Writer’s block is like constipation. Writers know they have ideas and thoughts up in their brains, but they won’t come out onto the page. A search on the Walgreen’s website for a cure gave me no help. CVS was a little better but only because it changed “writers” to “whiten” and suggested a deodorant pen. Writers do use pens, and sometimes their writing stinks, but I don’t think this tool would help. I’m not sure it would even help stinky armpits. I wouldn’t want a pen tip going across the sensitive skin of my armpit. And how effective can something so thin and defined be? Anyway, I usually don’t have issues with writer’s block, as one can tell from my copious thoughts on deodorant pens. However, my students do, and I know other writers do too. Luckily, I have the brain laxative, or solution, to help.
I should start with some things not to try. Like being constipated, any health care professional will tell someone not to sit on the toilet and try to force the situation. In the case of writer’s block, the toilet is a blank computer screen or journal page. While the brain won’t get hemorrhoids, it’s as frustrating and unproductive as sitting on the pot for over an hour. Waiting for something to happen by ignoring the problem and doing other tasks will also not help. Again, the repercussions in the health arena are much more serious. Please do not wait days or weeks to poop. This will lead to a hospital visit and very unpleasant treatments. In the writer’s world, it just leads to nothing being written, which wasn’t the goal. One who is not trying to write doesn’t get writer’s block, the same way people who don’t eat don’t get constipated. But the latter will die. The writer will just be a sad sack who is a bore at parties full of other writers.
Now for some concrete solutions. Read. Reading is the laxative of the writer’s brain. Read work that is inspiring. Read work that is frustrating. In the case of the former, you might be inspired by the writer’s style, word choice, or tone. In the case of the latter, you will likely be frustrated and think you can do better. Then do it. Make that person’s ideas even better. Don’t publish this, and don’t share it with that writer. It’s best left in the journal on computer file unless you’ve made it uniquely your own or unless you’re into making other writers sad.
Mimic and steal. If you’re claiming you have no ideas (which isn’t true if you’ve been reading or you are a thinking human being), then take someone’s writing and mimic it. Write a poem using the same theme, line length, and rhyme scheme. Take a short story’s first line and, use it as your own first sentence.
Get a prompt. I know some writers poo-poo prompts. “Real creative writers don’t use prompts,” I’ve heard at least one fellow writer say. Fuck that. Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein after being prompted by Lord Byron that she and he, along with Percy Shelly, should each write gothic ghost stories. Also, creative writers use current events all the time in their writing. I Googled books on Hurricane Katrina, and the first five results are “best book” lists. On a side note, I can’t say “fuck that” to my students. Also, all my students are assigned prompts. This is mainly because if I let them write about anything they wanted, I’d be inundated with essays on legalizing pot and students so overwhelmed with their choices they’d have writer’s block.
Remember two important things: you are writing a draft, and you can’t revise what you haven’t written. I tell my students this all the time. “I can’t write my ideas well,” they say, or, “I’m afraid what I write will be awful.” Therefore, they write nothing. I had a student once who had this problem through the whole semester and ended up failing because he never wrote a word. This is a psychological problem. I am not a therapist, but I can tell writers that you have to write the shit down to make it no longer shit. I can’t say “shit” to my students, so I call it the “crappy draft.” This aptly fits my metaphor of constipation and writer’s block.
Banish the thought that you have nothing to add to what is being written. I just went to GoogleScholar and searched for Shakespeare. Over 1.4 million entries came up. You can add to what is being written about anything. You can also assume that a lot of what is written isn’t good, in your opinion or someone else’s. Then you get a chance to write it better. You get to write it in your style, in your words. Someone will love it. Someone will hate it. Who cares? You got it out of you. That’s what’s important.
With all that said, banish the thought that no one will ever read it anyway. Poets, with the exception of Maya Angelou and Billy Collins, all know that hardly anyone in the large scheme of things will ever read our work. Most novelists will never reach the sales of Stephen King. Still not convinced? According to Wikipedia, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone sold 107,000,000 copies. It seems like EVERYONE read that book, right? Not even close. The world population had grown by about 2 billion people from 1995 (Harry was published in 1997) to 2017.* So roughly, 5% of the whole world has read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Write for yourself. If you decide to share it, that’s great, but unless you are doing it for a living, it’s not what’s important.
