Why we ALL need poetry as reflection, survival and stillness especially these days…

By: Sage Morgan-Hubbard, Assistant Director of Student Development at the Swearer Center for Public Service

Currently in quarantine with my mom and family in Hyattsville, MD

Dear all,

Happy poetry month! May your life be filled with poems this month and always! These are the typical words I would be writing around now as a poet and poetry lover however this year they don’t feel as genuine. I mean, we have a global pandemic right now and I can’t even take my children to play at the playground or drive across state lines, how can I be sitting around thinking about and writing poetry? And then again, how could I not? I am working on a project on the great Chinese American Civil Rights activist, author and philosopher Grace Lee Boggs who was born here in Providence, RI and who lived through many other tough times such as the great depression and she is famously quoted as saying “the only way to survive is to take care of one another.” One of my other favorite writers and poets, my Lorde and savior, Audre Lorde writes that “poetry is not a luxury.”

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.

And today I believe it more than ever, poetry is not a luxury of the privileged few such as the Brown University educated folks who live and work up on College Hill in the (upper) East Side of Providence but it is an essential communication tool for all of us to celebrate and survive, to help take care of each other. As one of my other favorite poets, the incredible Lucille Clifton writes in her poem “won’t you celebrate with me

come celebrate

with me that everyday

something has tried to kill me

and has failed.

Lucille Clifton is one of those poets who appears to be so simple in her word choice and yet I keep on returning to her profound words again and again. I remember actually being introduced to her work fully in professor Rick Benjamin’s “Poetry in schools and communities” engaged research education class where he came to class and recited the poem that he said he always recites in classes when he teaches on the first day and one that he wanted us to recite and share with our students because it is so short and powerful and can resonate in almost any setting. This white cis heterosexual male professor recited from memory,

why some people be mad at me sometimes

they ask me to remember

but they want me to remember

their memories

and I keep on remembering

mine

And I had to sit with that. And let it digest. And return to it during dinner. And talk to my friends about it. And soon it was part of my curriculums too and shared with me wherever I went as well as I shared with students in prisons, on the southeast sides of Washington, DC or South and West sides of Chicago, etc. everywhere I went with disenfranchised populations especially we spoke Lucille Clifton together and spoke about what are the memories that we hold dear, what are the ones we are told to forget, what are the things that people be mad at us about and how do we resist? This combination of community care, engagement, questioning and survival is why I love poetry so much. It gives voice to so many stories that are seldom told with luscious language and precious moments that make me feel and think in multiple ways. After September 11th, when I was a college freshman at Brown in 2001 and I had just lost my maternal grandmother, two days before the start of TWTP and I was already an emotional mess, I know that I needed a poetry club and poetry friends to hold my sorrows, insecurities, feelings and grief. That is when I started WORD! Spoken Word Poets and Activists because I needed poetry to survive and hold me. Clifton continues,

born…both nonwhite and woman

what did i see to be except myself?

i made it up

See? How poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. It took me four years and an Ethnic Studies degree from Brown to come to the realization that these few lines said so clearly. As a woman of color, I had to be myself and make the path up along the way. This is part of why I was drawn to be an independent concentrator in “Performance Studies: Socially Conscious Art of the Everyday,” my poetic tribute to women of color artists before me. Poetry allowed me the language, space and tools to be political and outspoken and angry as well as be

…amazed by peace

It is this possibility of you

asleep

and breathing in the quiet air

that another one of my poetic sheroes, the great June Jordan, founder of Poetry for the People writes in her tender poem, Poem for My Love. In thinking about these last few weeks in the strange ever shifting times of COVID-19, I need these quiet peaceful poems as well as the mournful and hopeful pieces. This past week, while thinking through everything, I was also drawn to Adrienne Rich and her poem,  What Kind of Times Are These

because in times like these

to have you listen at all, it’s necessary

to talk about trees.

I have been surviving by not only talking about trees but walking in the trees, relearning the necessity of the trees feeding my lungs with fresh air and new perspectives not the constant depression news cycle and death tolls. 

In these times, the silence and listening, the spaces between the poems are as important as the poems themselves. In closing like many nonlinear womanist/feminist pieces, I will start again and let my thoughts flow in their natural circular cyclical patterns–Happy poetry month. Please read a poem. While I love prose, poetry can capture beautiful moments in ways nothing else can. As I am trapped in the house with my almost three-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son I know it is not the annoying crying frustrated moments when we need space from each other but those moments that take our breath away when I can see them literally grow before my eyes. I have never had more respect for stay at home moms, homeschool families, single parent households and teachers and as Audre Lorde says the poems I have seen be birthed in the silences, in “these places of possibility within ourselves.” Lorde also writes that poetry is

illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are, until the poem, nameless and formless-about to be birthed, but already felt.

And in this moment of feeling I want to end with a poem that has moved me. He is not a woman poet but one that all of my lovers (of all genders) have wooed me with and it seems like such a lovely poem to end on in this moment for its introspection and pacing. Reading poetry might be the best thing for us to do in this stillness, in quarantine. This poem is entitled, “Keeping Quiet” by Pablo Neruda.

I look forward to reading your poems online or hearing them recorded soon. For those who want to support a new Brown university student led project, please write and submit poems to Poems from a University Quarantine.

Sincerely, 

Sage

Image credit: Photo of my inquisitive and poetic daughter Samira Xaxua-Bey by Sage Morgan-Hubbard during the long days

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