Fear can crowd out our imaginations and damper our compassion. What does it take to hold onto hope in these times? Kelly Hayes reflects on the world-building poetics of organizing.
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host, Kelly Hayes. Earlier this week, the world lost a poet. Diane di Prima was an artist, an author, a playwright, an activist and much more. Reflecting on her work, and what I might say that would be of use today, during this incredibly stressful moment, I found myself thinking about creativity, and how fear can crowd out our imaginations and damper our compassion. As I’ve said in the past, I think studying poetry and philosophy did as much to prepare me for the work of protest and organizing as anything else has. Like a lot of people, I thought I knew everything when I was younger, and it took a long time for me to understand what relationship-building demanded of me, in the work of organizing, but those early years I spent on poetry, plays and philosophy, thinking about what moves people, and experimenting, did me a lot of good. So I want to spend a moment today talking about the creative process of making change. That may sound a bit fluffy or trite to some of you, but I promise you it is not. And I can also guarantee that you don’t need to have studied philosophy or poetry in college to do the kind of imaginative work I am going to talk about today, because most of my mentors did not go that route, and their imaginations are definitely as heavily armed as mine.
A professor I was friendly with introduced me to di Prima’s poem “Rant” when I was a freshman in college. Its value didn’t register at first. But later, particular lines were echoing in my mind, and I found myself revisiting those parts, late at night, while I was trying to write. Sometimes, I would close my eyes and repeat di Prima’s words, as I tried to find my own. She said: “the war that matters is the war against the imagination / all other wars are subsumed in it.”
Sometime during the last decade, the poem landed in a rotation of words I read out loud to myself before speaking at protests. Over the years, my friends have lovingly allowed me to read “Rant” out loud in the backseat of their cars as we headed to marches and rallies together.
One friend told me she liked hearing the words, “you are an appendage of the work, the work stems from / hangs from the heaven you create.”
Our mental maps of the world, and of history itself, are the products of our own world-building process. In the same way that great writers construct fictionalized, or distant, worlds and realities, that we as readers and viewers can envision, our minds create vast backdrops — historically, when we envision the past, in the present, when we imagine the world beyond our view, and in the future, when we project what we’ve come to expect. We fill in the empty space with theory, prediction and perhaps even hope. We don’t always decide, the way authors do, what shapes these backdrops take. Our knowledge of history can be an affliction, no matter how necessary it may be, because history can be hard to stomach, and even harder to stomach in relation to the present. Our memories of trauma can create cycles that feel like constant reenactments of the same story, and sometimes are. Sometimes, we relive those narratives, unable to break free, due to circumstance, or because we don’t know how else to function or survive. Or both.
But reality is malleable. As di Prima said:
history is a living weapon in yr hand
& you have imagined it, it is thus that you
“find out for yourself”
history is the dream of what can be, it is
the relation between things in a continuum
Sometimes the gaps in what we know are just a haze tinted by emotions we attach to the things we think we do know. Sometimes, the filler is gray and pessimistic, and we assume the worst of every detail. This does not demand much of us, in terms of learning or creativity. But to understand the past, we of course must investigate the stories we were not told, because those stories were withheld for a reason. We must search out all the pieces we weren’t meant to find, the things that disrupt the narratives we’ve been given. How did people survive desolate times? How did they find the joy and humor that sustained them in long stretches of siege and survival? How did they build relationships that allowed people who disagreed to collaborate, and achieve convergence? What did those uneasy alliances look like? What helped them succeed, and what caused them to fail?
History is, as di Prima said, “a living weapon.”
As an organizer, I like to think of history as a map of the world, cut like cardboard, into a jigsaw puzzle. Its pieces have been scattered and cast in all directions. They are tucked inside books in libraries. They are buried in the stories of people we don’t know. They are tucked into memories that we ought to write down, but often let drift away, unpreserved. They are embedded in photographs and paintings and pencil marks. They are buried in graves and amalgamated with the dirt, water and wind of this world — because the elements carry fractions of history too. Stories of nuclear fallout and contaminated oceans. Stories about what lived and died and grew in a place, long before our feet touched the soil.
It’s important to both ground ourselves in the here and now, and also remember that the world is much bigger than this moment, bigger than us, and our experience of it, and much bigger than we are imagining when we are afraid, as are the things we can do about it. What stories are we telling ourselves right now? What are we sowing into the world when we speak?
Our politics are the product of this world building process — a process that began long before we could conceptualize it, and very long before we would understand that storytelling is a fight for the future. Some people color in the blank spaces with optimistic assumptions. Some paint the world in cynicism. Some are true detectives, seeking every concrete detail they can, as forensically as possible. Some seek to reinvent everything. We do the same to the present. We do the same to the future. Organizers seek to impact all of these things — the way we reconstruct the past, the way we understand the present, and ultimately, the way we envision what could be. Creating against the grain.
As di Prima said,
the ultimate claustrophobia is the syllogism
the ultimate claustrophobia is “it all adds up”
I know that claustrophobia too well. The belief that you’ve come to understand something awful and inescapable. It’s a feeling I have confronted many times. But I eventually learned that the answer is always the same: When you feel trapped by an oppressive inevitability, you never stop trying to escape, because every jailbreak begins with a decision to reject the inevitable. It is the courage to pick up a pen, every time, knowing you may not finish the story, but knowing full well that you will reject the ending you’ve been given, every step of the way.
We can predict and puzzle, but we cannot know what the future will bring. All we can do is ready ourselves to endure the worst of it together, and to build the best of it in creative cooperation. Our worlds, our relationships with the world, all come from stories, from the puzzle pieces we find on the internet as we scroll, in our book piles as we read, in the factoids we look up as we binge television shows and watch movies. We can gather the pieces of our worlds, and push them together, and we can fill in the blanks with investigation, connection and creation.
I believe we write the meaning of life as we live it. I believe it is up to us to write a story worth living. I do not believe in the surrender of hope or imagination any more than I believe it is acceptable to give up on the survival of others, or of all life on Earth. There are some things we never surrender, and some things we never surrender to. When we try to change the world, when we create containers for work, initiate relationships, or chart strategic paths forward, we are always battling assumptions. What myths underlie those assumptions? How can those myths be ripped out from under the lies they prop up? How can inevitability — a construct of the wicked — be ripped apart? The restoration of possibility amid despair is an act of destruction paired with a call to imagine — which is a call to arms. The armament of knowing you have not been defeated. The armament of knowing that the present and the future will have histories that have not been written yet. Possibility is the hope we wear when we charge into battle. It is stronger than assumption or reaction because it is intentional. It is an awareness that cannot be snatched away. The knowledge that there is always another ending in play, even if we don’t know what it is. So we charge into the breach if that is the only way forward, because possibility is worth it. As di Prima wrote:
There is no way you can not have a poetics
no matter what you do: plumber, baker, teacher
you do it in the consciousness of making
or not making yr world
you have a poetics: you step into the world
We all have poetics. We all have politics. But poetics and politics can be reshaped. Organizers are aspiring authors and artists, creating elements of stories, in constellations we are often unaware of, with pockets of unseen work happening far and wide. Creating connection, potential and possibility is creative work. We are in a moment when we must hold prediction and possibility all at once. It is a time to act together, with vision and with hope. As di Prima told us:
There is no way out of the spiritual battle
the war is the war against the imagination
you can’t sign up as a conscientious objector
the war of the worlds hangs here, right now, in the balance
it is a war for this world, to keep it
I want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember, that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.