High School Poetry Series: Gender, Identity, & Race – Anaika Falcon & Meisha White


A note from Series Editor Sarah Marcus: Born from a powerful in-class discussion we had about gender, race, and the role of masculinity in rape culture, these poems are an analysis of gendered personal experience and a study of our intersectionality. This poetry series was inspired by a HuffPost essay I wrote called, “Why I Teach Feminism at an Urban High School.” The poets featured here are students from my 12th Grade Creative Writing class whose work I found to be brave, fearless, and progressive. Please help me support their crucial and influential voices.


Anaika Falcon is a senior in my creative writing class. She is 17 years old and will be attending Miami University in Oxford, OH in the fall. She will be majoring in AYA Integrated Language Arts Education in the hopes of teaching high school in the future. She is an avid reader and immerses herself in Asian culture, specifically Japanese and South Korean culture. Anaika’s inspiration for writing this poem was taken from the bullying that she went through when she was in elementary and middle school. She wrote this poem because she felt like many people do not fully understand the consequences of bullying. Not only that, but those who commit suicide are seen as taking the easy way out, and she wants to challenge that view because she does not believe killing yourself is easy; therefore, suicide is not an easy way out.

Meisha White is a senior at Saint Martin de Porres. She  She will be attending Spring Hill College in the fall on a full tuition scholarship. She plans to study Psychology and Early Childhood Development. Meisha has always loved writing music, poetry, and short stories. Her talent began to really blossom in her freshman English class and matured as she learned more in her creative writing class. The topic of bullying that leads to suicide was initially Anaika’s idea. When she brought it up, Meisha thought it was great but was nervous about her writings not being deep enough. She writes, “This project meant a lot to me because I included person experiences and I knew the topic was strong. I am very excited about this poem to be shared because it has the power to change people’s view and save a life or two.”

I chose to feature this deeply moving performance piece for its perseverance and persistence. It is devastating and relatable. It speaks to our collective experience of abuse and bullying. I encourage you to take the 13 minutes to witness these young women in action.

Video of Performance: https://youtu.be/MI7akkTB1c0

“We Had the Guns and You Gave Us the Ammo”
By Anaika Falcon and Meisha White

[Walk forward]
I had the gun and you gave me the ammo.
I see it in your eyes
And in the way you spout those lies.
You don’t know that every day I go home and cry.
I cry until the tears overflow into a small river.
I imagine stabbing myself in the liver,

Anaika and Meisha:
But I am not capable enough to be my own killer.

I use knives and cigarettes to feel fuller.
I take the blade and slowly ride it
Across my tender skin.
I watch as the blood trickles out
Leaving me in inexplicable bliss.

Anaika and Meisha:
It reminds me of the sweet kiss
My mother would plant
Across my cold cheek.

But now I am at my peak.
I am 5”3’ and I am not the prettiest.
I am bleak.
I am weak.
I am nothing but an empty carcass
Trying to speak.
I see it in your eyes
And in the ways you spout those lies.
I had the gun and you gave me the ammo.
Your words were my ammo.
How you let them caress my every fault.
You opened up my deepest darkest vault.
You opened up my wounded scar.
You didn’t have to look too far.
To you, I was another hooker at the bar.
I wasn’t a girl I was just another one
Of your women to be judged.
You knew I wouldn’t budge.
I wouldn’t even give you the time of day,
But that just made it all okay.
Now every time I walk the halls
People laugh and watch me fall
Fall into the abyss
Waiting for someone,
Anyone to call
Call my name and make it better,

Anaika and Meisha:
But now all that is left is that letter.

My suicide letter.
Leading me to the greener side of the land.
I walk into the bath listening to my favorite band.
The water encompasses my body
And breaks my bonds.
I was never fond of the heat,
But today it is how I will beat you.
With the serrated edge of my blade
And the heat to drown my sorrows away.

Anaika and Meisha:

[Walk backwards]
I had the gun and you gave me the ammo.


[Walk forward]
I had the gun and you gave me the ammo.

[Same time] Meisha: 1…2…3…4   Anaika: 5…6…7…8

How hard is it to go to school and break through expected doors?

