By Ella Grim
Art by Camille Yang
Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. ~ Audre Lorde
i. Poetry as Survival
Lately, I’ve been feeling as if nothing I do has any weight.
Each day brings new disasters, some massive, others miniscule. My friends and I struggle through heartbreak, through death and other loss, with spiraling mental health, with the daily violences that come with situating ourselves within an institution that does not take adequate time to acknowledge our humanity, our identities, and our beautiful, living bodies. Bodies that exist in the fog between definitions. Bodies that carry hurt like a sickness that can’t be shaken.
For as long as I can remember, I have been a caregiver; my first reaction to crisis is ensuring safety, listening. Generating solutions. I simply no longer know how to help. The magnitude and frequency of these wounds seem beyond my ability to heal, or even provide temporary relief. I am tired of trying to fix everything. It is lonely. I am lonely.
In these moments of drifting, of weightlessness, I find myself turning to poetry.
Poetry is my sanctuary, my most personal and powerful form of healing. The page is where I go to process, to grieve, to problematize, to dissent, to rejoice, to declare love, to say everything I cannot figure out how to express with prose or speech. I will always write poems. Poetry is my joy. My survival. I know this with the conviction of a rainstorm.
I am constantly questioning whether my impulse to write is enough. If, by pursuing a life of writing, I am simultaneously abandoning work that enacts real change, helps real people, has real value in the creation of a radically just, sustainable, and caring future. Art is often framed as soft activism, weightless in the face of real, tangible political states or conflicts. There is pressure to be serious: to write serious, analytical articles. To talk about serious issues. To take serious, radical, material actions. These “serious” things are, of course, critical and necessary to feminism and social justice movements. But so is poetry.
What about the poetic is coded as insignificant to serious political activism?
Perhaps in humanity’s current capitalist-patriarchal-technocratic-carceral state of existence, the poetic insistence on emotion — on attention to an embodied praxis of feeling deeply the pain, joy, suffering, whimsy, etc. of our lives and the larger world that is insisted upon by poetry — must be framed as unserious, insignificant, and soft. Perhaps there is a desire to maim, to injure, to hate, without the interference of poetry’s insistence on the unveiling of that hurt. With willful ignorance towards the material pain caused on real individual bodies subject to a regime of emotionless, institutionalized inattention.
What happens when we reframe our understanding of the poetic as necessary to radical political transformation? When we open ourselves to the possibility of a mode of activism that both openly tackles the most serious issues of our time head on and insists on taking the time to heal the physical, emotional, and psychological wounds that activist bodies sustain, through a constant regrounding in community via artistic practice? What happens when we insist on an activist praxis of serious joy? When we lean into the poetic, not as a crutch or an alternative, but as a fundamental, necessary condition for activist existence?
In this manifesto, I illuminate the links between poetry and feminist activism as they appear in my life, within Spare Rib, and in the larger world. This article is part personal narrative, part collective accounting, part annotated bibliography, part love song. It is, in a way, a justification of my urge to write. It is also a rejection of that need to justify — an attempt to reframe care work and creative labor as historically and currently fundamental to our politics, activism, and existence.
ii. Poetry as Mirror
But little by little,
as you left their voice behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world
~ Mary Oliver, The Journey
In the archive of my memory, I open the box labeled times poetry woke me up:
I sneak the thick red copy of Contemporary American Poetry off the grown-ups’ bookshelf when no one else is home. It is electric and heavy in my hands. I realize I am not the only person in the world who plays with words.
I read Mary Oliver’s “The Journey” online while bored in 10th grade chemistry class. It tells me what I already know: I am the only person who can heal my wounds. I realize I am not the only person in the world who is trying to get out.
I lose the Poetry Out Loud state competition, but it does not matter because I am already 20 pages into the free book they gave the runners-up. Ada Limón, The Carrying. I am transformed by these pages, by the elegance of the language, the melding of body and land, emotion and pointed political critique. I realize in this moment that everything I want to accomplish can be done through poetry. I decide to be a poet.
