I saw a bus ad the other day calling for submissions for Poetry on Buses, one of my favorite public art programs in Seattle. It reminded me of a conversation I had back in May with my friend Elizabeth Austen, who was the Washington State poet laureate until earlier this year.
I’d been thinking about art as activism after writing about Kehinde Wiley’s exhibition at Seattle Art Museum, when I concluded that art doesn’t necessarily exist to change the world, but to spark conversation, and perhaps, to set viewers on a path towards action down the road.
When I asked Elizabeth her thoughts on the topic she told me, “To choose to be an artist in our culture is in itself a form of activism. And activism isn’t just about ‘let’s change the world,’ it can be about ‘let’s change ourselves, let’s make space for humanity.’” This statement is one of the reasons I love Elizabeth (I actually have a line from one of her poems tattooed on my arm, so I’m not kidding)––she reminds me that there are many ways to be in the world.
Whether or not she defines herself as an activist poet, Elizabeth finds the most joy and meaning as a poet when her work causes people to think about something in a different way. And she thinks we should all be reading poetry by poets like Claudia Rankine, Lucille Clifton, Tim Seibles, Adrienne Rich, Sharon Olds, and Danez Smith. She also shared that there is “a huge, fabulous area of very socially and politically engaged poetry happening now––the internet has democratized access and sprouted up communities of poets.” So, your new favorite activist poet may be just a few mouse clicks away.
If you’ve got a poem to share—activist or otherwise—and are a resident of King County, Washington, consider submitting your own poem to this year’s Poetry on Buses project, Your Body of Water.
Image credit: Chris Blakeley via Flickr