On the Front Lines // Behind the Lines

On the Front Lines // Behind the Lines

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Editor: Margaret Rozga

Publisher: Pitymilk Press and Woodland Pattern (2021)

Contributors: Hayley Jasinski, Anne Koller, Peter Goldberg, Mary Ali-Massai, Barry Slavis, JM Latham, Darren-Jurmé Allumiér, Katy Phillips, Terimarie Degree, Kathrine Yets, and Renee Glembin

"Poems can skirt, brush or allude to, wrestle with or tackle social and racial justice issues outright. Poets who write social justice poems may write from behind the lines or directly from the front lines.

I’ve written poems in each of these modes. What I do when I’m not writing—gardening, caring for children, teaching, participating in civil rights and community actions—finds a way through my fingers to my page. Sometimes the route is direct, sometime circuitous.

I’ve been on the front lines starting in the mid-1960s when I worked voter registration in rural Alabama and marched for fair housing in Milwaukee, and more recently have protested policies that undermine public schools and threaten the environment while fighting (still, again) for fair housing and voting rights.

I’ve also been behind the lines, lending support to those on the front lines fighting for workers and immigrant rights. The separation of children from their families at our southern border I saw as a crime against humanity and had to find ways to convey that outrage from the perspective of where I was behind the lines and how that outrage permeated my apparently unaffected daily life.

The Poetry Coalition 2020 theme of Poetry and Protest suits the times perfectly and did so even before the pandemic and the killing of Alvin Cole, Ahmaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd. When Jenny Gropp and Laura Solomon, Poetry Coalition members and directors of the Woodland Pattern Book Center, asked me to facilitate a poetry and protest workshop, I was honored. I planned an approach to include both those whose perspective would be from behind the lines and those who were on the front lines, whether that be because of race, ability/disability, class, gender, sexuality, or their experience of activism. I wanted the workshop to work for everyone.

We read poems by Claudia Rankine, Layli Long Soldier, Danez Smith, Minnie Bruce Pratt, and Simon Ortiz. During the workshop, poets found inspiration in the range of ways that the art and craft of poetry can deepen protest. Our writing even in the first two of the four weekly meetings flourished.

Exactly at this halfway point, the pandemic forced a halt to in-person meetings.

Several weeks later, we met again via Zoom. Not only was our way to be together changed, we were also changed. We were now all on a front line in a way we hadn’t been before. The pandemic became the subject matter for many of the poems written in the second half of the workshop. This chapbook could have been arranged in two sections, one with poems written before mid-March and one with poems written afterward. Even without such a two-part division, many of the poems clearly fit in one of those two categories.

That being the case, a better arrangement emerged, to order the poems so they are in conversation with each other. The different specifics of repair and fear, for example, in Terimarie Degree’s and Renee Glembin’s poems complement each other, and the handling of time in Hayley Jasinski’s poem works with Darren-Jurmé Allumiér’s rejection of clocks in ways neither of them could have foreseen. The whole chapbook thus becomes greater than the sum of its parts. This chapbook, born in the midst of a seismic shift in our lives, takes us behind those fault lines even as it shows the front and center of where we are.

Despite the pandemic’s slowing the pace of our writing, revising, and gathering of these poems, they emerged powerful and varied. They do what poetry can do so well, present a presence and voice missing from more prosaic and abstract political speech. Each poet engaged with the inspiration of new poetic strategies and forms to deepen their work. Their poems call attention to injustices in ways that exhibit strength, certainty of purpose, hope, and joy.

My work with the poets represented here served as an important mainstay this half year for me. I am grateful to them, to Woodland Pattern, to the poets whose work we read, to the Poetry Coalition, and to all who supported this experience, this process, and this anthology."

–Margaret Rozga, 2019-2020 Wisconsin Poet Laureate