In this series, we invite poets to write their own ‘poetry manifesto’
Poets write out of various needs and interests. For those of us who are interested in the intersection of literature with social justice, telling the truth becomes the driving force behind our writing, the reason we persevere. A Rwandan woman, in a conference about genocide and the arts, said it all when she stated: “I am not afraid of dying, I am afraid of not telling the truth.” Some people argue that there is no ‘one truth’ but rather a multiplicity of ‘truths’. They may ask, Whose truth are you writing about? My answer is simple: I write the truth of those whose suffering falls within the blind spot of mainstream consciousness, who are marginalised and silenced, unable to influence the discourses that inform the decisions affecting their lives.
Coming from a stateless and patriarchal community with a history of mass violence and repeated betrayal by those who had been counted as friends, I try to tell the stories of those who live through the reality of it, particularly the women. Mass violence and genocide leave communities saturated in grief, trapped in the graphic stories of violence, and bereft of means of healing. These stories multiply quickly, reproduced in daily conversations, in the media, and in the realistic and unimaginative artistic representations: the paintings full of skulls and soldiers’ boots, plays full of roaring planes and falling victims, poetry that cannot rise above the simplified everyday rhetoric.
Unable to cope and desperately trying to move on, communities try to shut out those painful voices. Over time, the stories of survivors lose significance. They are ridiculed, doubted, and even turned into jokes. The disconnections and rupture caused by mass violence run deep. Individual survivors are victimised once again when, in the aftermath of the atrocities, they are stigmatised in their own communities, left behind, not heard, not believed, not understood. Some insist that their suffering “cannot be put into language”. They feel that words fail to recount their experiences, can no longer communicate their pain, and lack the power to reconnect them to the communities from which they have become alienated.
At times like this, when the truth is muddled, confused, hidden, and gradually forgotten, when a story is too complicated, too painful, and too elusive to tell, poetry comes to our rescue. It provides that safe space in which to tell those stories. Poetry is not about facts, which interest courts and historians, it is about the truth. In a poem, factual details may or may not be present: what matters is the meaning of the event. Good poetry of witness can enrich our understanding of humanity, tell the truth in its full complexity, highlight the failure of conventional morality at desperate times, show how violence disconnects people and destroys normality and domesticity, and generally address the grey areas that we avoid in our everyday lives.
This kind of poetry requires immersion in the experiences and stories of those who suffer. It requires living with the details and knowing that contradictions and inconsistencies are inherent in any narration. We need to research the topic thoroughly, listen with all our might, and allow ourselves to be vulnerable.
At a very difficult time in my life, when I was grappling with secondary traumatisation associated with taking on others’ suffering, a man told me, “You don’t have to experience pain in order to understand it.” He was a massage therapist and he spoke like a good and rational scientist. Of course he could not feel my pain – how it was distributed through my organs and muscles, how it disrupted the rhythm of my hormones, how it slipped into my unconscious and resurfaced in my nightmares – but he was able to help me heal through understanding my pain.
What he told me made perfect sense, and helped me gradually get back on my feet and focus on completing my academic book on the subject. But I now know that good poetry of witness comes from that soreness, from feeling outrage and fear, from that place where we are bewildered and we feel too much. Poetry is not science. We cannot speak the truth about suffering in poetry when we haven’t emotionally experienced it. Understanding alone does not help convey the emotional tone of desperation, and it does not help rebuild the connections that have been severed by victimisation. So yes, we need to be willing to suffer, to share pain, to feel strongly. But this does not mean that our poetry should be ‘emotional’.
There is a difference between emotional poetry and poetry informed by emotions. The stories we want to tell are already full of force, pain, and strong feelings, and we do not need to add another layer of emotion by adding our own. We need to hold back our anger and pain and let those stories speak for themselves. We must communicate the truth without alienating the readers and shouting in their faces, without being self-righteous and making them want to shut us out. We are trying to make comprehensible that which seems incomprehensible, to rebuild connections and facilitate understanding and empathy.
The key is to not release those poems too quickly but to live with them, mull them over. We may end up editing and re-editing for a long time. Each time, after we make changes, we must put the poems away for a while and come back to them with fresh eyes and ears. We may read them aloud, record them if we need to, and listen to ourselves reading them. We must take every word seriously, be aware of its nuances and undertones, question its place, its necessity. We must stay loyal to the truth without overwhelming the reader with too much detail, stay loyal to the person’s voice and maintain her style of telling the story as much as we can.
One last thing: we shouldn’t worry too much about negative criticism. There will always be people who will not appreciate our poetry. Some will say that this is not poetry’s duty or role. Others will find it too traumatic and won’t want to read it. Still others may argue that the poems themselves are not good, that they only seem good by virtue of their subject matter. The latter will hurt but the response is pretty simple. There is plenty of bad poetry about war, violence, poverty, and stigma. Subject matter on its own cannot make a poem serious and good. More importantly, one cannot separate subject matter from form in such a straightforward manner. If a poem speaks to others, if it conveys the voices it represents, and builds the connections we desire, then it works as a whole, not in part.
Ultimately we try to do our best as poets and citizens who have a responsibility towards others. We will not be bystanders. We will not be silent. We will expose the injustice inherent in the status quo and challenge the powerful. We will sing. We will shout. We will write good poetry. We will not die before telling the truth.