[Same time] Meisha: 5…6…7…8   Anaika: 1…2…3…4

You’re supposed to be a star, first generation great

[Same time] Meisha: 1…2…3…4   Anaika: 5…6…7…8

Once you lose your virginity you become a whore

[Same time] Meisha: 5…6…7…8   Anaika: 1…2…3…4

Pill after pill I contemplate
They say life is great
Live it to the fullest
But how can I be happy
When I’m expected to stay away from “bullshit”
(When I’m expected to be the coolest)
I ask myself…
How many times have you looked back on your life
And said wow
Realized that there’s not many moments
You cracked a smile
I’m supposed to do great in school
But if I complain it’s
“All you do is go to school”
For girls having sex even for the first time
Is a mark of impurity
But I’m supposed to be “the man” right?
It’s funny how friends stay tight
Only if the timing is right
When you’re doing better they put you down
And try to pick a fight

[Same time] Meisha: 1…2…3…4   Anaika: 5…6…7…8

Cam! Please open the door!

[Same time] Meisha: 5…6…7…8   Anaika: 1…2…3…4

What’s wrong with you?
Being negative
And having self-hate

[Same time] Meisha: 1…2…3…4   Anaika: 5…6…7…8

After all that I’ve done for you?!
All of those sacrifices and you want more?!

[Same time] Meisha: 5…6…7…8   Anaika: 1…2…3…4

[Walk backwards]
I had the gun and you gave me the ammo…
So now it’s too late.


[Walk forward]
I had the gun and you gave me the ammo

Anaika and Meisha:
My breath is leaving my body

My lungs stretching out
Their hands reaching out
For my idle breath

Anaika and Meisha:
Their words of envy strangled my neck

They were an assault on my lungs
They pushed out my air

“She thinks she’s better”

“You have no respect for authority”

“When I first saw you I thought you were stuck up”

“Everything’s your fault”

Anaika and Meisha:
Judgement before a word of exchange

I laugh and it’s

“What’s the problem I thought it was over”

If I’m friends with their enemy I’m the enemy

It’ll be quick

Just stand in the chair

Anaika and Meisha:
Hold your breath

And be free

I loved me as much as I could

But I was hurt by the reciprocated hate

The struggle of being like the girls in the magazines is heavy

So heavy that I decided

Anaika and Meisha:
To drop the weight

Create an escape to escape the hate and release the fate

A fate I couldn’t take

I made my own to correct the mistakes of the ones that hate

I hug the rope
Tied the knot
Stood on the chair
And accepted the fate

The fate of a girl who was too much
So much that she had to escape

[Walk backwards]
I had the gun and you gave me the ammo


[Walk forward]
[Anaika walk forward and stand behind Meisha]

I had the gun and you gave me the ammo.
Dear God, make me a bird
So I can fly far, far far away from here

[Peek out from behind Meisha]
I’ll make you a bird.
I’ll help you fly away.

His fingers hugged one of the most important parts of my body
And it was so powerful that it took my breath away
Make me a bird

[Peek out from behind Meisha]
You are a bird

Make me a bird

[Peek out from behind Meisha]
You have always been a bird

Is what I repeated but all that I heard was screams of passion
Vibrating my eardrums echoing in my head
It shook me… so I thought the only logical thought
And it was clear…
I’m dead

[Peek out from behind Meisha]
You’re not dead,
You are a bird.
You are a flightless bird.

Dear God, oh dear God, how was this happening?

[Peek out from behind Meisha]
I’ll help you fly away
I’ll take away your pain

Alone in my home with no voice

[Peek out from behind Meisha]
You do have a voice,
The voice of a flightless bird.

Not even the strength to give a whisper
So dry that in the midst of it all it went unnoticed but my face,
My face is where the screams of passion unfolded
Dear God, make me a bird so I can fly far, far far away from here

[Peek out from behind Meisha]
I’ll make you remember
That you are a bird

The wind that I didn’t have then felt great now that I’m so high up

[Peek out from behind Meisha]

The winter was approaching so I figured
Heading south in that V was enough

[Peek out from behind Meisha]

Voiceless it cries,

[Peek out from behind Meisha]
A flightless bird

Wingless flutters,

[Peek out from behind Meisha]
A flightless bird

Toothless bites,

[Peek out from behind Meisha]
A flightless bird

Mouthless mutters.

[Peek out from behind Meisha]
A flightless bird

I’ll be free…

[Peek out from behind Meisha]
You’ll be a true bird

It’ll be quick everyone will see how hard it hits
Where kisses go I have scars that will never heal
One wrong touch and I’m that scared little girl
Crying breaking down
Remembering this man of steel
How could this be happening?

[Peek out from behind Meisha]
I’ll help you fly

What was the angle?

