A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
I don’t know where to begin but this is of course the perennial problem. The poem that pinned me to the couch? The dream reminding me: Poetry makes a beeline for the heart?
As soon as I became an activist, as soon as I connected with Arabs and feminists and queers and folks with disabilities and poor people fighting to re-make the world, poetry demanded my attention. The best of social change work is always accompanied by vibrant cultural outpourings – of all kinds. Art melded with activism; powerful, enchanting, bewitching. And poetry made its mark in every struggle: vigils to support black South Africans, marches to end violence against women, queer visibility.
At its best poetry carries life. Gives life. Brings us back into life. Brief, clear, beautiful, heartfelt, educational, communal, liberatory. I think of it as vibrancy anchored in truth. I appreciate the way it pays homage to oppressed communities, often emerging from oppressed communities. Born of one particular experience, in its specificity it goes beyond specificity.
Brevity: the best poets say in three lines what it might take another author an entire book. Here are the first four lines of Qwo-Li Driskill’s For Arabs and Indians and Others who Love Cedars: “After the egos of nations/subtract soil from earth/leave shallow trenches/muddied by blood/Arabs and Indians/and others who love cedars/remember how to read history in/red ochre curves of wood/” (Driskill, 2005). In 33 words, Driskill references and connects imperialist violence with damage to the earth, and offers a trenchant reminder of our link to Mother Earth. Discovering this Two-Spirit and Queer writer during my own transition, warmed by Driskill’s solidarity with Arabs (which happens so rarely), I return to this poem again and again.
Driskill also gets me thinking about how much good poetry comes from oppressed communities. Do the brevity and freedom of poetic structure appeal to the prisoner in the cell, the burdened parent, the 14-year-old activist snatching five minutes each day at 4 p.m.? I see them, clutching blunt pencil end and paper scrap in dark cell, writing with ear angled toward baby’s room, adjusting voice-recognition software. Or is it the link between poetry and truth that appeals to marginalized folks?
Poets carry the desire that one particular, painful moment is not all there is, that something larger exists. The poet may be writing simply to remind herself of this – with nary a thought given to readers. Which makes it even more of a gift when those lines speak directly to readers.
In 1988 the folks running the Woman’s Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts hosted a poetry reading by Rosario Morales. At the beginning of the gathering, I was sitting on the nondescript, sturdy couch that someone donated to the Center. Somewhere in the middle of her poem I Recognize You, I found myself flattened against it.
I recognize you. Spitting out four, five, six-syllable English words, your tongue turning a tight grammatical sentence, flipping adjectives and adverbs into line faster than you can say Oxford Unabridged Dictionary and pinning all of it in place with commas, colons, semi-colons, and parentheses. (Morales, 1986)
The poem trundles on unsparingly, adding layer upon layer of detail to the attempted linguistic escape of a working-class girl with the wrong accent.
Morales’ details were so precise about my life she could have added my name after the title. I had worked night and day to remove every subtle nuance of working-class Arab southern Ontario from my tongue. Zero ain’ts, zero missing ly’s, zero noun-verb disagreements. I had so thoroughly trained myself that I felt pleasure and pride when a friend’s boyfriend – who had a Ph.D. – told me I spoke the most grammatically correct English he had ever heard anyone speak!
Good poetry wiggles in, past the inner vaults. The Arab poets close to my heart know how to burrow deep: both the ones who bear the weight of our distress on the pages where words slide neatly right to left, and the ones like me, the hyphenated Arabs, Arab-Canadian, Arab-American, searching in dedicated fashion for phrases that might catch our history, our yearning, our losses.
Three decades ago Lisa Suhair Majaj’s poems showed up in my mailbox, neatly printed on one side of the paper, a kind letter addressed to me. I ripped the envelope open. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from Recognized Futures, the words jumping off the page:
You call my daily name, Lisa,/the name I’ve finally declared/my own, claiming a heritage/half mine: cornfields golden/in ripening haze, green music/of crickets, summer light sloping/to dusk on the Iowa farm./This other name fills my mouth,/a taste faintly metallic, blunt/edges around which my tongue/moves tentatively, Suhair,/an old-fashioned name, little star/in the night. The second girl,/small light on a distanced horizon (Majaj, 2009).
Here Majaj pulls together threads of history running through personal and collective lives. She highlights biracial existence, those of us who carry a connection to two geographical places as well as two communities – naming and embracing this identity, not hiding and negating it.
Similar to Morales’ and Driskill’s poems, Recognized Futures carries a sense of rightness; all pieces slide into place and form a resounding click from beginning to end. The click of an Arab recognized by an Indigenous person; the click of a girl who has retrained her tongue; the click of the biracial person experiencing wholeness.
The poetic form invites truth. Often a poet renders the truth visible in an almost casual way. Little background or context is offered. The poet assumes the reader is already on board, already understands language can be an instrument of war. Consider the opening stanza of Breath in David Williams’ book Traveling Mercies:
The people I come from were thrown away/as if they were nothing, whatever they might have/said become stone, beyond human patience,/except for the songs. But what is their daily/breath against all the ardent, cunning/justifications for murder? (Williams, 1993).
