On Monday January 30th, The Boston Review and The Harvard Bookstore held a reading event titled Poems for Political Disaster at the Cambridge Public Library, where a panel of distinguished poets recited pieces in response to “political trauma, catastrophe, and terror – at home and abroad.”
The politically charged atmosphere of the event could not have been more relevant, coming less than 24 hours after President Donald Trump passed his controversial immigration ban forbidding all refugees from entering the United States for 120 days, blocking entry for all residents from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen for at least 90 days, and permanently banning all refugees from Syria.
Rallies and protests immediately sprang up around the country in reaction to this latest executive order, that for many was seen as a complete destruction of an America that once inscribed the Statue of Liberty inviting “their tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
People all over the nation are searching for any opportunity to speak out against mistreatment and injustice. Addressing crowds outside of City Hall on Friday, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh promised to protect the city’s immigrants and minority residents during these uncertain times.
“I will never turn my back on those who are seeking a better life,” he said.
Political arts magazine The Boston Review used its own platform to assemble a force of powerful literary voices to read poems from the Review’s latest chapbook anthology, “Poems for Political Disaster.”
“Remember the necessity of language as a powerful weapon,” said Boston Review editor Stefania Heim who introduced the event.
The night covered a range of significant issues from the shootings in Ferguson, Missouri, to Middle Eastern immigration and ongoing discrimination against Latin Americans.
Renowned Witter-Bynner prize winner Lucie Brock-Broido opened the reading with a poem about the 2015 American Security Against Foreign Immigration, chronicling the abrasive techniques used to interrogate a Syrian family attempting to enter the United States.
Brock-Borido’s piece served as an eerie prediction of an incident that occurred this past Saturday, wherein a 5-year-old Iranian boy was detained without his parents for hours at Washington Dulles International Airport in response to Trump’s latest ‘Muslim Ban.’
Pulitzer Prize winner Jorie Graham continued the evening’s focus on immigration, choosing to read a poem by Iraqi poet Saadi Simawe in lieu of her own work. Graham gravely reminded audience members that Simawe would not be allowed to enter the country as of today.
Graham’s reading was particularly impactful for the way it strived to represent a poignant voice who was recently stripped of the ability to speak for herself.
“I was especially glad to see poets reading poems they hadn’t written. It’s incredibly important right now to amplify those unamplified voices,” said 22 year old attendee Miles Hewitt following the reading.
Puerto Rican poet Ricardo Maldonado focused on the nation’s underrepresented bilingual voices, sharing both the Spanish and English translations of a work from his newest project: a series of letters addressed to government officials involved in the Vietnam War, such as President Nixon.
Boston Review poetry editor Timothy Donnelly ended the reading with one of his own works, a piece he called “Poem of Hope Almost at Equinox.” Donnelly’s decision to conclude the night with a glimmer of hope, rather than one of fury or despair, speaks to the incredible ability of writing to provide people with a source of comfort, connection, and empathy.
Poetry and literature are not Band-Aids. They are not solutions to pain and anger. Rather, they are way for writers to leave an impression on humanity. Writing provides a way for people to organize and express their thoughts and emotions into something meaningful. Putting words down on paper creates something tangible that they can then share with readers who are also looking for an outlet.
Hearing poets express their own trauma to a crowd unites both the writer and the reader in a moment of mutual understanding. These events serve as active reminders that we are not going through any of this alone.
“We’re in a moment in history where people are just looking to see what they can do,” said poet and author Monica Youn.
“After the election I was flailing and just in a state of confusion,” said Youn. “The Boston Review gave me the opportunity to focus on what I could do – I could write.”
– Paige, Intern