[Peek out from behind Meisha]
The angle of flight

What little girl in the 7th grade
Could ever deserve to be strangled?

[Peek out from behind Meisha]
A flightless bird

I took the deep breath
That I couldn’t back then
Trying to pull out the little bird from within

[Peek out from behind Meisha]
You’ll be a true bird

Toes at the edge,
Dressed in camo.
I jumped.

[Meisha falls to her knees]

[Lift head and smile][Walk backwards]
Welcome to my murder of crows.

[Walk backwards]
Because I had the gun and you gave me the ammo.


[Walk forward]
I had the gun and you gave me the ammo.
Every night
I would lay in my bed soaking in my fright.
When the night fell over my room like a warm blanket
Peace was shattered by the light.
It layered my room in bright hues.
It came in the form of a fuse.
Like the sunset his touch lingered on my skin.
Yellow     warmth
Orange   aggression
Red         penetration
Red like the blood that stained my face and clothes.
With a pace as fast as a wild cat tearing away at its prey.
All I did was lay.
Lay in pain.
Lay in fear.
Wishing he would pour me a beer,
A beer to wash away the fear.
To wash away the feel.
The feel of his body crushing mine
Like a landmine.
The feel of his ring
Touching my torso.
How I wish this was a one night fling.
How I wish the light would leave my sight.
How I wish I could hide his bites.
How I wish I could fight back,
But how could I.
How could I ruin them.
Ruin him like he ruined me.

Anaika and Meisha:
But men don’t get raped
And fathers don’t rape their sons.

I am done.
I am alone.
My secret, his secret has been found.
For every bruise my mother pounds her head against the wall.
She falls.
Falls for him.
For his lies.
Because I am a lie.
She yells I should just die.
I… should… just… die.
I walk away.
Away from the pain and the lies.
I take the gun.
This should be fun.
Now I will make him come.
I let myself become numb
And strum my fingers against the barrel of his gun.

I put it in my mouth just like he taught me to.

The barrel chills my tongue
And leaves my mind in a fuzz.
I can hear my ears buzz.
I pull the safety back.

Anaika:                                                                             Meisha:

I can’t do this.                                                                    You better

I can’t live like this.                                                             You better

No one will care if I die.                                                     You better

No one cares that I’ve already died inside.                       You better

I am a lie.                                                                           Make me

I am worthless.                                                                 Me better

I am pathetic.                                                                     Me better

I am a worthless piece of shit.                                         You better make me better

It doesn’t even matter if I kill myself now.                        You better

No one believes me.                                                         You better

I am a lie.                                                                         You better

I tried not to give up.                                                         You better

No, I didn’t give up…                                                       Make me                                

I didn’t, but you did.                                                          Me better

You gave up on me first.                                                 Me better

You chose him over me,                                                 You better make me better

You betrayed me.                                                            X2

I pull the trigger.

[Walk backwards]
Because you gave me the gun and all the ammo needed.


[Walk forward]
I had the gun and you gave me the ammo.

Meisha: 3:00 AM

Anaika: I wake to the sound of my slaughtered cries.

Meisha: 3:05

Anaika: The sweat rolls off my body like all of your lies.

Meisha: 3:06

Anaika: My mind begins to crumble and die.

Meisha: 3:07

Anaika: The binds that have kept me tied down release themselves from me.

Meisha: 3:08

I realized there is only one way to free my mind.
Free my mind of your destructive slurs.
They echo in my mind causing a blur.


Meisha: Pussy

Anaika: Fruit

Meisha: Fairy

Anaika: Nancy

Meisha: Pansy

Anaika and Meisha: Queer

Meisha: 3:09

My salvation lies on my bedside.
It weighs heavy on my mind and in my hands.

Meisha: 3:10

As I imagine a new kind of euphoria and a new land
My mind fades into the darkness.

Meisha: 6:00 AM

I awake to the sound of a harmless noise
That shows me the starless sky
In the heartless morning.

Meisha: 6:01

But today I will not be in mourning.
I will feel the sun across my face
And I will let a smile spread across my face

Anaika and Meisha: Because today is a good day.

Today salvation will follow me to school.
Today salvation will free me from ridicule.

Meisha: 7:15 AM

Anaika: The doors to the school feel cool against the push of my hands.

Meisha: 7:17

The cafeteria is crowded with students and teachers.
They are all make believe preachers.

Meisha: 7:18

My salvation is nestled in my pocket.
Questioning its power,
But no flower is going to stop my salvation.

