The question “what can a poem (actually) do?” has been a part of the philosophical debate about art for a long time. It is impossible to know when it was first asked, but I’m willing to bet that it had something to do with the onset of the Industrial Age, and the coming of age of Capitalism. That the lack of a definitive answer, or any recognizable material profit tied to its production hasn’t stopped people from either writing or reading it is probably answer enough, but in the Fall of 1977, I moved from Trinidad and Tobago in the West Indies to Winnipeg, Manitoba – the MidWest of Canada. My step-father was working with the Canadian government and so, we were migrating. This was my mother’s second gambit with Canada, having completed her undergraduate studies there at Montreal’s McGill University. She went there in the 60s at the height of Black Nationalism and the birth of Black Power. Summers she worked in New York City. She gave birth to me there, in 1968.
She was familiar with what she was leading her black son into. Her instructions were simple: You’re alone here. You’re Black. Stand strong. Take no-one’s shit. Defend yourself.
I was the only Black child at Greenwood Elementary, and as I remember it, I fought almost every day for the first two weeks. Children, some of whom had never seen a Black person in the flesh, still knew enough to call me nigger. I was a timid child before. Here, I was wrath personified. My fists answered. My feet answered. I took up American football. I tried to hurt people. I left my feet and crashed my body into their bodies. I teamed up with Susan, a big, long-haired 5th grade Lakota girl and we fought all recess long. We occupied the hill in the middle of the playground and took on all comers. It wasn’t long before the Vice Principal told me that a call to my parents was imminent. She was kindly – said it to me one lunch time, strolling through the school grounds with me. I think her name was Ms. Phillips but I couldn’t swear on it, hand to God. I told her that I would alert my mother. My mother was sanguine in her response: I’m glad you’re defending yourself, says she, but it’ll get tiring to fight every day. Why don’t you try writing down your feelings about some of what is going on?
I fought less. I probably saved my life. I kept writing. And writing. And when I was 13 I wrote my first poem. By then we were back in Trinidad. The liberal Pierre Trudeau (father of current Canadian PM, Justin), lost the election to conservative Joe Clark, and with that loss went my step-father’s job. I’d been in Canada three months before we returned.
I took my poem to my mother. It was a love poem. In it my love had hair ‘the color of the sun and eyes the color of the sea.’ Conversation went like this:
Mother: who is this girl
Me: I don’t know
Mother: who is that girl whom you like?
Mother: yeah, her. What does she look like?
Me: Tall, really really dark, really really pretty.
Mother: Okay. Write it about her.
And that was that. Poems did something. They were about my actual, real life. I wrote poems throughout my teens right up until age 19 when I left for New York City.
I was 26; lean and wild and muscular. I’d spent much of my early 20s answering threats with my fists, answering challenges with my body. I lived in pre-gentrified Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. I attended Hunter College. I worked full-time at a synagogue. I played varsity soccer. I partied every weekend. I had not made art in seven years. I had a pager.
It was a sleeting December night. Sherry-Ann paged me. I went out to the corner pay phone to call her back. Come with me to a poetry thing, she says. Nah, I say. Come, she says. I’m watching TV. It’s late, I say. Roger. Come, she screams. Aight, aight. Where to meet you, I say.
I haven’t stopped writing since that night in 1994. Some days I write with a laughing energy and abandon. I’m all celebrate. I can barely believe my luck or joy or that my people are still alive and fighting. Some days I can barely make it through my own sobbing, my own deep deep regret, the weight of my hurts – by me, against me. Every time though, I’m tethering myself more securely to the planet, making sure I don’t spin off the earth’s axis and become raging space matter. I know now that when the anxiety and the violence start taking up space in me that my body is getting ready to burn down what it’s been gifted, what it’s built; and I need to write, establish focus, re-tether.
I’ve always known that writing did something; that making art did something. I know for instance that it finds a place for my rage many a day and so many of you should be thankful for that. I know it helped me see my people, and myself and question the very colony of my body and brain. I also know that it helps me re-insert myself into the forward moving part of my life, community, society. This is more important than ever. In a time at which rage is a wholly appropriate response, and at certain times, absolutely constructive even as it destroys, those of us whose experience with making art is that it does something, must take the responsibility of making art as a more desperately necessary thing; and make that art that keeps us extant in the world.
Because I write, I can be present for my 3-year-old. Because I write I can gather comrades to me and cook, and reason, and laugh, and agitate, and plan. Says Octavia Butler’s protagonist Lauren Olamina, in the book Parable of the Sower: God is Change. Prepare or Die. There is no truer time of this, than now. If you know the grind in the work connects you to the reasons, and power to live well, understand that such a responsibility epicenters at a locus larger than just your own body now. It takes in and keeps buoyant the bodies of others.
We need your art, your songs, your failed dance vocabularies, your unsuccessful poems, your blurred photographs, your smudged canvasses, all of it. Write so you can gather and cook. Paint so you can plant a garden. Spin records so you can organize a reading circle for teens in your hood. Keep yourself alive and strong, and more than ever in constant communication with your tribe. Find your tribe.
Tell a new story. Learn to hunt, slip a punch or throw one. Sing badly. Build a table. Peace is an elusive bastard. It really needs justice to thrive – true justice. No epoch has come remotely close to justice without its artists leading the way; building off their dreaming, a society, an elevated set of ideals and values to which people can aspire.
When I was 9 and 13 and 26, writing saved my life, made me think, built me a vocabulary with which to disprove my own bigotry to myself. It made me buy a djembe at 32. It made me start cooking again. It sent me to museums and always it was introducing me to the people who would have my back. It reminded me I knew how to sing. It taught me to call ancient spirits. It pieced my heart back together at 40 at 45. It predicted my child.
Make your art. Make it hold more weight than it’s ever had to. It’ll have to. Your tribe needs it, and you, to survive.
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Roger Bonair-Agard is a native of Trinidad and Tobago, Brooklyn, and author of tarnish & masquerade, (Cypher Books, 2006), GULLY (Cypher Books, 2010), Bury My Clothes (Haymarket Books, 2013), which was long listed for the National Book Award, and Where Brooklyn At?! (2016 from Willow Books/Aquarius Press). Roger is Writer-in-Residence at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust, co-founder of NYC’s LouderARTS Project, and frontman for the band Miyamoto is Black Enough. Founding member of NYC’s Vision Into Art, and creator and facilitator of The Baldwin Protocols: Reading Series, he is Program Director with Free Write Arts & Literacy at Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.