Poet Sarah Browning, on Alternative Visions

by Cece Roth-Eagle

This week, Writers on Writing spoke with Sarah Browning, community organizer and activist poet, where she discusses fighting for pleasure, her poetry collection Killing Summer, and the poetry inside everyone. Her course, “Justice and Joy: Writing Powerful Political Poetry” takes place on Saturday, April 3rd, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. 

First, I was hoping to focus on the community engagement and creative writing accessibility work that you’ve done through Amherst Writers and Artists and Split This Rock. Could you describe the work you did there? 

At Amherst Writers and Artists, I helped build trainings for leading workshops with low income women and other disempowered groups. We developed a training model that people all over the world have now studied with all kinds of populations: incarcerated folk, low income people, people with mental illness, and a whole range of marginalized groups. 

That was really exciting work. It helped me understand that the creative mind is a tool for social change, or can be. We as a people just naturally express our hopes for the future, or our sorrow at injustices through poetry and other creative means. And you know, the more voices that are amplified in telling those stories and expressing those hopes, the richer our understanding and the fuller our vision is for a more just future. 

Later in D.C., I dreamt up what became Split This Rock. That work was all about engaging poets in the public sphere, bringing poetry into social movements, and amplifying the voices of poets who are writing socially engaged poetry.

In your 2017 poetry collection, Killing Summer, you navigate the “city of split heads, city of gun shops threatening,” and ultimately ask,  “What city are we?/ How do we call ourselves neighbors?” Could you talk about navigating the racial landscape of America in Killing Summer and what it means to use poetry as a form of societal, and self, reckoning?

I was living in D.C. when I published those poems, and D.C., like most U.S. cities, is very segregated, very racially charged. It’s one of the most economically unequal cities in the country, and that tracks to race. 

It’s a question that I ask America, and I ask white America, not just residents of Washington, D.C., and ask myself everyday. How do we justify this? And how we justify it often to ourselves, white folks, is by not just ignoring, but distorting our history as a nation. That’s why so many of these poems address history. 

We’re not responsible for what our ancestors did, but we are responsible for learning about it, understanding it, and working to dismantle it. Poetry can help us tell those stories. We have to give ourselves a kind of creative imaginative license to play, to imagine, to celebrate alternative visions. We need to uncover the history and we need to tell the truth, because sometimes just telling the truth is new. Then we need to imagine other possibilities. 

Poetry is often categorized by its form, structure, and rules. Yet right now there’s a movement rethinking form, like in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, or Terrence Hayes’ American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin. I want to ask you how you see form working in poetry today. What does it mean to you and how do you utilize it when writing? 

I just took a workshop with Derrick Austin, a young poet experimenting with form. He talked about how we can reclaim form to push beyond our usual habitual practices and to experiment, and in particular about BIPOC and queer folk taking these forms, exploring within them, and then busting them open. His suggestion, which I’m excited to try, is to look at drafts of poems and see whether they suggest form. 

Or alternately, do you have habitual patterns that you feel stuck in? In my case, I feel like I’m too literal, too coherent. Then it’s worth trying a ghazal, which is a series of couplets that can’t explicitly relate to each other. So the first one could be about the painting you are looking at on the wall, and the second is about the protests of the past summer, and the third one could be about how much you like cheese dogs, and eventually there will be some resonance between them. 

I think your poem “The Fifth Fact” really embodies the thesis of your upcoming WiP workshop, “Justice and Joy: Writing Powerful Political Poetry” as it processes “all the centuries we drag into the next century and the next.” I was hoping you could talk about justice, joy, poetry, and how they all intersect with each other to create honest expression.  

The world I want to live in is one in which everyone has pleasure and we celebrate that pleasure, and we don’t enclose shame. Celebration and joy have to be central to this work of imagining and building the world we want, because we can’t sustain ourselves without celebration, without pleasure. 

And what are we fighting for, y’know? Love is at the center of my creative practice, as it is at the center of my life, and I’m not always successful at deploying love as my primary driving force, but I want to be. 

Our art speaks to each other’s deepest and most central places, our common humanity; that’s what I celebrate and want us all to have the opportunity to celebrate. Everyone deserves beauty, and everyone deserves community, kinship, good food, laughter, pleasure, swimming in clean lakes. All of those joys. 

I feel like poetry can be particularly daunting because of its history and its regulations. What would you say to someone who wants to take your class, but worries they don’t have the experience or knowledge?

We all have poetry inside us. When given a safe, encouraging, inspiring environment, I’ve seen it arise in everyone: folks who left school after eighth grade, PhDs having writer’s block, politicians, children, incarcerated folk, everyone. So everyone is welcome, and I put that in the description on purpose; there’s no poetry experience necessary. 

Mainly we’ll be drawing out for each other what is powerful and moving in a piece of writing. It’s brand new baby writing. Experiment and play is going to be at the center of what we do.

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