Essays, Recent

There’s the Overthrow and There’s the Rebuild

by Troy Osaki | Contributing Writer

This essay is part of a series in which Poetry Northwest partners with Seattle Arts & Lectures to present reflections on visiting writers from the SAL Poetry Series. On Friday, October 15, Kaveh Akbar will read and discuss his work with Lena Khalaf Tuffaha at the Hugo House at 7:30 pm. This event is available to attend both in person and online. Tickets to future events in the Poetry Series can be purchased at the SAL website.

In an interview on the Between the Covers podcast, hosted by David Naimon, Kaveh Akbar orients listeners to the ways in which poetics can be revolutionary:

There has to be something being turned over, and then there has to be something being set up in its place. It’s very easy to inhabit the carapace of revolutionary rhetoric without advancing something new. That, in and of itself by definition, isn’t revolutionary because there’s no rebuild. There’s no gesture towards a rebuild.

I reflect on Akbar’s mindful understanding of a poem’s possibility—what it means to write in the direction of revolution. How it may not be enough to just write. How what’s needed for revolution is likely beyond the page. 

Later in the same interview, Akbar goes on to explain the definition of work:

I think a lot about the physics definition of work, which is the force applied to an object in order to move it. If there’s force applied to an object and nothing moves, that’s not work. Similarly, if an object moves, but you haven’t applied force to it, then you haven’t done work.

I’m reminded of a close comrade of mine—the grassroots work he’s done, the work he’s introduced me to, the work we do collectively. How winters ago, he came back from spending a month in the countryside of the Philippines integrated among landless peasants. Unable to afford the rice they planted, they fought to create a country where land is given to those that till it. Together, they mobilized and called for an end to the exorbitant rent rates, impossible interest rates, and unlivable wages of the current feudal system. An end to big landlords owning their hands, their bent backs.

Of his memories, he shares one of his dearest when someone got a hold of tobacco. Everyone else paused what they were working on. Celebrated. Took to the field to yosi facing the sun. When the last of the rolling paper burnt away, my comrade offered pages from his journal he wrote poems on. He watched his haikus tighten into twig-sized cigarettes, listened to the sound of each one singe over a lit match.

As he shares, I imagine all of what’s around him—an open can of tuna on the ground, a sweat-drenched t-shirt drying on a branch, the poems he dedicated to those smoking them swirling in the air. I think of what’s being turned over and what’s being set up—an outdated system falling for a new one. How, in the idea of revolutionary poetics, a poem can’t be kept to the page alone. How, at some point, to be considered to be doing the work, the writer, and perhaps the poem, is in need of moving someone or something—in the fields, on the farms.

For me, what I find similarly as important is people feeling moved to work with others. This is where I’ve seen poems come to life in the most revolutionary manner. When it is no longer a single piece of paper, but suddenly, alive—bringing together a group of people struggling for the betterment of others.

Akbar seems to share this sentiment as well. He dives into historical examples of writers who’ve impacted generations of people, not just through their writing, but through their organizing as well:

If revolutionary writing is writing that does work, then it’s really interesting to me to consider the ways that people historically have done that, have attempted to do that. You mentioned June Jordan who very much wrote her poems, and then she would go organize. The poems pointed towards and supplemented and scaffolded the organization, but they didn’t replace it.

What Akbar offers here stands out as an unforgettable lesson to me: poems don’t replace the organizing—they supplement it. Meaning, in the idea of revolutionary poetics, the poem isn’t primary; the organizing is. He goes on to clarify even further:

Gwendolyn Brooks has, in Annie Allen, a sequence of poems called “The Children of the Poor.” The second or third poem in that sequence is called “First Fight. Then Fiddle,” which is four words that so cleanly synopsizes what I’m talking about. You do the work. You do work, and then you can fiddle that, then you can write your poetry about it or whatever, but you don’t confuse one for the other. That feels critical to me in my nascent and burgeoning understanding of this idea.

Akbar’s reminder to not confuse “fiddle” for “fight” is simple but paramount. If all we can offer the people we’re fighting for is a poem we dedicate to them, what will come of it? This is not to say that art and literature have no role to play in revolution. I believe it does. I believe Akbar believes it does. However, what I think Akbar so succinctly and clearly explains here is there’s a need to do more than write poems. There’s a need to do work beyond it. 

I read Akbar’s latest collection, Pilgrim Bell, with hope and excitement for what can come of it, what may have already come of it—the conversations, the work. In My Empire the speaker exposes what empire is so readily capable of and prioritizing:

Whatever I learn makes me angry to have learned it.

The new missiles can detect a fly’s heartbeat

atop a pile of rubble from 6,000 miles away.

That flies have hearts, 104 cells big, that beat.

And because of this knowing:

a pile of rubble.

What I’m grateful for is that even with an understanding of revolutionary poetics, Akbar’s level of poetics isn’t lessened. In fact, these poetics deepen the possibility of work happening. While introducing systemic ideas of imperialism and empire that oftentimes can feel too large to comprehend, Akbar brings back the personal to remind us these systems aren’t separate from the lives we’re living.

In The Miracle, the speaker zooms out:

Somewhere a man is steering a robotic plane into murder . . . He never sees the bodies, which are implied by their absence. Like feathers on a paper bird.

Then, within a matter of 4-5 lines, the speaker zooms in.

You fall asleep facing the freckle on your wrist.

These images placed side-by-side provide a remembrance of how close we are to systems of violence and harm that can be mistaken as far away. As a reader, I’m moved to ask why this is so, and most importantly, what of it now. Although questions alone aren’t doing the work, it’s asking questions that often lead to the first steps in solving a problem.

Through these questions, and in reading Pilgrim Bell and listening to Between the Covers, I walk away from Akbar’s offerings understanding the need for both poetics and something more. How although the work comes first, the impact of a poem can make a difference in how revolution is carried out. How it isn’t a matter of choosing one over the other, but rather, in the idea of revolutionary poetics, asking how we can leverage poems to advance a world in which exploitation and oppression—from the countryside to the cities—are buried in a grave.

I sit with the last poem of Akbar’s collection, The Palace, and dream of outliving these brutal systems. Akbar leaves me with one last reminder:

Art is where what we survive survives.

Troy Osaki is a Filipino Japanese poet, organizer, and attorney from Seattle, WA. A three-time grand slam poetry champion, he has earned fellowships from Kundiman, Hugo House, and the Jack Straw Cultural Center. His work has appeared in Hobart, the Margins, [PANK], Poetry Northwest, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. He writes in hopes to build a safe and just place to live in by uniting the people and reimagining the world through poetry.