Ms. Muse: On Political Poetry in the Trump Era—and a Call for Poems of Resistance

Ms. Muse is a discovery place for riotous, righteous and resonant feminist poetry that nourishes and gives voice to a rising tide of female resistance—brought to you by Ms. digital columnist Chivas Sandage.

Interested in sharing your poetry? Email submissions to msmuse@msmagazine.com. Directions below.


Checking my cell phone in an elevator, I happened to first see the shocking photograph of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his nearly two-year-old daughter, Valeria—both lying face down on the edge of the Rio Grande, her body tucked inside his shirt, her arm still wrapped around her father’s neck. I struggled to keep it together as neighbors with young children, including a boy Valeria’s age, stepped onto the elevator. I thought of my wife’s niece and nephew, both two. My little sister at two. My daughter at two.

(Ricardo Aca)

A healthy toddler who’s getting most of her needs met is in constant motion, absorbing vast amounts of new information twenty-four hours a day. I remember when my nearly two-year-old Sophie stood suddenly on a kid-sized chair to try and flip a light switch, just to see if she could, and succeeded—then fell. And I’ll never forget her cries as I held her on the way to the ER, pressing gauze against her lower lip, or the fear in her eyes as gentle doctors expertly stitched up the awful gash.

Although I was by her side every second, holding her body, holding her hands, comforting her and explaining what she needed to know to feel safe, I experienced for the first time—in a notably safe, privileged way—just a taste of what it’s like to see one’s child absolutely terrified and discover that your comfort and love is not enough to take away her suffering.

I think of Valeria’s father—what must he have felt in the river, in the end, trying to save his little girl?

Valeria and her father did not deserve to suffer, did not deserve to die for wanting a better life in the United States of America. And like so many in this nation, I am haunted by the faces of distraught brown children forced to live in chain-link cages, and exhausted, grief-stricken brown women sitting on the floor crammed in small cells, deprived of sleep and told by guards that they’re “whores,” all while not knowing where their children have been taken.

Like so many people across the country, I’m stunned with disbelief as this scandal-ridden President defends white supremacists, denigrates women, insults veterans, vilifies the media, courts dictators and despots, orders the justice department to damage the census, copycats Mussolini’s demand that tanks appear in a parade, flirts with nuclear war, tells U.S. Congresswomen of color to “go back” to the “crime infested places from which they came,” and dismantles our democracy day after day while most of us are trying to fathom the existential climate crisis that faces our divided nation under Trump. And this list, of course, is just a sampling.

Many of us are concerned about people and families we know who are threatened with deportation, folks who’ve spent decades contributing to our communities, paying taxes and providing services we depend on. Will they be rounded up? What then? What the hell can we do?

Too many of us have already experienced our own lives personally affected by Trump and his administration’s policies. Or felt his threats too close to home. Or know it’s just a matter of time.

*

In Light Up the Cave, poet Denise Levertov’s 1981 collection of prose, she discusses the tradition of “engaged poetry” (inspired by Engaged Buddhism) practiced by writers who may also be activists, in her essay “On the Edge of Darkness: What is Political Poetry?”

“It seems as if the sense of urgency, indeed of desperation, that permeates our lives, has the effect, if it does not paralyze us, of intensifying and diversifying our activities; it is not enough to write or act, we feel we must do both. And this means that there’s less distance between event and poem, less time for reflection, more immediacy.”

Levertov’s words are as relevant today as they were nearly four decades ago. Notably, she adds that having less time for your perspective to evolve “can be used to advantage or disadvantage.” But having co-founded an “Engaged Writing Salon” in graduate school, I now question the word “engaged” because it suggests the poet has a choice—to engage or not to engage, as if “politics” is abstract and has no tangled, painful connection to the poet’s life. As if politics is simply one of countless themes from which to choose and not “the total complex of relations between people living in society.”

As if politics is not, literally, the air we breathe.

What a profound privilege—to have one’s life, family, friends and/or community largely insulated from the consequences of politics. And for a writer, what freedom—to choose your subject rather than be “chosen.”

Novelist Colson Whitehead, in a recent interview about his book The Nickel Boys on NPR’s Fresh Air, was asked what made him want to write about the now infamous school where boys were severely abused and tortured and dozens of unmarked graves were found. “I didn’t want to,” he says, explaining that he felt “compelled.”  

Just as many formerly apolitical Americans claim Trump has turned them into liberal activists, Levertov described decades ago what many feminist women writers in the U.S. today are saying in their work and on social media: writing about what’s happening in our country feels necessary as a way of taking action. In 1983, poet and writer Audre Lorde articulated precisely the genesis of her deeply political body of work:

“So the question of social protest and art is inseparable for me. I can’t say it is an either-or proposition.

Art for art’s sake doesn’t really exist for me. What I saw was wrong, and I had to speak up.

I loved poetry, and I loved words. But what was beautiful had to serve the purpose of changing my life, or I would have died. If I cannot air this pain and alter it, I will surely die of it. That’s the beginning of social protest.”

(Black Women Writers at Work).

*

The photograph of Valeria and her father face down in muddy water—her red shorts and little shoes—haunts me to the degree I called my representatives and then began writing, not knowing where it would lead me but it led to this call for poems to share with you. In this spirit, I offer a poem:

Mar-a-Lago on a Rainy Day

Powerless
over the sky

unable
to stand squinting in the sun
surveying his private kingdom

incapable
of plodding or riding
across his emerald sea
of tamed, shaved, pristine turf

the 45th President of the United States
sits watching TV. Bitterly,
he stews all day—his rage
danger we now call home.

Ms. Muse: A Call for Poems of Witness, Protest and Resistance

Please spread the word to feminist poets who identify as women: if you’re writing about what you’re witnessing, what you’re living and what haunts you, we invite you to send your work to Ms. Muse for consideration.

Email 1-5 poems in one Word document, including your name and contact information to msmuse@msmagazine.com. No simultaneous submissions please. No letter or bio needed. Previously published poems from books with modest print runs (like most collections of poetry) are fine, but the poem must not appear elsewhere on the internet.

Ms. Muse poets retain full rights to poem(s) for republishing elsewhere. We will promote you and your work to the millions of readers connected via our website, social media and email digest.

Finally, we are not necessarily seeking women-centric poems, but rather, hoping to find powerful work that reflects women’s lived experiences, observations, perspectives and concerns. We are particularly interested in the work of poets who write from intersectional perspectives. Consider this an open and ongoing invitation.

About

Chivas Sandage is a digital columnist at Ms. and the author of Hidden Drive, a finalist for the 2012 ForeWord Book of the Year Awards in poetry. Her poems and essays have appeared in Ms., The Rumpus, Salmagundi, Southern Humanities Review and Texas Observer, among others. She is at work on a nonfiction book about the double shooting of a lesbian teenage couple in Texas. Tweet her @ChivasSandage.