This essay appeared originally on Powells.com.
All three of us are poets and professors. We all also write prose. Our jobs rely on and live in words. And yet, there are no real words to describe our complicated emotions about this anthology. On the one hand, we are grateful that it exists. On the other, we are mortified that it exists. We are pleased these amazing poems and responses are out there in the world; we are horrified there are increased reasons for them to be in this book.
We feel similarly about the opportunity to write this essay. We are thankful Powell’s has given us this forum; we are saddened that just a few weeks before writing this, there was another deadly shooting in a church, making this anthology tragically relevant; we are saddened that while we were writing this essay, a man drove around rural Northern California shooting people on the road and shooting into a school.
We thought we would take this chance to author a multi-voiced essay in which we speak collectively but also as individuals. So angry are we about so many things and so aligned are we about our commitment to this project that any of us could have written these sections. But, we also thought readers might be curious to hear a portion of how this book came to be in our own voices.
This anthology is the first part of a three-part project; the second and third parts are supplemental web content (including more poems) and a nationwide series of events. In at least one event in every state and Washington, DC, poets and activists from the book will read and speak along with local poets, activists, and audiences about the gun violence problems that face us nationally and locally. In other words, this three-part project is merely a small part of a much larger project—the project of ending gun violence in this country, a project that already comprises dozens of organizations and millions of people.
We expect to face a common question at most of those events: “What can poetry do to help end gun violence?” Our hope is that the poems and statements in this book will contribute to the ongoing conversation about gun violence in a way that hasn’t yet been done and that, therefore, this book will move some folks to action. If a poem ever moved anyone to act, then undoubtedly this book will have some impact. And if that impact saves a single life, then the book will have mattered.
I honestly don’t see how anyone could read Nick Arnold’s “Jordan,” about his cousin, Jordan Davis, along with a statement from Jordan’s mom, Lucy McBath, without feeling moved at the very least to make a commitment to let their elected representatives and senators know in no uncertain terms how important it is that we stop this epidemic of gun violence. It is beyond me how anyone could read Dana Levin’s “Instructions for Stopping” along with Kate Ranta’s story of surviving being shot by her husband in front of her son without taking it upon themselves to understand and educate others about the connections between domestic violence and gun deaths. How is it possible to read Debra Marquart’s “Kablooey Is the Sound You Will Hear” alongside Jacob and Darchel Mohler’s recounting of their daughter’s negligent shooting death at a friend’s house without feeling the crucial importance of establishing laws that hold adults responsible for putting children into situations in which these things can happen?
Since the shootings at Sandy Hook on December 14, 2012, it has been difficult for me to think of any poem as merely “poetry.” My family, my brain, my body, my emotional being, my social being, my town, my job, my place in the universe all radically changed in a matter of minutes on that day—and those changes are minuscule next to the horror visited upon twenty-six other families in my home town. For me, this book is a small attempt to make some contribution to bettering what is left of the world; my lifetime in poetry may not have done much for the world up to this point, but I’ll be damned if I don't attempt to put that lifetime of training to some good use. Maybe this is what I was training for all along.
As I’ve read poet after poet responding to gun violence, tragedy after tragedy over the past few years, what I kept gravitating toward, and seeing others gravitate toward, was in large part the emotional catharsis and power of hearing the pain of the lost lives articulated. But an additional crucial power of these poems is the ways in which they reimagine and reprioritize how we tell these stories and the broader social narratives underlying them. Poetry is inherently concerned with form: in the interplay of line and syntax; the shaping of stanzas; the pacing and patterns and repetitions. And by allowing us to inhabit alternate forms, it allows us to inhabit alternate ways of conceptualizing. It helps us question what is normal and acceptable, what we pause to consider, what we conflate and do not. Freedom with freedom to own, rather than freedom for everyone to live without fear of being shot, for instance.
One of the poems that strongly impacted me and became an impetus for the anthology was “In Two Seconds” by Mark Doty. When I first read it, I already knew about the heartbreaking and all-too-familiar police shooting that killed Tamir Rice. I knew Tamir was only a twelve-year-old child. I had read that the officer waited two seconds before firing. Doty’s poem didn’t add details or news—what it did, its long sentences spilling over, connecting lines and couplets, was suspend me in the experience of an entire life that should have moved forward, instead racing backwards into loss: as “the boy’s face / climbed back down the twelve-year tunnel / of its becoming.” It’s a poem about time that uses poetry’s formal capacities so “two seconds” become potently full of all the other seconds that were, and could have been, and will not be. It’s a poem that asks hard questions, implicating me, the police officer, Doty himself in reckoning with the tragedy. It is these capacities of poetry and these poems that I gravitated toward after each next shooting—as I found myself unable to think or write of anything else—that prompted me to envision an anthology that gathered their power together.
These are poems that help us to empathize more fully; to inhabit alternate experiences; to, as C. D. Wright put it, bring words’ “integrity to the fore.” Poems that help us conceptualize differently—and hopefully better. This is what I see as the fullest meaning of Kafka’s saying that writing “must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” In the same piece, Kafka said we need books “that affect us like a disaster.” I hope these poems affect us like a disaster and much more—that they help us to imagine our way out of disaster.
Throughout the difficult but wholly engrossing process of compiling this anthology, I have been thinking about a little-known quote by Langston Hughes. “A poet is a human being,” Hughes writes. “Each human being must live within his time, with and for his people, and within the boundaries of his country.” The poets in this anthology are very much living within their time and are living through their poetry with and for their fellow Americans.
However, within our country are boundaries upon boundaries upon boundaries. Thankfully, poetry is migratory; the poems and the responses in this volume travel.
I remember the first time I read Juan Felipe Herrera’s profound “Poem by Poem” about the massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in which nine people died and many others were injured. That poem moved across the country, from one culture to another, from one heart to countless others. It is still moving. Jameson Fitzpatrick’s “A Poem for Pulse” is going up and down the Atlantic seaboard. Liz Rosenberg’s “The First Child Martyr at Illinois Elementary” has gone from upstate New York to Illinois to Arizona and now back to you. Tarfia Faizullah’s “Aubade With Lemon and Sage” may not even take place within the boundaries of this country, yet it says everything about the boundaries of this country.
We are, to some extent, our worst policies. We are as weak as our weakest laws. But, we are as good as our best poems. We are as strong as our strongest voices. These poems intuit that; these responses demand that.
The great American poet Wallace Stevens writes, “Poetry is a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right.” These poems, these responses, are trying to do just that.
About the Authors
Brian Clements is the author, most recently, of A Book of Common Rituals. He lives in Newtown, Connecticut, where his wife, a teacher, survived the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Follow him on Twitter at @bri_clements.
Alexandra Teague is the author of two books of poetry—Mortal Geography, winner of the California Book Award for Poetry, and The Wise and Foolish Builders.
Dean Rader is the author of two books of poetry, most recently Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry, and editor of 99 Poems for the 99 Percent: An Anthology of Poetry. Follow him on Twitter at @deanrader and visit his website.