As Williams states so compellingly, who will ever know what has been taken? How can he, and I, and all Arabs, catalogue the depths of loss? Who and what quietly left the world because of its disregard for his/my/our great-grandmother Fahada, Aunt Rosaleen, Cousin Wadad?
Ferron catalogues, in a similar powerful way, losses that often go unnoticed, unremarked, in our capitalist society. She is a Métis lesbian-feminist singer-songwriter: her words are compelling poetry that stand the test of time. Shadows on a Dime still gives me chills. The first time I heard the song – decades ago, on the turntable at a lesbian-feminist coop house – I once again found myself flattened and breathless. I could have wept with relief over the fact that someone understood: “Fifteen years ago I worked the line/With a thousand more all doing time/While a foreman smiled complicit crime/We were strangers to the plan.”
Doing time. Supreme boredom and inordinate fear woven together in factory work. I felt both on a daily basis when I worked the line. One day a co-worker severely burnt her hand; we had routinely asked management to deal with the unprotected red-hot coils. Another time a woman working with an acid bath – in an open container of some kind, wearing cheap, ill-fitting safety glasses provided by management that didn’t provide sufficient protection – got acid in her left eye and almost lost her sight. She’d already damaged her right eye in a previous ‘accident.’ The day the government inspector finally came, for some unknown reason (ha ha) management had turned off the machines that daily belched thick smoke and left black particles in our sinuses and lungs.[i]
I assume Ferron spent an inordinate amount of time on these words. I sometimes think of poems as agates lying vivid in clear water; poets pick them up, relish the shine, realize more needs to be done. Polishing brings out that pulsating brightness. It may seem, after five weeks of rubbing, that it’s time to stop. But here’s the secret: five weeks is just the beginning.
This aspect of good poetry is an open secret, to be sure, but it’s often ignored. A poem could emerge fully formed, finely polished, sparkling brightly; I don’t rule out the possibility. But poetry, like all good and important aspects of life, takes a sometimes heartbreaking and onerous, sometimes joyful and mind-expanding, amount of time. Poems which exhibit qualities of brevity and clarity and strength and truth tend to be the ones the writer has worked and re-worked, stanza by stanza, line by line, word by word, comma by comma, space by space.
Poetry has made its mark in every struggle. What gifts, to find the bright spirits. To listen to their clarion calls for justice. They know the beauty and power of language is a necessary resource as we seek liberation, the beauty and power exemplified in poets such as Mahmoud Darwish (bless him). Palestinians, and Arabs generally, feel a rush of gratitude simply hearing his name, remembering a key phrase or entire poem that has nurtured us over decades.
I have heard some of these poets live, and met others on the page. Terri Jewell wowed me at a gathering in Ann Arbor. Five years later it was a Latinx poet who trembled with anxiety for the duration of the open mic reading: I’ve forgotten their name but not the spell cast over us. By chance I picked up Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language and immediately marched to the check-out counter, my less-than-shoestring budget notwithstanding. When I, and every Arab-Canadian and Arab-American I knew, could not find words after 9/11, Suheir Hammad found them for us, with another clarion call, in First Writing Since.
Some poets came to light in the 1980s because lesbian feminists were searching for lost ancestors. Thus the writing of Elsa Gidlow was rediscovered. Born in 1898, to a poor, white family in Quebec, Gidlow’s first book of poems, On A Grey Thread, openly celebrated erotic lesbian love. In 1923. Yes, I said 1923. She lived long enough to meet a group of second wave feminists, Celeste West of Druid Heights Press among them, who encouraged her in the writing of her autobiography, and the republishing of that poetry.
Gidlow’s autobiography begins with I Come with my Songs, a poem I cherish:
World, I come with my songs:/I come, singing./If indeed you have wrongs/I come to undo them. (Gidlow, 1924).
Driskill, Qwo-Li. (2005) Walking with Ghosts. Cambridge, UK: Salt Publishing. See page 15.
Ferron. Lyrics for Ferron’s song Shadows on a Dime taken from: http://www.elyrics.net/read/f/ferron-lyrics/shadows-on-a-dime-lyrics.html.
Gidlow, Elsa. (1986) Elsa: I Come With My Songs. Bootlegger Press and Druid Heights Books: San Francisco.
GIdlow, Elsa. (1982) Sapphic Songs. Druid Heights Book: Mill Valley, CA.
Majaj, Lisa Suhair. (2009) Geographies of Light. Washington, DC: Del Sol Press. See page 63.
Morales, Rosario, and Aurora Levins Morales. (1986) Getting Home Alive. Firebrand Books: Ithaca, NY. See page 145.
Williams, David. (1993) Traveling Mercies. Cambridge, MA: Alice James Books. See page 5.
[i] These incidents occurred in a non-unionized factory. The unionized factory I worked in had better safety conditions.
Copyright 2021 Joe Kadi
Joe Kadi lives in the traditional territories of the people of the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta, which includes the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Tsuut’ina First Nation, and the Stoney Nakoda. The City of Calgary is also home to Métis Nation of Alberta, Region III. A disabled trans man, he is part of the SWANA (South West Asian and North African) community, and writes regularly for Mizna: A Journal for Arab Americans. He teaches in the Gender and Sexuality Studies program, University of Calgary.