I’m delighted and honored to be here and announce the release of my new book, The Book of Now, a volume of nonfiction poetry on subjects ripped from today’s headlines. I am excited about this book in particular because I wanted to highlight some issues that make us angry, or shocked, and feel compelled to take action. In other words, my book covers social issues and contends that we must be more aware and responsible for these issues in order to find a way to correct or right these problems.
Now before you roll your eyes and groan, “oh not poetry,” wait!
Forbes Magazine has long highlighted poetry with responsibility. Take for example an article Jul 9, 2010 about Poetry and Pollution. The newly announced poet laureate (then) W.S. Merwin wrote of ecological disasters.
But Merwin is by far not the first to use his pen and write with a “social responsibility.”
In literature, where we seek social justice, first you have to understand what is meant by social responsibility. The best definition I ever read was, “the awareness of social injustice, from the local to the global, necessitates specific actions to combat those injustices. In other words, social responsibility and social activism are inextricably intertwined; once aware of the injustice, one is morally obliged to act.” (Naomi Benaron, author, 2012).
For fiction writers, there is a long history of literature intertwined with a need to highlight social responsibility and therefore find social justice. From Quixote, Dickens and Jane Austin through more current folks like Parsipur, Merwin, and Lucia Mann. There is a compelling need for writers to seek answers in the darkness and to speak out with authority whenever possible to shine light, right wrongs, and seek betterment.
But what of the poet? What makes the poet separate from the fiction writer? And are they more or less powerful with the pen?
I think it begins with a belief that social responsibility begins with children. What better way to send a message than a poem that one can remember, recite, and then remember forever? Besides understanding that poetry has always been a voice in the dark, finding those lights shows us how much social injustice has been highlighted in poetry.
Once Chinese immigrants were incarcerated at Angel Island, California during the early 1900s. They wrote their poetry on the walls, despite being told not to. Their poetry filled the halls of their prison and became known as the “talking walls.” From these walls, we learned of their belief in a right to freedom. And that they believed no one has the right to restrict their right to protest injustice. Their poetry was a powerful tool. Here is a short quote from one of the Chinese poems:
“For days I have been without freedom on Island.
In reduced circumstances now, I mingle with the prisoners.
Grievances fill my belly; I rely on poetry to express them.”
The beautiful language highlighted the impoverished conditions and sparked a need for a more fair and just society.
Another desirable aspect of poetry is its ability to present ideals and stress a position, to step off neutrality without the ugliness. There is a responsibility in our country to propose freedom and democracy. Political dictators and oppressionists have attacked these sorts of poets because they find social injustice poetry to be dangerously seditious. Which is exactly why I – and so many others — find it powerful.
Those young Chinese poets also did not take their use of poetry lightly. There was nothing common or funny about the literary tool. In their culture, poetry is the preferred method for highlighting social injustice. This is what makes their “talking walls” so important, that they leaned on their culture as they sought to expose social injustice. It also comforted them, giving something familiar.
Most of all, I think the power of poetry exposing social injustice comes in humanizing issues and reaching people on an emotional level. Poetry allows us to gently empathize, find common ground and to make what is scary or heinous more touchable. Again, it starts with children, learning to deal with social isolation, bullying, differences, and finding understanding in diversity. Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss did it for children and made it easy to remember. Maya Angelou made it easy for adults to understand and want to do better.
This was exactly my thought when I wrote The Book of Now. Not that it could be for children, because truthfully it is too harsh for little kids. But that I can cover terrorism, bullying, abuse, political bigotry and so many other harsh and divisive issues while pointing out the need for and the power of diversity, understanding and knowledge.
Today’s important poets have shown me the way. From Swiss poet Daniele Pantano, Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, to U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, poetry ignites the issues and sparks a need for change. And these changes may simply be in how we view an issue, more enlightened, more open-minded, more resolved.
I certainly don’t expect to remake the world or create a tsunami of change. However, with my new book of poetry, I want others to see subtleties, discover new emotions, and open dialogues of change. There are controversial issues in The Book of Now. We have to be fearless and open-minded if we are going to make this world a better place. Poetry is my way of highlighting social injustices and directing where our social responsibility might be. I think poets make the unpalatable more digestible, because they do it with compassion inside their honesty.
I content that poets believe in possibilities. Like me, The Book of Now does, too. I hope the message resonates with some of you and that you will take up the banner against the social injustices highlighted in The Book of Now. Join an illustrious population of people striving for a better world.
Thank you, Kerry for allowing me a chance to discuss this important aspect about poetry.
The Book of Now is available in print (eBook soon!) through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other outlets (overseas too).
Sherry Rentschler is a multi-genre, award-winning author of fiction, poetry and photography. She lived in Italy for several years and traveled around Europe, the Caribbean, the Middle East and even Greenland. A speaker and coach, she’s addressed writers groups in libraries and colleges. Sherry was featured in Focus on Women Magazine, gracing the cover of the May/June issue as well the focus of an in-depth interview. She and her husband live in North Carolina.
Find out more about Sherry on her website:
Sherry is offering a giveaway of her book. Please comment on what you think is the most important social issue we face today. She will draw a random commenter to win. US only. Contest runs through August 9.