Writing political poetry in difficult times: there’s a reason fascist regimes come for the artists | Maxine Beneba Clarke

Black Lives Matter, bushfires and Covid raged around Melbourne author Maxine Beneba Clarke as she tapped into an ancestral tradition of using art to express the unthinkable

Some authors write for escape. I wrote poetry during the pandemic to process, to meditate on the world that was, to try and make some sense of things as a writer, and hopefully to offer some peace to at least one reader, somewhere, somehow.

When Covid lockdowns started across Melbourne in 2020, my income all but dried up. In between the online schooling and Covid-test runs, the mask-sourcing and endless Zoom calls, the online grocery shopping and mapping the curve, I turned, in comfort, to my first love: poetry.

I wrote in fits and spurts – erratically, feverishly, snatching time whenever I had the inclination and the energy – which, granted, was not at all some days, weeks, months.

From the most locked-down city in the world, I wrote in dog-eared notebooks and on the backs of old bills, penning the poems for my new collection, How Decent Folk Behave. Some were published as events unfolded, in a national paper I was freelancing for at the time. Others collected in small piles around our limited living space.

Looking upwards from my window at the bottom of the world, I wrote about the bushfires that devoured our summers; about children marching out of school to bring attention to environmental catastrophe. I wrote about the epidemic of violence against women in Australia, and finding hope in the despair:

hannah and them kids died brutal
we don’t know ’em all from soap
but it aches my soul to muse on it
so babe, your mama needs to know
that a good man
exactly the man you’ll be
will lead a bad man home.

I wrote about the moment the Black Lives Matter movement galvanised across the world.

When my memoir The Hate Race was published in 2016, I likened writing about growing up as a Black child of migrants in Australia post-White Australia policy to “writing about a house burning down, while you’re trapped inside the burning house”. Mapping 2019-2021 in poetry felt similar in some ways, yet completely opposite in others. Sometimes you need to remove yourself from something in order to see it more clearly. And in this case, I was literally physically removed from the world. Instead of looking within myself for the lyrical journey, I was staring out at it.

Art, at times of crisis, can be difficult to justify – can seem like an indulgence. I wrote about grappling with this too:

painting gives pennies back to medicare …
old time jazz, that opera, eases congestion
in the hospitals, helps our old folks live longer in their homes
… poetry is why that kid so close to falling
through the cracks
even gets up
and goes to school … art is the heart of all that we are.

I’ve been asked about the emotional toll of making art which responds to such visceral events, with such immediacy. There is always an exhaustion which comes from sitting with trauma, or loss, or hopelessness. A heaviness. But what of the cost of not making the work? What do we lose, when at crucial times in history, the artists down their tools? There is a reason fascist regimes come for the artists. The poets weave together the threads of our stories. When they come for the poets, they are coming for the truth of the people.

Using art to ensure the survival of story, culture and history is imbedded in many cultures. In my case, it is the Black transatlantic legacy I lean into. For centuries, those stolen, born into and descended from the transatlantic slave trade have found stunning artistic ways to express the unthinkable.

Abducted from West Africa and trafficked through the Americas to serve as free labour for the western world, my ancestors were forbidden to speak their birth language or practise traditional customs, and forbidden to read and write English. They soon realised that a thing of beauty, of joy, of poetry would render certain facets of their being out of reach of their oppressors. Gospel music, for example, often contained stories of escape, or instructions and inspiration for rebellions. When plantation owners looked in on a congregation singing a rendition of Michael Row the Boat Ashore in mellow a capella harmonies, they probably weren’t aware that Michael’s boat was being rowed towards freedom. The lyrics of this song have even been adapted over time, to incorporate lines that mirror the Black struggle for civil rights over the centuries. Jamaican-American musician Harry Belafonte’s 1962 version contained the lyrics:

Cover of How Decent Folk Behave by Maxine Beneba Clarke

Mississippi kneel and pray, Hallelujah
Some more buses on the way, Hallelujah.

In Brazil, enslaved Africans developed an art form now widely known as capoeira. From up at the “big house” it looked like energetic dancing, but complicated combat manoeuvres were disguised within. It is this challenge I think of, when I put pen to paper, all these hundreds of years on – how to hold the reader inside the rhythm, to sing so beautifully some do not know I am singing about freedom. To contort into such shapes that onlookers mistake battle for dance – that, to me, is still the ultimate challenge of making political art in these times.

How Decent Folk Behave by Maxine Beneba Clarke is out now through Hachette Australia (A$26.99)


Maxine Beneba Clarke

The GuardianTramp

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