Eric Sutherland, the founder of the Holler Poets spoken-word series, will speak on Saturday at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning about how people can become activists through their writing.
Activists are frequently among the readers during the series, which began last year. During the session, Sutherland will revisit works by such writers and will lead participants in creating their own activist art. Sutherland took time last week to answer some questions about what he'll discuss.
Question: When and why did you begin writing to effect change?
Answer: The first piece I remember writing was a poem about racism, inspired by the chaos that followed the acquittal of the police officers in the Rodney King beating trial. Watching those events unfold stirred something deep inside me, and my perspective was forever changed. A few years later, while training to organize for Campus Green Vote during the 1996 election, I began writing a lot about nature and the destruction of it.
Q: Discuss an example of your own writing as activism.
A: The majority of my first book, incommunicado, was an activist statement, particularly aimed at the policies and behaviors of our United States government. It includes poems about standing up to the military-industrial complex, the plight of our soldiers, police profiling and the repression of dissent, the power of protest, the death penalty, and the destruction of our natural world.
Q: How can just an everyday person get started in this?
A: It begins with awareness, which usually stokes the individual's passion about a certain issue. We all have things that get under our skin that need to be let out. Once this passion has been identified, it's just a matter of sitting down with a pen and putting those thoughts and feelings on paper.
Q: What form of writing (poetry, essays, journalism, etc.) do you feel is most effective for writing as activism?
A: The most effective force of change is to have a unified front of writing on a particular issue. With so many sources of information and misinformation, it is easy for important matters to get lost.
Beyond that, journalism has the greatest potential because of the great numbers of citizens who look to our news agencies and outlets for their information. This has been a disappointing failure in our recent history.
Q: What kind of role does new media (social networking, blogs, etc.) have in writing as activism?
A: It plays a very important role. The ability to connect with people all over the world with just a few clicks on the keyboard is perhaps the greatest tool ever available for organizing. It means that an issue that might have remained obscure in the pre-Internet world can now gain an international audience easily. This is why open online access is so important for democratic values worldwide.
Q: Is it more feasible to change local audiences, or is it also possible to have an international audience?
A: It's always easier to move local audiences to action. However, in today's connected world, it is also possible to reach the international community.
I think it is crucial for American writers to speak out on global issues, in particular when it comes to the environment and the rules of engagement in times of war, because it informs foreign audiences that many in this country do not condone our government's policies or the dismissal of international agreements.
Q: You seem to put a lot of faith in poetry beyond what the ordinary person would. How does one tap into his or her inner poet?
A: We are not all poets, but we all have an innate impulse to create and the ability to express ourselves.
I would say identify your passions, live a present life, and recognize the beautiful and awful details of this existence. Oh, and don't be afraid to speak your truth.