Editor's Note: On Polemical Writing
By Ori Fienberg
Over ten years ago, at Oberlin College, I considered the next semester’s course offerings for Creative Writing. One of the courses, taught by Sylvia Watanabe, was on “Polemical Writing”, and I remember thinking back on the polemical writing I had experienced recently— we were on our second Gulf War, and I had taken time early to go to Washington to protest, as well as participated in readings by Poets Against the War (I still wonder why it wasn’t “Poets for Peace”) and having doubts about the many new poems peers were inspired to write by recent events.
At these events, I typically read a poem by Yehudah Amichai before launching into my own apolitical prose poems. Some of these poems involved a certain amount of graphic depiction of war conditions, followed by chanting of a particular phrase, representing an affirmation of Taylor Mali’s How to Write a Political Poem. I considered these poems and performances, and thought to myself, “I’m not really a polemical writer”-- then I took the Nonfiction Workshop. In retrospect, while Taylor Mali’s performance still makes me laugh, I’ve come to understand that these sort of political poems can still be effective, and that my doubts were born more out of my own fears of not being able to write anything relevant, than the polemical poems peers were producing.
Just a handful of months ago, the people of our country, or at least a specific electoral mass, voted to elect a president that the actual majority of voters found so repellant, that it seems millions of people, especially the most sensitive among us, including thousands of artists and poets, became depressed. We were making a transition from a president who turned to books to help him to “slow down and get perspective” and actively recommended both classics and recent publications to a president who did not have books in his office and does not have a particular passion for reading. Among these friends I heard a recurring refrain: they didn’t feel like doing anything, but most of all, they couldn’t write. Some didn’t feel creative, while many others weren’t sure if their voices were relevant, and reframed their creative lull as principled action, to make room for marginalized voices.
The latter is a worthy consideration, but it is time for writers and artists to own an important truth: in an atmosphere hostile to our most cherished ideals, where basic truths we hold “to be self-evident” are under threat and additionally, when so much of our leadership stand on platforms developed by those that are actively hostile to the arts, to do nearly any creative writing is an act of protest, or to put it another way, we are all polemical writers, and all of our voices matter, whether we come from a historically marginalized group, or one that may have some additional privilege (e.g. whiteness, as women’s voices and opinions are still all too often marginalized) -- it is time to pick up the pen.
Even if you’re not feeling especially creative, there’s plenty you can do to join the movement. First, you can support it by reading and amplifying (tweet, post on Facebook), the works of others. Sibling Rivalry Press moved fast in the wake of the election to compile the anthology If You Can Hear This: Poems in Protest of an American Inauguration, which you can buy or download for free. Meanwhile, the Harvard Review has been posting a daily reminder of hope everyday, in their Renga for Obama. Finally, Entropy Magazine created Trump Watch, which features a rundown of key articles, criticisms, and opportunities to participate in protest and communal writing response to the latest presidential edicts and actions. These are just a few of the protesting voices, and in this new edition of Lava Step, we join the fray. You’ll find the work of “The Best Time I Had as a Boy”, an essay that combines literary analysis and memoir to consider the complex nature of gender. Read Kat Solomon’s review and consideration of All Russians Love Birch Trees by Olga Grjasnowa, for a more nuanced approach to issues of origin and nationality which “emphatically rejects the tribalism and anti-immigrant sentiments currently on the rise in the US and abroad.” Finally, take a look at some postcards we’ll be sending to our new president as part of the Ides of Trump movement. Send us a scan of the postcard you’re sending if you’d like it featured in Lava Step! Follow us on Instagram @LavaStepLab, Facebook, and tweet @LavaStepLab other ideas for being an engaged writing citizen. Whatever you do, don’t despair, and remember our voices are strongest when they join together.