Don’t label yourself. Here is a list of things I’ve heard writers say about themselves that keeps them from writing:
I don’t write poetry/essays/stories.
I only write in _______ style/genre.
I’m a reader, not a writer.
I’m an ideas person, not a writer.
I stink at writing.
I am not smart enough to write.
I have been through many years of cognitive behavioral therapy for my depression and anxiety. When a therapist told me to practice “positive self-talk,” I laughed. I didn’t believe I could just say things to myself and overcome years of believing I was unattractive, unworthy, and unintelligent. My therapist asked me what I would tell a friend who said things like that about herself. She asked me to imagine my best friend sitting next to me, saying those things about herself. What would I say to her? Of course, I’d say none of those things were true! What would she say to me if I were saying those things about myself to her? She’d say the same. So I started, slowly, telling myself nice things about myself or correcting my negative thoughts. When I thought I wasn’t looking my best, I’d picture my friend in my head saying I looked great. When I felt dumb about something, I’d remind myself I am educated and have experience but I’m still learning new things all the time. It started working.
If you tell yourself you’re not a novelist/poet/writer, then you won’t be. If you tell yourself you can’t write because all your teachers said so, you had awful teachers. Terrible human beings. And they don’t know you now. People change. I used to be pretty weak in math skills, but as I’ve aged and my brain has changed, I’m pretty good at it now. I used to say, “I can’t do math.” Now I say, “I can do a lot of math.”
If you think you stink at writing, that doesn’t mean you can’t improve. It’s the same as playing an instrument. Pretty much everyone stinks at it when they first start, but with practice, and learning, they get better. Not everyone gets to be a professional bassoonist, but adults who played bassoon in high school band can pick it up again with practice and enjoy it. They are going to have a hard time getting back into the swing of breathing and fingering, and reading music, but they will get better. You will too. Also, revisit paragraph 6.
Finally, I am reminded of the small bottle of stool softener in my medicine cabinet. I don’t use it often, but when I need it, I’m glad I have it. I’m also glad for Pepto-Bismol, but that’s a different problem and a different metaphor for another essay. Writers need to remember there are so many tools available through Google searches, books on writing, and online and in-person writing groups. My favorite website for help when I’m writing is called The Sunday Whirl, which gives a set of words every Sunday that writers can use to jump-start their writing. When I’m feeling dried up, I read a favorite poet. There’s never a reason not to write. There are so many reasons it’s good to write. Write your words. You need to let them out.
Kristin LaTour is a poet and professor living in Aurora, IL. Her book, What Will Keep Us Alive, and forthcoming chapbook, Mend, are both published by Sundress. Readers can find her in journals all over the web and in print. This is her only published essay. She wrote it in a few weeks. She didn’t procrastinate in writing it, but she did forget she had it done and to send the damn thing in.
“It is my history raiding me”: Exploring Representations of Public and Private Violence
Welcome to our Sundress Roundtables, a celebration of exceptional, not-so-lost AWP panels which did not make the AWP final cut for 2017.
How is violence produced in a twenty-second exchange, perpetuated in a centuries-long system? This panel explores how writing can engage with the intersections of institutional and interpersonal violence. Through poems and essays, we share strategies, messy attempts, more questions. One common thread we trace is violence’s relation to intimacy. If we allow it in private, do we then more readily allow it in public? Is desire inherently violent? Or should we distinguish a more metaphorical violence from abusive dynamics, historical atrocities, present crises?
In your view, what is the relationship (overlaps as well as key distinctions) between institutional violence and interpersonal violence?
Muriel Leung: The public imagination of violence has always largely veered towards the interpersonal, I think, because it’s a bit more easy to detect and articulate since we are each experts in how our own bodies relate to the world. A solely interpersonal outlook on violence, though, is dangerously limiting. It obscures the larger forces at play that dictate how we relate to each other socially: how we are all influenced by a certain type of education, upbringing, privileged positioning, and opportunities we are afforded and not afforded. And these relations sometimes change or stay the same when we travel to a different state, region, or country.