Meisha: 7:19

Anaika: I pull out my salvation.

Meisha: 7:20

Anaika and Meisha: Everyone runs

Meisha: 7:21

But I am having fun
And no one can out run my salvation.

Anaika and Meisha: I found salvation in a gun.

Meisha: 7:22

Bodies hit the floor.
Their screams hit me at my core.
Their blood begins to pour.
My heart begins to soar.

Meisha: 7:23

I have found euphoria
And I won’t let them take that away from me.

Meisha: 7:24

And with a loud bang
I let salvation take me away…

Anaika and Meisha: Away to euphoria.

[Walk backwards]
I had the gun and you gave me the ammo.


[Walk forward]
Your words cut us like knives.
Your stares blew through us and
Nested themselves within us.
Our guns were holstered at our sides
Ready to save us from all of you,
But only if you give us the ammo.

[Walk backwards]

[Walk forwards]
It only takes one bullet,
It only takes one round,
It only takes one shot
To break our souls
To shatter our hearts.

[Meisha and Anaika move to stand side by side]

Meisha and Anaika:
We are not strong,
But do not believe that what we did was weak.
Have you ever tried to kill yourself?
It takes time.
It takes thought.
It takes a broken person.
It was us.
We were the broken,
The irreparable.
We had the guns and you gave us the ammo.

[Meisha and Anaika walk backward and turn around]






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Fred Muratori: Three Poems



Not words on
the page but
pointing into,
homing in

honed edges of
their first letters
glimpsed as
schooling off

a Döppler-like
gradation into
unintended else
submersion just
below the page

I call and say
come quick
you’ll never guess
but it’s too late
Now you have to

The lamp light
on your face
is not the light
I know and now
neither is the face



When you entered
a shadow came
between your face
and my expectation
of it. I blamed
my treacherous eyes,
the sizzling
gooseneck lamp.
I wanted you to see
all one of me, as you
want me to see
your face in my
But it doesn’t
work that way.
We are stuck
with being happy
or in love with
half a world.



Advancing fragments
into the foreground,
brief and sharp
so that outside-us
will retreat, or flinch
or otherwise admit
what we produce.
It’s not much by way
of strategy, or even
worthy of the name
survival, but it gets
what we mean
from here to over
there, dusty, yes,
worn and ragged
at the knees, and yes
by the instant, and yes
transformed entirely
as we’d hoped.

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By Kelly Hansen Maher

Accepting the rise and fall of boxcars heaving
across the city, our industrial neighborhood.
Old neighborhood, in which immigrants,
studying for citizenship exams,
named the streets in the order of the presidents.
Trains make their slow move uphill, Fillmore,
Pierce, Buchanan, measuring each breath taken,
the newborn on my chest. Her small head
in the dark room, nose and mouth open,
sleeping. We stir; we are steady as train yards, lids
flutter. I hear insects at the open windows, the out
and in of her breath, my husband’s
deep twitching, the dog’s snore. Our bed
smells of human milk, which is lean
of fat and protein so that she will wake frequently
and want me. She has this one country.
I’m on an incline, never fully prone,
kept my word, kept her head
above the blankets, on the pillow of my arm,
kept her face to the air of the room all spring, all
summer. It’s before dawn when the birds…
the light in the room doesn’t change, but the trains
have stopped rolling over the narrow
bridges… birds must know… the pale yellow
beyond the yard… what first birds? chickadees
or sparrow, or thrush? I have small dreams
all night, it’s a covenant to keep her
breathing. Her new system in delicate
crating at the rail of my clavicle,
she’ll track with me, start again after stopping.
I don’t miss depth, tuned from sleep, Lincoln,
Johnson, Ulysses, anything could happen
to her in that other room
without me, and god help me,
there will be no more death in this house.

Today’s poem was was previously published in the Blue Mesa Review and appears in the collection Tremolo (Tinderbox Editions, 2016, copyright Kelly Hansen Maher). It appears here today with permission from the poet.

Kelly Hansen Maher is originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota but now lives in Grinnell, Iowa. She is the author one book of poetry, Tremolo (Tinderbox Editions, 2016), and is currently working on a second collection, as well as a book of memoir/essays. Her poems have been published by the New Orleans Review, Briar Cliff Review, and others journals. She teaches creative writing courses with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.

