National Poetry Month has come and gone. If you happen to live in a place that flourishes with poetry events, it’s like Christmas all over again; if poetry is pretty sparse in your community, not much happens. But it seems that wherever you may live, the spoken word gets out, as it always has. Through time as oral history. Now, in print, online, on Facebook, on phones, on YouTube. There is so much needing to be said, felt, understood.
There are two poetry projects on my mind today having come out of the poetry immersion April has become— the poet soldier and Afghan women. The poet as witness to war has a long history. What the war poet writes is invariably an anti war poem.
Early 20th century Iraqi poet, Al Jawahiri wrote:
I see a horizon lit with blood
And many a starless night.
A generation comes and another goes
And the fire keeps burning.
A century later, Iraqi war veteran Brian Turner continues the conversation. He writes of war in a dimension that is deeply felt. He writes of Iraq but it could be any war, any time. When I heard him give a talk, he was very direct. I was in Lowe’s one Saturday afternoon, he said, and I was stopped dead in my tracks when I saw a bin of nail guns. Frozen. I could only think of what harm they could do if used for an IED.
He speaks. He writes. He tells us what it’s like and why it shouldn’t be and how it never goes away. He joins a long list of poets through the centuries that we turn to over and over—to know and to understand. And to ask ourselves why.
One of the programs I went to in April was a screening of the documentary Voices in Wartime followed by a poetry reading by veterans. To say it was moving is understatement.
I’m going to back up a bit to give some history of Poets Against the War, the foundation of the Voices in Wartime Project.
In 2003, Sam Hamill, poet and editor of Copper Canyon Press, received an invitation from Laura Bush to attend a White House reception on poetry and the American voice. [The context — Bush had just called for a “shock and awe” attack on Iraq, calling for saturation bombing.]
Hamill’s response: “I believe the only legitimate response to such a morally bankrupt and unconscionable idea is to reconstitute a Poets Against the War movement like the one organized to speak out against the war in Vietnam.”
He then put out a call for poems:
“Dear Friends and Fellow Poets “I am asking every poet to speak up for the conscience of our country and lend his or her name to our petition against the war, and to make February 12 a day of Poetry Against the War. We will compile an anthology of protest to be presented to the White House on that afternoon…”
Within 36 hours, he received 1500 poems; in 2 weeks, 7500 poems and accompanying letters from within and outside the literary community. He launched a website in collaboration with Project Alchemy to handle all the poems. The total reached 10,000 and an anthology was published. And by the way, the First lady’s poetry party was cancelled.
The Voice Project is an outgrowth of this. Its mission: to amplify the voices of veterans and civilian witnesses to war, in order to heal the wounds of war and lay the basis for a more peaceful world. It shows how poetry and war have been intertwined through the ages. We see how poetry illuminates reality and sears the sacrifice and experience into our minds.
And it is needed now more than ever.
Let’s turn to the women of Afghanistan.
In last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Eliza Griswold wrote an article entitled “Record My Voice, So That When I Get Killed, at Least You’ll Have Something of Me.” Why Afghan Women Risk Death To Write Poetry.” At great risk, these women write their poems to find their voice, to be heard, in an oppressive culture that tries to silence them.
Miram Baheer is a woman’s literary society based in Kabul. It has over 100 members of Afghan elite who travel openly to Saturday afternoon meetings. However, the 300 members who live in the outlying, rural provinces must function in secret. They engage in subterfuge to call in their poems to be read for them to the other women poets.
The plight of Afghan women is well known. About eight out of ten live in rural areas with the most restriction. Their statistics are dismal: 5 of 100 graduate high school; 3 out of 4 are forced into marriage as teenagers. Yet, these women have spunk.
Pashtun poetry of that region is their form of rebellion. They write the Landai, (meaning short, poisonous snake), a two-line folk poem that is collective so no one can be held responsible. An acclaimed Pashtun poet calls poetry the women’s movement from the inside.
The poems say it all.
They can be funny. (Or not!)
Making love to an old man is like
Making love to a limp cornstalk blackened by fungus
Or of war:
May your airplane crash and may the pilot die
That you are pouring bombs on my beloved Afghanistan
My pains grow as my life dwindles
I will die with a heart full of hope.
You won’t allow me to go to school.
I won’t become a doctor.
One day you will be sick.
Poetry. Well-chosen words cutting through the noise, the dogma, finding voice, speaking loud, always hopeful.
I’d like to close this with a poem by the late, Palestinian poet Tata Muhammed Ali.
At times … I wish I could meet
in a duel the man who killed
my father and razed our home,
expelling me into a narrow country.
And if he killed me, I’d rest at last
and if I were ready - I would take my revenge!
But if it came to light, when my rival appeared,
that he had a mother waiting for him,
or a father who’d put his right hand
over the heart’s place in his chest
whenever his son was late
even by just a quarter-hour
for a meeting they’d set –
then I would not kill him, even if I could.
Likewise … I would not murder him
if it were soon made clear
that he had a brother or sisters
who loved him and constantly longed to see him.
Or if he had a wife to greet him and children
who couldn’t bear his absence
and who his presents thrilled.
Or if he had friends or companions,
neighbors he knew or allies from prison
or a hospital room, or classmates from his school…
asking about him and sending him regards.
But if he turned out to be on his own –
cut off like a branch from a tree –
without mother or father,
with neither a brother nor sister,
wifeless, without a child, and without kin
or neighbors or friends,
colleagues or companions,
then I’d add not a thing to his pain
within that aloneness –
nor the torment of death,
and not the sorrow of passing away.
Instead I’d be content to ignore him
when I passed him by on the street –
as I convinced myself that paying him
no attention in itself was a kind of revenge.