The U.S. in particular is guilty of such failings in recognizing institutional violence as a legitimate source of inquiry and rage. The recent election of Donald Trump and the widespread approval of him by those who identity as poor or middle class white is pretty emblematic of that rift in understanding between institutional and interpersonal violence. Largely, poor or middle class white people have been expressing feelings of being shafted by progressive political actions that appear to provide opportunities in favor of those who are immigrant, non-citizen, and/or nonwhite. In other words, provisions of social or political rights to these communities means they lose out. The issue here seems to be that even the understanding of interpersonal violence is incredibly short-sighted. It’s the strangest correlation – the more privileges you possess in this country, the greater the level of threat of its loss such that one feels the need to hoard opportunities, to forbid others who may be further marginalized from access to them. I think this is what a limited scope of institutional violence can do – it turns social and political life into a never-ending blame game in which vulnerable communities are under attack rather than the systems that perpetuate the original source of the misery.
Jessica Smith: I think this relationship has to do with sustainability – what an individual is willing or has been taught, in private, to sustain. If one is subjected to gaslighting, violence, and subjugation in their home, the space that is supposed to be the most safe and sacred, then how can they hope to interrogate these same offenses at an institutional level?
One of the most difficult parts of fighting violence, or rerouting mindsets that lead to violence, is having to identify it when you are so consistently working to “recover” from it. How do we name what harms us when that harm originates from a place we trust – a parent, a partner, a university, a government? How can we explain what cruelty is to those who are in the position of teaching us right from wrong?
Trying to illuminate structures of oppression to the oppressor is not only painful and unfair, but nearly impossible, particularly when their behaviors are reinforced by an oppressive societal framework. I’ve found this space un-navigable – the space wherein the victim must be the one who is measured and thoughtful, where even the most basic explanation of decency feels like begging. We’ve seen this during the campaign and election of Donald Trump – calls for harmony and decency in the face of a man who ran his campaign on cruelty and harassment.
It is vital to interrogate this public-private connection because it is interdependent. Institutional violence relies on breeding acceptance in private. It needs people to expect it, or at minimum be afraid to fight it.
Sarah Viren: Sometime after the election I found myself rereading Gabriel García Márquez’s Nobel Prize lecture from 1982. I used to teach the lecture, but it had been a while. And also it was different reading the speech at this moment in time, when it feels like all forms of violence are under attack by those who would insist that they do not exist.
Though I love every part of that speech, there is one part that is particularly powerful. After listing innumerable instances of interpersonal, institutional, and state-sponsored violence in Latin America, García Márquez demands that this reality be what we recognize when we recognize his fiction:
A reality not of paper, but one that lives within us and determines each instant of our countless daily deaths, and that nourishes a source of insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty, of which this roving and nostalgic Colombian is but one cipher more, singled out by fortune. Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude.
(Read the original version of the speech in Spanish here.)
Interpersonal violence tends to be what we recognize as real violence. It is what we see on TV and in many movies and in so many of our fictions and nonfictions. And often in its representations and repetitions, in its sexy allure and sell-ability, interpersonal violence can appear more hyper-real than real. I cannot tell you how many bloody and dead women I have seen on a screen, their violated and abused bodies made into the mystery around with a male narrative will unspool.
Institutional violence is our refusal to also see the repetition of that dead female body as a form of violence. It is our refusal to read One Hundred Years of Solitude outside of any other context than the “magically real” hoisted on it by U.S. and European critics and academics. It is what García Márquez is talking about when he says solitude. Institutional violence is all those forms of violence—health care inequities, sweatshop conditions, historical revisionism, voter suppression—that are so often denied a reality in large part because they are so pervasive and engrained that we struggle to see at all.
Chen Chen: I’ve been thinking about the post-election rallying cry shouted or tweeted out by many liberals: “Love trumps hate.” But what do we mean by love? Do we mean feeling some vague but pleasurable harmony? Do we mean saying hi to strangers and holding the door open for them? Or do we mean something that actually requires policy change and systemic change? I return, always, to this James Baldwin passage from The Fire Next Time:
Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.
