“Más en la poesía y menos en el poema”: A Craft Talk by Ana Portnoy Brimmer
Photography credit: Carolina Porras Monroy. This craft talk was originally featured in SER's Writer's Regimen: Your daily does of inspiration for the month of June.
About three years ago, I started experiencing a crisis of faith. The belief system: poetry. I finished my MFA in the Spring of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic erupted with brutal force and ravaged through life as we knew it, and I decided to move back home to Puerto Rico. For two years, I’d been working on a manuscript of poems about the colonial project suffocating the archipelago in recent years, and which upon my return, had tightened its chokehold. Its most recent show of force? Government-backed tax evaders, millionaire developers and modern-day colonial settlers cashing in on the ruins of a debt-ridden, environmentally and politically unstable Puerto Rico. Home was becoming a nesting ground for rapacious vultures, and uninhabitable territory for locals. Being back, I did what many of us have done over the years: I turned, yet again, to political organizing.
Wading into this terrain after two years of intense immersion in a U.S. creative writing graduate program, I naturally developed some philosophical unease—restlessness, say—about my craft. In the face of such rampant abandonment, expropriation, displacement and unyielding precarity, what was poetry actually doing? What impact did poetry tangibly have in the world I inhabited? Questions, no doubt, that countless poets have asked themselves across generations, which could understandably be discarded as drastically utilitarian or reductive. Not to mention that it’s an absurd amount of pressure to put on a poem—the responsibility of overthrowing the social order. After all, as Adrienne Rich suggests in her book, What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, “a poem can’t free us from the struggle for existence, but it can uncover desires and appetites buried under the accumulating emergencies of our lives, the fabricated wants and needs we have had urged on us, have accepted as our own.”
Nevertheless, I believe in a poetics of revolutionary social change. If I take it upon myself to write about social justice, I must also be accountable to the responsibility that ensues: following up with those politics in the material world.
Transcribing a poet interview for The Puerto Rican Literature Project (PRLP), I came across the following assertion by Puerto Rican writer and editor, Claudia Becerra: “cada vez creo más en la poesía y menos en el poema.” More and more, I have greater faith in poetry and less in the poem itself. So much about this pronouncement struck me. How pithy and discerning, how catchy even, but more specifically, how it differentiates, say, between the limits of the page and the limits of poetry—alluding to a poetry that exists as much in the world as it does on a sheet of paper. It spoke to my own sense that poetry cannot just name material reality, it has to intervene in it as well, and escape the restraints that uphold the page’s political stasis. And how, beyond being public-facing, poetry can take up public space. Which brings me to Rich’s poignant question: “Why do so many poems full of liberal or radical hope and outrage fail to lift off the ground, for which “politics” is blamed rather than a failure of poetic nerve?” Perhaps, the historic moment demands (much like Rich’s) moving beyond a poetics of witness and survival, and into a poetics of direct action and dignity. And what might this look like? I think of recent historical examples we’ve inherited from the Global South, such as poetry being sung collectively in massive demonstrations across Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring. Or Cuba’s Omni Zona-Franca taking over bus stops with chairs and reading poetry to intermittent crowds as a way to “forge relationships” and “map out possibilities” in the midst of crisis. Or the lyrically charged “Un violador en tu camino,” by Chile’s Colectivo Las Tesis.
Closer to home, I’m reminded of a workshop I taught last November at the BVI Lit Fest in Tortola on using poetry for wheatpasting and reclaiming public space. I also look to the collective I organize with in PR, the Alacena Feminista-Luquillo: how we occupied an abandoned public school shuttered by the government and covered its walls with lyric refrains; how we taught a community poetry workshop in the town’s public plaza to address gender violence and gentrification; how we wrote songs for pro-abortion interventions.
I feel unrest in writing “politically” or being a “political poet” (categories strangely singled out and alienated from the rest of the genre in the U.S.) while leaving that militancy at the door of the craft. What of questioning the sequestered world we’ve built around poetry: workshops, academic programs, conferences and panels, journals and readings—the dictates they respond to? My unruly, tender heart envisions a poetry actively used to draw people into organizing and movement building, to show that power is built communally from the ground up and shared. A poetry that is a site of encounter, identifies necessities, weaves care networks and models mutual aid. A poetry intentionally wielded to dissect structural violences, hold collective dreams, and strategize towards mass mobilization. A poetry that takes over walls, buildings, bridges, light posts, all kinds of public infrastructure—that destabilizes that violent place we call normalcy. A poetry rowdy at protests—ear splitting molotov refrains. A poetry to redefine dignity, what it looks like and how it’s lived.
There are legacies to stand under, poetry forebears and traditions to learn this from—take it from one of the great foremothers, Audre Lorde, who proclaims in her essay, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” that we must “constantly encourage ourselves and each other to attempt the heretical actions that our dreams imply, and so many of our old ideas disparage. In the forefront of our move toward change, there is only poetry to hint at possibility made real.” A poetry, dear comrades, committed to politics beyond the pen, and for which we must show up consistently.
Lorde reminds us of an inescapable truth in her masterful reformulation of poetry and its role: “experience has taught us that action in the now is also necessary, always. Our children cannot dream unless they live, they cannot live unless they are nourished, and who else will feed them the real food without which their dreams will be no different from ours?” Participating in the tangible task of world-building and restoring human dignity is vital to the task of writing poetry from dissent and towards utopia.
A couple of years ago, I was part of a wheatpasting brigade against rape culture. Some of the posters were slashed a few days later, others, to this day, hold fast. This action sits at the heart of one of my recent poems as I work towards my second book. In the poem, I take a moment to imagine what we’ll modify and do next time: crush glass into the gluey slop to paste the posters. I like to think of organizing as a site to draft revolutionary poetics, and poetry as a site to revise revolutionary politics. As interlocking affairs.
I’m trying to believe more in poetry, and less in the poem itself.
Adrienne Rich, What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, W.W. Norton & Company, 1993.
Audre Lorde, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde, Crossing Press, 2007.
Claudia Becerra, Interview conducted by Roque Raquel Salas Rivera with Claudia Becerra for The Puerto Rican Literature Project, 2022.
ANA PORTNOY BRIMMER is a poet and independent translator from Puerto Rico. She holds a BA and an MA in English Literature from the University of Puerto Rico, and is an alumna of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Rutgers University-Newark. To Love an Island, her debut poetry collection, was the winner of YesYes Books’s 2019 Vinyl 45 Chapbook Contest. Que tiemble, a derivative work in Spanish, was published with La Impresora. Ana is the winner of the 92Y Discovery Poetry Contest 2020, she was awarded a 2023 MASS MoCA Fellowship for Artists from Puerto Rico, and was named one of Poets & Writers's 2021 Debut Poets. Her work has been published in The Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, Southeast Review, Gulf Coast, Society and Space, Sixth Finch, Sx Salon, The Breakbeat Poets Volume 4: LatiNEXT, Aftershocks of Disaster: Puerto Rico Before and after the Storm, among others. Ana is the daughter of Mexican-Jewish immigrants, resides in Puerto Rico, and finds hope in the poetics of dance parties and revolution.