Everything in the world feels like it is burning. This is not Burning Man, a new TV show, a plan for a diet infomercial — we are all in this boat we had no plan to be in, watching the shore and wondering . . . what next? The questions we ask, all clinging to answers tied to science, rooted in vaccinations, in GoFundMe’s and donation pledges. Our faith has left office and now sits with R&B singers and Hollywood power couples.
We are dancing for salvation, painting for salvation. We are performing and doing acrobatics in our living rooms, holding handstands. We are in our churches, masks over our noses, praying for a bible to come from the front row with a benediction, thinking it will rain on us; an offering at our feet so thick, so deep in pedagogy that it will misdirect whatever is falling from the sky. In all of this, we can see the religion beautifully encrusted in the hands of the artist, the ones who are alive when things like government, like AIDS, like SARS, like atom bombs and Jim Crow and internment camps tell us to stay home. When concentration camps and bickering between parties become podcast press. In these times, art has been the beacon. Right there, laying on the surface of it all, is a poem. There is a poem in everything.
I have seen it happen often — the scattering of words that happens when we have been afforded the time to be amongst all of the dreary. The days get to bend with poems, they get to take shape in our hands, into specially crafted molds that take the everything we find insufferable and put it into a language, into a context we get to understand on our own terms and embrace.
This is where the poem ends and we begin.
I have read poems about suffrage, about Pokemon, poke bowls, about bowel movements, about hand sanitizer and couch cushions, about being comfy and being a cougar; about being negligent; about rape, about race, about radical love — all those things have a reason to live, to exist.
When the world became cold, poems and their affable, still resonated. Still pictures of us borderline everything on the DSM scale, but making it poetry. People are dying. They are hurting while worried about their futures, about their pensions and the pennies never saved, the voice notes never sent . . . how can they reconcile that?
We all are wrought, all ducking the drowning that happens when the drought is over, and the overboard becomes as heavy and weighty as the idea of floating away. It is then that we can pick up the dusty pen and notepads and search for the meaning behind whatever is shaking us down.
Because we are all poets; we are all alchemists; we all have a poem lingering, wistful and watery, buoying us through the tough and tranquil; through the trough and trials of being a martyr and just a spec of matter on a glass. Every poem I have loved started in a person first, and that has made me want to see the world differently. This has made me want to hold my daughters higher than the sky could ever permit. Poems allow us the luxury to do that.
When I was poor, poems made me feel as if I didn’t have to be. That having no money would ever matter, because of my voice; my voice with it’s rhyme, reason, and color. Poems are genderless, genre-less, odorless, and subdue doubt. All of the joy that truly binds us to together is gently being seen in the margins of the poem. We can look at the dust on the blinds, the curtain drapes, and the luster that happens when the sun comes in just before your afternoon drip coffee run.
I’ve seen poems happen — in elevators when no one thought anyone was looking; poems scribbled in bold on the tongues of strangers; in headphones inaudible. Poems dragged to the front of the bookshelf by the back of their hardcover spines. The prettiest of pretty poems I saw in high school in English class. The first time I heard pixie and fairy used in anything but a Disney show was out of white girl Anastasia’s mouth — her language was Dylan and Fiona and grunge; it was dirt under nails and the balls of her feet and sweet clementine twixt the palate.
There were Drew Barrymore type-girls in my drama classes, too; the waif-like ones with milk for bones, who would break to the touch if you whistled too loud from across the street; who you could trace the track mark arms back to an unattended ATM, a grocer store … a track meet for sprinting opioids and bad parenting. And Black me was intrigued and confused when they wrote and revisited their broken homes and visits to morgues and defaced Lenin statues in their looseleaf binders — I could hear dishes crashing and breaking when they read, and thought I never heard words crackle under someone’s jaw, from someone’s knuckles like that. I had been reading NaS, been studying Jay Z; memorizing Joe Budden before he became a millennial Biden; was reciting Jadakiss and Andre Benjamin like English Lit, tracing my up until the Anastasia’s and Alexandra’s started spinning. Poetry changed my world then.
The first time I heard Carlos Gomez talk about words as weapons, as Gaza, as Palestine, as borders, I knew flesh was incomparable to script. Saul Williams made me want to slam everything — my notebook, my job, my father, my abuser, my exes, presidents, city council persons. Nikki Giovanni made me want to call my mother, to fuck everything, to be a Black man like the ones I saw in Jim Brown’s first down stances. Sonia Sanchez wanted me to make love, to make planets, to make my bed but with ginger instead of blankets. Jack Kerouac made me want to learn American. Allen Ginsberg made me want to be un-American. Common told me rap is a chapbook. All the poems were all different — as different as my classmates, as my bullies, as the gang colors we memorized in the backs of composition notebooks, the ones with the multiplication tables, by the metrics.
We would mutilate ourselves to poems. We would remember our slave masters with poems. We would cry to R&B songs, talk to hummingbirds, travel to palm trees, rub palm oil on everything with poems. Poems taught us how to talk to girls, how to talk non-binary, how to bring someone to your mother; how to learn the way your mother crocheted her way through life; made a machete out of all the moons they could. All of these poems mattered to me. They matter to us, now more than ever.
Every poem is an opportunity to reexamine what we are pulled toward, what we are trained to see, what triggers them to shoot at us first and read rights later. All poems — tiny poems about humans, about ponies, peonies; about AIDS; deceased pets with adult human names; dry things, alive things, things hinged on what we will opine about later. Ugly poems, bright poems, big poems, small poems . . . all confronting problems, as contorted as those problems may be, and holding them up to the light. Poems have pierced our ears, have nursed our parents. When I wanted to die, I wrote a poem. Then I wrote more poems. Then I read poetry. And even the things that didn’t make sense, reset themselves. Poetry has saved my life, has saved many lives. That has not changed and will not change.
Please. Write all the poems now. And often. Break them open with your teeth, with a pen. Take them from the pit of the stomach and shout them out, make them loud. Poetry will be our greatest soundtrack, our ears to the streets; soapboxes replete with box sets of the latest and greatest from street corner church revivers, from porno turned photo all-stars, from those that study genetics and the laws of tea and pottery.
Poets grow stems, do STEM research, make masks, wear masks for safety, for optical illusions; do make-up tutorials; get titty lifts; deadlift essays and shine shoes. Poets will jump from windows wings first, practice hang-time, hang themselves from willow trees, from branches, will hang their art on their cars, on their graves, on their teacher’s tombstone. A poem is a dancer, a seed in a pomegranate, the eruptions in Pompeii. Poems, they are pompous, derivative of the bourgeoisie and the burdened. Poems are about pussy, about politics, about anonymous people and the private parts they love. The world is changing. Poems are not. Poems, still deified, still dying, still dripping in the sweat of ancestors.
Poems are slaying dragons. They are saving us, even still, even now. Poems will, ultimately, save the world.
About the Author
Joel L. Daniels, also known as Joel Leon, is a Bronx-born performer, author, and storyteller who writes and tells stories for Black people. His recent TED talk on healthy coparenting has been viewed over 1.1M times, globally. Find more of his work here: msha.ke/joelakamag.