These days, I am also returning to an article by Jo Blaise, published recently in Kinfolk Kollective (and entitled “Your Love Won’t Trump Hate”):
Toni Morrison taught me early on that love is never any better than the lover. She warned us in the pages of The Bluest Eye that “wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly…” So when I see exasperated faces and secret Facebook groups lamenting that love failed to trump hate, I must ask: Whose? Whose love failed us?
It’s important here to say that James Baldwin and Jo Blaise are both writing out of a history of Black struggle movements, some of which have been deeply transnational in practice (for instance, both Baldwin and Blaise make connections to Palestine). As a non-Black POC, I think that love also, on some basic level, means insisting on the fact that certain frameworks and strategies for resistance come specifically from Black resistance.
How can the genre(s) you write in get at the relationship between different yet interlocking forms of violence? What is it about a particular genre or way of writing that opens up the investigation into violence(s) for you?
Muriel Leung: I’m interested in how recent turns to hybrid genres or less clearly defined genres of writing seem symptomatic of a world whose set of complex relations seem to growing exponentially as the years progress. If genre and form is historically, politically, and socially influential to aesthetic development, then I think the growing tenuousness of containers for these genres and forms means that things are happening far faster than we can write them. In particular, writing violence and trauma demands a far greater set of responsibilities and ethical aesthetic practices now that I think ruptured forms and genres seem to address.
I’m especially interested in the essay now, the etymology of the word drawing from the French “essayer” (trial or attempt). Moving into the essay from poetry, I adapt a lot of poetic elements, particularly the lyric when it comes to phrasing, but how I think essays differ from poetry is the impetus “to try” to achieve a point of hyper-clarity, to arrive at some answer in the end. Poetry has always been, for me, about creating language landscapes of webbed responses. This abstraction is useful too, but experimenting with the essay as a form that responds to violence and trauma in a way that poetry alone cannot do is a necessary project for me. It forces a necessary toggling between poetry’s propensity towards abstraction and the essay’s need to establish a personal rhetoric. It is as if poetry offers sites of feelings for rage, anxiety, and depression, and the essay provides a set of guidelines for how to navigate them. When you put the two together, they do joint work to convey a perspective that may not possible if each genre were solely confined to their own rules.
Jessica Smith: Most of my work and research centers on intimate partner violence. One of the most illuminating things a counselor once shared with me is that society is structured to misunderstand victimhood – that the victim of sustained abuse (in any form) usually appears more scattered, damaged, and volatile to the outside world than the perpetrator. Victims are more likely to miss work, invent transparent lies to their loved ones, and be generally unslept, unkempt, and unhappy. The perpetrator of the violence is, conversely, accustomed to the dynamic and in control of it, thus appearing more “together” to observers. The victim’s reality is distorted on all levels.
This gulf between the realities of abuse and the understanding of it, I think, is best traversed by poetry. Ricardo Gullon said that poetry is the transfer of intuition – it privileges insight over information. If we are hoping to gain insight into sustained, systemic violence (institutional, interpersonal, both), then we have to close the space between representation and reality. As Rachel Louise Snyder put it in her New Yorker article on domestic violence, “A Raised Hand”:
“Between 2000 and 2006, thirty-two hundred American soldiers were killed; during that period, domestic homicide in the United States claimed ten thousand six hundred lives. This figure is likely an underestimate, as it was pulled from the F.B.I.’s Supplementary Homicide Reports, which gather data from local police departments, where homicide reporting is voluntary.
Dunne attributes the prevalence of domestic violence, in part, to a deep cultural misunderstanding of how violence operates. We assume that victims incite abuse, or that if the situation at home was truly threatening they would leave.”
Because I think that victim-blaming and gendered assumptions about who commits intimate partner violence are both erroneous, I want my work to focus on the collective societal issues that support a culture where intimate partner violence happens with such frequency, and in such secret. Poetry weds the private and the public – it distills the moment of crisis into a universal one. Poetry gives us the pinhole camera so that we can look directly at the eclipse. It is “…the language of intensity,” wrote C.D. Wright. “Because we are going to die, an expression of intensity is justified.”
Sarah Viren: I write in all genres and often I think that the way we separate our genres, especially when the deciding factor is whether the text is “true” or not, is itself a form of violence. So I’m not sure that the genres get at violence differently, but that readers’ understanding of genre distinctions can both open up and/or confine how violence is understood within a particular work.
