The Velocity of Language: Using Poetry and Storytelling to Speak Out About Our Gun Control Crisis
December 05, 2017
By Colum McCann
We live in an age where gun violence and mass shootings have become commonplace in the US. In response to our country’s continued crisis over gun control, poets Brian Clements, Alexandra Teague, and Dean Rader collaborated to edit Bullets into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence. This anthology is framed in a call-and-response format that brings together the voices of poets and citizens most impacted to call for the end of gun violence. As writer Colum McCann reminds us in the introduction of the book, excerpted below, poetry has the power of activism to engage us in communication and empathy to understand the personal dimension of urgent social issues.
“If you speak, you die. If you keep quiet, you die. So, speak and die.” Shortly after the Algerian poet and journalist Tahar Djaout wrote these words in the summer of 1993 he was gunned down in the streets of Algiers. Djaout spoke in favor of progress, secularism, decency, a broader world where intellectual and moral narrowness would be defeated. But the bullets did their work: after a week in a coma, Djaout died. His killers, a fundamentalist group, later admitted that they feared him because he wielded the mighty weapon of language.
The tragedy of it all was that Djaout’s voice was silenced and amplified at the same time. We have no way of knowing what else Djaout would have said or how he might have shaped a different future for his part of the world. Everything at the end of a bullet’s journey becomes conjecture.
Still, the fact remains that Djaout did speak out during his short life. His death had backspin. Nobody was going to be able to wipe out what he had already said. Having written, he spoke. Having spoken, he endured. Having endured, he now survives.
What Djaout believed was that a lot of things can be taken away from us—even our lives—but not our stories about those lives. Eventually, no bullet will outlast the speed and velocity of language. This notion might totter on the edge of nostalgia—after all, it seems most likely that it’s better to be alive than not—but Djaout’s words are worth repeating: If you speak, you die. If you keep quiet, you die. So, speak and die.
Poets have known about the perpetuity of language, stories, and music making since the very first days when rock was scraped against the cave wall. In the beginning was the word. Others might repress it, torture it, burn it, chain it, mangle it, but the proper flesh of language cannot be outright annihilated.
The hope—and perhaps the enduring belief of literature—is that it will present itself even more inventively than ever before.
On December 2015 the New York Times ran an editorial on its front page—the first time the paper had done so since June 1920, when Warren Harding landed the Republican presidential nomination—calling in no uncertain terms for the proper regulation of guns in the aftermath of a spate of shootings. The editorial, titled “The Gun Epidemic,” said that legally purchased weapons designed to kill with brutal speed and efficiency were a “moral outrage and a national disgrace.”
At the time of the editorial, the murders in San Bernardino had just happened. Multiple shootings in Colorado Springs had left four people dead. The anniversary of Sandy Hook was just days away. All you had to do was whisper the name of a state—Oregon, Virginia, South Carolina—and immediately another tragedy shuddered in the throat.
The newspaper sparked a heated debate in its commentary boxes, with more than seven thousand people weighing in in a matter of days. We have elected the most cowardly human beings one could find to supposedly represent the people who elected them. Frankly as a gun owner I am appalled! I’d be happy if we could find and recover our national sanity. Kill someone with a gun, then you are shot by a firing squad the day after your conviction, you could even put it on Pay Per View and give the money to the victims [sic] family. We need civic anger. The Amendment is not a blank check to own any type of weapon. Until you outlaw capitolism [sic], there will always be someone willing to sell whatever people want to buy. They [the NRA] have turned into nothing more than a sycophantic lackey of the small arms industry. I’m worried that we’re losing our grip on our representative democracy.
Newspaper commentary boxes are hardly going to turn into grand symphonic cathedrals, but what was most apparent was the rancor and outright bitterness that bubbled underneath the entries. This was a country at odds with itself. The New York Times’s decision to throw its front-page hat into the ring was brave, but what could have been the beginning of true national soul-searching ended up, ultimately, as an exercise in division and derision and re-division.
This became especially poignant when, weeks later, President Obama stood at a White House podium and literally shed tears while recalling the first-graders in Newtown and said that all of us need to “demand a Congress brave enough to stand up to the gun lobby’s lies.” What resulted afterward was a sort of embarrassed national silence that slid its way into the echo chamber of the election year. The sight of a president crying on national television was a shock to the soul. He was not shedding tears for the availability of guns, or for gun control, or the paltry legislative efforts of his own colleagues—rather he was shedding tears for twenty children and six adults who had died four years previously. Obama believed that those deaths could have been prevented by proper moral action in the political sphere. He was joining the human with the political and calling on the country to examine what Faulkner would have termed “the human heart in conflict with itself.” Obama’s reaction was one of the bravest moments in recent political history. Still, nothing happened: or as close to nothing as one can get.
