A man is fighting for his freedom, his family.
He sits just there: A red chair, a church basement.

Estas luchando para tu vida, para tu familia — 
the documentary filmmaker asks him to sit up
a little straighter. Look directly into camera.

Con la ayuda de dios, todo se puede…
With God’s help, everything is possible —

Forward is the only direction, there’s no going back.
But this government, this backlash — backwards
is its middle name, its blind bigotry, its rallying cry.

While speaking of the sanctuary community,
he says words like valiente, those fighting

for the paperless. We are not alone in this fight.
Your role — a meal, a ride, cash in an envelope,
lawyer’s fees or a week’s worth of groceries —

these are no smaller than the coffee beans
he picked in Chiapas, the weeds he pulled

from your front lawn. Raise your voice,
raise your right hand, swear on everything
you claim as holy and right and human.

“We are a family of faith, we haven’t hurt anyone –”
my Spanish is still able to grasp these truths,
as is my heart and — I can only hope — my poems.

* * *

Learn more about Lucio Perez.


The Poet’s Role in a Crumbling Democracy

Clearly, a little permission is a dangerous thing.
Tess Gallagher

The key was to go through with it, without needing to consider any deeper meaning. To act, trusting that if I wanted to extrapolate later, that option would be available to me. I’m referring here to reading a poem in public, not at an open mic or organized event of some kind, but spontaneously, without an announcement.

“Go through with it” is a phrase I discussed that day in October with Luping, the grad student from China I met one year ago and sit with on a weekly basis for English-language conversation. Over slices of pizza, I told her I was considering reading a poem at a coffeeshop, but that I was nervous and hadn’t decided yet. She egged me on, saying, “It is crazy but will be very interesting!”

When we finished eating, we walked over to Amherst Coffee. Jazz piped in from the speakers and I knew I wouldn’t be able to read loudly enough over the music, so I decided to run my idea by the barista. He promptly said, “There’s no one here with the authority to sign off on that,” and returned to pulling espresso shots.

At this point, we’d bumped into a friend, who happened to be in that month’s Dive Into Poetry group — the nexus of this crazy idea in the first place, as the week’s assignment was to play with “guerrilla poetry,” i.e. spreading poetry in unconventional ways in the public sphere. Lisa was with her son, who happens to speak fluent Chinese; he and Luping struck up some conversation while I looked on agape. I took this as a sign to persevere, and we the four of us decided to give it one more try, this time at Starbucks.

I recognized one of the baristas right away, a young woman with whom I’ve discussed tattoos and have a friendly rapport. “Oh, cool!” was her immediate reaction, and we waited nervously while she went to ask her supervisor. I felt mildly disappointed in myself for asking permission at all, convinced that the great guerrilla poets would do no such thing (not to mention polling Facebook friends about the odds of getting arrested, though admittedly I wanted to make sure I’d be home for dinner). She emerged from the back office with a thumbs up and a big smile: “Green light!”

And so I began, without so much as an “Excuse me, everyone” or “Hi, my name’s Jena…”

No, I just read the first line of the poem, then the next. A hush fell over the space as I kept reading, and I made a point of looking in both directions, noticing how some people were watching, others looking down at their papers or phones, but aware that there was no way not to be sharing this experience.

I wasn’t doing this for 15 minutes of anything, more as a personal challenge to recognize that what we think is scary is often eminently do-able, that we won’t die by pushing ourselves out of comfort and complacency, and yes, perhaps on a broader level to explore questions of safety more broadly, and complicity. What began as something purely creative and fun, a way to shake myself up a bit and perhaps insert some poetry into public spaces, became a window into consciousness on a more urgent level.

To read a poem in a Starbucks in a college town, even a politically leaning one, did not require much consideration. But lines like these, from my poem, All Hands on Deck

we can’t sit down
while the laws are quietly made
and trains roll steadily in

in a different context, could result in arrest and imprisonment.

We could look back 100 years to dissident poets such as Osip Mandelstam in Stalin’s Russia, but sadly, there’s no need to time travel when it comes to poetry being criminalized when it’s perceived as a political threat.

Take Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour, who is currently under house arrest by the Israeli government, accused of inciting violence and “igniting terrorism” after posting her poem “Resist, my people, resist” on YouTube. Or Yemeni journalist Afrah Nasser, who was initially denied a Visa to the U.S. to accept an a Committee to Protect Journalists award.

I’m thinking here of KKK members marching with tiki torches and calls for “blood and soil,” a Nazi slogan. I’m thinking of political protest, performance art, and hate speech.

Who decides what’s what? What is a poet’s role in a crumbling democracy? What does it mean to wake up, to rise up, to shake each other out of stupor, to incite not violence but communication, and to stand up to elected officials who are actively eroding human rights at every turn?

My little experiment yesterday carried little to no risk. In fact, some people even clapped when I finished reading my poem, and one man approached me afterwards to say thank you. “People like you are really making a difference,” he said.

But here’s the thing: If I am to move my writing more into a political sphere — a periphery I’ve circled and danced inside of for as long as I’ve been writing — I have an obligation to do so in a way that calls attention not to myself but to those who really have something at stake.

People like Lucio Perez, a 35-year-old Guatemalan man who has been in the U.S. for nearly 20 years and is facing deportation, while he and his family take sanctuary in a church right here in Amherst, Massachusetts, and DeAndre Harris, who was badly beaten by white supremacists in Charlottesville this past August, and is now facing felony charges of “malicious wounding” of his attackers.

As poets and writers, it’s our responsible to call attention in any way possible to these assaults on human rights.

