling a persistent bout of depression and wanted to focus more deliberately on joy as a means of survival, and so began writing a few poems that incorporated some element or experience of joy. During this time, I participated in a reading with a friend who quite literally brought the audience to tears. Standing before a crowd of mostly liberal-identified white people she read poems that addressed police brutality and all the intimate violences exacted upon Black women on the daily. Her poetry had, as Audrey Lorde wrote, “give[n] name to the nameless so it can be thought,” addressed and ultimately healed. After, when my friend (the poet) and I were expressing our appreciation for each other’s readings, she said she wished she could write about joy too, but also didn’t feel that white people deserved to read poems about Black joy, because they needed to be forced to sit with all of the pain and humiliation that is experience by POC on the regular.
She is right. White people do need to sit with Black pain. White people need to reckon with the shame and discomfort of being other. White people, and especially liberal white people, need to be reminded of the ways that they participate and benefit from white supremacy, voluntarily or not. These are irrefutable facts but also I refuse to believe that Black and Brown artists should have to make art that centers around the needs of white people–just as survivors of sexual assault shouldn’t have to relive their trauma in art for the sole purpose of exposing the truth to those who would wish to silence them, and queer people shouldn’t have to publicly relive our pains and humiliations in order to gain empathy from heterosexuals.
And while it can be healing and beneficial to speak our painful truths, there are undeniably ways that only writing poems about pain reinforces stereotypes about the lives of marginalized people. I remember watching the 2016 electoral debate and hearing Hillary Clinton and her opponent talk about what issues they thought were relevant to Black voters. To watch these two people, one of which had called for the mass incarceration of Black children in her infamous “super predators” speech, and the other who had called for the ruthless execution of five Black teens without any real evidence linking them to the crime committed, was its own special kind of trauma. The two then-presidential candidates spent the majority of their time talking about gun violence, poverty, and “law and order,” and constructed a narrative of Black America that existed exclusively around our existence as survivors of unending trauma. A narrative that positions Black Americans as either violent criminals or helpless victims and subtextually positions white America as our grand savior can only hurt in the long run and can never paint an accurate picture of our experiences. The poet Jamaal May knows this when he writes “There Are Birds Here” in response to the people who would look at at Detroit or any other Black city and exclaim “how lovely the ruins,/how ruined the lovely/children must be in that birdless city.”
Meanwhile, outside of the classroom, hundreds maybe thousands of protestors were gathering in the Boston Commons. Their chants pressing in on us as a salve and reminder, that if this was the beginning of a long fight, we would not have to go it alone. That if the world really is as brutal and horrid as it seems the number of us, with open eyes and hearts ready to bear witness, are many. Sitting at the workshop table, I looked out at my student’s faces and knew that I felt everything that they felt. I too wanted to set my pen ablaze and write poems that would set all that was wrong in this country and the world on fire. Somehow though I knew that that wouldn’t be enough. And so I urged my students, as I urge you dear reader, to write those poems, yes, but whatever you do don’t stop writing the poems that celebrate and revel in the things that make your soul sing. There is so much beauty in our queer bodies, our Black and Brown bodies, our women’s bodies, our non-binary and trans bodies, and I should hate to look back at this time and see that all of it was spent screaming at people who may never hear us, instead of celebrating, investigating, and centering all that is essential in us.
We must begin to make time and space for poems that don’t center around violences. As we must learn to build community and fellowship around our joys as well as our sorrow. We need poems that celebrate not just our survival in spite of but our simple human joy and love, curiosity and wonder. In short we need an art that is not reactionary but revolutionary, an art that transcends the confines placed on us by white supremacy and occupies more space. The people who hate us don’t believe our lives are anything but trauma and pain, but imagine their surprise, their confusion, and even horror if they were to discover that despite their large egos, despite how used they are to being centers of the universe they are not in fact centers of our universe or any others. And more importantly, imagine how light our souls could be if we were able to create an art that, as Li Young Li writes, lived “as if death were nowhere/in the background; from joy/to joy to joy, from wing to wing,/from blossom to blossom to/ impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.”