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?
What becomes increasingly apparent when talking about guns or gun awareness is that it seems—at least initially—that there is very little room for embracing lasting nuance. The gauntlet is quickly thrown down. He said, she said. He won’t, we won’t. All or nothing. Subtlety quickly gurgles down the drain hole, even for those with the best of intentions. There is very little chance for the multiple sides to come together to try to even attempt to understand one another, to find any equivalence, or balance, or redress. The scales of rhetoric get tilted immediately. There is so much at stake—not just money or pride or politics, but our actual thumping lives.
Yet, what is seldom addressed in the debate about guns and gun ownership is that the vast majority of people in this country—except for a small fringe of lunatics, homegrown and foreign both—feel the exact same way about one thing: they abhor violence. This is the common ground on which most proper-thinking people stand, whether they have a gun underneath the pillow or not. Gun control advocates and the pro-gun lobby often want the exact same thing; they just haven’t figured out how they can get it together.
You can rack up the statistics. Every year in the United States, more than thirty thousand die from gun violence, including suicides, accidents, and assaults. Sixty percent of gun owners say they own the weapons to protect themselves against crime. Between 1968 and 2015, more than 1.5 million people were killed by shootings—more Americans than in all our wars combined. It is said that toddlers mishandling guns kill more people than terrorists do. Depending on whom you talk to, it is estimated that there are one to two guns for every person in the United States.
But eventually facts and figures begin to cloud the elemental truth. Statistics are mercenary things. They can be used in any territory we want. That 1.5 million dead can be just that, one and a half million, or you can imagine lining up every man, woman, and child in Phoenix and ask them to fall to the ground one after the other, after the other, after the other. Language itself can be a great manipulator of facts: If 60 percent of American gun owners say they possess a firearm to prevent crime, does that mean that 40 percent don’t? What age is a toddler and who might have put this “fact” about terrorists into the forefront of our minds? And what exactly are “all our wars combined”?
If we are genuinely interested in changing our reality on the ground, what we really need is a deeper understanding and a hope that all our disciplines—law, science, politics, education, and, yes, poetry—can come together to create an accepted, and acceptable, truth that is, in essence, a textural truth, something we know, deep in the heart’s core, happens to be true and good and right.
The nobility of poetry, says Wallace Stevens, “is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.” Poetry helps us to live our lives. It offers a response to all the available evidence that the world is, in fact, a tar pit of greed and despair.
What poetry can do is untangle some of the “facts” and reveal the human tissue underneath.
The aim of this anthology—so ably and passionately put together by the editors Brian Clements, Alexandra Teague, and Dean Rader—is to try to shift the nature of the debate around guns and give voice to the effect of violence in a manner that isn’t always associated with the poetic. The aim, according to Clements, is that “poets, survivors, families and friends of victims, activists, political figures, researchers, and audiences will come together to share and discuss their common ground.” The book is set up in a call-and-response format, a church of the possible. True, the anthology probably does lean toward those of us who might prefer to see guns vanish from our lives, but the real emotional thrust is toward antiviolence. The poems attempt to create a community built not just of grief but of hope, too.
Many people in this book have suffered publicly, but the point of their poetry is not to whine or moan or even set things aflame but rather to communicate the intricate nuances of that suffering with others. It is a form of public sharing. Take these words. Weigh them up. Listen. Pause a while. Help reality touch justice.
It would be word-consuming and indeed disingenuous for me to point out any of the individual contributors since each and every one has a voice and a story to tell, and each tells it with rhyme and economy. There are many world-famous poets here, shouldering side-by-side with contributors who are much less known. There is a very good reason for this. It amounts to a solidarity of poetic intent. Poetry calls out for us to be inclusive. This anthology is not meant to be shelved. It is designed to be left on the seats of buses, in doctor’s waiting rooms, on street corners, in order to say that we are in this together. The self-evident truth is that we need to start talking to one another, not with a legion of sound bites or statistics but with human texture and longing to at least lessen, if not eradicate, the violence that afflicts us.
One of the beauties of poetry is that it is essentially an act of nonviolence. It can make us feel the pain, but we do not necessarily have to suffer it.
In poetry and storytelling, a ritual transaction occurs between reader and writer: the reader is given an illusion that he or she suffers, or enjoys. It is a life that is not his or her own, but one the reader steps inside for a moment. We become alive in another body, or soul, or time. We are forced, in literature, to make the empathetic leap into the realm of someone else. And the stories we tell one another are our own nonviolent alternative.
