“I speak here of poetry as a revelatory distillation of experience, not the sterile word play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word poetry to mean – in order to cover a desperate wish for imagination without insight.” – Audre Lorde, Poetry is Not a Luxury
It was the winter of 2020 when the deadline for my debut collection was chasing me. I’d waited ten years for this moment, to write this book. Yet there I was, in post-blast Beirut, working every day on the ground with people left behind in crisis. Working with doctors, pharmacists, landlords, and food suppliers, at all hours of day and night trying to suspend lives a little longer. Beneath this, the pandemic had taken the best of many of us; my own lungs scarred. I opened my laptop to tell my editor that I had fallen out of love with poetry, that it was superfluous. She wouldn’t accept my pulling out of the contract.
During the past two years, every poet has had a different experience of their time to write. For nobody has this been easy, but for many it was a time to crystalise our why and what for. There were people for whom the pandemic was a golden opportunity to stay at home with the dog, lonely as the neighbour, but enjoying the quiet roads and practising sestinas. For other’s the months passing were a marching band of grief, fishnets of claustrophobia in one-bed flats, or family members imprisoned in care homes; the institutionalisation of those who couldn’t be trusted alone in such desolate times.
I was living predominantly in Lebanon. If my heritage has one thing to teach me it is that poetry is a political act. An everyday happening at the rakweh. A tool for protest. A resource.
It is Ahmed Fouad Negm writing colloquial poems to fill the mouths of dissidents who were hungry to stack chants upon their tongues in Egypt.
It brings to mind Solmaz Sharif:
A lover, once: You can’t say every action is political. Then the word political loses all meaning.
He added: What is political about this moment?
I was washing his dishes. I had left the water running.
I was speaking to Farah Z. Aridi, a poet living in the mountains of Lebanon, during the winter I was wrestling with writing the book. She said, “I think it is time for criticism, reflection, and reassessment of our revolutionary work. And poetry seems a luxury. I do feel that poetry can definitely give me hope I don’t need, hope in a dreamy way and not a productive manner.”
Poetry says I believe in a tomorrow where poetry can be read. Around me, we were dealing with so much collapse we could not believe in tomorrow.
Nikki Giovanni famously wrote:
maybe i shouldn’t write / at all / but clean my gun / and check my kerosene supply
perhaps these are not poetic / times / at all
Any free time I got wasn’t spent sat at my desk writing poems, I was riding my motorbike through the hailstones falling across Beirut trying to arrange shelter or housing for another single mother victim of human trafficking. As I pulled my helmet off and saw another text chasing me for my manuscript, I spoke back to my editor and said, I am establishing a new relationship with poetry before I can do this. If I wanted poems as tools and resources of daily survival, I had to close the gap between imagination and action.
Farah messaged me, “I refuse to write what I can’t apply.”
When I went to visit the family of a Syrian refugeed baby I’d been helping organise medical care for, I observed their eyes lighting up as I admitted to them, “انا شاعر” – I’m a poet. It was inappropriate of me not to have a poem to share right then and there, a practical poem for the small room we sat in. So, we bent our heads in silence, sharing the maqlub between us, a giant mound of rice. In the silence I decided I wanted to write rice. How can poems be as useful as grains of rice in crisis?
Naomi Shihab Nye says she writes for “our own ancestry sifting down to us through small essential daily tasks.” I call these Practical Poems. I want to write practical poems. Rice poems. I want coffee poems. Protest poems. Poems I can recite to my friends as we road trip through the mountains searching for reprieve or when spilling our secrets over one another by night.
Practical words for the unoffending moments of the day.
Small gifts to lower gently into the mundane.
If a poet only writes for poets, who will see the gods pouring out the saltshaker?
Poet Shareefa Energy, who recently partnered with Level Up, a feminist grassroots organisation campaigning to end prison sentencing for pregnant women, spoke to me about all of this. She believes one job of the poet is to “bring truth to light; to be the media when media is scarce in times of upheaval. Practical poetry, then, is translating it all back in to the language of the people.”
To shed light one must have light. Light from beauty. We have to know beauty in order to want the tomorrow’s where poetry will be read. We are allowed, of course, to write about “the starlings,” as Shareefa does. This essay isn’t to insist we must write Practical Poetry, but to remind us that there is a tremendous value if we can. Revolutionary times call for a necessary type of poem.
Great writer of Practical Poems, Salena Godden, said once: “stories are like seeds”. After everything I had seen maybe I didn’t want to plant seeds in the abstract, in the intellectual, in the niche or the elite. I wanted to plant seeds in the ordinary. I wanted the mundane to grow back.
Even now I am writing this when so many of my friends cannot write, their trauma still too raw, I recognise my luxury of sitting and penning these words to you. Practical poems will be an ongoing practise, one I haven’t mastered, but long may the poem live beyond the books, and into the streets, or even better: beside the rice.
“Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change.” – Audre Lorde, Poetry is Not a Luxury
lisa luxx is an activist and poet of British and Syrian heritage. Her poems are published in The Telegraph, The London Magazine and by publishers including Hatchette and Saqi Books. Her work is broadcast on Channel 4, BBC Radio 4 and TEDx. In 2021 she toured UK theatres with the show for her 60-minute poem Eating the Copper Apple, produced by a team of all Arab women artists. Her debut book Fetch Your Mother’s Heart is out now through Out-Spoken Press.
luxx is also one of six poets for this year’s Jerwood and Apples and Snakes Poetry in Performance programme – blending together spoken word and poetry with other artforms.
luxx has now released her debut collection Fetch Your Mother’s Heart with Outspoken Press.