Poets Online Archive
The April prompt on Poets Online was poems of protest. They might be poems against the war or following a prompt from ProtestPoems.org or in protest of what is happening in Tibet or Darfur or any number of world situations. But Poets Online is not a political website. So, submissions can also be poems of protest against more abstract or personal concerns.
Back in February 2003, First Lady Laura Bush canceled her symposium on "Poetry and the American Voice" because she learned that some of the poets on her guest list refused to attend in protest against the impending war. A spokesperson for her said that t it would be "inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum."
From that event, Sam Hamill, a poet and the founding editor of Copper Canyon Press,was inspired to create the Poets Against the War movement. Since then, the group's volunteer editors has reviewed more than 22,000 poems. They can't feature every poem, but there is a monthly posting of poems and statements that have been recommended by poets and editors around the world.
The news last month carried a number of stories about the 5 year mark for the war in Iraq. Since 2002, at least 775 men have been held in the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. A poetry collection was published in August 2007 that gives voice to the men held at Guantánamo. Available because a group of pro bono attorneys submitted each line to Pentagon scrutiny, Poems from Guantánamo has 22 poems by 17 detainees, most of whom are still at Guantánamo, in a kind of legal limbo. The poems, some originally written in toothpaste, others scratched onto foam drinking cups with pebbles and furtively handed to attorneys, may not be poetry of the highest quality, but they are a powerful use of poetry.
There's a line from an Auden poem that I have seen quoted out of context. It's the line, "Poetry makes nothing happen." It's often taken to be a negative comment on the effect, or lack thereof, of poetry on the world. But if you read his entire poem, titled "In Memory of W. B. Yeats", you see that the poem actually has two ideas in it. It starts with unrhymed verse paragraphs that suggest that poets can't do much more than create a way of being remembered. The second section is in stricter form and argues that poetry is more powerful than time or death. It's not a protest poem, but it makes you think about what impact a poem can or can't have on larger issues.
Poets Against the War would argue that poetry can matter - even when the poets don't show up.
Another group that you might might turn to for inspiration is called ProtestPoems.org. It is a writing prompt and protest letter project. They supply a prompt with a specific theme. You do the writing and they put them in the mail.They also post the compilations on the website, and all poems contributed to Protest Poems are considered for an associated site called Babel Fruit. Each issue of Babel Fruit presents an exiled or previously persecuted writer. Most of these writers struggle with funding for translations, therefore many of the translations presented are provisional. One featured author is Nadeen - an International Cities of Refuge Writer. In her homeland of Iraq, she was persecuted for her journalism and poetry which addressed issues such as women’s rights. When Nadeen refused to keep silent or to wear the hijab, she received threats, and attempts were made on her life. Although living in safety in Norway, Nadeen continues to use a pen name so as not to further endanger her family.
The founder of these projects is Ren Katherine Powell, a native Californian, now residing in Norway. She also helped to establish the International Cities of Refuge and worked as the project coordinator.
If you feel the need for writing prompts with more meaning, you can sign up for monthly poetry prompts at ProtestPoems. They have asked for "poems to fight censorship, satire against those who silence satire, acrostic poems to spell out support of free speech."
There's more information about this prompt and previous ones, and the opportunity to post your own comments on the Poets Online Blog.
THE DAY GROWS DARKER
The sacrifice in blood and treasure has been tremendous,
Early May. The sky’s black with stormclouds.
How did you keep going, Elihu, as you watched
your pen and voice worth nothing. What can one
Your sister spreads her arms and whirls. She is an angel. You want
forever, to be separate, but not lost. All morning the clouds
killed you, about how your boyfriend hated your A in English,
quiet, your parents out for drinks with neighbors and then Henny’s
you the tall grasses of the marsh, house like
sea birds calling, faint as crickets, the roar of the sea’s grieving
of your mother bending over you once to wipe the sand from
in reincarnation and now you are trying to imagine
tastes like strawberries. At school your desk faces three tall windows.
PROTEST WITH COFFEE AND A BOOK
News of war
When I was their age I discovered
Younger than these students
But what I wanted was the cabin in the woods
THE DEVIL SPEAKS OF CLIMATE CHANGE
Protest too much,
So much the writing of a man
this poem is light and funny
INCIDENT IN APARTMENT 508
THE PROTEST GOING ON
The only protest going on is going on internally, the guts