A Few Thoughts on “Political” Poetry and How Artists Can Respond to the Present Moment

An image released by border patrol showing the McAllen, Texas detention facility; source.

This whole post is a writing prompt.

First, some background, since while everyone on my social media is already talking about this, I know that isn’t the case everywhere. And this is an issue we all need to know about:

  • Inside look at Border Patrol facility in Texas housing hundreds of children (CBS)
  • Trump Again Falsely Blames Democrats for His Separation Tactic (NYT)
  • ‘America is better than this’: What a doctor saw in a Texas shelter for migrant children (Washington Post)
  • Trump and the Baby Snatchers (NYT)
  • Alida Garcia’s Twitter thread sharing organizations to donate to and ways to get involved.
  • More links and action ideas in my post from last month
  • “A thread of things we can do.”
These are policies that demand a response. And because one thing I’ve learned from organizers is “know your lane and identify what power you have in it,” I wanted to zoom in and share a few thoughts specifically about what that response might look like when it comes from poets, MCs, musicians, and other writers. As always, nothing here is prescriptive, or will apply the same way to every individual. But for those who are interested in how artists (especially poets) might respond to the present moment, I wanted to at least spark some dialogue:

A Few Thoughts on Writing “Political” Poetry
I want to be precise with that phrase: “political” poetry. There’s a much longer post one could write about that label and how it gets applied to all kinds of poetry, how the act of creation can be inherently political, and how the identities that we hold impact how audiences hear our work as “political” or not. For this post, I’m talking about poems that intentionally, explicitly engage with specific political issues. 

Also, these are thoughts on one particular angle of that process. I’m not including some of the more general stuff that we often talk about in workshops (like the power of storytelling, or using concrete vs. abstract language, or thinking critically about structure, etc.), but you can find some of that here

1. Speak Up, but Speak with Intentionality
Fascism thrives on silence, on people seeing something awful, shrugging their shoulders, and assuming it’ll all just work out. So yes, we need to speak up. We need to use whatever platforms we have to spread the word about what’s happening. But just because silence is unacceptable, that doesn’t mean that running around screaming is the answer. So research. Read. Listen first.

The next three points all kind of revolve around a deeper question of who should write about what in the first place. There are valid arguments to be made about how it can be problematic when, for example, white people write about racism, or men write about sexism– just in general, no matter how “good” the writing is. That’s maybe a longer post, but the point I’m trying to make here is largely a contextual one: when we’re talking about creeping fascism, it’s going to take as large a chorus as we can muster to push back; it’s just that that speaking up process needs to be done carefully and intentionally. It’s hard. It’s very easy to do poorly. Figuring out how to do it well takes experience, and community, and critical self-reflection, but it is possible. The next few points offer a few thoughts on that.

2. What is Your Story to Tell? How Does it Connect?
Not every poem about war has to be from the perspective of a soldier. Not every poem about human trafficking has to be from the perspective of someone being trafficked. These may be the easiest entry points, and some writers can indeed speak from those perspectives because they have the life experience to back it up. But not everyone does– and part of being a writer is figuring out how to speak up without speaking for or over others. What identities do you hold? What is your story? How does it connect to the issue you’re writing about? It may or may not be an obvious connection.

This can be as simple as: rather than writing about what it’s like in a camp set up for children separated from their parents at the border, you write about the moment you read that story in the newspaper– where are you? What is your body’s reaction? What does it make you think about? You still get to signal boost the information and spread the word, but you’re telling your own story. And sure, a poem about reading the newspaper may not be super engaging; but that same basic framework can be pushed into more creative places.

3. Make Appropriate Connections
One reason why poetry is valuable is because it’s a space where we can connect ideas and experiences that don’t always get connected. That process of juxtaposition can highlight new truths about those ideas and experiences. For example, I wrote a poem about my family, Japanese internment, and the current refugee crisis; it’s not a one-to-one, linear relationship between issues, but there are important historical and contextual connections we can make to help us understand what’s going on.

While this relates to the previous point about figuring out how your story intersects with the issue you’re writing about, it also highlights a potential danger: not every connection is appropriate. For example, a poem that compares being bullied for wearing glasses to slavery or the Holocaust would not be appropriate. That’s an extreme example, but more subtle examples pop up all the time. The point here is that there’s a way to make connections without saying “X is exactly like Y” or “I fully understand this horror because I experienced this other thing.” When in doubt, ask others for feedback.

4. Find an Angle
Building on the previous two points, this is a note about how we approach the poem. A lot of poems are basically built around the phrase “here’s what I think!” and while it is possible to work with that, a laundry list of thoughts isn’t always the most effective start. How else might you approach a poem about a specific issue? How can you write about something from a fresh angle? What concept or structuring impulse might help the poem “stick” in people’s heads?

Maybe it’s about filling in some historical context that people don’t know about. Maybe it’s about zooming in on one specific detail of the larger story in order to comment on the bigger picture. Maybe it’s about that aforementioned process of exploring how the issue affects you and your personal experience. Maybe it’s about leaning into magical realism, satire, or hyperbole to challenge people to see an issue in a new light. Maybe it’s an open letter (especially to someone the audience doesn’t already expect). Maybe it’s a poem that incorporates a specific call to action.

5. Think About What the Audience Walks Away With
This may be a controversial point, but I think it’s at least worth considering. Of course, you never have to think about what the audience walks away from a poem with, but with political poetry, you might want to. This is not to say that every poem has to be inspirational. This is not to say that every poem has to have one specific action item at the end. It’s a broader call for more intentionality.

For example, someone could write a poem about how the phrase “tearing children from their parents is unAmerican” is actually ahistorical, since this country has done just that at many points throughout history. But there’s a difference between a poem that makes that point in order to show how smart the poet is, and a poem that makes that point in order to deepen the audience’s commitment to doing something about that.

Another example: someone could write a poem about fascism and authoritarianism, and how they’re creeping further and further into US culture, policy, and politics. That could be the whole poem– “fascism is here and it’s bad.” But there’s an opportunity there to push the audience further. The poem could be “fascism is here, it’s bad, and here’s what we can do about it.” The poem could be “fascism is here, it’s bad, and I’m thankful to the thousands of activists who are pushing back every day.”

Art can be anthemic without being corny. It can cultivate hope without having a neatly-wrapped happy ending. It can call us to action without presenting platitudes and easy answers. That’s all part of the challenge: art can inform, but it can also mobilize. Both are good, but the latter has a special power.

6. It Doesn’t Have to Be a Poem
Just a quick final note that as artists, we can still use our platforms to talk about these issues even if we’re not able to figure out a good way to talk about them in our actual artistic work. Get involved on the ground, show up, signal boost, perform at fundraisers, and make noise. A few expanded thoughts on that here.

Feel free to add more in the comments.