Making Meaning

Civic Engagement by Way of Poetry

Episode Notes

Carol Ann Carl, a storyteller from Pohnpei Island in the Federated States of Micronesia, talks about how she uses poetry to advocate for historically marginalized communities, and two-term US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey describes how poetry can articulate acts of civic engagement.

Explore Carol Ann Carl’s work and learn about the Why it Matters Poetry Workshop she led through the Hawai’i Council for the Humanities. Learn more about Natasha Tretheway on her website.

Read more about this episode’s topic and guests at our website.

Episode Transcription

Sydney Boyd: Hi, welcome to Making Meaning, a podcast that explores how and why the humanities are an essential part of our everyday lives. In this series, we hear stories from our nation's Humanities councils and leaders across the greater United States about the role that humanities have played during the pandemic and are playing in our recovery. I'm your host Sydney Boyd. Today I'm thinking about what civic engagement is, how it connects to history, and how it takes powerful form as poetry.

The Hawaii Council for the Humanities recently presented a series of poetry workshops. They came about through a national initiative, focused on civic and electoral participation. I asked one of the workshop instructors, Carol Ann Carl, how she thinks about poetry and its connection to activism and organizing. Carol Ann lives in Hawaii but she calls Pohnpei Island in the Federated States of Micronesia home. Micronesia is a country in the Western Pacific made up of hundreds of islands. Like Hawaii itself, it has a history of colonization by outside forces. A storyteller first, Carol Ann uses poetry to advocate for historically marginalized communities like her own and hold space for truth.

Carol Ann Carl:                                        

A lot of the work that I do has to do with my community, the Micronesian community, but more specifically, the diasporic Micronesian community. Those of us who were born back home and then are pushed out here into the diaspora. How we as Micronesians and as descendants of a navigating society continue to connect those roots to the journey that has led us here. Hawaii, and how we connect with this land. A lot of the engagement that we have with this foreign setting is what we see in the media or how the media has portrayed us and how that affects the ways that we see ourselves and our identity. Because this workshop was talking about civic engagement, we wanted to reclaim a narrative by making us the witnesses of how we were being portrayed in the media.

Boyd: This was about ekphrastic poetry. Is that right?

Carl: Right. Ekphrastic poetry is poetry that's inspired by imagery, which is why we chose to name it Witness. Because of all of the things that have been happening on the news and the ways that it's affected our community, we wanted to hold a space where we could come together and see what everyone else is seeing, but process those emotions together through poetry.

Boyd: What kind of experiences came out of the workshop? What did your students sort of settle on in terms of topic or what kind of images were you looking at?

Carl: The first image we had actually shown was a short video clip of Honolulu police department officers harassing some of our Micronesian youth at a memorial site for one of our youth that was shot and murdered by HPD. We shared that video and then I shared my poem that was a reaction to that video. Then, after that, we talked about emotion and how to hold that in that space, and how to really let that come out in the poetry that we're going to write, or that we're going to attempt to write. Because we wanted to create community space and also really acknowledging place-based identity. We wanted to take this opportunity to connect trauma, but also the civic engagement that we already are engaged in. And so, we showed the Mauna Kea video of the elders being carried away by the police. The Mauna Kea movement, it's a native Hawaiian movement that is pushing to protect Mauna Kea from being developed, specifically in this instance, from the building of a 10-meter telescope on the tops of Mauna Kea, which is a sacred site for the native Hawaiian community.

Boyd: One of the many poems of yours that I found was On The Other Side of Yesterday. Toward the end, you say, "for at least 2000 years, my culture has thrived. Despite decades of foreign power, my culture is still alive." I think when I read that poem and some of the others, you are describing past events. It's almost like the poem is a kind of capsule. Then, hearing you talk just now about the power of communicating history in these moments of activism, is poetry a kind of history for you?

Carl: As much as a lot of people may refer to me as a poet, I think, just like many of my mentors, I have always seen myself as a storyteller. That is where my training has always come from. From hearing stories from my elders, from being able to internalize that, and then to be able to retell that story. In the Pohnpeian culture, Pohnpei the island where I come from, knowledge is seen as a life force. If you imagine holding a glass of water and every time you share that knowledge, you're spilling a little bit of that life force, of that water, out of your cup. And so, when your cup becomes empty, then your journey is because you've passed that knowledge onto someone else and it continues to pass on.