Editor’s Note: With its evocative imagery and haunting ending, today’s poem is motherhood poetry that resonates, that stays with the reader. There are truths here all mothers of infants know: “I have small dreams / all night, it’s a covenant to keep her / breathing.” Time is measured like breath. Breath is the promise that life will go on, one breath at a time. Sound functions on the level of the line, the scene, the moment, propelling the poem forward, pacing the reader to go on expectantly, breath slow, aware and uncertain.

Want to read more by and about Kelly Hansen Maher?
Kelly Hansen Maher’s Official Website
Buy Tremolo from Tinderbox Editions
New Orleans Review
Midway Journal
Tinderbox Poetry Journal

Posted in Kelly Hansen Maher, Saturday Poetry, Saturday Poetry Series | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment


"Arab Motherhood" by Georges Sabbagh, c. 1920. Public domain image.

“Arab Motherhood” by Georges Sabbagh, c. 1920. Public domain image.

Editor’s Note: In honor of Mother’s Day, I have gathered together some of my favorite poems that I’ve featured on this series over the years that consider motherhood from a plethora of perspectives, for motherhood is such a multi-faceted experience. From the perspective of the child: memories of mothers, good mothers, bad mothers, absent mothers, mothers we have lost. From the perspective of the mother, of the would-be-mother, of the once-was mother: pregnancy and childbirth, love and fear of and for our children, the kind of mother we are or are not, the kind of mother we want to be, the children we never had, the children we have lost.

Today’s selection is in honor of motherhood itself and its many faces, in honor of that imperative person without whom none of us would exist and who–for better or worse–so deeply affects who we come to be.

Today’s post is dedicated to my own mother, who has always been one of my most dedicated readers and faithful supporters, who has shaped my being from zygote through womanhood, and whose legacy as mother takes on its newest incarnation on this, my first Mother’s Day as a mother.

Mother, I’m trying
to write
a poem to you

which is how most
poems to mothers must
begin—or, What I’ve wanted
to say, Mother
…but we
as children of mothers,
even when mothers ourselves,

cannot bear our poems
to them.

–Erin Belieu,
“Another Poem for Mothers”


“Elegy for a Mother, Still Living” by Elana Bell

“Cultiver Son Potager / Growing Vegetables” by Dara Barnat; translated by Sabine Huynh

“Prayers Like Shoes” by Ruth Forman

“We Speak of August” by Valentina Gnup

State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies by Alexis Rhone Fancher

“A Poem for Women Who Don’t Want Children” by Chanel Brenner

“Baby” by Jaimie Gusman

“Psalm to Be Read While My Daughter Considers Mary” by Nicole Rollender

Hemisphere by Ellen Hagan

“Labor Pantoum” by Leslie Contreras Schwartz

“Depression” by Terri Kirby Erickson

“Dinner for the Dying” by Jen Lambert

Decency by Marcela Sulak

Little Spells by Jennifer K. Sweeney

“The Invention of Amniocentesis” by Jen Karetnick

“The Sadness of Young Mothers” by Richard D’Abate

“Mom’s Cocks” by Jenna Le

“The Balance” by Danusha Laméris

“The Committee Weighs In” by Andrea Cohen

“Mother-In-Law” by Nicole Stellon O’Donnell

“Change of Address” by Ruth Deborah Rey

Want to read more Mother’s Day poems?
Mother’s Day poetry from the Academy of American Poets
Poetry about mothers from the Academy of American Poets

Posted in Alexis Rhone Fancher, Andrea Cohen, Danusha Laméris, Dara Barnat, Elana Bell, Ellen Hagan, Jaimie Gusman, Jen Karetnick, Jen Lambert, Jenna Le, Jennifer K. Sweeney, Leslie Contreras Schwartz, Marcela Sulak, Nicole Rollender, Nicole Stellon O'Donnell, Richard D'Abate, Ruth Deborah Rey, Ruth Forman, Sabine Huynh, Saturday Poetry, Saturday Poetry Series, Terri Kirby Erickson, Valentina Gnup | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The New Era of Engaged Literature


The New Era of Engaged Literature


Okla Elliott

When I was fourteen years old, I naively and ignorantly and perhaps over-seriously declared myself a Marxist. It was around this time that I also began considering myself a writer, though most of what I wrote sounded like quasi-plagiarized Bad Religion and Pixies lyrics. When I think back on that younger me whose main goals in life were to become a professional skateboarder and to save the world with his bad poetry, I feel a kind of wistful nostalgia; I also want to ruffle his hair and tell him to chill out a bit. That said, I can’t deny that in many ways those formative years are still with me and shape much of how I view literature today. Sure, I am no longer a Marxist (if in fact in my youthful ignorance I ever was), but rather a democratic socialist of the Bernie Sanders variety, but I sport a Black Flag tattoo that the fourteen-year-old me would be proud of, and I likewise have Simone de Beauvoir and Slavoj Žižek tattoos that the fourteen-year-old me would appreciate if he knew their work.