I do not have the legal knowledge to parse out the complexity of the first amendment, but I do know that those of us with less at risk need to step up and make noise — in whatever platforms are available to us — about the egregious erosion of what we claim to hold as universal rights to personal safety and freedom of expression.


Rock the Boat

Photo by Diego Catto

Go ahead, rock the boat.
Rock it with your words.
Rock it with your body, side to side.
Rock it with your heart that can’t take another slice
of American apple pie.

Rock it with your mind, front to back.
Rock the boat but hold onto your hat.
Rock the boat and hold your babies close.
Rock the boat and know the people who don’t throw you a rope
were never really your people.

Rock the boat and be ready to hear the truth
of what some people will say and do
to secure their place, to stay what they call safe.

Rock the boat and watch as a thousand gulls dive
for scraps.
Rock the boat while some make money on your bruised back.
Rock the boat and listen for blame.
(You shouldn’t have been in that boat to begin with, young lady. For shame.)

Rock the boat and stay when it gets really scary,
when you’re wondering if maybe you could crawl over
to that handsome clipper on a horizon.
Rock the boat and remember all the people who drowned.
All the bodies thrown over.
All the ones who didn’t have a chance.
All the voices that fly on wind like an avalanche of haunting song in your ears.
Rock the boat to the rhythm of their memory.
Rock the boat to the poetry of their silence.

Rock the boat for the ones who are too weak to rock,
too sick too tired too busy staying alive.
Rock the boat in every season .
Rock the boat and rock it harder
when someone tells you to stop,
you’re making them feel uneasy.
Rock the boat but don’t take the credit
for the rocking someone else did
while you enjoyed a four-course meal
in the captain’s quarters.

Rock the boat and rock the boat and rock the boat.
Rock the boat — or start swimming.



Up early
with the light
to walk to a church
that houses a man
with an ankle bracelet
who cannot see the light
of day, though the real criminals
are the ones who would send him
back to a country he fled 18 years
ago for this land’s promise of better
protection and safety. Did you hire him

to plant your garden? Did you pay him
under the table to trim the edges
of your property, to make it look
pretty and welcoming? Now his wife
and children wonder how long
they will have to wait for his return,
relying on community support to pay
for groceries and rent. He prays everyday.

As for me, what matters is that I have feet
and my work is portable and my children
are warm in their beds and I am unduly free
to go where I please, when I please,
and there is nothing fair about this equation.
Please, understand: Those who look weak,
those who look needy? They are the leaders.

If I had a lawn, I’d say come set up a tent
city with booths and creative currency
and herbalists and midwives and women
in overalls who know how to build things.
I’d say keep out unless you want to come
in to stretch out a hand in offering.
Nobody has nothing to offer.
Nobody is above reproach.

This land is your land.
This land is my land.
This land is none of ours but we are here
and my great-grandparents fled somewhere, too.
To you whose ancestors knew the names
of each root and leaf and star: I am sorry.
To you in a city so close to and so far from
my small town, let me translate my shame
into something mighty, like a rock through a window
or a warm glove on the coldest morning yet.

* * *

Learn more and  please consider supporting this family ::
Amherst church to provide sanctuary for Guatemalan facing deportation


All Hands on Deck

Photo: Stijn Stinnen

Oh tender heart for all who weep
and angry heart for those unseen
I dreamed about original wounds
and something healing came in the form of writing
Details elude me but I woke knowing something
had occurred, something in sleep needed heeding

Calling in the red hot and the true blue
calling in the close calls and the collision courses
calling in the blind eyes and the willful deniers
calling in you who would look away
and you who risk everything to offer sanctuary

The question isn’t when did discrimination become
the basis for policy making
but when was it ever not this way
and how can we claim progress when our bodies
are on the chopping block and our minds
are being held for ransom and we move from
one news cycle to the next
six seconds per person
forgetting last week’s outrage because this week’s is worse
how can that be
and how can we breathe
when there isn’t even time to pause and grieve?

Gone are the days of the 6:30 news when I was a kid
and my parents would spend 30 minutes in the TV room
listening to those soothing, familiar anchors
but whose news made the cut? What looked like unity
was not a lack of divisiveness but a lack of representation

We need to be talking, yes.
We need to be talking in person, in living rooms
in places of worship in the grocery store
in cafés and in the classroom
in the lakes and rivers diverted for dollars
in the casinos and dance halls and movie theaters
on buses and in gated communities on farms
and on city councils and in the halls of justice
where justice is in a chokehold while we look on
feeling helpless

To succumb to helpless paralysis cannot be the way
though in this chaos I have little to offer
and it’s easy to feel small, frozen, flinching.
Do something do anything
Attend a meeting, make a call, talk to a neighbor,
broach the uncomfortable, pick up the phone, write a letter
read a book, challenge yourself
name the elephants in the room

As a teenager “keep your laws off my body” was
on the back of my closed bedroom door
bumperstickers, angsty emotional outrage
grown now into womanhood
maybe my teeth have gotten sharper
maybe my tolerance is done tolerating
settling for scraps and glass ceiling shards

Maybe I’m regressing before my very eyes
back to my roots
back to my original wound
the one I dreamed of healing by writing
the words flow like so much blood
and the stench is always somewhere else
and the hungry children are always somewhere else
and the oppression is always worse
for someone else

I must make it mine
take it all the way into my own body
knowing that these conditions render me, too
not free
me too, not at ease
me too, threatened
not too much
not going gently
or without a fight

taking all of this wholeness and all of the broken bits
and rather than flinging them haphazardly
and adding to the harm done
gathering, calling them in
calling myself home again
to really listen
for who to be
because the only thing
the ONLY thing I know for sure
is that this is all hands on deck time
and we can’t sit down
while the laws are quietly made
and trains roll steadily in