A poem is like a handshake — even more so now, when we can’t shake hands

In November, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Juzel Lloyd, a student of Dr. Tony Medina’s at Howard University, for a class project. With Juzel’s permission, I am posting the interview here. I’m grateful to Juzel for these thoughtful questions! You can follow this talented emerging poet on Instagram at @juzel_lloyd_author. Check it out!

Juzel Lloyd: What role do you think poetry plays today? Especially in a society where the written word is less valued than audiovisual media.

Sarah Browning: After several decades in retreat, poetry is now reaching more and more people, though of course its audience doesn’t compete with pop culture in terms of size. But millions are reading, watching performances of, and sharing poems – on social media, YouTube, and the written word.

I think people appreciate the authentic voice, one that’s not mass marketed and auto-tuned. A poem is like a handshake (maybe even more so now, when we can’t shake hands), reaching one to one, teaching us about our differences, showing us what we have in common, reminding us of what it means to be human. It also exposes injustices, imagines a better world, and inspires us to keep the faith, to keep working for that more just and beautiful world for all of us.

JL: Has your creative process changed over time? The way in which you translate inspiration into poetry. If so, in what way?

SB: Good question! As I’ve learned more about poetry, I have access to more tools on a conscious level. But I had developed many of these skills on my own (without necessarily having words for them), reading extensively and by being in workshops with peers, some of whom had more formal education in poetry than I did.

I still think it’s important not to let too much “craft thinking” into my initial drafting process, though. It tends to shut me down when I need to remain open to my unconscious mind. During revision I try to bring my tool chest, full of all my new tools (which are increasing daily in my awesome MFA program): rhythm, musicality, image and metaphor/simile, what the poem looks like on the page, etc.

Also – and perhaps this is most important – I try to push myself harder now: to be more open and vulnerable, to be less afraid, to dig deeper even when I am afraid. To be as transparent as I can – even when that may not necessarily translate into more accessible or transparent language.

JL: As a former director of Split This Rock, what has been one of your proudest achievements in effecting social change during your time there?

SB: In 2015 Split This Rock launched The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database. Now totaling more than 600 poems drawn from poems published in the organization’s Poem of the Week series and that had won Split This Rock’s contests, The Quarry is searchable by social issue, making it an invaluable resource for organizers, educators, religious leaders, and anyone in search of socially relevant poetry. Poems from the database have been shared millions of times and are taught in curricula all around the world. I’m extremely proud of this accomplishment and its contribution to the public life of poetry. https://www.splitthisrock.org/poetry-database

Also, in December 2014, Split This Rock organized a “virtual open mic” of poems that resist police brutality and demand racial justice, posting all 250 or so poems we received on our blog, Blog This Rock. The first post is here: http://blogthisrock.blogspot.com/2014/12/poems-that-resist-police-brutality_9.html. In January 2015, we printed out all those poems and presented them, along with the Ferguson Justice Demands, to the US Department of Justice in a poetry action outside DOJ headquarters.

Poems from both these collections have been used in demonstrations, worship services, and classrooms around the world. They’ve been turned into films, danced to, placed on placards, and included in anthologies.

JL: Based on your upbringing, one can say you were virtually born into activism. Do you ever tire of fighting for these changes in all major aspects of your life, in your work and your private life?

SB: Oh yes, I am tired all the time. Indeed, it’s been almost two years since I stepped down from leadership of Split This Rock and I’ve needed all this time to recharge. While I’ve kept on reading and writing, I’m finally now beginning to re-engage more directly, though nowhere near at the pace I kept up at Split This Rock. I’m turning 58 next month, met a wonderful man a little over a year ago who I want to save some energy for each day, and I need more rest. I’m trying to learn a new rhythm. But the good news, as I’m learning, is that there are all kinds of ways to be involved in making change, and there can be different paths for different times in one’s life.

JL: In “Gas”, I read it as commenting on the irony of fighting one injustice while still participating in another (environmental impact). As an activist, do you think one can actively remove themselves from all injustices given the large number of them ingrained in our everyday society? Do you think this is realistic?

SB: Thank you for understanding the poem. It doesn’t always seem that everyone does! No, I don’t think there’s any way to not participate in the unjust systems of our society; we just have to keep trying to change them! One could find a way to go off the grid entirely and reduce one’s carbon footprint to almost zero, but most of us don’t want to do that/aren’t in a position to do so. We all have to make peace (or struggle) with whatever compromises we decide work for us… And find the best strategies for making a difference in this world, if that is important to us.

And by best I mean two things: How can we have the most impact and what do we enjoy or that gives us strength and joy (life!), since it will be something we’ll be doing a lot of?

For me, as a middle-class, educated white woman, it has always been important to me to be actively anti-racist and to model that for other white people. I haven’t always known how or done it well, but it’s an important goal for me. That answers the first half of the equation for me. The second half has shifted through my life. I loved presenting other poets, especially BIPOC and LGBTQ poets and poets with disabilities. But I never enjoyed the fundraising and administration. So now I’m trying to figure out next steps for myself in these realms, in addition to focusing on my own writing and trying to make it as strong and imaginative as possible.

JL: As a poet and cultural worker how have you managed during the coronavirus pandemic, personally and professionally?

SB: I’m very fortunate, as I’m in graduate school and, because of the timing of some money I got from a divorce settlement, I’m not having to work much. I send my love to all those who’ve been struggling so hard during this awful year. Also my gratitude goes out to those who keep the supermarkets stocked, prepare the take-out, deliver the mail, provide health care, and do all those tasks that make my life sustainable in the pandemic. I also have a newish partner, as I mentioned above, who’s loving and supportive, so I don’t feel nearly as isolated as I would otherwise.

Most cultural workers, though, are really struggling, as are so many others. We need comprehensive support for the arts and culture, and for all who’ve lost jobs or are having to work through illness or work two or three jobs just to get by. Indeed, this is a great time for us as a society to restructure our economy entirely, so that it meets our human needs instead of lining the already outrageously bulging pockets of the very rich.

Personally, in addition to relying on my friends and those I love for support, I’ve been walking in the woods and alongside rivers and streams a lot. Reading and writing. Binge watching Netflix. Cooking good meals. Keeping up with the news but trying not to listen to voices of hate and resentment. Listening instead to those who give me hope, who help me remember what is resilient and beautiful in humans.

Author: Sarah Browning

Sarah Browning is the author of Killing Summer (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017) and Whiskey in the Garden of Eden (The Word Works, 2007). She is co-founder and for 10 years was Executive Director of Split This Rock: Poems of Provocation & Witness. She is an Associate Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and recipient of the Lillian E. Smith Writer-in-Service Award as well as of fellowships from the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities, Mesa Refuge, Yaddo, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She has been guest editor or co-edited special issues of Beltway Poetry Quarterly, The Delaware Poetry Review, and three issues of POETRY magazine. From 2006 to 2019 Browning co-hosted the Sunday Kind of Love poetry series at Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC. She has been nominated numerous times for the Pushcart Prize. She is currently a student in the MFA program at Rutgers Camden in poetry and creative nonfiction and lives in Philadelphia, PA.

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