To be honest, my ignorance has likely been the guiding star for my literary development. Neither of my parents graduated high school, so when I made it to college, I had no idea how one went about becoming a writer. I ended up double-majoring in philosophy and German, double-minoring in French and religious studies, because I had somehow gotten it into my head that this was the way to become a writer. I also studied abroad to Germany and Poland in undergrad, another weird idea I had gotten into my ahead about how one becomes a writer. I remained highly political, preferring writers such as Gore Vidal over the aesthetes of the literary world. It wasn’t until I began my MFA in creative writing at Ohio State University that I learned politics and literature are frequently seen as opposing activities.

I have often half-joked that just as the rich don’t talk about money, American authors have tended not to talk about politics, since we’re members of the most powerful nation on Earth. The rich don’t talk about money, and the powerful don’t talk about politics. Authors in virtually every other nation are expected to incorporate politics into their work, however openly or obliquely. But I have seen this state of affairs in American literature change dramatically in the past handful of years (and of course there were notable exceptions beforehand). American writers are producing more of what Jean-Paul Sartre called “engaged literature,” and I couldn’t be more pleased to see this happening. As citizens of the most powerful nation on Earth, it’s about time we realized the rest of the world is out there and that our government’s decisions affect the lives of billions of people.

Putting aside my half-joke (which I don’t think is entirely empty), why else might American authors have had this tendency to avoid politics? There is one other key reason I see: rampant anti-intellectualism among Americans that reaches even into the corridors of universities, where our programs in creative writing are housed. One of my favorite professors during my own MFA referring to the scholars in the English department as “those pointy heads on the fourth floor” (the fourth floor being where their offices were). He said this several times in the years I was there, yet I never sensed an ounce of animosity in his words; it was merely a casual dismissal, and one that always got a chuckle of agreement from most of the students in the workshop. I have heard dozens of similar reports from other programs, with some even describing real dislike/distrust between the creative and scholarly factions within English departments. But I and many writers I’ve talked to feel this distaste for political thought and intellectual engagement in cultural issues is changing, at least among a sizable subset of us. The causes for this change are numerous, but having 9/11, the Iraq War, the 2008 collapse, and the unprecedented wealth inequality all hit us over the course of a decade or so are foremost among them.

Director of Ohio State University’s MFA program Michelle Herman said the following when I asked her about this trend:

In 28 years of teaching at Ohio State—and teaching through some pretty contentious election cycles, too—I cannot recall my graduate students (or the alumni of our graduate program, for that matter) injecting themselves quite so intensely into the whirl of political discourse.

Herman also has a theory as to why this might be happening at this point in history. She points out that “the ease of disseminating ideas, of moving from thought to ‘print’ (electronica) quickly enough for those thoughts to matter—or anyway to be heard” might have as much or more to do with this increase in political activity than some sweeping cultural change. I certainly agree that social media has played a huge and incalculably important role in such movements as Occupy Wall Street and the Bernie Sanders campaign, and I think Herman has accurately hit on that importance. This moment in history is saturated with the effects of online activity in ways we likely won’t understand for many years, if ever.

There are three main causes, to my mind, for the shift to more political engagement in American literature in the past decade or so. 1) Institutional changes at the level of grant-giving entities and universities. 2) A general awakening to political and international problems across the culture. 3) An increase in literary inclusion of marginalized people.
I’ll begin with and focus largely on the institutional changes, because they are so pervasive and more easily quantified.

Interestingly, just as the advent of MFA programs and therefore the age of craft in American literature aided in reducing the amount of politically oriented literature in this country, I argue that the advent of the PhD in creative writing is aiding in ushering in a new age of engaged literature—though without totally jettisoning what we learned from our decades in the craft trenches. How so? Well, as part of their course load, PhD candidates in creative writing also have to take scholarly courses that expose them to thinkers such as Walter Benjamin, Judith Butler, Fredric Jameson, Gayatri Spivak, and many others. They likewise receive introductions to the larger fields of disability studies, gender studies, trauma studies, and postcolonial studies. All of this means PhD candidates in creative writing receive at least a cursory knowledge—and in some cases an in-depth understanding—of major political and philosophical thinkers from around the world. This new hybrid degree is, in effect, creating a new hybrid category of creative writer, one that is interested in craft and social engagement in equal measure.

