In this guest blog American poet, professor and translator, Marilyn Kallet, writes about the ways poetry can connect us to our feelings and each other in times of crisis.
‘On June 17, as I started this essay, I could hear Marjory Wentworth, South Carolina Poet Laureate on Public Broadcasting Service, reading poems that commemorated the one-year anniversary of the shooting massacre at Charleston Emanuel AME Church. Marcus Amaker was her superb co-reader. Wentworth commented that people yearn for language in times of crisis, and that poets can offer apt words.
I agree wholeheartedly with Wentworth. My experience with writing poems in times of crisis has been intense and complex. I was in New York on 9/11, at La Guardia airport waiting to take off. It took me five days to get home to Tennessee. More recently, I found myself in Paris in November, during the terrorist attacks. Both times I began to take notes for poems almost immediately. What else did I have? I was alone with language. Poetry remained my ally.
Why do we turn to poetry when we suffer a collective shock? In many tribal societies, songs of healing and chants for wholeness are offered in times of crisis. The Navajo hold a complex eight-day ‘Night Chant’ for individuals who are sick, out of balance with nature. Dakota warriors sang dream songs for protection during times of war: “You cannot harm me. / You cannot harm one / Who has dreamed a dream like mine.” In contemporary urban cultures many of us are on our own when shocks occur.
The Paris attacks occurred on November 13, 2015. I was on the bill to give a poetry reading on November 17, with a Parisian poet, a longtime friend of mine, C.B. The reading was sponsored by Paris Ivy, a bilingual French/English series hosted by selfless poet Jennifer K. Dick. CB had grown silent in the days before the reading, miffed by some perceived slight. After the attack, she emailed me to say that she could not read poetry in the wake of that violence. She also said she would notify her friends to cancel their attendance. Another Parisian poet, Claire Paulian, stepped up immediately. Our audience at Café Delaville in the 10th arrondissement–not far from the café that had been attacked– was French, American, Canadian, and British. Listeners leaned in, wanting to hear something that made sense in the wake of senselessness. When I asked what the audience wanted to hear, they replied, “Something funny.” I was reminded of Saturday Night Live after 9/11. Both poetry and humor have a role after catastrophe, in reminding people that we still have the freedom to breathe, laugh, rant–and grieve.
Here are a few lines of the silly poem about a chicken that I read at the café:
Was a senior citizen
the oldest one in Valence d’Agen.
That chicken’s skin was so thick
it couldn’t be insulted.
Nothing could hurt it, not even a knife.
That chicken was so old it knew my Grandma Anna in Minsk….
Poets take the blows that time and history stick upon us and turn them into blues, into modern healing chants and protest songs. That’s our alchemy and responsibility, whether we are talking about small blows, like a pricey, bad chicken, or the devastating evil ones, like automatic weapon-fire and explosives aimed at humans and their cultures. After the Paris reading, the poets and the audience members ate dinner together. Listeners kept talking about the chicken––“Is this the chicken? Is this the one?” We laughed, cried, kept up our dialogue. Poetry, our trusted bridge, brought us together.
When I told my husband Lou about CB’s backing out, he said, “Everyone grieves in their own way. We have to respect that.” I was thoughtful about his response. Even some poets grow silent in times of crisis. But honestly, those are not my people. Think of Neruda or Lorca, Akhmatova, or Audre Lorde, who did not shut down in the face of violence and oppression. As Lorde wrote:
…when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive
Audre Lorde, “Litany for Survival,” The Black Unicorn
Poetry can be ethereal, soul-speech, beautiful, or fragmented and cryptic. But another key role of poetry is to bear witness to social turmoil, injustice, and to disasters. When a poet is present at a time of violence, then like a reporter, the writer aims to be accurate, to be clear. At those times poets have more in common with journalists than with Symbolists or experimentalists. Thankfully, some of my editor-friends welcomed my Paris poems. A few of these can be found at Plume. Others will appear in Asheville Poetry Review, and Blue Lyra Review, thanks to editors Daniel Lawless, Keith Flynn, and Matthew Silverman, who are community-builders as well as literary people.
Shootings keep happening. After the recent killing in Knoxville of Zaevion Dobson, a fifteen-year-old who died shielding two of his friend from bullets, my poetry students created a public memorial booklet. I was contacted by New York Times Atlanta bureau chief Richard Fausset. We talked about poetry’s ability to respond to current events; we quoted poet William Carlos Williams to each other: ‘It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack of what is found there.’ (‘Asphodel, That Greeny Flower’). Mr. Fausset traveled to Knoxville for the poetry class’s memorial reading for Zaevion, where Mrs. Dobson was also in attendance. Here is a link to Fausset’s article, which combines poetry and reporting.
