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. Continue reading