Greater Boston Writers Resist: Voices of Comfort, Voices of Hope

by Jessica A. Kent

January 16, 2017

It wasn’t a protest march. It wasn’t a rally. There was no chanting. There were no signs (there were signs, but they were asked to be put away). It wasn’t loud, or ruckus. But the words that were spoken were loud, resounding, as twenty-five writers, readers, and leaders in the Boston community participated in the Greater Boston Writers Resist in an attempt to define and encourage the role of writing and creativity in a democratic society.

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Writers Resist, a national network of writers, called for the organization of local events to occur on January 15, 2017 – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday – because, according to their website, “as writers we have tremendous power to bypass empty political discourse and focus public attention on the ideals of a free, just, and compassionate society.” The event in Boston took place at the historic Boston Public Library, and was spearheaded locally by Daniel Evans Pritchard, founding editor of The Critical Flame, and supported by over thirty local writing organizations.

I knew I needed to go – it’s a local Boston writing event, using creative responses to combat feelings of powerlessness, great line-up – but I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to find. Those in attendance found something more poignant, more powerful, and more moving than we thought we would, I believe, something that spoke to the many voices that make up this world, and the many intersection points of humanity.

Interest was high, and the line outside the library began an hour before the doors opened. The lecture hall only contained space for around 400 attendees, and my friends and I scrambled for seats. Many were left in the hallway, a line curling around the downstairs lobby and up the stairs, but many stayed, listening, hoping for seats during Act II, a true testament to the attraction of this event, and perhaps what many of us were seeking: how can we as writers push back? The afternoon was cut up into two acts, twenty-five presenters total, introduced by Daniel Evans Pritchard stressing the need for writing as a civic art in a democratic nation, as it helps us “articulate the values and rights that make democracy possible.” The program then began not with anti-Trump calls to action, but with local author Paul Yoon reading soft, lyrical words from Michael Ondaatje’s memoir. The next author, Helen Elaine Lee, read snippets from James Baldwin, Denise Levertov, and Toni Morrison, explaining why these poems and quotes have seen her through dark times, pointing her towards greater love and hope.

And that was how the afternoon persisted; only six out of the twenty-five writers read original works, while the rest sought out the work of others that had either been meaningful to them, or that they felt applied to this kind of new world we’re all moving into. Quite literally it was an afternoon of a multitude of voices. Poet Rob Arnold read a poem from Ashraf Fayadh after telling us the Saudi poet’s story of being in prison for writing poetry: author Laura Van Den Berg read a poem by Ada Limón; author Jennifer De Leon read a poem by Lawson Inada; author Michael Lowenthal read the transcript of Pete Seeger’s hearing before the House Committee on Un-American Activities from 1955, and read a new poem by Elisa Chavez; Giles Li, executive director of the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Association, read a poem by Li Young Lee; Martha Collins read poems by Nguyen Quang Thieu and Lam Thi My Da; and Ayanna Pressley, the first woman of color to be elected to the Boston City Council, read from Maya Angelou.

Readers brought in the original languages of the pieces they selected, as Alma Richeh, executive director of the Center for Arabic Culture, read an except from Kahlil Gibran in both Arabic and English. Poet Laureate of Boston Danielle Legros Georges read poems by Félix Morisseau-Leroy in Creole and English, as well as words by Wisława Szymborska (in English). Marta Rivera, coordinator for the Great Boston Latino Network, read a poem by Pablo Neruda in both Spanish and English.

