Personal entry points into topics of social justice.
The second week of Andrea Gibson’s Write Your Heart In poetry workshop definitely posed a challenge. They warned us that it would, saying that past workshop cohorts had had the hardest time with this workshop topic, out of all four presented. So much so, in fact, that Andrea had considered moving it to a later week, but had not because they wanted to end the workshop on a lighter, more “fun” note.
I didn’t expect to have such difficulty with this week’s lessons, despite the warnings. As a woman living at the intersection of several marginalized identities and not typically being very shy about expressing opinions, I figured writing poetry about my personal positionality relative to issues of social justice would come naturally.
Maybe it was external stuff that led me to put off producing any poems in response to this week’s workshop, or maybe it was fear of sounding banal. Andrea advised workshop attendees that writing about social justice takes more care than writing on other topics, because writing without mindfulness of those most impacted can actually do more harm than good.
“Never center yourself on issues by which you are not most impacted.”– Andrea Gibson
We are all operating with incomplete information, all the time. We may think we know why we are the way we are, or why someone else is the way they are. But we don’t have a complete understanding of how our positionality in society, or someone else’s, affects us. When we identify with a group, or a struggle, or a movement, we are in some ways trying to claim an understanding of that way of moving through the world that others don’t have. First hand experience is the best teacher when it comes to social position, but we only have experience as it is filtered through our biases. Our learning, our trauma, and our egos give us biases.
“Look for the little holes [in your belief system] and see how you can crumble it further.”– Andrea Gibson
The first prompt that was posed this week was the only one I was able to produce a poem from, and it took a week of hemming and hawing and being generally exhausted by being alive, and the encroaching “deadline” to make me write it. (Meg facilitates the class on Google Classroom, and there are “due dates” for responses, though there is absolutely no pressure involved that isn’t self-imposed.)
The prompt was to list off the ways in which you were marginalized by the dominant culture, (in my case, by being a woman, a lesbian, GNC, and disabled) and to give a pep talk to your younger self around experiences of these marginalizations, a la “It Gets Better,” but ideally less cheesey. Specifically, Andrea and Meg challenged us to write in the second person (to ourselves, as “you”). The accompanying craft prompt, based on a line in a poem Andrea read, asked us to interrogate what stories or beliefs we were holding too tightly to, and thus preventing ourselves from becoming more actualized.
I chose to write about my sexuality, though the poem touches on my gender identity and physicality as a disabled person, too. You can imagine, perhaps, how those things are related. I used an experience from my teenage years, when I was struggling with budding sexuality and the impossible demands of presenting as a woman, and a reference to a musical whose main character could not be more different from me now, as a jumping off point.
Later prompts included writing about a time when you held your tongue and could not be heard on a social justice issue, and a challenge to write about a social justice issue using only positive imagery. Andrea read a new poem about environmental justice and climate change that illustrated this last prompt, entering through a variety of “fun facts” about wildlife and the planet. This was juxtaposed with a discussion of anger, which manifests in so many ways, especially complicated for those socialized as women. This prompted me to pick up Rage Becomes Her, and start reading about the scientific and social phenomena associated with women’s anger.
“Anger is the part of you that thinks you deserved better.”– Meg Falley
Positive imagery, notable facts and personal stories were Andrea’s recommended approaches when delivering an opinion on an issue through poetry. The last craft prompt dealt with two ways to handle clichés: either transform them into something else entirely or double down and utilize them in wordplay. I tend to fancy a bit of wordplay myself, but maybe you prefer to transform a ubiquitous phrase into an image evoking the same feeling.
What identities do you live with? How do you write about them? Email me for a discovery call, and we can talk about sensitivity reading for diversity, equity and inclusion in all your copy!
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