I’m often struck, for instance, by how much more people will react to a description of violence if it is read within the context of a “true” genre, like memoir or literary journalism, as opposed to violence that’s been framed as fictional (but might still be representative of a real situation or injustice). Whenever I’ve taught Carolyn Forché’s poem “The Colonel,” I can see a change in the room—and in the reading of that poem—as soon as I mention that Forché has said that it documents actual events. Students suddenly take the poem more seriously and are also more interested in hearing about context. I wonder about that change. Because even if the Colonel or the sack of ears were invented, the violence they represent would still be symbolically true. More than 75,000 people were killed during the Salvadoran Civil War, a war that the United States helped prolong.
So rather than saying I prefer this or that genre when writing about violence, I think it’s more accurate to say that I tend to use the essayistic mode. For me, essaying is the form of writing that best replicates the mind on the page. It is not chronological or narrative in nature. It is not interested in replicating reality but rather commenting on it and trying to understand it, often by making connections, many of them non-intuitive. For all those reasons, it is the best way for me of getting at issues of institutional violence.
I once wrote an essay, for instance, about singing murder ballads to my newborn daughter to stop her from crying. All I knew when I started writing that essay was that there was something not right, or at least more complicated than I wanted to admit, about me singing her those songs, most of which are about murdered women. What I ended up working through in that essay were a series of connections, between those ballads and other stories of violence against women, between my desire to soothe my daughter and my own culpability in a system in which stories of violence against women—not to mention actual violence against women—are so common we don’t notice them at all.
Chen Chen: Most of the time, I am a poet. Lately, though, I’ve been working on essays. Lyric essays. Somewhat experimental, perhaps. The possibilities of creative nonfiction have opened up for me some new ways into difficult subjects. One essay I just revised is a meditation on the shooting at Pulse and on living as an openly gay person in a very conservative town in West Texas. Guns are a big part of the culture here, as are rather normalized (often coded) forms of sexism and homophobia—so before Pulse, I was already on guard all the time. I felt like I was back in the closet in certain contexts. After Pulse, a part of me wants to stay home 24-7; at times I feel deeply uneasy going, with my boyfriend, to the movie theater or to the local Barnes & Noble. Obviously, these places are not nightclubs, but the fact that a safe or sacred space specifically for queer people was attacked makes every space seem dangerous. The essay traces the social roots of anti-queer erasure and violence, including how internalized homophobia manifests.
At the same time, I have no direct connection to Pulse. I’ve struggled with how to represent the specific and enormous violence that occurred there. It feels necessary to document the violence because it seems like the violence has left the national consciousness so quickly. Part of the essay’s task is slowing down, making space for a longer memory to take hold. But I worry about reproducing violence. I worry about the reiteration of a certain form of tragic queer suffering. I worry about aestheticizing or narrativizing such immense loss. I worry about what it means for me—someone who is a queer person of color but who is not Latinx or part of an Orlando community—to write about this in the first place. In the essay, I try to acknowledge these worries and to critique my own tendencies/approaches. I try to keep distinct and particular the experience at Pulse and the experiences in West Texas. And I try to excavate why, exactly, I feel so much grief; why it is that this mourning feels already familiar. The piece is called “It Seems I Have Been Mourning for a Long Time.”
Writing in a lyric essay form has allowed me to bring together multiple threads without (I hope) conflating them. The form has also allowed me to ask questions about what it means to “research” an event so horrific and personally triggering—the fact that it became unbearable to read account after account from friends and relatives and beloveds of the people killed at Pulse. I couldn’t read more than two or three accounts in a single sitting. I couldn’t keep looking at the pictures: the smiling selfies, the couples in love, the people who were just going about their lives in their particular, beautiful, complicated ways. So, I had to slow down. I had to cry. I had to read more slowly and return to my essay, taking greater care with my language. It just seems so impossible that they are gone.
What are some examples of work that you feel interrogate, complicate, reshape our understanding of violence(s)?