I am privileged to be the cofounder, along with literary activist Lisa Consiglio, of a nonprofit group called Narrative 4, a global story-exchange organization. The group is fronted by writers and artists, including Terry Tempest Williams, Rob Spillman, Greg Khalil, Assaf Gavron, Ishmael Beah, Lila Azam Zanganeh, Tyler Cabot, and several others, including countless numbers of teachers. Our goal is to bring people together to tell one another’s stories. You step into my shoes, I will step into yours. We see stories and storytelling as the exercise of the ultimate democracy. By dwelling in someone else’s story, we believe we can turn empathy into action and help expand the lungs of the world.
In December of 2016, Narrative 4 brought together a group of people from across the United States to share stories under the umbrella of “gun awareness.” We gathered police officers, hunters, gun control advocates, victims, gang members, perpetrators, NRA members, and others into the same room in order to see if they might be able to better understand one another.
The group included Carolyn Tuft, a mother from Utah who lost her daughter in the Trolley Square mall shootings in 2007. She herself was shot at point-blank range and has so much buckshot in her body that she suffers from lead poisoning. On the other end of the group’s spectrum was Todd Underwood, the thirty-seven-year-old owner of United Gun Group, an online gun seller. On his site, Underwood allowed George Zimmerman to auction off the Kel-Tec PF-9 that was used to kill Trayvon Martin. (The pistol went for $250,000, a sum that deserves to be written out—a quarter of a million dollars for a weapon that would normally retail for $250.)
Underwood and Tuft were matched up to tell each other’s stories. They were about as diametrically opposed in the gun debate as any two people could be: Todd, so deeply for gun ownership, and Carolyn, so personally disturbed by the lack of gun control. When they finally got to tell those stories— “Hi, my name is Carolyn,” said Todd, while Carolyn introduced herself as a man who owned 150 guns—the tension in the room was electric. But they managed to make the quantumemotional leap into each other’s worlds. For a moment, Todd became Carolyn, and Carolyn became Todd. “For” met “against.” Grief met free choice. Shrapnel met flesh. The two began to understand each other differently. They saw with a vision transformed. Something magical occurred in the difficulty of trying to understand a person so completely different. Not so much a chemical reaction as a chimerical one.
Carolyn said that the world had been shifted for her. Her mind hadn’t changed about the value of gun ownership, but she understood the complexities of the debate in a far deeper way. A further nuance had crept into her heart. She could feel herself embracing contradiction. It wasn’t necessarily comfortable, but it was life altering. Todd too was rocked to the core. He went back to Kansas and immediately began trying to figure out how he could organize story exchanges between Christians and Muslims in his hometown. Most stunning of all is that Todd changed the rules of his online gun website so that visitors to his online message board could no longer use pseudonyms, and purchasers would have to go through an identity check. He and Carolyn became Facebook friends and remain, to this day, in contact with each other.
All of this from looking someone else in the eye. All of this from the simple art of listening and telling.
Our stories, our language, our change.
The late, great Jim Harrison once said that he would rather wear his heart on his sleeve and give full vent to the world of human disappointments than die a smart-ass.
The conviction behind this anthology is that we should be in the habit of hoping and speaking out in favor of that hope. It is, in the end, an optimistic book. The poems assert the possibility of language rather than bullets to open up our veins. To some this may be pure nostalgia. But to others amongst us, we recognize that cynicism is far more nostalgic than any embrace of hope. Cynics live in the sentimental cloud of their own limited territory. They are unable to journey outside of themselves. The optimists are, in fact, the tough and muscular ones. They are ready to place themselves in the line of fire.
What this book can achieve is opening up the grief and the pain to reveal whatever available joy that can be there. This is not a book about the good guys or the bad guys, or even the good guns and the bad guns. It is not a book designed to argue about laws or philosophies or the intricacies of constitutional amendments. Nor is it a book designed by a polemical committee to change your mind.
We can never forget that the good of poetry is first and foremost in the thing itself: the sound, the rhythm, the life-altering order of words. To communicate such suffering beautifully is one of the great paradoxes of the human soul. But it must be done. How a poem is said is as vital as what it says.
Still, in certain instances poetry has to stand up and shout too. It must kick down the doors and open the windows. It must believe in itself. It must also know that it exists for a reason. Poetry can indeed shift perception. There is a reason we recite poems at funerals and births and weddings. This is where life is most fully engaged. We need a language to celebrate it.
It would be delusional to think that every congressman in this country would suddenly have a change of heart after reading this suite of poems, but it would also be delusional for writers of every color and creed to remain silent. The poetic instinct almost invariably sways toward the just. We have to speak up. Otherwise we are doomed. Silence, as Tahir Djaout says, equates to death. An untold poem would indeed be its own form of suffering.
If you speak, you might just live. So, then, speak and live.
About the Author
Colum McCann is the bestselling author of six novels including the National Book Award-winning Let the Great World Spin, TransAtlantic, and Thirteen Ways of Looking.