And that's what history has always been: a life force carried on through people. And so, for me, storytelling had to turn into poetry in the diaspora because Western education teaches us that history is a written record of the past. It's really hard to be able to recount our history orally in a way that's credible in Western society. Poetry became this medium where I could share history on a platform that could reach a lot of people.

Boyd: When you talk about writing poetry, it seems to be just a part of your very fiber. How do you remember coming to poetry and how did it become such a part of who you are?

Carl: I had done an internship with this youth program here in Keliki. Through that, I had done the NACA Leadership Fellowship; and through that we were learning liberation pedagogy and the struggles of immigrant communities. Because Keliki is a largely immigrant community even compared to the entire nation. And so, learning to challenge those narratives with the histories that I had learned at home before moving back to Hawaii, through that fellowship, finishing it, and then going back into school and being more active in community work.

I saw the slam poetry event and I was like, "I think this is the perfect opportunity to tell this story." I realized that a lot of people really didn't understand where Micronesia is, what it is, how complex it is, and the very essences of our identity. And so, I wrote that poem and I performed it at that slam poetry contest at Maranoa.

To be honest, never in my wildest dreams, nor even in the peripheries of my dreams that I think that I would actually start doing it seriously as a real form of civic engagement. But the different communities that poetry has been able to reach in the ways that it's engaged a lot of people, especially a lot of people that are my social media friends who I have not necessarily met in person but are friends with because of the work that we do. Also to see the reaction from the Micronesian youth whenever they see it, or whenever they engage with it, has been real inspiring for me and has really been what's kept me going,

Boyd: What is that reaction?

Carl: I think it's very similar to mine when I first started getting into it. I remember when I was younger, I thought I didn't like magazines and I thought I didn't like poetry. What I've come to learn is that I just never saw myself in those mediums before. It wasn't until I picked up a magazine from an Oceanian author that had stories of people from across the Pacific, that's when I realized maybe I do like magazines. It wasn't until I started engaging with actual Oceanian poets, talking about issues that I could relate with, and referencing things that I understood, did I realize that I actually do like poetry and this is an avenue that I can pursue. And so, a lot of the youth that reach out are ones that are like, "This is great. I love learning through medium."

Boyd: Is there anything else that poetry can do that you weren't expecting as you've come to know it?

Carl: Poetry can heal, specifically for communities of color that have not been able to prioritize mental health and expressing emotion because of cycles of generational trauma that we constantly have to overcome. Allowing poetry to hold space for emotion and allowing it to help you process all of these jumbled emotions. I had actually done a workshop yesterday with some Keliki youth who right before this call I got to actually listen to their poems. Beautiful, so powerful. For a lot of those poems, you were able to see the jumble of emotions that were there and then how they were able to take those pieces and put it together to weave this beautiful story that was able to articulate their truths and their emotions. Then, to be able to present that and share that was really powerful.

Boyd: What happens when the truths and emotions that we articulate through poetry uncovered trauma? How is that still an act of civic engagement, if it is? These questions made me think of Native Guard, a stunning collection of poems by Natasha Tretheway. Natasha is the author of five collections of poetry and a two-term U.S. Poet Laureate. In Native Guard, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2007, personal scenes from her life in the deep South weave together with the lives of Civil War soldiers in one of the union's first official black regiments. It's exquisite yet it is also a harrowing memorial. I started by asking Natasha what she thinks poetry has to do with history and with painful histories in particular.

Natasha Tretheway:                                    

Well, I think poetry has long been a way that poets have contended with, remembered, memorialized, challenged misapprehensions about history. That's where we record the cultural memory of a people. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Of course, that also has to do with the recording and contending with and presenting history so that it is not forgotten. I see my poems as a kind of narrative history; particularly the persona poems in which a speaker is trying to use the language to be memorable in the way that the language of poetry is. One of those ways is, of course, the lyricism and rhythm of syntax, but it's also about repetition and transformation. Ways that we remember.

Boyd: I'm also curious about your own poetry and how poetic form, I'm thinking of the crown of sonnets, that structure Native Guard. What role does that play in the process of memorializing?