Muriel Leung: There are so many writers and artists out there who challenge our understanding of violence in such a way that folds critique into our daily imagination of it. The first names that come to mind are always women of color: Claudia Rankine, Cathy Park Hong, and Bhanu Kapil. Each writer is invested in pushing or challenging presumed genre and formal boundaries in their discussion of race and national (anti)belonging. There’s also Douglas Kearney, Craig Santos Perez, Solmaz Sharif, and Robin Coste Lewis, whose works critique structures and forms of power from black history archives to Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. I think it’s powerful to consider one’s poetic practice as a part of history and history-making, to think about how reviewing the past can be a way of conceiving a certain type of future. Not necessarily optimism — I think these writers would agree that one should always be skeptical about overly idealistic renditions of future possibilities — but a complicated and weighted hope for some form of change.
Other writers I think who have been on my mind recently: Will Giles beautifully utilizes heartbreaking comedy and extended metaphors in his performances about substance abuse, history, and community revival. Vanessa Villarreal, whose book, Beast Meridian is forthcoming from Noemi Press in 2017, is especially gifted in recognizing how the textures of the page can be a means of exploring how violence can be enacted through language. Kay Ulanday Barrett, whose first poetry collection, When the Chant Comes (Topside Press 2016) just came out and I think is one of the best texts on intersectional politics and what good allyship is out there. Jamie Berrout too, who largely self-publishes, has not only put out some amazing nonfiction, fiction, and poetry about being a trans Latina woman — her work gorgeously weaves in and out of time, place, space, and memory.
Jessica Smith: I was moved and devastated by Lacy M. Johnson’s memoir The Other Side, which explores not only the horrific crime her ex-lover committed against her, but the murky systemic issues around academic and sexual power structures that allowed her to sustain a relationship with him – despite his escalating violence – for so many years prior to this final attack. She complicates notions of how a victim should act or “heal” in the aftermath. The memoir is both lyrical and unflinchingly direct, which I think mirrors the ice-clear fever dream of working through “recovery.”
I am endlessly in awe of Vievee Francis’s ability, in her poetry, to be confrontational and still deeply vulnerable. She engages violence as a scope, not an isolated incident, and demands that her reader do the same. Though she is clear about the intensity and consistency of the violence in her work, she avoids the kind of “begging” explanations these narratives often devolve into. Her poems key into the strange familiarity of violence, and the way it parades, so often, as intimacy. I go back over and over again to the end of her poem “Taking It,” where she writes:
“…Is this too dramatic?
Find another story. Find a lie. In love, body after body
fell beneath my own, though my own was broken,
and I made love like a sea creature, fluid as if boneless,
though my bones would rattle if not for the fat I cherish.
Wouldn’t you? How I grew to love the heavyweights,
myself with one in the ring. How I imagined him punching
me, and punching me again, saying I’m sorry, so sorry,
to have to love you this way.”
Any writer who can open their throat this way – who puts the words cherish and fluid and love in the same breath as punching and broken and heavyweights reveals that violence is not something that punctuates life but rather is woven into it.
Sarah Viren: Well, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a really good example of how fiction can address violence. The novel is allegorical, and so the stories of violence it tells are meant to be read both as specific examples of interpersonal violence and as representative of systemic forms of violence that happened and continue to happen (i.e. how poor people and poor countries are exploited by multi-national companies and how dysfunction within a family can be passed down through generations and, thus, perpetuated).
While we’re thinking about Colombia, I’d also mention Don’t Come Back by my friend Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas, which will be published by The Ohio State University Press this January. Lina’s descriptions of violence can be both beautiful and horrifying, but she never glorifies or sensationalizes violence, which is a danger, I think, in any attempt to write about violent acts. What her book does that’s particularly effective for me is that she uses descriptions of violence to unnerve the reader, make us uncomfortable and, then, force us to think about the world that engendered that violence.
Besides those two examples, I happen to be reading two books right now that also speak to violence in new and interesting ways: Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexiavich and 100 Chinese Silences by Timothy Yu. The first, “a novel in voices,” as Alexievich calls her oral histories, is collection of testimonies from people who came of age in the Soviet Union but are now adjusting to its replacement (i.e. a capitalistic society), and their stories show how the forms of violence that unfettered capitalism supports can sometimes be as devastating as the state-run violence suffered under leaders like Stalin.
