WASHINGTON – As the United States prepares to inaugurate a president whose use of language has been seen by many as less than clear and accountable, people across the country have taken to various media platforms to communicate their anxieties about what may be to come.
That includes through poetry.
A poetry reading last weekend in northeast Washington was the platform for airing — in verse — apprehension and frustration over the advent of a Trump presidency.
Held at the Busboys and Poets restaurant, the reading was part of Writers Resist, a national movement among writers created in the wake of Trump’s election to defend democracy and free speech. On Sunday, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, writers gathered in more than 100 locations in the United States and other countries to celebrate freedom of expression and speak out against the potential threats they perceived from the rhetoric of the incoming administration.
“If we can’t create a vision for the world based on justice and equality that we want to see, there’s no way we can build it. We have to imagine it first,” said Sarah Browning, director of Split This Rock, the locally-based organization of activist poets that co-hosted the Washington reading.
Founded in 2008 by writers protesting the war in Iraq, the group aims to use poetry to help foster both personal expression and political progress. In addition to regular readings at Busboys and Poets, Split This Rock hosts a biennial spring poetry festival and offers regular programming for youth and adults in the Washington area.
“Poetry reinvigorates our greatest invention, language,” Browning said. She said she thought in times of political uncertainty, leaders often “use language in a way that leeches it of meaning — in Trump’s case, as a bullying tool.”
In allowing people to speak in their own voices, Browning explained, poetry can be a restorative experience.
The reading featured highly-regarded poets Annie Kim and Samantha Thornhill, who each read selections of their published work before the stage was opened up to audience members to share their original poetry.
Some participants’ poetry was expressly political, while others took a more subtle route. One common theme, though, was immigration, a central issue in Trump’s campaign and a likely to be a central focus of his presidency.
Kim opened the reading with a selection of poems from her 2016 book, Into the Cyclorama, which deals in part with her family’s emigration from Korea to the United States.
“My poetry — there’s a lot of witness to violence, acts of violence, that are personal, private, public. And my first book definitely delves into acts of national and cultural violence, especially the violence that South Koreans experienced during the Second World War, and afterwards — in my own family as well,” said Kim, whose selection included a poem imagining her grandmother’s flight from North Korea after the Korean War.
That poem, “The Fall, Rehearsed,” though set in the early 1950s, sounds not a far cry from the harrowing journeys many immigrants face today: “Caught fleeing / south, you are the sidewalk / in the streetlight of a silent film,” the poem reads. “Grainy, vacant… Tonight you hunch at the rear of the makeshift prison… We can make it if / we jump! men whisper, / eyes glowing in the dark. / Two stories to fall, open field below. / But how to take the fall for two?”
Thornhill, the other featured poet of the night, emigrated to the United States from Trinidad and Tobago. Her poems addressed issues from slavery and racism to the experience of living in her transitional Brooklyn neighborhood as a middle-class immigrant.
“It’s just so important to write this stuff out,” Thornhill told the audience.
The immigrant experience also got attention during the open mic portion of the night.
Lisa Leibow, a writer and professor from the Washington area, read her poem “Waiting on the American Dream,” which is told from the perspective of a man from a family of illegal immigrants.
“Elicia hoists to her shoulder the tray of barware and hors d’oeuvre remnants,” reads a line in the poem. “Outside, ivy scales distant walls– walls with no danger of border guards.”
Leibow said the poem was in part a response to President Barack Obama’s DREAM Act, an executive action which the president created to give more education and work opportunities to children who came to the United States illegally. (Trump has promised to repeal the act.)
Other participants took a more direct approach to voicing their concerns about Trump. One poem consisted of an alphabetical list recounting the writer’s grievances about the election; another was a direct attack on Trump, with fearful speculation of what’s in store under his presidency.
For most in attendance, the reading was an opportunity to come together and bond in the anticipation of political uncertainty, while also stepping into another’s shoes.
“Writing for me is really an exercise in empathy,” Leibow said.