"...to be perfectly clear,/ my enemies are not hungry." -Aracelis Girmay
If you know Aracelis, it's hard to imagine her with enemies. Lately, I think I understand. Empathy, which she has in spades, makes all the difference. I wonder most days where our collective empathy has gone. I wonder where my home is going.
A poet makes linkages to things. A poet is a creator. This is the root of the word Poetry: poeisis, from the Greek, a making or creating.
If I wasn't a poet I would at least be suspicious. If I wasn't someone who was interested in history, I'd like to think my ear would be disturbed, at least. But I'm a poet. Age 34. I have a long way to go in this world (I'd like to think) and there are things about this country that truly frighten me. Not enough to leave it. Enough to shape it, reshape it, maybe.
The last year has been a steady stream of bad news. Literally, news. The news media reports these things, and we're supposed to make sense out of it. They try to help, but they rarely do. And I think that's because the news largely lacks historical context, obviously, but it's a lack of the right kind of historical context.
This is what my brain looks like today: The attack on the undocumented in Arizona. The defeat of the DREAM Act. The attack on ethnic studies in Arizona. The fact that it loops back to Arizona. Banned Latino books. The shooting of Representative Giffords. The Republican Presidential candidates. The tea party. Trayvon Martin. War, endless. The defense budget. Firing teachers. Trayvon Martin. Trayvon Martin. Trayvon Martin.
There is much to be said about this, both as a political question and as a literary one— a question which I have come to know as one in the same: Otherness is the central issue of American existence.
Call it race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, what you will: the dominant classes seek to define that which is wholly American, and shun all else. The idea is that there is one American narrative, one center, one standard, and that the things that deviate must be made to conform, or be destroyed. This is the mentality that led to lynching and segregation. It also led to the construction of the classic American capitalist work ethic, the American dream, and the related continuation of Cold War troop levels that have placed American soldiers on every continent, in 150 countries. It's a mentality that leads to neighborhood watches, police brutality, and dead unarmed teens. And it is wholly and utterly incorrect.
Our inability to see stories from outside what we are presented is directly responsible for violence in this country. That's not my theory, it's bell hooks'. It's Baldwin. We are living in the era of The Fire Next Time. And as such, it is incumbent upon the poets, the writers, to rethink the stories that are given to us daily.
Because we must. Because we define language, which in turn defines the world itself. Without language, there is no scientific theory. Without good storytelling devices, there is no molecular physics, no theory of relativity. With words, we create the world, break it down into its component parts, and reconfigure it, every single day. If you don't believe me, look to Shakespeare's language and life philosophies, which are present in his plays. You know them like the back of your hand, because we have incorporated his sayings into our lexicon. You may be doing so without even knowing it. Poets are more than unacknowledged legislators. Poets are creators. We always have been.
There is no one central American story. There is no one center. There are thousands of centers. If it is a poem, it is an anthology. If it is a book, it is a series of books. If it is a story, it is a complicated story.
Poets, when you write, you must check yourselves. You must complicate the story. You must take what the nation knows about the American dream and explode it into a million unique pieces. This is why we have a thing called Latino literature. Latina literature. African-American literature. Gay lit. Feminist lit. It is not racist, or counterproductive, to look at ourselves as a community while at the same time pondering how we mesh with the society at large. We don't end the notion of otherness by pretending it doesn't exist. You can't throw punches in the dark. Where we fail, perhaps, is when we fail to address the dominant culture, to challenge their assumptions to their faces, and even challenge our own assumptions, while we fight the various good fights.
In the coming weeks, I want to delve into these questions of otherness, and examine where our politics and our poetry intersect, and see about complicating the story.
Good night for now. Or, good morning?