Individual voices speaking for political change were heard as climate activist and writer Alexis Rizzuto read a letter from 13-year-old Jayden Foytlin about the flooding in his house, and the fear and confusion that’s leading him to action. Actress and author Marianne Leone told the story of Anastasia Somoza, a quadriplegic disabilities activist, and of the story of her own son, Jesse, a non-verbal quadriplegic who wrote poetry, stressing the need to see those around us with disabilities and not let them become invisible. Author Jennifer Haigh used her time to advocate for Planned Parenthood, about its service to low-income women, sometimes the only health care they will receive, and the potential effects of the looming de-funding of its programming; she also read a poem by Kim Addonizio. Author James Carroll read a poem Daniel Berrigan, SJ, a priest who spoke out against the Vietnam War who wrote this poem and read it at the trial of the Catonsville Nine. Author Dale Peterson read us a “letter” his friend Henry David Thoreau had written to us about his thoughts on the times we’re living in, the election, and encouraging us to “keep reading The Globe and The Times, but to also keep reading the stars.” Author Richard Hoffman quoted from the recent Adam Gopnik piece “The Music Donald Trump Can’t Hear,” and paired it with excerpts from Sebastian Haffner’s memoir Defying Hitler as a warning to keep aware of the political present and past.

A handful of writers brought their own unique voices and pieces to the program. Author Jabari Asim and Liana Asim read and performed his poem “Six by Nine,” about the forty-one year incarnation of a black man wrongfully sentenced (Liana stayed on to read a poem by June Jordan). Krysten Hill performed two of her poems, one about the powerlessness felt after witnessing a knife fight at a T station, the other an homage to writer Nina Simone. Martín Espada read a poem about the immigrant kitchen staff of Windows on the World on the morning of 9/11. Two eighteen-year-old spoken word poets from MassLEAP’s youth poetry slam festival, Louder Than a Bomb, performed two original works each: Michelle Garcia’s first poem focused on the culture her mother had built for her family, the second a poem asking the difficult questions about her family’s history – Colonialism and slavery, genocide and rape – and how one finds identity in that landscape; Kofi Dadzie’s first poem was from the point of view of a police baton and evokes musical terms and allusions to describe police violence against African-Americans, his second a fanciful yet powerful imagined letter from Muhammad Ali to Kanye West. Poet Fred Marchant finished the afternoon with a reading from Walt Whitman, and an original poem inspired by Daniel Berrigan’s poem, previously read.

The afternoon, as you could expect, was a pastiche of voices, a collage of words and language and experience, imagery and essay and humor and guidance, evoked by hope, isolation, fear, disenfranchisement, frustration, the desire for understanding, wisdom, love, and inspiration. But what were these writers, and all writers across the globe yesterday, resisting? Since the election there has been a fear of the dampening or removal of diverse voices from the American experience, the effective rendering of certain people or peoples invisible, certain voices as silent, or not applicable to society or culture under the new administration. What Writers Resist demonstrated is not just that we have our own voices to speak, our own experiences to attempt to articulate, our own identities to communicate, but that we, as writers, look to other voices to inform our experience in the world. They may be voices that are perhaps very different from ours, in background and culture and lifestyle and belief, but they speak of that deeper, connected humanity in all of us. Yesterday, we heard stories – American voices, international voices, male voices, female voices, voices across all colors of the spectrum – and each story is valid, each story is worthy to be heard, each piece created from the depths of someone’s soul and mind and gut, pieces extending across time and space and culture to comfort each of us. What I heard yesterday were poems and stories and letters and essays of identity, from mainstream voices but mostly from marginalized voices, an intersectionality of art.

Where do we go from here? The question echoed throughout the program, and infiltrated the conversation my friends and I had afterwards: This is just a beginning; there’s more work to be done. Certainly an answer is to get involved, and we were pointed towards local resources and organizations that support voices around Boston and the U.S. But the answer seems twofold. First, write. Write your story, and tell it to others. Every story is valid, and there is a kind of power in communicating it, turning your experiences and struggles and thoughts into a creative response. Second, encourage others to share their stories. Start a writing group. Get together to continue the conversation. Lead others in a writing workshop. Start a literary magazine. Writing is such a solitary pursuit we forget that we need readers and listeners, which is, in turn, our community. And for marginalized voices we have to remember to seek them out, or they may never be found. But we need voices, we need stories, for ourselves and our community, and ultimately, right now, for the health and growth of our nation.