After Paris, after San Bernardino, I promised myself I would write an anti-bullet poem every day. Poems that we write quickly can be too easy, mere finger exercises. But even exercises are preparation for times when we need to bear witness, when others look to us for language. Some of the anti-bullet poems will appear in Woven Tales. Here’s one of the daily exercises:
Be an anti-bullet adult the radio host said! Help one child.
Great, I said, I’m in! Here’s my chance to stand up
Then I heard, “anti-bullying adult.” Oh.
Sure, I want that, too.
But where’s the door that lets me in
To the anti-bullet room?
I want to be the adult.
Want to stop the gun-madness here.
I don’t care about Uncle Herbie
With his gun-rights rant.
Don’t care about Heidi’s guy
With his gun-locker in Dunwoody.
“Guns are his toys.”
I’m lying. I do care.
This is my family.
I don’t want to fear my own
This week, my poet-friend Benjamin McClendon and I began working on a collaborative poem about the recent massacre in Orlando. Ben has published in Indiana Review, Yemassee, Rattle, and elsewhere. He is a doctoral student at the University of Tennessee, and lives with his husband in Knoxville. Here’s our joint poem in the wake of Orlando:
Wake Me, Collaborative
by Marilyn Kallet and Benjamin McClendon
I want to wake up and find I’m dreaming.
But I’m no cockroach, and 49 humans
are still dead. I want to wake up and find
I’m human. But Trump
is still blaring hatred,
and I’m not dead yet.
Why are casings common
as nutshells? News anchors inform us
they blow in on the wind, and this
is the story we are supposed to believe:
thirty percent chance of bullets,
mostly sunny skies, massacre
front moving through this Sunday.
Nutshells, nut jobs,
sounds harmless, but
now we are all watching our steps
and backs. Winds are sharper
than tanned forecasters led us
to believe. Those casings scatter
more plentiful than seed.
We can’t beg God to stop this, too slow.
We have to intervene, grow
more human, turn this cyclone
around. Return to sender: fear
trumpeted by Donald
and his shellacked minions.
We can’t swallow shells and survive.
We hold names of the innocent
on our lips. Teach fathers
to speak more of mercy,
less of Judgement.
We are the fathers, and now
the mothers, sisters and brothers
burying our dead.
No stirring the newsfeed
to nightmare because we’re already
there, afraid to gather,
afraid to leave the house
when we’re already pinching
ourselves, each other,
pinching our eyes closed
as hard as we can.
A pinch of salt preserves
the dead, a pinch more
lessens bitterness, and a pinch
of salt in the soil is all it takes
to kill the seeds, to dry up fields
for a hundred years. Somewhere
we can dig down to fresh water,
but not in the basement. Somewhere
flows an answer to the thirst
that dries our mouths
to silence. Somewhere we must find
the strength to step outside again.
It’s our job as poets to speak in times of crisis. ‘Silence is complex, too / but you do not get far / with silence,’ Williams wrote, in ‘Asphodel’. Thanks Benjamin McClendon for working with me on this poem; thanks to British author Leslie Tate for providing the opportunity here to speak on behalf of poetry and community in devastating times.
––Marilyn Kallet, June 18, 2016
Bio: Marilyn Kallet has published 17 books, including The Love That Moves Me, poetry from Black Widow Press. She has translated Eluard’s Last Love Poems, Péret’s The Big Game, and has recently co-edited and co-translated Chantal Bizzini’s Disenchanted City (with J. Bradford Anderson and Darren Jackson.) Dr. Kallet is Nancy Moore Goslee Professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; and she also teaches poetry workshops for VCCA-France in Auvillar. She has performed her poems on campuses and in theaters across the United States as well as in France and Poland, as a guest of the U.S. Embassy. Marilyn Kallet was inducted into the East Tennessee Literary Hall of Fame in 2005.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir and a collection of lyrical essays. In brief: ‘Heaven’s Rage is an imaginative autobiography. Reporting on feelings people don’t usually own up to, Leslie Tate explores addiction, cross-dressing and the hidden sides of families. Writing lyrically, he brings together stories of bullying, childhood dreams, thwarted creativity and late-life illness, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- Purple is a coming-of-age novel, a portrait of modern love and a family saga. Set in the North of England, it follows the story of shy ingénue Matthew Lavender living through the wildness of the 60s and his grandmother Mary, born into a traditional working-class family. Both are innocents who have to learn more about long-term love and commitment, earning their independence through a series of revealing and closely-observed relationships. Purple is the first part of the Lavender Blues trilogy. You can read more about/buy Purple here.
- Blue tells the story of Richard and Vanessa Lavender, who join a 90s feminist collective sharing childcare, political activism and open relationships. Boosted by their ‘wider network’ they take secondary partners, throw parties and observe the dance of relationships amongst their friends. But finding a balance between power and restraint, and handling shared love, proves difficult… Blue is the second part of the Lavender Blues trilogy. You can read more about/buy Blue here.