I sit on the first ever Climate Emergency Poetry Zoom call during the height of the pandemic. I’m the only person under 40. I wait with building anxiety to share a poem. It is my first time reading my own work for an audience. I speak of rivers, of drought. When I finish, a woman sends me a chat message: “A lovely poem and you make a fantastic presentation in your reading. You're in great company with Hirschfield and Orr. Hope you continue to write.” It’s electrifying. I realize I have the power to write things that resonate with others. I, too, can build mirrors with words and prompt reflections.
It is my first week of college. Serena and I sit on the ROBO steps licking dripping ice cream cones. Out of nowhere, she goes “So you’re queer right?” and it is euphoric. The next week, we bookclub Sappho, who writes, “We live the opposite daring.” I realize my desires stretch back for eons, and that I am not the first person to write about this.
Consuming art that validates our existence is one of the most profoundly joyful experiences in this world.
The first joy I found in poetry was the realization that I was not alone. It is terrible to feel alone, especially as a child, and there were several years of my adolescence where I truly thought no one would ever be able to grasp my thoughts, my loves, or my wonder. Those first, illicit, stolen poems I read started to slowly burn away at this fog. I heard voices. They echoed mine. I echoed theirs. They gave me a purpose. A goal: to read and write. A glimmer of hope that I would find a voice, claim it as my own, and be kept company by it, and by the voices of all the other poets who had found and claimed their voice long before I came into this brutal world.
When we realize we exist outside our bodies — or more accurately, that other bodies exist that look, think, or feel like us — we start to lose the fog of isolation. We wake to the network of humans we are connected to: by experience, by hope, by circumstance, by choice. We realize no one is exactly the same, but that no one is completely different.
Poetry is a mirror. One of those big, twisty, fun-house-at-the-county-fair mirrors. A medium for reflecting our thinking, our dreaming, our schemes, our love, our hope, our existence. We exist. We write because we exist. We write, too, because we know that we have not always known that existence. We hope someday a stranger reads our poem, and thinks: Oh, I know that feeling. I, too, feel this. I, too, am this. I exist.
iii. Poetry as Community
enough of can you see me, can you hear me, enough
I am human, enough I am alone and I am desperate,
enough of the animal saving me, enough of the high
water, enough sorrow, enough of the air and its ease,
I am asking you to touch me.
~ Ada Limón, The End of Poetry
My inbox is full of messages, and because I am methodical, I read them all.
There are some I am indifferent about and some that bring stress. The sum total is a steady trickle of bad news, conference reports, brochures for events I will never attend — the messages are constant, like a drippy faucet.
On the rare occasion, though, I receive a poem.
Spare Rib has a poetry circle with 25 people, and we send our work to each other over email. This group was started before I matriculated, and has ebbed, flowed, and grown over the past two years. We revived it recently. Started sending poems on themes: Time. Instinct. Scar.
Poetry is, at its core, a communal, circular act.
In my classes, I’ve learned about early English epic verse, like Beowulf, written down but likely sung or recited to audiences. I’ve learned about manuscript culture in the early modern period, about the circulation of poems through the courts and through the hands of poets and writers, who copied them down before passing them on. I’ve learned about Ginsburg and the Beat Poets, how together, they pushed the boundaries of language and built a counterculture poetics. I think of Ada Limón and Natalie Diaz, who spent almost a year writing letter-poems back and forth, building on each other’s images and responding to current events in each other’s lives and in the world around them. I think of Franny Choi, who visited Dartmouth’s campus in the early spring of 2023 and spoke of many things, among them her strong connections to other young, queer poets, like Danaz Smith (who, coincidentally, is the author of my current favorite poem, I’m Going Back to Minnesota Where Sadness Makes Sense). I think of my dear friend from high school, how we have sent each other poems back and forth each April for the past 5 years. I think of Spare Rib, our little email group, the plethora of recent poems delivering little sparks of joy to light up my days.
