Poetry of Social Change: Guest post from Susan Rich

This week, poet Susan Rich will teach a workshop on the poetry of social change at the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference at Centrum. (I’ll also be there, teaching two workshops on performing poetry aloud.) Susan’s three collections of poetry, The Cartographer’s Tongue, Cures Include Travel and The Alchemist’s Kitchen (all from White Pine Press), provide terrific examples of how poems can engage with the most pressing questions of our times.

Today, Susan gives us an introduction to this complex, compelling subject. She says that the first challenge when teaching the poetry of social change is to define the topic:

Certain luminaries jumped immediately to mind: Carolyn Forche, Allen Ginsberg, June Jordan, Audrey Lourde, Adrienne Rich and Naomi Shihab Nye, for example. That was the easy part. But how to teach how to write a poetry of social change? What does it encompass and why does it matter? Are Brian Turner, Sherman Alexie, and Yusef Komunyakaa also social change poets because of who they are and the specific themes of their work?

1. Poetry of social change provides access to a location or cultural concern that is underrepresented not only in poetry, but in the culture at large. Before Carolyn Forche wrote about El Salvador in the 1980’s, there was no American poetry that allowed us access into that experience. Brian Turner’s Here Bullet has sold thousands of copies. People want to know more about Iraq through the first hand account of a soldier than what they can garner from TV news flashes and sound bites.

2. As poet and YA author, Ann Teplick says, poetry of social change includes “poems that invite us to re-examine our own attitudes, inspire us to be more proactive, to risk more, wake us/shake us up a little.” In other words, the poems intended to make us uncomfortable, to implicate the reader. “Hey you over there, yeah you. What you going to do about this?”

3. The poetry of social change oftentimes arises from lived experience: a woman in a war zone, a gay man in a straight culture, a Palestinian living between worlds. The experience is one of extremity. Poems may be raw and hard-edged, or they may be surreal and beautiful. In either case, the authenticity of the author is paramount.

4. The writer may implicate herself in the poem. I’ve written a good deal about the war in Bosnia and its aftermath. However, I don’t pretend that I am Bosnian or that I was there during the seige of Sarajevo. However, the poems I write are concerning people who were. Bosnia is a country I’ve worked in on three different occasions and I fully expect to be returning again. Still, my perspective is that of an outsider.

5. Poetry can change the world. I learned about drag queens and gay culture from the poetry of Mark Doty in the 1980’s. I learned of the feminist movement from the work of Adrienne Rich. I learned that poetry’s power is beyond apple brown betty and blue herons on the beach. Naomi Shihab Nye taught me about the life of everyday Palestinians and William Stafford taught me what it meant to be a Conscientious Objector during World War II. All of these writers contributed to my understanding of a larger world view.

6. Writing poetry of social change requires an added dimension of risk over that of a more personal poetry. When I wrote about my friend Yve-Roses’s flight from Haiti after her father’s assassination under the regime of Baby Doc Duvalier, more was at stake than a poem about the color blue. I wanted to document something that had never been documented before. I wanted to write a poem that told the truth about the Haitian boat people that at the time, were being turned back from US waters to certain death.

7. You don’t have to be oppressed to write poetry of social change. So start a poem about something you think needs more attention right now. Did you that the United States executes people in your name? You’re implicated. And if that’s not okay with you, perhaps that’s a place to start now. There are injustices all around us. Get to work.

Try this: Choose a poem you admire (but not love too much or you may not be able to begin) that deals with social issues. Think “Facing It” by Yusef Komunyakka or “The Man Who Makes Brooms” by Naomi Shihab Nye and po-jack the opening line or perhaps the form of the poem. Po-jack [a term invented by poet Tim Seibles] means to hijack some aspect of another poet’s work in order to provide you a springboard or scaffolding with which to build your own work. It’s not illegal as long as you give credit to the original poet in some simple way. For example, “Poem that Begins with a Line from Komunayakka” might do it. Most importantly, own the experience – risk something you care about.

What do you think? What poets and poems of social change have provoked and awakened you?

You’ll find more inspiring posts about poetry and the writer’s life at Susan’s blog, The Alchemist’s Kitchen.

3 thoughts on “Poetry of Social Change: Guest post from Susan Rich

  1. Thanks, Elizabeth for inviting me. I just called Alice James Books to see how many copies of “Here, Bullet” have sold since it’s publication in 2005 – and the answer is 20,219. I think social change poetry is what Americans might be hungering for.

  2. Excellent post, Susan.

    I think, too, of poems by Merton and Berrigan; also Charles Reznikoff’s “Holocaust”, Ira Sadoff’s “Emotional Traffic”, Sandra Steingraber’s “Post-Diagnosis”, and the anthology “Poets for Haiti”, which includes Lucille Clifton’s “cruelty” and Fred Marchant’s “A Place at the Table”. And then the many incredible poets in translation. We don’t lack for poems addressing social change.

    I just sent for “Here, Bullet” because of all the attention it’s received. I think it was Turner who said in an interview that the poetry isn’t about the war; it’s about losing who and what you love.

  3. Update on numbers: Actually, “Here, Bullet” has sold 29,200 according to the editor-in-chief. I think our country is hungry for a poetry of social change. Thanks, Maureen for all the thoughtful ideas and poets above.

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