Yu’s book talks about another form of violence: that of representation. His poems are a response to a whole body of American poetry that uses references to Asia or Asian people as symbolic stand-ins for stereotypical ideals/ideas. These are poems commit violence by silencing people, and Yu attempts to speak into that silence through parody. What I love about his book is that each poem mentions a specific U.S. poet and poem so that there is, in effect, a very real calling out, or confrontation, but also a conversation created between the original moment of silencing and Yu’s often funny but also fierce response.
Chen Chen: I’ll just recommend two amazing books that came out recently.
Aracelis Girmay’s poetry collection the black maria. A shattering and necessary book engaging the loss of “over 20,000 people [who] have died at sea making the journey from North Africa to Europe in the past two decades.” Specifically, the core cycle of the book speaks to the history of those of Eritrean descent (Girmay is part of the Eritrean diaspora). The second part of the book engages police violence against Black lives in the United States. From the acknowledgments on p. 112:
I have struggled with this particular project, so steeped in violence, mourning, and grief. How do I work inside of such histories of violence without further brutalizing the black body in the work? How do I, especially here, make critical space for joy and tenderness in the remembering, so that my own imagination (gesture by gesture, line by line) isn’t rendered by the values of white supremacy or violence as I resist it? And how do I express, with tenderness, who and what this work/I love(s)? It is my hope that while these poems mourn the dead and the bleak circumstances of our present, violent day, they are also a tribute to black joy, black art, black making, black life.
Garrard Conley’s memoir Boy Erased. A deeply moving account of undergoing church-sponsored gay “conversion” therapy in the early 2000s. There is such heartbreaking tenderness and ache in Conley’s writing. From p. 148:
I had been wondering what it felt like to be in a straight mind my whole life, or at least ever since I discovered I was gay, when, in third grade, I’d first realized that my interest in our teacher, Mr. Smith, was much greater than that of my other male peers’. Though over the years I’d done my best to pretend otherwise, I’d had a string of male crushes that wouldn’t go away, a constant guilty ache that ran through my body for so long that I came to believe the feeling was just a part of what it meant to be alive. The only moments when the ache became a sharp pain were when I allowed myself to imagine a happy life with these crushes, a rarity to be sure.
How do you practice resistance to violence(s) in your work—as a writer, an activist, a teacher, an editor, a community member, etc.?
Muriel Leung: I think of my work as resistance and survival. I write about violence and trauma in my own work, especially in my recent poetry collection, Bone Confetti, which takes place in an especially violent landscape that forces its ghostly figures to find a way to reconfigure their notions of intimacy and desire in a time of loss. I also believe in exercising this resistance in editorial work with Apogee Journal as Co-Poetry Editor. I get fatigued with literary politics quite often so I think it’s important to take part in community building work that tries to work beyond representational politics — to offer a space to publish marginalized voices who may feel that their works are undervalued or dismissed by other literary spaces. I hope that we get to be a space where writers feel safe knowing that the editors are legible in race, gender, sexual, and dis/ability politics. This work, I think, is important to create alternative possibilities out there for publishing and engagement in literary spaces.
In addition to literary activism, I think there’s still a lot of work to be done in intersecting struggles from community organizing to direct service work. I’ve volunteered as a crisis counselor for an LGBTQ anti-violence hotline and just started as an abortion clinic escort. I think there’s such value to doing work that teaches you to confront emergency and to recognize that trauma surrounds us. We have a responsibility to know how to call it by name and support each other in our struggles. I think this work is just as important as supporting marginalized communities organizing for rights for undocumented workers, queer and trans youth, and anti-police brutality causes.
My hope for the future is that people can feel moved to support causes that are not necessarily pre-vetted by mainstream media as issues that matter. I hope that #BlackLivesMatter becomes more than just a hashtag and that we can work to undo anti-black racism in our communities on the institutional and interpersonal level.
Jessica Smith: As a teacher at a university that allows students to carry concealed weapons, in an isolated college town that is deeply pro-Trump (and was before Trump was a political metonymy), I have always worked to engage my students on what it means to be a citizen. What is your role in society, I ask them, and what is actually important to you? I try to bring conversations about politics back to the body – the bodies of their friends, their mothers, strangers, themselves – and ask what bodies matter to them. Politics is a question of where those bodies go, I say, and who gets to put them there.
