Voices and Ideas

ΦBK Members Use Poetry to Enter Political Discourse

By Whitney Horn

In the days leading up to and directly after the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump, a movement made up of writers, readers, and literature enthusiasts held more than ninety local events across the country and abroad to gather and read literature that promoted ideas of freedom, justice, and compassion. The movement, called Writers Resist, had its flagship event on the steps of the New York City Public Library, but local events were held in most states in America as well as internationally in countries such as Germany and Netherlands.

The goal of Writers Resist is to bring writers together to share published and original work that inspires hope and change in our current political climate. Their website says, “We wish to bypass direct political discourse in favor of an inspired focus on the future, and how we, as writers, can be a unifying force for the protection of democracy.”

A local event was held in Manhattan, Kansas, on the day of the inauguration, Friday January 20 at Arrow Coffee Co. In attendance were several members of the Manhattan community as well as students and faculty of Kansas State University.

Elizabeth Dodd (ΦBK, Ohio University, 1982) attended the Writers Resist event and read “Paschal Lamb” from Robert Hass’s Human Wishes. In the poem, Vic decides that the way to end the Vietnam War is for everyone to cut off their left little fingers and mail them to the president. After his idea catches on, Vic thinks, the war will be over within six days because the message will have been made clear: the people want the war to stop so much that they have decided they do not need their little fingers on their left hands.

Dodd, an English professor at Kansas State, says she choose the poem because of its passionate idealism. “The energy and the passion and the clear sense of ethical conviction that live in that poem have been very helpful to me every day since the inauguration,” she said. While Dodd doesn’t think that people should actually cut their fingers off and send them to the president in order to persuade him, she does think with poems like this, citizens can read and experience stories that remind them that something larger than themselves is at work in art and in life. As for the event in general, Dodd wanted to attend because of the opportunity such a gathering provides. “It is important to come together to give a voice to beliefs and feelings and to remind ourselves that a lot of the ways that we find voice are expedient, they’re immediate, they’re useful, but they don’t reflect the fullness of our spirits, of our artistic beings,” Dodd explained.

Another attendee of the Manhattan, Kansas, Writers Resist event was Philip Nel (ΦBK, University of Rochester, 1992). Nel, who is also an English professor at Kansas State, thought it was important for him and others to attend the event: “Writers help us imagine a different future, they help us re-see the present, they help us connect to the past. It’s going to require radical acts of the imagination to guide us. It’s going to require the capacity to see clearly, to feel, to care, to hope, and writers can help us do all that.”

Nel is adamant that readers and writers are in charge of the imagination of the country and have the power to effect change. “If you write, if you read,” he said, “you learn things, your thoughts can change, can evolve. You can hold contrary opinions. To be able to write is to be able to think.” Writers activate our humanity, Nel believes, and it is the unique position of the writer to be able to cut through the political arguments in order to get to the heart of issues and not just the rhetoric.

The Writers Resist movement is all about using creative writing to do just that. It is the hope of the organizers to promote literature that is diverse, inclusive, and empathetic in order to encourage those values not just in our country’s art but in our lives.

Whitney Horn is a senior majoring in English at Kansas State University. Kansas State is home to the Beta of Kansas Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.

(Posted on 3/15/2017 )