New video up via Button Poetry. This poem is in my book, which is available now.

This is a poem about dominant narratives and counter-narratives. To quote MPD150:

As the bodycam footage in the Thurman Blevins case is released (which we won’t share here, since enough people are sharing the footage via news networks and we don’t want to re-traumatize people), we can see the official narrative starting to take shape.

Our challenge is to not lose sight of the context around that narrative. Police, politicians, and media will almost always zoom in on the specific details of a given case; this is understandable (and of course, we can’t lose sight of the real human being and family at the center of this), but it’s also a tactic that keeps us from talking about the bigger picture.

The MPD150 report exists, in part, to provide some of that bigger picture and historical context. Explicit instances of police violence are part of a larger system of violence; it isn’t just about how individual officers act in individual moments; it’s about the larger system/culture that led to those moments in the first place. What relationships between the police and that neighborhood existed before that moment? What kinds of mindsets did the police enter into that moment with? What sorts of resources and alternatives are missing from the picture? These aren’t always easy questions, but they’re worth asking.

This is all also in the context of just the last couple years here in Minneapolis– from Thurman Blevins, to the ketamine scandal, to the Justine Ruszczyk lawsuit, to the occupation of the 4th precinct after the killing of Jamar Clark, to debates about mayoral vs. city council oversight, to ongoing, deeper questions about punishment vs. prevention and what we choose to invest in. Aside from the MPD150 report linked to above and this FAQs on police abolition, I’d also recommend this overview by Unicorn Riot. Knowing what’s happening is a necessary first step.

For people interested, MPD150 is organizing a big interactive exhibit this fall, in collaboration with some amazing artists, to bring the report to life. If you’d like to support that, you can donate here. Look out for more details on that soon. Full text of the poem:


Note the creative phrasing, the novel juxtaposition of words: the officer discharged his weapon, striking the individual. Note how the poem is so well-constructed, the newspapers print it as-is.

Note how they call it a perfect storm of human error; poetry is weather, after all, not climate. Note this attention to detail: height, weight, what size pants he wore, the specific model of toy gun. Poetry is, after all, about zooming in on these concrete particulars. Note how precise they are with their cuts: history, context, connections, trends— they focus only on what is necessary— so every time we hear the poem, it feels fresh again.

Note their mastery of repetition. Note how they show all the things they cannot tell.

And they call us dirty/ as if being covered in the earth is wrong/ as if the dirt has ever held our throats and threatened to kill our mothers…

I’ve been doing weekly write-ups of certain poems on Button Poetry’s channel, but I also wanted to highlight some older poems that are personal favorites of mine, which I’ll be doing once per month here. It’s a way to shout out some good work, and also to highlight some tools and tactics that poets use that might be useful to aspiring writers.

In the US, the dominant conversations about racism and xenophobia don’t always leave enough room to discuss history. Our “diversity” trainings maybe teach us how to sound less racist, or be more open-minded about “tolerating” other people, but they don’t generally discuss the web of policy, power, and history upon which this country (and not only this country) is built.

And we can’t really talk about racism, colorism, or xenophobia without first talking about colonization. The narrative that “we are a nation of immigrants” may often be invoked with good intentions (especially at this particular historical moment), but it also erases the history of millions of people who were already here—and who remain here. This poem is a history lesson, but also illuminates how that history is still with us. “If you are alive, you are descended from a people who refused to die.”

I think a lot about “the work” that a poem is doing. It’s not just what a poem is about, or how well-written it is; it’s about who wrote it, who it is for, who is listening to it, and the space that it takes up in the world (and in the larger collective conversation). This poem does work– both on a historical, counter-narrative level, and also on a deeply personal level. A line like “the western world would have you believe that only what is written is true/ we never really lose our ancestors/ do you feel them in the room with you now?” so deftly intertwines the personal and the political, the universal and the specific– and that, on some fundamental level, at least for me, is what poetry is all about.

Further Reading:

  • Find more from Ariana Brown (including more poems) here.
  • Book Ariana Brown at your college/conference/etc. here.
  • Full list of my poem commentary/analysis essays.