Poems as World Building and Necessary

We are grateful to Aurielle Marie for helping our organization be more accountable to the values we espouse, and we hope their insight sparks robust conversation in more literary communities around belonging, activating personal responsibility, applying lessons, and change as a practice. As a nonprofit, we offer the caveat that this essay series reflects the author’s opinions and lived experience as an organizer and literary citizen. The Offing as an organization does not endorse political candidates.

This is the seventh letter in a series of 10 dedicated to engaging The Offing’s literary network in social justice and a value shift toward equity within our respective organizations. The letter was originally sent on May 5, 2021.

Marcia Howard is a woman I’ve been following on social media for the past year. A teacher, a former marine, a Black woman, and an occupant of the now reclaimed George Floyd Square (GFS). The square is a battleground, a place I never thought I’d live to see in my lifetime: Black residents of the neighborhood in which George Floyd died are holding off the State from entering their community. They are doing it in the name of a man they never met, for the benefit of all of us—people they’ll never meet. I watch residents put out car fires started by mysterious figures in the night—a common police harassment tactic, or watch them hold the perimeter against armed officers who taunt them with dehumanizing epithets, and think, yes, this is poetry-in-praxis. But more than a resistive space, George Floyd Square (GFS) is a community epicenter providing for folks’ most critical needs through food drives, mutual aid, welcome home parties for formerly incarcerated folks, and political education. Reconstruction. Manifestation. This is an 11 month-long poem, the destruction of an old world by creating the new. This is an investment in the criticality of world-making, of poeming. From the love of community, from fictive kinship and compassion, from righteous rage, a new way to interrupt the State was born, and this must be what Lorde envisioned when she wrote, “…the black mothers in each of us – the poet – whispers in our dreams, I feel therefore I can be free.” 

I haven’t always had language for the practice, but I have often, in my growth as a writer, tried to choreograph a new thing out of a poem onto the page. Let the letters fly like spit, or tunnel into themselves, or break them in half and stretch them like individual fingers. Other times it is the syllables that become a praxis: break English like English broke our mothers, make it afraid to raise its chin in our poems, fracture and scatter it away from itself. I read poems and essays by brilliant writers who world-build as a habit, as survival, and as resistance, even if not in name. I was first introduced to writing like this by my father. He’s a complicated man, but at his core he is someone who fiercely believes that what we dream, we manifest. It was my father who made my siblings and me chant Paul Lawrence Dunbar over our dinner plates and Langston Hughes with our breakfast. It is because of my father that I was able to turn to poetry not for pleasure, but for survival as a teen facing housing instability, illness, and sexual trauma. In those moments it was poetry-as-illumination that protected my self-understanding, and it was poetry-as-praxis that revealed to me the door to a way out of my material circumstances. For so many of us on the margins, poetry is not a luxury. It is a birthright, a war strategy, a conjuring psalm, and a healing source. 

Before I understood my own instincts, before I came to understand the mechanics and alchemies of poetry, our dear Audre wrote Poetry is not a Luxury. I am returning to it, as I think we all should, because within it I find so many points of access for page-practice, for embodied praxis, and for community action. She begins with an acknowledgement, not of what a poet’s writing can be, but what it must be: “The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives,” she wrote, “has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives.” For the poet, Lorde’s articulation of what poetry must be is an embrace of “poetry as illumination,” an acknowledgement of both the criticality of poetry-as-praxis, but also of the writer’s responsibility to reorient themselves to a more intentional use of the page.

It is appropriate to reflect on poetic possibilities this month, National Poetry Month. It is appropriate to consider our participation in radical literary modalities, perhaps ones we have been afraid to try on for the sake of taking ourselves or our words too seriously. National Poetry Month is either a chance to try and fail at thirty small little poems, or a place to deepen your poetic analysis and widen your understanding of the literary universe—both on the page and off of it. Audre Lorde’s essay demands that we take our words seriously, for ours is a world made tangible by poems: “Poetry coins the language to express and charter this revolutionary awareness and demand, the implementation of that freedom.” Yes, language creation is a type of world building, and so we must consider a poem the site of creation. To create a world we haven’t seen, to speak it before we are even sure that its materiality is possible. That is attractive to me, the queer and genderqueer daughter of enslaved folks, on stolen land, surviving state violence and writing my way through it. Reconstruction and manifestation.

During the trial for the murderer of George Floyd, officers just outside of Minneapolis killed unarmed Daunte Wright during a traffic stop, and also critically wounded his girlfriend and the mother of his child. While the jury convicted Derek Chauvin of what we already knew he had done, officers in Columbus, Ohio, slaughtered 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant after she called them concerned about her own safety. State violence is the opposite of poetry, and is in direct confrontation with our creations of possibility. I am sickened when I think about the irony and irrelevance of a flimsy trial in the face of structural inequity. A trial where the arbiters of State violence were allowed to sanitize what police brutality even means to us. This is anti-making, the destruction of meaning, or—wholly, thoroughly unpoetic. 

What Marcia and the warriors at GFS show us is that there are more ways to create expanse and try form beyond the structures we know, ways beyond a stanza. And what a valuable, necessary discussion to have this National Poetry Month. I’m not the first to offer that this month, often considered a place for form and creativity, also has a firm, rooted political core. And I won’t be the last. For within structures defined by profit, by linear power, by institutional dehumanization, our feelings were not meant to survive… and poetry’s inherent exploration of feeling makes it the battleground ripe for our utilization. 


Embodying World-Making In/Beyond Poems and NaPoWriMo: 

  1. Read demands of the GFS Warriors. Share them with your networks. Internalize them. Envision what these measures would look like in your own community.
  2. Poetry Prompt: Who are you accountable to, and for what are you accountable? How does the weight of accountability, the material of it, feel upon your pen and in your life?
  3. Revisit your intentions and affirmations from the start of the year, have a conversation with your entrusted community about them and how they’re continuing to grow as the year goes on.

Women’s History Month

I often compare gender to an occupation, because in many ways, it is such labor.

Back to the Future

Black History must, for us, be more than brief vignettes of fragmented storytelling of bus boycotts and voter rights.

The Other Side of Imagination

This month, consider what resources you find yourself in abundance of if you are not Black. And if you are, which resources this month are you reclaiming?