The other major institutional change that has helped bring about this new era of engaged literature in the United States is at the level of grant-funding entities. Obviously the events on 9/11 themselves were horrendous, as were the majority of the Bush administration’s reactions, but one interesting accidental byproduct of those events is that Americans were woken up and were forced to recognize that an outside world beyond the United States exists. There was a time when scholars were heavily funded to learn Russian and German, since those were languages of Soviet Russia and East Germany. In the years after 9/11, the US government pumped millions of dollars into the learning of Arabic, Korean, and Farsi—while still funding the study of Russian and Chinese at high levels. And in a kind of cultural trickle-down, universities have begun offering more courses in these languages and cultures.

Likewise, programs in translation were created, often connected to varying degrees with the MFA in creative writing program at the home university. Here are just some examples of recent translation programs added to major universities: University of Illinois added an MA and various certificate programs in translation in 2008; University of Maryland started an MA in translation in 2013; and University of Iowa, which already had an MFA in translation before this recent boom in such programs, has added an undergraduate certificate in global engagement via translation. This last one is especially salient for my point, since it overtly names engagement as part of its goal. And the list of new programs and journals focused on translation from around the world goes on and on. In 2015, even Amazon announced an investment of $10 million over the next five years in AmazonCrossing, its translation program founded in 2010. Since politics is heavily global in nature now, it is impossible to overestimate the importance of all these new programs and investments in terms of its effects on literature.

The gifts of translation for English-language literature are myriad: blank verse as a solution for translating unrhymed Latin verse, the sonnet and sestina forms from Italian, couplets from French, and, some have claimed, free verse from Chinese. I argue that the 21st-century gift translation can give is an understanding of how political and literary discourses may most profitably mix.

I also believe that the adjunct crisis has created increased awareness among writers. With nearly 70% of our courses now being taught by adjuncts, emerging writers are often working for criminally low wages and no benefits or job security. This newfound economic precariousness among many writers has forced the issue of economics and institutional policy into the lives of writers in a way that was not as pronounced in previous decades.
The change at the institutional level therefore originates from several sources, ranging from government funding to greater global awareness to the increasing need for more higher education in the form of PhDs in creative writing if one wants to pursue a career as a creative writer in academia. The causal lines here are sometimes direct and sometimes roundabout or even totally accidental.

As I mentioned earlier there have of course been numerous exceptions throughout American literary history: Erica Jong, Norman Mailer, W.S. Merwin, Joyce Carol Oates, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Gore Vidal, and Richard Wright, among others, and there were of course excellent organizations like Cave Canem before the time period I am discussing. I am therefore emphatically not claiming that this is an entirely new phenomenon, just that there is a notable increase in it. Interestingly, we find that the least powerful among us—minorities, women, and the impoverished—are often more likely to inject politics into their literary production. Here is where my third main reason for this change comes in. A more open acknowledgment of racist, sexist, and anti-LGBTQ practices in the literary industry, as well as the founding of groups such as VIDA to highlight and combat such practices, have brought more marginalized writers to the forefront of American literary culture, thus bringing a more politically engaged literature to the forefront as well.

Given the limited space I have here, I have focused largely on changes institutions and organizations and how those have caused a shift in the literary culture in the United States, but as mentioned earlier, there is a broader and more nebulous increase in interest caused by recent historical events, a topic worthy of an entire essay unto itself. But that, as they say, is a project for another time.

As so many great authors from here in the United States and around the world have proven, literature does not have to choose between being aesthetically pleasing or politically engaged, between being of the moment or achieving timelessness. Aristotle famously defined humanity in two ways: 1) Humans are political animals. 2) Humans are linguistic animals. I would argue that engaged literature which still keeps its eye on craft brings these two definitions into enjoyable and productive harmony.

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nan cohen

By Nan Cohen

Consider one apricot in a basket of them.
It is very much like all the other apricots–
an individual already, skin and seed.

Now think of this day. One you will probably forget.
The next breath you take, a long drink of air.
Holiday or not, it doesn’t matter.

A child is born and doesn’t know what day it is.
The particular joy in my heart she cannot imagine.
The taste of apricots is in store for her.

