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REBEL YELLS: Poets in Resistance

curated by David Buuck


From the incredible wealth of poets and translations available in the Poetry International archive, I’ve selected a few poems that I hope suggest the range and diversity of approaches to dissent and resistance in poetry across the globe. Of course, a sampling such as this one can only skim the surface and risks plucking poems (and poets, not to mention translators and translations) out of their contexts — whether national and geopolitical and/or literary and cultural. Nonetheless, my hope is that the poets and poems here might be portals to investigative reading, as each poem and translation might open up vistas of other traditions and counter-traditions, political battles and literary rebellions, not to mention the crucial role of translators in bridging and mediating the work across borders and gaps of language and understanding. (Yet again I remain inspired and in awe of the often-thankless work of translators, especially those committed to marginalized voices throughout the world.) My thanks to Mia You and Poetry International for inviting me to present some of the fiercest poets online!

Freedom T.V. Nyamubaya, a veteran of the Zimbabwean liberation army and post-independence activist for land reform and women's rights, traces the complex emotions of disillusionment as she tracks the ways in which the promises of liberation (which in the Zimbabwean case meant anti-capitalist as well as anticolonial) have given way to a neoliberal kleptocracy enforced by brutal state repression. Without falling into nostalgia for her time as an eighteen year-old field operations commander in the Zimbabwean African National Liberation Army (she was the first ex-combatant to write about misogyny in the movement), or defeatist bitterness, she maintained a fierce commitment to the revolutionary spirit of full liberation as well as a singular focus on those forces aligned in opposition and repression (including many ex-combatants who since made themselves rich working for the state). 'In the Absence of Vision!', the last poem she published before she died in 2015, she equates politicians with the Mafia, using terror to amass wealth. Indeed, the police are shown to be the agents of economic extraction from the poor, 'civilized' within notions of law that are wielded on behalf of power:

Civilized robbery blooms!
In the form of uniformed police

Referencing the recent land-grabs by government officials and their cronies, often performed under the banner of 'land reform', Nyamubaya calls out the false claims of revolutionary tradition (where actual progressive land reform was one of the fueling demands of the peasant-led liberation struggle) as nothing more than a further consolidation of state power:

Land becomes a weapon for cohesion
To keep the peasant in line
Assisted by war veterans, most of them born after 1980
As real veterans languish in poverty

Never forget, and never give in: an anticolonial dissident in the 70s, and an anti-neocolonial cultural worker since independence, Nyamubaya's poems keep the flames of revolt alive.

Representing a new generation of poets in Zimbabwe, Comrade Fatso's 'Worms for Sale' uses humor to give us a portrait of today's everyday Zimbabwe, while linking the cultural labor of word-work, marginalized in the neoliberal marketplace of ideas, to the lumpen-prole position of those outside the formal economy. In rhymed and rhythmical verse—Fatso is a slam poet and frontman for the banned-in-Zimbabwe band Chabvondoka (a Shona word for "it's a riot")—he tells the story of a street vendor using language to try to articulate the twinned repressions of economic and police oppression.

The worm-seller Tinashe's signs sing economic crisis—"[T]he words for today's crisis read thus 'Worms for sale'"—from the position of the street and the soil:

A grown man whose daily toil
Is to pull worthless worms from the world's soil
'Cause while fat cats feed off fat cheques
He has to feed small worms to his starving chicks

The chorus of the poem/song incorporates Shona, connecting selling the worms to selling words:

Worms for sale, Worms for sale
Three words telling the world your tale
Mazwi arikutengeswa, arikutengeswa     (Words for sale, for sale)
Nokuti upenyu wakaoma      ('Cause life is hard)

Later in the poem we see how even his truth-telling "worm's-eye view journalism" is at risk of suppression:

The struggle to survive is criminalised
A poor worm seller's sign is vandalised
By police officers paid to antagonize those who put up a sign of the times

As Tinashe's signs become more cheeky and absurdist—"European Worms For Sale. Please take me to Kariba"—Comrad Fatso's "sign of the times" becomes a song of the times as well, fusing humor with anger to show the micro-politics of resistance in everyday Zimbabwe.

