Poetry is Activism
By Janice Lobo Sapigao, Santa Clara County Poet Laureate
“It is the writer that gives voice to the pain of a people.” — The 8:46 Literary Quilt
Most of what I know is this: writers and poets, my people, bring me the news.
It is in poetry that I find primary sources, voices on the ground, and firsthand accounts of critical turning points in history. This country still needs to address multiple emergencies: a global pandemic and public health crisis, white supremacy, anti-black racism, and police brutality becoming police murder–all in a hellacious election year. Among other societal issues. This country is failing to acknowledge all of it. Cultural work is necessary, and poetry brings us the news, analysis, memories, and space to say what’s stirring us.
Poets have always been my teachers. It is through poetry that I become a dedicated friend, student, listener, organizer, and activist. Time and time again, poets document the day’s events. Recent Pulitzer Prize in Poetry Winner Jericho Brown writes in the New York Times,
“I don’t know whose side you’re on,
But I am here for the people
Who work in grocery stores that glow in the morning
And close down for deep cleaning at night”
Poets are also organizers and mutual aid practitioners–I think of the numerous events I’ve attended or have been a part of as a reader. I have so much love and respect for Haymarket Books–a radical, independent publisher based in Chicago–they offered multiple talks and readings on abolitionist teaching and anti-racism. I think about Kearny Street Workshop’s online programs curated and organized by Asian American poet-activists Michelle Lin and Kazumi Chin. I am excited for Inlandia Literary Laureate Rachelle Cruz, who is organizing a series of free online poetry and creative writing workshops for teens. I’ve followed and attended events created and led by literary spaces such as Split This Rock and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop who constantly uplift queer, nonbinary, and trans Black, Indigenous, and writers of color for social justice. Black poets and writers came together to create The 8:46 Literary Quilt: A Covering for George Floyd to write for, as Jamey Hatley declares, “a free people, a future people dancing on the ruins of what should have never have been and the new, true world becoming. Now.” Keeping up with poets is keeping up with different parts of the world in real-time.
After seeing community platforms adapt and re-tool for virtual gatherings and publication, I know this to be true: Because of this power–because poetry is expression coupled with opinion and action to inspire, provoke, or move people–poetry is dangerous and enticing. Poetry is a heavyweight for its ability to transform. Poetry transmits ideas, possibilities, and it turns imaginations to wild, real things.
Writing and poetry have always pushed for a need for real change and liberation. Filipino American writer Carlos Bulosan once wrote, “There were centuries when writing was a crime punishable by death. There were times when intelligence was a serious crime…. remember how we became privileged to think and to speak and write.” Historically, education through writing and learning (or learning writing) was seen as a threat to control the status quo. When we write and read poems to educate, to speak to our ‘now,’ we change the narrative. We write our own narratives. Writers from communities of struggle, specifically, agonize and use words to build literacies and languages that see and include us. In poetry, we write ourselves into history and into the future.
Poems signify the times we live in. In Santa Clara County, young poet and regional winner of the Santa Clara County Library District Teen Poetry Contest, Sarah Mohammed of The Harker School in San José writes, “my home you / strip my rights like / thunder / splintering the aching / universe / my love for / you tastes like / softened copper like / tarnished loose pennies.” Though this poem is about anti-Muslim sentiments in India, it is entirely applicable to Black folks in the United States. Poems reflect and respond; poets connect their lives to the world. Poems can tether and bring us to each other; we can listen to others’ pain and imagine ones where it doesn’t exist.
The poems that stay with me on my bookshelf and in memory are the ones that shake up my understanding of the world. The poems I cling to and teach are the ones that inform and challenge me. Poetry is activism because, line by line, it contains the potential to ask difficult questions, to participate in literary spaces, to push past discomfort, and to build worlds where possibilities drive us. People say they are often moved, held, or taken by poems–and aren’t those actions the basis of activism? Poetry, this way, is a movement.
Janice Lobo Sapigao (she/her) is a daughter of immigrants from the Philippines. She is the author of two books of poetry, Microchips for Millions and Like a Solid to a Shadow. She was a VONA/Voices Fellow and was awarded a Manuel G. Flores Prize, PAWA Scholarship to the Kundiman Poetry Retreat. She is a poetry editor at Angel City Review, and co-founder of Sunday Jump in Los Angeles’s Historic Filipinotown. Her work has been published in various anthologies. She is the 2020–2021 Santa Clara County Poet Laureate.