I think this election has revealed to many (particularly white liberals) that activism is not a lifestyle choice but an imperative. Organize in your community. Talk to your family members. Educate yourself about the nature of systemic violence and suppression. There’s always more to know, and more to change. No one has ever regretted actions they take if those actions are rooted in advocacy and empathy.
Sarah Viren: I write a lot about crime and I just taught a literary true crime class and in both of those areas what I try to do is complicate our understanding of criminality and of the criminal act. I think one way we can do this is to consider the multiple forms of violence that cocoon any one crime. There is the violence of the crime committed, but there are also always violences that gave rise to that crime and that come out of it.
So, when I was teaching that class, I worked with students a lot to consider context when we discuss criminality and violence, but also perspective. We read a found essay about violence against transgender people, for instance, in which the author makes clear that these are crimes that will never be solved, in large part because they are continually minimized and erased by our culture. We also read an essay by Jose Antonio Vargas about being undocumented, which then allowed us to talk about what it means for a person to become a crime. If something that absurd is allowed to happen, where, then, is the violence occurring? My students were really smart about analyzing crime in these different ways and that class was one of the most rewarding I’ve taught so far in large part because I think we were really able to make some headway in our understanding of the interlocking forms of violence.
Beyond that, I also write a lot about my personal experiences as a queer woman and now a queer mother living in the far reaches of the south. And what I’m often hoping to do in that work is to break apart stereotypes that exist in both the larger culture, but also within queer culture, about what it means to parent. I’m very resistant to the idea that choosing to parent is inherently a conservative act and, in fact, I think the perpetuation of that stereotype is a form of violence that has a real silencing effect on families like mine. So my work in that area is also advocacy in that I want to speak to that silence and open up within it new understandings of what it means to parent or to start a family.
Chen Chen: I try to be constantly asking what people actually need—what is the support they need? Do they want support? I try to be constantly learning. Listening. Reading. Studying. Showing up but not taking up space that isn’t mine. Building and contributing to existing spaces for queer people of color. Improving my pedagogy. Speaking out on the corporate structures of the university, my university. Researching ways to create funding opportunities for queer people of color that are not reliant on university or governmental structures or on the nonprofit industrial complex. Celebrating the lives and resistances of queer people of color. Insisting on the differences between different communities and positionalities. Donating to Kundiman. Making English super gay.
Muriel Leung is the author of Bone Confetti (Noemi Press 2016). Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction can be found or is forthcoming in Drunken Boat, The Collagist, Fairy Tale Review, Ghost Proposal, Jellyfish Magazine, inter/rupture, and others. She is a recipient of a Kundiman fellowship and is a regular contributor to the Blood-Jet Writing Hour poetry podcast. She is also a Poetry Co-Editor of Apogee Journal. Currently, she is pursuing her PhD in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California.
Jessica Smith’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Waxwing, cream city Review, Sixth Finch, Phantom Books, Lumina, and other journals. She received her MFA from The New School and is currently pursuing at PhD in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University, where she was the 2016 recipient of the Warren S. Walker Prize and is a co-founder of the LHUCA Literary Series.
Sarah Viren is a writer, translator, and former newspaper reporter. Her essay collection MINE won the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize and will be published by the University of New Mexico Press in the spring of 2018 and her translation of the novella Córdoba Skies by the Argentine novelist Federico Falco was published by Ploughshares Solos in 2016. Other essays, poems, and stories have appeared in the Oxford American, the Iowa Review, AGNI, The Normal School, and Hobart. Read more about her at sarahviren.wordpress.com.
Chen Chen (moderator) is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and forthcoming spring 2017 from BOA Editions, Ltd. His work has appeared in two chapbooks and in publications such as Poetry, Gulf Coast, Best of the Net, and The Best American Poetry. He is a Kundiman Fellow and a Lambda Literary Fellow. He holds an MFA from Syracuse University and is pursuing a PhD in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. Visit him at chenchenwrites.com.