Thursday, February 16, 2017

We have known bravery, we have known fury

photo by Kim Liao
On Saturday, February 11, 2017, over 1,000 writers gathered in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, to speak out for free expression.

Split This Rock and a number of hard-working individuals joined together to organize the vigil to coincide with the annual conference of the Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), which brought thousands of writers to the nation's capital. Thirty organizations cosponsored, spreading the word and helping writers gather at this time of intense threat to our basic human rights, of which freedom of expression is one of the most fundamental.

Split This Rock is publishing the statements of those who spoke, Kazim Ali, Gabrielle Bellot, Melissa Febos, Carolyn Forché, Sanaz Fotouhi, Ross Gay, Luis J. Rodriguez, and Eric Sasson.

Statement by Kazim Ali for the Candlelight Vigil at the White House, February 11, 2017

Hello, DC, hello! I LOVE YOU! Listen, we are here under the cold cold sky, this beautiful dark sky—yes the world is still BEAUTIFUL!! We might be feeling cold, but our hearts are warm. We are not afraid. We’ve been here before. We have known loneliness, we have known fear, degradation, we have known bravery, we have known fury.

Listen, I am a Queer Muslim in the United States of America, I know something about being hated by those in power. We are writers. From the beginning we have been building our lives from the ground up. And we have been building a world by telling the truths of our lives and the lives of others. We act with love, with honor, and most of all, with hope.

photo by Kelly Thompson

In these days we must all hope more, live more, write more, kiss more, pray more, make love more!

As great poet-saint Adrienne Rich said—hey, let’s put Adrienne Rick on the ten-dollar-bill!—Adrienne Rich wrote, “Art means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.”

We know art is for more, poetry is for more. We know our role is to open our mouths and speak the truth. Yannis Ritsos did it, Mahmoud Darwish did it, Lucille Clifton did it, Carolyn Forché did it—and Lorde and Baraka and Pat Parker and Marilyn Chin and Solmaz Sharif and Natalie Diaz and Layli Long Soldier. These poets are among us, they are not statues in a gallery but among us now, writing and living…

These are the roads we must travel now. We must speak up for those who are silenced and we must speak up about the deep truths of our own hearts; after all the great poet-saint Stanley Kunitz taught us that to recount the joys of being alive as a beautiful human is itself political.

I want to quote to you just briefly from the wonderful essay “Poetry and Commitment” by Adrienne Rich. She wrote here, “In my lifetime I’ve seen the breakdown of rights and citizenship where ordinary ‘everybodies,’ poets or not, have left politics to a political class bent on shoveling the elemental resources, the public commons of the entire world into private control. Where democracy has been left to the raiding of ‘acknowledged’ legislators, the highest bidders. In short, to a criminal element.”

Rich goes on to say, “We often here that—by contract with, say, Nigeria, or Egypt, China or the former Soviet Union—the West doesn’t imprison dissident writers. But when a nation’s criminal justice system imprisons so many—often on tawdry evidence and botched due process—to be tortured in maximum security units or on death row, overwhelmingly because of color and class, it is in effect—and intention—silencing potential and actual writers, intellectuals, artists, journalists: a whole intelligentsia. The internationally known case of Mumia Abu-Jamal is emblematic but hardly unique. The methods of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have long been practiced in the prisons and policing of the United States.”

This essay was published more than ten years ago! We have a LOT of work to do!

We must speak truth to power. We must not be intimidated. We must stand up for each other and with each other.

“The poet is a citizen first,” said Yannis Ritsos.

“You who appear at our doorway, come in, have Arabic coffee with us, you will see you are men just like us,” wrote Mahmoud Darwish.

“Some of the ears caught this scrap of his voice,” wrote Carolyn Forché. “Some of the ears were pressed to the ground.”

We hear the scraps of your voice Mister so-called President! Our ears are pressed to the ground! And soon, very soon, you will hear us!

In the end, Ms. Lucille Clifton said it the best:

won't you celebrate with me

what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

"won’t you come celebrate with me" from The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010, copyright 2012 by "The Estate of Lucille T. Clifton," reprinted courtesy of BOA Editions, Ltd., More on this essential collection on the BOA website.

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