Saturday, June 7, 2008

Poetry Under Investigation

I wrote in one of my first columns for the Nassau Guardian that exercising one's imagination in this country is tantamount to heresy. The imagination is the one place that governments and churches (and any other authority for that matter) cannot control, and therefore it is seen (and portrayed) as wild and dangerous terrain. We have been trained not to question authority, and not to 'story', to tell lies, fictions. We have been trained to stay out of the mangrove swamps of our imaginations, to fear the monsters in the blue holes, to keep to the shallows and steer clear of the dark brown and black patches of water in our own psyches: all the better to uphold the truths already known, the status quo, in which those with most kinds of power are thoroughly invested.

When individuals step out of line, or cross the line between status quo and the unknown, into the dangerous and wild places of the imagination, we tell them first they are abominations; we tell them they are of the devil. We threaten them with spiritual warfare, eternal damnation and the like. When that doesn't work, when those individuals do not cower in fear for their souls, we send in backup: the physical forces of domination, in this case, the Royal Bahamian Police Force.

The story is that two young poets are being investigated by the police because of the alleged sexual content of their poetry. When I learned of this, I was shocked, and outraged. But the shock was short-lived. I have heard other stories: a young woman is dragged naked from her home by police; a young woman is raped by a policeman while in custody. It so happens that both poets are female. In a patriarchy, every act of aggression against a woman by a male in authority is calculated to control, to keep her in a place outside her imagination, in the hopes that she may forget how to get there. She may forget a place called 'imagination' exists at all. And without a way to get to her imagination, there will be no new ideas, and no agency with which to live them.

Poet Audre Lorde, a first generation Caribbean American, wrote that "poetry is not a luxury" precisely because it has the power to give birth to ideas so that they can be lived. Poetry, said Lorde, names those feelings that our bodies know but have no words for. Poetry is necessary because it can turn feeling into language and language into action.

True rebellion does not come in the form of guns, or physical force, it comes in the shape of ideas. Ideas cannot be killed. And ideas are spawned in the mangrove swamps of our imaginations. Poets, playwrights, novelists, essayists, filmmakers, visual artists of all kinds have the power to spawn ideas. We have the power to bring down walls and governments. The builders of both know this.

If Bahamian poets are under investigation by police it is because they are naming something which powers that be would prefer remained unnamed. And that is the sacred task of poets. And, if the police are investigating poets and poetry, it is because they can: we as a society have agreed not to question authority, by and large; not to make consistent and sustained protests against so many other kinds of human rights violations; and not to protect the spawning grounds of our most delicate and valuable resources: physical and psychic wetlands.

The intrusion of police into the poet's work, into the poem, is a serious human rights violation. And it is our sacred task as human beings and poets to resist violation of our bodies, our poems, and our imaginations, by every means possible. We have already been too silent, too accommodating; if we say nothing, do nothing, then like frogs in water slowly boiling, we will not understand our fate until it is too late.

May 8th, 2008, Oakland, CA

Published as a letter to the editor in the Nassau Tribune, Nassau, Bahamas on May 14, 2008


Lynn Sweeting said...

'True rebellion comes in the shape of ideas." Yes! poets and writers who speak to me the most always begin with the rebel idea that they have a story or two that absolutely must be told, for the wider good and for their own, stories that were silenced until now. The brightest poet, in my opinion, is usually the one in the room making someone in power feel uncomfortable. If you come away from a reading feeling a little disturbed there's a chance you heard a significant performance by an important writer. (ah sista, As you well know.) one of my secret dreams is to write some poems that cause a little non violent disruption on the House floor. but in the meantime i stand in solidarity with this young woman, lets keep paying attention in case it turns into fullblown harrassment. or violence. (our armed forces are well known at Amnesty for excessive force.)
Thankyou for this essay, and for The Gaulin Wife, its great to hear your voice on the Web.
bright blessings!

Pretty Me!! said...

Reached this page thx to "global voices" ... While it was sad to hear of the poets ... it was heartening to see your views about the work and imagination of all art makers ... me being a reader of all sorts of poetry myself enjoy and applaude the poets who can put to words what each one of us feel !! Thanks for this write !!

Helen Klonaris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Helen Klonaris said...

Greetings Lynn and Hello and welcome to you Pretty Me!!

Thank you for reading my words and for posting your own here. The power of community and dialogue here and on the ground in our communities is great.

And so is the power of poetry. As another Caribbean poet, Nan Peacocke, once said, "Poetry has the power to bring down governments, starting with the ones in our heads..."

The best of life to both of you!

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