Another poet who mixes humor with militant fervor is Indian writer and activist Meena Kandasamy. From her scholarship on caste and journalism on gender in India, to her involvement with the Dalit Panthers (a militant Dalit anti-caste organization) demonstrate the wide range of her political work beyond poetry.  At the same time, we can see how poetry can provide a space for humor and imagery to locate resistance to state ideology, as in 'Reverence :: Nuisance', where she sends up the nominally-secular Indian state reverence for religious images and icons. Here we see everyday "casual people" respond with spitting betel juice on pictures of Hindu Gods, or covering images of the Gods with urine. As Kandasamy demonstrates, the state and its religious ideologies cannot control the bodily-expressive rebellion of everyday citizens. Indeed, as she writes,

Tolerance is a very holy concept.

Or like someone said,
the Caste Gods deserve
the treatment they get.

Her short poem 'Ekalaivan' is much more overt in its militantcy, suggesting that perhaps more than spit and piss are required to revolt:

You can do a lot of things
With your left hand.
Besides, fascist Dronacharyas warrant
Left-handed treatment.

You don't need your right thumb          
To pull a trigger or hurl a bomb.

A somewhat similar vision of violent rebellion comes from the Aboriginal Australian poet Lionel Fogarty. His poem 'Capitalism — The Murderer in Disguise' makes no bones about the target of that violence, here narrated with vivid detail. The poet imagines killing whites and then responding to the police's 'why' with:

"You make my father afraid
then give them a carved body
ready to shatter,
A mind
held in drunkenness
and worn out.
You make my mother afraid
so when she sleeps
an axe appears
covered in blood."

Look pig
What you do to our people.

Fogerty shows us how centuries of colonial and state violence—not only racial but economic, as the poem's title reminds us—could bring a retaliatory violence beyond fear, as oppressors are put on notice:

You don't make me afraid.
Beware, we'll be out of your prisons.

While not as overtly militant as Fogerty, Burmese poet and activist Ma Ei has survived prison (she left the Communist Party of Burma—after having been a teacher, writer, and journalist for the party—to work in the semi-autonomous Kachin Special Region, where she was later imprisoned) all the while maintaining her fierce poetic voice ("I wage wars / for a world / that is worth / living in," she writes in "A Letter for Lovers and Haters").

In 'A Catastrophic Rune' (translated by the indefatigable ko ko thett), Ma Ei begins with a list of poets and other Burmese cultural figures, defiantly warning:

Don't you dare touch Maung Chaw Nwe
Don't you dare touch Aung Cheimt
Don't you dare touch Thukamaing Hlaing
Don't you dare touch [….]

The poem then moves on through an impressionistic portrait of the author grappling within and against social forces (often represented by an oppressive "you"), with an onrush of quick turns and free associations ("If I have to weigh every word, I won't be writing"). The later move from the personal to the political suggests a drying-up, perhaps representing the catastrophe of the title:

Breast milk desiccates… menstruation desiccates
Money desiccates… poetry desiccates… life…

Nonetheless, she continues on and ends the poem in defiance:

Whatever transpires, I will never
Bow down at the well-synchronised yanes4
Whenever my sarong slips off
I will wear pants!

While the humorous ending might not match the more violent and explosive images of poets like Fogerty or Kandasamy, given the tumultuous political history of Myanmaar over the last several decades, Ma Ei has certainly demonstrated how a life of rebellion can find voice in a poetry as fierce as it is unpredictable.

I'd like to end here with a counter-tone of sorts, as I have a tendency to sometimes valorize the figure of the "oppositional poet," and want to caution against the penchant that some (or at least I) may have for romanticizing the position of the outsider, the exiled, the subjected. In poet and artist Truong Tran's poem 'If Only I Were a Dissident Poet' we see the poet (at least in my reading) playfully rebelling against this image of the "dissident poet," reminding us that biography is not destiny. Identity, after all, can be policed even through a kind of well meaning if patronizing Western empathy, if what is desired is a narrative of personal struggle or subaltern authenticity. As Tran suggests, "my name its meaning" is contingent on what one does with identity, not its given conditions. Refusing to perform an expected role (in his case the Vietnamese-American immigrant poet), Tran shows us in this brief prose poem how the poet's attention to seemingly apolitical images—the sky, the clouds, the sun—can be just as revelatory, and perhaps just as revolutionary. Once more a reminder of what poetry can do to open our eyes to the perspective of anti-normative positions in both language and life.


David Buuck is a writer who lives in Oakland, CA. He is the founder of BARGE, the Bay Area Research Group in Enviro-aesthetics, and co-founder and editor of Tripwire, a journal of poetics. Recent publications include SITE CITE CITY (Futurepoem, 2015) and An Army of Lovers, co-written with Juliana Spahr (City Lights, 2013). A Swarming, A Wolfing is forthcoming from Roof Books in 2016.

© David Buuck