A poet friend and I recently discussed the integrity of writing poems with a political purpose. He said he’d never done this right before Donald Trump became president. Shortly after Trump took office, my friend wrote an anti-Trump poem. I’ve never written such an overtly political poem myself, finding it difficult to find much poetic in the specifics of politics. However, I’ve written poems that were covertly political. I wasn’t trying to be covert. That’s how the poems came out.
Most of those poems were written for a series of Peace Poetry readings that have taken place in Wichita for three or four years. Sponsored by the People of Faith for Peace., the readings feature poets in the community who have written poems centered on the idea of peace. For example, one of my poems, “First, the Reflection,” relates my response to the Vietnam Memorial Wall on the National Mall. I’ve seen this memorial, with its 50,000+ names etched onto it, and every time I am moved to tears. One of my friends refuses to see it. She’s afraid it would devastate her. She and I were both young women during the Vietnam War and we both opposed it at the time. One of my brothers was stationed in Vietnam and I could hardly bear it until he came home safely.
At the beginning of 2017, Caryn Merriam-Goldberg, a former Poet Laureate of Kansas, put up a new edition of her Heartland Poetry website, which she titled “Poems of Love, Resistance, and Solidarity.” It can be found here: https://150kansaspoems.wordpress.com/2018/01/22/a-blank-sheet-of-paper-a-poem-in-free-verse-for-free-women-by-diane-wahto/. If you scroll through the pages, you will find poems from poets from all over Kansas.
When Caryn put out the call for submissions, I was surprised to find I had at least five poems that met the requirements of the web site. I sent five to her and so far the judges have selected four of them, four that were written for the Peace Poetry readings. I was surprised when one of the judges chose a poem I wrote one for a pro-choice rally held a couple of summers ago when Operation Rescue threatened Wichita with its destructive tactics. The threat never materialized in any meaningful way. The pro-choice rally was a success. However, I was sure no one would touch that poem with a ten-foot pole.
Someone did touch it and put it up on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. An added benefit is that I’m now acquainted with the judge who chose my poem, Prof. Laura Lee Washburn, I will meet her face to face when the Heartland Poets gather for a reading at Pittsburg State University, Pittsburg, Kansas, in April.
I suppose I do write political poetry. I don’t set out to do that, but sometimes a picture or an encounter with another person will motivate me to think about an unjust situation. The poem about the Vietnam War Memorial came to me when one of our Vietnamese neighbors brought egg rolls to us on a day when his family was celebrating a grandchild’s birthday. The aroma of the egg rolls opened up an idea for the poem. He is old now, but he was a young man when he came here to escape the chaos in his country. I saw something in his face that trigged the poem.
If the political contains poetic elements, I’ll write about it. Otherwise, I’ll move on to something else.