Today’s poem was was first published on the Academy of American Poets website and appears here today with permission from the poet and publisher.

Nan Cohen is the author of Rope Bridge, a collection of poems. Her work has appeared in Gulf Coast, The New Republic, Ploughshares, Poetry International, and Tikkun, among other magazines and anthologies. She is the recipient of a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award, and a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. A high school teacher and English department chair in Los Angeles, she is also the Poetry Director of the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference.

Editor’s Note: Simple, yet revelatory. A personal experience that belongs to one and to many. The day you will likely not remember. The apricot that is like all the others–unique. “The particular joy in my heart she cannot imagine.” The way that line bowls you over. How unadorned it is, yet how stunning. This poem. This poem. This poem.

Want to read more by and about Nan Cohen?
Rope Bridge
Nan Cohen’s Blog
“The Fear of the Dark” (with audio) at Slate
“Storm” at The New Republic
“Girder” at Verse Daily

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High School Poetry Series: Gender, Identity, & Race – Bianca Capeles


A note from Series Editor Sarah Marcus: Born from a powerful in-class discussion we had about gender, race, and the role of masculinity in rape culture, these poems are an analysis of gendered personal experience and a study of our intersectionality. This poetry series was inspired by a HuffPost essay I wrote called, “Why I Teach Feminism at an Urban High School.” The poets featured here are students from my 12th Grade Creative Writing class whose work I found to be brave, fearless, and progressive. Please help me support their crucial and influential voices.


Bianca Capeles is a 17-year-old senior poet in my Creative Writing class. Her future aspirations include a United States Presidency and many, many book publications. She is a member of the Poetry Club and the Drama Club. She enjoys writing and engaging in heated political debates on Facebook. She continues her fight for equality because she “doesn’t understand how someone could advocate for one life over another.”

Capeles’s poem is a re-imagination of biblical lore. Her second person point of view and her steady and engaging rhythm reveals and insists on a historical pattern on repeat.

I chose this poem because of its clear message: a woman’s value is incalculable and should not be determined by men. The moment I heard this poem performed, I knew it needed a larger audience. Please join me in enjoying this untamed, bold new voice!


Explain the glances in your direction.
I guess it doesn’t help to stand beside Elijah,
newly turned prophet,
felt called to bring you to church.

It must be the skirt you chose to wear,
just tight enough to curve around your legs,
evoking lust, causing Christian men to sin:
Mesmerizing beyond faith to break a commandment,
to devalue the worth of wedding rings…

It must be the leather you chose to wear,
zipped up to your neckline,
covering what you thought would label you temptation.
Instead, you become rebellious in the eyes of the priest:
He sees your eyeliner and deems you troubled,
criminalizes your modesty,
sends women to patronize:

They say, “God changed me,”
and shows you a picture of a happier woman.

Explain the whispers in your direction:
Pastor mentions his lovely wife –
You only notice the shrinkage of a woman under constant scrutinization.
You notice her limbs are completely covered in the same church Jezebel is shamed.
She looks as if making up for Eve.

You remain unconvinced.
Elijah looks over for affirmation,
mentions later that his congregation asked about you:
But you hear the intentions behind every invitation to go out.
They want to discern your spirituality through the clothes that you wear,
if your inherent reflex is to smile if a man is caught staring.
They want to compare your faith to your fashion sense,
despite never having sex, Jezebel.

You are committed to God first, and then wife 1, 2, and 3.
She stands beside you with her child,
the offspring of another man,
and you bask in the reverence that is your position right now:
What a respectable man of God you are
for taking over the responsibilities
of used goods.

You feel above reproach.
You will raise your daughter to shun women like her mother,
wear clothes that attract men like you,
and associate her worth with her virginity,
even while having sex with drunk women,
conceiving a child out of wedlock,
and denying her.

You enjoy the air that Jezebel gives you:
Men glare and envy you,
all unhappy in marriages you have been able to avoid up until now,
with children not claimed to be yours as of yet.

You convince yourself that your interest is her salvation:
That the conversations you have could never find themselves materializing into something more than seeking God,
positioned beside the riskiest threat introduced to church since implemented dress code,
because you’ve brought her to church.

Explain the thought process that makes you innocent beside her:
Your tightened tie and shaved face would not exclude you from rebellious titles,
the tattoo on your arm is similar to the criminalization of eyeliner in Pentecostal churches,
And yet you remain a higher stature than assumed Jezebel,
Because you are assumed to be Elijah, Elysha.

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