We often envision the poet as solitary. Alone. Struggling through dark emotions at a desk lit by a dim lamp, pushing around words on blank pages, producing something isolated from everyone but themselves.
This is so far from the truth.
Poetry is community, and, as Franny Choi puts it, “circles rise together.”
Choi means “rise” in a literary and professional sense, which is true. This is not, though, the only function of poetic circles, or the only way they rise. Our circle is one of attention, of inspiration, and of care. Our work as feminists can be brutal, exhausting, disheartening stuff. The fight against oppression is long and complex. It requires, I believe, a tremendous amount of care labor and care practices — little infusions of joy, hope, community, and belonging to sustain our praxis. Tending to activists is itself a form of activism. No one can do this work alone, and no one can do this work without the care, respite, and love of a beloved community. We happen to be building ours with poetry, among other things.
Poetry is community. Poetry is hope. It is joy. Poetry is care. Poetry is activism through care. Activism through critique, too, through cries and fight songs and dreamscapes.
Without care, we cannot sustain our activism. We grow cold, isolated, bitter, cynical. Through care, through poetry, we breathe. When we breathe, we can fight.
iv. Poetry as Archive
No poet is above political responsibility.
~ Genevieve Taggard
I like things that are quiet. I like things that speak without speaking.
This is why I work in archives. I open boxes coated with thin layers of dust. Of time. I pull out thin, translucent pieces of paper. Letters. Old photographs. Manuscripts.
My ongoing archive work is on Genevieve Taggard, a poet, feminist, professor, and socialist from the early 1900s. Dartmouth has eight boxes of her ephemeral documents. She published prolifically during her life, won awards, and mentored many other women poets. She was deeply embedded in the modernist poetic networks of her time, yet is rarely discussed today. Most of her later work was deeply political. When she is remembered, she is held up as a brief example of women’s leftist poetry of the era, then promptly put back in her boxes.
Is Taggard forgotten, or willfully erased? My hypothesis, based on preliminary research, is that the driving factor in her erasure from the canon is her radical politic.
When we write poetry that is not starkly political, we are told to be more serious. When we write overtly political poetry, we are silenced. Left out of the canon. Reclaimed, perhaps, if lucky, almost a hundred years later by a student with a proclivity for archives, for boxes.
When we write, not everyone will listen.
When we write, we risk censure.
When we write, we are participating in an inherently political act, merely by the fact of our existence as women putting our voices and opinions and visions down on a page.
When we write, we leave a legacy.
Poetry speaks, if we are willing to listen.
v. Poetry as Portal
By the time the apocalypse began, the world had already ended. It ended every day for a century or two. It ended, and another ending world spun in its place.
~ Franny Choi, The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On
To build the future, we must see it.
To see the future, we must vision.
To vision, we must write.
Poetry is a medium for speculation.
There are millions of versions of the future. To reach the ones we want, we have to have somewhere to envision what they look like, how they taste and feel, how they sound, how they hold us, how they could care for our soft sweet sick bodies that only want a world that is not perpetually ending on us.
This poetry is best read, so I will point to a few sources. Franny Choi’s new book, The World Keeps Ending and the World Goes On, is one. Octavia Butler’s Earthseed novels, each chapter prefaced by a visionary poem, are another. Maanasi Shyno’s poem collection, “How to Survive the End of the World,” in a past edition of this zine is a final starting place for reading poetic work that insists on enacting a visionary politic.
Poetry is dreaming. It is scheming. It is a portal to a world we are just beginning to construct. We will not stop reaching towards it until we enact it, and poetry is one way of reaching.
vi. What This All Means
I need poetry.
We need poetry.
Feminism needs poetry.
This world — this beautiful, elegiac, stupid, broken world — needs poetry.
With poetry, we see the future.
With poetry, we hold each other together.
With poetry, we cradle hope.