̶D̶e̶m̶o̶c̶r̶a̶c̶y̶ ̶L̶e̶s̶s̶e̶n̶s̶ Democracy Lessons follows a participatory practice of collecting language that I have used for previous public poems like Walking Poem and 4000 Words 4000 Dead. My poetic work is often based in collaborative forms and the ways words circulate in our everyday lives.
Starting the Poem:
The evening before President’s Day 2020, I sent out an email that began:
hi friends….i want to make a poem with you. let’s document our feelings about this president, this election, this democracy.
I listed the prompt THE PRESIDENT IS and explained that the poem would be assembled in the order that the words were received. My plan was to accept a maximum of forty-five words per writer, since we were/are in the midst of dealing with the 45th American president. I thought of this as a twenty-four hour poetry experiment but also stated that “differences in the perception of time, dates, and simultaneous dimensions are encouraged.” For me, experimenting with the structure of a poem can often mean experimenting with the structure of time. It was February 16th so the expansiveness of pandemic time had yet to come into my consciousness.
With this email, I received responses from sixty-nine contributors: Harold Abramowitz, Kazim Ali, Emmy Bean, Charles Bernstein, Stacy Blint, Nicole Bond, Amaranth Borsuk, Jessica Bozek, Andrew Cantrell, Kevin Carollo, cris cheek, Andrew Choate, Joseph Duffy, Joseph Emanuel, Noa/h Fields, Annie Finch, Tim Fitzmaurice, Cean Gamalinda, Edgar Garcia, Cassandra Gillig, Laaura Goldstein, Philip Good, Duriel Harris, Mike Hauser, Marcy Rae Henry, Nathan Hoks, Bob Holman, Felicia Holman, J’Sun Howard, Douglas Kearney, Toni Asante Lightfoot, Ananda Lima, Dana Teen Lomax, Danna Lomax, Kimberly Lyons, Jill Magi, Douglas A. Martin, Heather McShane, Laura Mullen, blake nemec, Janet Neuwalder, Achy Obejas, Daniela Olszewska, Maureen Owen, Julie Patton, JD Pluecker, Anja Bozek Queen, Timothy David Rey, Sarah Rosenthal, Michael Rothenberg, Elizabeth Metzger Sampson, Martin Glaz Serup, Rone Shavers, Alix Anne Shaw, Evie Shockley, Mike Sikkema, Christopher Stackhouse, Mark Statman, Chuck Stebelton, Mojdeh Stoakley, Stephanie Strickland, Dawn Tefft, Matias Viegener, Lina Ramona Vitkauskas, Anne Waldman, Tyrone Williams, Elizabeth Willis, Keith S. Wilson, and Sara Zalek.
A Democracy Chorus:
Building off the submissions, I created a choral poem that became a dialogue on the rhetoric of democracy. I based the poem’s democracy chorus on statements contributed by Kisii University students during my performances and workshops in Kenya as part of the fall 2016 Kistrech poetry festival organized by Christopher Okemwa. I asked these students to give Americans advice about democracy. This was my second opportunity to talk to young Kenyans about their hopes for their country while dealing with an unstable government. In winter 2009, I participated in the Kwani literary conference in Nairobi organized by Billy Kahora and was able to interview local activists about the post-election violence that had just occurred in 2008.
I am most interested in poetry that can be simultaneously experimental and inclusive. Solidarity over hierarchy. My creative and activist communities are grounded in DIY culture, usually existing outside of the MFA industrial complex and AWP corporate structure. Full disclosure: I have actively participated in both on multiple occasions. As a working poet, I acknowledge the struggles that capitalism creates on a day to day basis around the world. But, I am also aware that my “success” as a poet is actually not based upon how much money is in my bank account. I embrace the gift economy within poetry and am especially inspired by my collaborations with the Dusie Kollektiv. Most of my public poems have also manifested as street performances where parts of the writing are given away to passers-by. My ongoing work of literary citizenship is about bringing poetry into spaces where it is often not expected or even not valued, in addition to always bringing diverse voices into designated academic and institutional spheres. A recent triumph was helping my City College of Chicago students to perform together at the Poetry Foundation in fall 2019. As a collective of immigrant and refugee students including many who are openly undocumented, they named themselves the Borderless Poets with a mission “to use their writing to knock down unnecessary walls.”
Excerpt from D̶e̶m̶o̶c̶r̶a̶c̶y̶ ̶L̶e̶s̶s̶e̶n̶s̶ Democracy Lessons
Jennifer Karmin’s multidisciplinary work has transpired at festivals, artist-run spaces, and on city streets across the U.S., Cuba, Japan, Kenya, and Europe. Her performances have been featured at venues such as the Poetry Project, the Walker Art Center, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, and Woodland Pattern Book Center. Her books include the text-sound epic Aaaaaaaaaaalice and The Sexual Organs of the IRS, a collaboration with Bernadette Mayer. She teaches creative writing to immigrants at Truman College and has been a Visiting Writer at Naropa University, Oberlin College, California Institute of the Arts, plus a myriad of sites. Since 2005, she has curated the Red Rover Series in Chicago and often led ensembles of poets improvising together. More of ̶D̶e̶m̶o̶c̶r̶a̶c̶y̶ L̶e̶s̶s̶e̶n̶s̶ Democracy Lessons is online at Aurochs.