by Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo
Every Wednesday we publish writing advice for women in our “Closing the Gap” series. This week we take a slight side-step to cross-post a piece with our friends at inspiration2publication.com. Starting in March, “Claps and Cheers,” “Behind the Editor’s Desk,” and “Submissions in Review” will also become regular series.
I remember when George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin. I remember being devastated and posting the news announcement on my Facebook with the caption, “No words.” I couldn’t stop thinking about how Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old kid walking back from a convenience store with a bag of Skittles and an Arizona Ice Tea, never made it back to his father’s house, and how wrong that was. I had no words.
But then another poet commented on my post with something to the effect of, This is exactly when we need words. Write.
When writing about a societal injustice, I see two hurdles: one, finding a way to spend time with a tragedy that is hard to face long enough to write about it, and two, figuring out how to hook readers into spending time with you too.
For the first, my advice is to trick your mind.
Some tragedies are so heartbreaking that to take a long look at them hurts the soul and can even physically turn a person ill. Sometimes the only way to write about injustice is to play a trick on yourself. “Tell it slant” is how Emily Dickinson put it: “The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind—”
When I was a kid I experienced my first solar eclipse. My father was with me, and he let me wear his giant welding mask and made me a pinhole projector out of a cardboard box. I remember standing barefoot on my front lawn, my face pointing to the sky, the heavy mask pressing down on me, preferring its tinted glass and weight to the tiny hole and shadows on cardboard. Going slant can be like finding your welding mask, or making a pinhole projector. In poetry, this can be playing with a classic form, counting syllables, using a rhyme scheme, or arranging a found poem. These tricks can free, or protect, the poet from the subject—acting more like a game than a duty—long enough to write about it. To be clear, I’m not saying to make light of something serious. If you are reading this article, and you are looking for tips on how to write for social justice, then it is clear you are a person who cares, so what I’m saying is, give yourself a break.
In August 2011, I traveled out to the Sonoran desert to volunteer as a desert aid worker with the direct humanitarian organization, No More Deaths. For nine days I camped in the desert along the Arizona-Mexico border in 100+ degree temperatures. I often worried for my safety, but I knew it was nothing compared to what the people crossing into this country were experiencing. Everyday my heart broke with what I saw and heard, and every night I cried myself to sleep. I volunteered with the intention of writing about the border, but when I got back my home, writing was the last thing I wanted to do. It took me six months to a year to finally start writing poems, and when I did, I played tricks. I wrote a villanelle, I played with repetition, and in one poem I stole lyrics from a Katy Perry song. I was in part inspired by Kate Durbin’s collection The Ravenous Audience, which is teeming with different forms. Her collection showed me what could happen with a little experimentation.
“Our Lady of the Water Gallons” is a poem I wrote about the process of leaving fresh water on migrant trails. All summer long volunteers patrol the desert borderlands looking for people in distress and placing fresh water supplies in strategic locations. Volunteers write messages in Spanish and draw images like butterflies and crosses on the water gallons to communicate to those crossing that the water is safe to drink and not a border patrol trap. I found my way into this poem by experimenting with a made up long form created by my friend and formalist poet, Scott Miller, that uses repetition similar to a crown of sonnets.
To this day, anytime I know I’m going to read this poem in public, I have to practice it several times at home so I don’t cry, but I kind of hope every once in a while someone hears it and is inspired to donate money to humanitarian border causes, or even volunteer.
For more pinhole tricks and for strategies on hooking your reader, join my workshop on Writing Poetry for Social Change with inspiration2publication on March 5, 2016 at 10am on the Antioch Campus. We will be writing poems inspired by the poetry of Martin Espada and Carolyn Forche, and taking a look at social media/poetry movements such as #blackpoetsspeakout and Poets Responding to SB1070.
Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo is the 2013 Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange poetry winner and a 2015 Barbara Deming Fund grantee. She has work published in American Poetry Review, crazyhorse, CALYX, and Acentos Review among others. A short dramatization of her poem “Our Lady of the Water Gallons,” directed by Chicano activist and Hollywood director, Jesús Salvador Treviño can be viewed at latinopia.com. She curates the quarterly reading series HITCHED and co-founded Women Who Submit. Her debut poetry collection, Built with Safe Spaces, is forthcoming from Sundress Publications.
One thought on “How to Look at a Solar Eclipse: A Trick on Writing for Social Change”
Xochitl, thanks for the shout-out! I think you raise an important question in this piece. I’ve thought about this concern with writing to current events or politics in general, and I try to follow three rough guidelines when I write about current events:
1) Right does not make Might. Oh, if only it did. Unfortunately, being on the side of truth and justice is not enough. You’re writing a poem, not running for office. Keep a narrow focus on your craft as you are guided by your conscience.
2) Know your audience. I suspect there aren’t a lot of people with shelf full of contemporary poetry AND an original painting by George Zimmerman. I don’t think it’s all that helpful to assume the reader is a political adversary in general, nor to preach to the choir.
3) Know your subject. Righteous indignation is not a substitute for meticulous, well-researched writing. Xochitl, I think your series of poems, including “Our Lady of the Water Gallons”, is incredibly successful because you spent time in the desert and had some inkling of the desperation it takes to make that trek, not to mention the concrete details of the experience. Without that understanding, one runs the risk of a sort of political sentimentality.