Tretheway: Well, when I was working on Native Guard and my goal was to write about this history that had been, in many ways, forgotten in public memory. Forgotten in terms of the monuments that we've erected on the manmade landscape. I was interested in particular with these Black soldiers who were among the first officially sanctioned regimens of African American soldiers who fought for the Union in the Civil War to whom very few monuments were erected. It occurred to me that in order to remember these forgotten figures, formally, it was necessary not just to say the thing, but to say it again. And so, forms that used repetition and refrain became for me the best way to do that.

Boyd: Could you talk just a little bit about what it is to memorialize?

Tretheway: Well, memorialization is all about structuring collective memory. When we erect monuments, we are saying as a nation, "This is what and how we want to remember certain things." And when we leave other things out, that's what gets erased. So those monuments that overwhelmed my childhood in the deep South in Mississippi and Georgia were meant to inscribe a narrative of white dominion over Black subjects, white supremacy, and the second class status of African-Americans. It was a way to try to inscribe that as the way things should be going forward into the future.

Boyd: Do you think there are any histories that should disappear?

Tretheway: I don't think that histories should disappear or fade away. I think we need to understand them in their proper context and tell the truth about them. So when you look at the monument at Stone Mountain, the largest monument to the Confederacy, Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis carved on the face of that mountain looming over the landscape and its people, it's not the history that we need to get rid of. Because the history is telling us the truth about the past. That that monument was erected in order to remind people of their place and to inscribe an idea of the Confederacy as gallant and brave and a way of life, as opposed to one that tried to destroy the Union in order to maintain slavery. We need to just remember the truth about why they were erected, not erase them.

Boyd: If you were going to explain to someone on the street how poetry is a powerful act of civic engagement, where would you begin?

Tretheway: Could I read you a poem?

Boyd: Yes, please.

Tretheway: All right. I think that this is a poem that answers that question. It begins with an epigraph from Justice Hugo Black writing in 1964.

"No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which as good citizens we must live. Other rights, even the most basic are illusory if the right to vote is undermined. Quotidian. Sometimes she wrote about the weather, how hot it was, or yet another lightning storm gone as quick as it came. In the catalog of her days dress, a dress she was sewing, car trouble, pay day laced with declarations of love to the man who would become my father.

Her body bright with desire, a threshold I would soon cross into being. Two years before loving will make their love legal. My mother writes about marrying despite an unjust law. And because it is 1965, Mississippi in turmoil, she writes about a cross burned at the church next door, interracial outings at the beach, and being followed by police. All of it side by side in her letters, tidy script.

Reading them, I can't help thinking how ordinary it seems, injustice, mundane as a trip to the store for bread. And I know this is about what has always existed side by side in this country. That summer, my grandmother brought the movement home. It tells the story in pictures and it is beautiful, my mother wrote, adding, I think you know the way I'm using the word. On the cover, a black protestor caught in a cop's choke hold, his mouth opened to shout or gasp for air.

Inside, pictures I could not bear to look at as a child. A man tied to a scaffold, his body burned blacker, the fire still smoldering beneath him. Two boys hanged from a tree above the smiling white faces of the revelers turned back toward the camera. A young couple holding hands ordinary as any night out on a date. Now, I think of my mother in love and writing love letters, cataloging her days. Those terrible, beautiful pictures on the table next to the crochet lace doily and crystal bowl my grandmother kept for candy, butterscotch in cellophane wrappers, bright and shiny as gold.

It is July 20th, 1965, two months before my parents will break the law to be married. And my mother who's just turned 21 signs off her rights basic as any other citizens. Have to run, she wrote, got to get downtown to register to vote.

Boyd: Thanks to my guests, Natasha Trethewey and Carol Ann Carl. At the top of the show, you heard the voices of Sierra Fisher, Suze Kaliski, and Dr. Artika R. Tyner. Making Meaning is a podcast from the Federation of State Humanities Councils, and as part of its Humanities and American Life initiative, which is generously funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. You can learn more about our work and member program by visiting our website at

The show is produced by LWC. Elizabeth Nakano is our producer and sound designer. Jimmy Gutierez edited the series. Jen Chien is executive editor. Cedric Wilson is lead producer. You can find more episodes on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. I'm Sydney Boyd. Thanks for joining us.

CITATION: Boyd, Sydney, host. “Civic Engagement by Way of Poetry” Making Meaning, LWC Studios. October, 28 2021.