Poetry is a Political Act

An interview with June Jordan.

By Julie Quiroz-Martinez Dec 15, 1998

June Jordan’s career as a poet, writer, teacher, and activist started in the early 1960s and spans the globe. The author of twenty-five books, June has just completed her childhood memoir, Portrait of the Poet As a Little Black Girl (1999). She is currently Professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where she also directs Poetry for the People.

In 1998, June Jordan received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Black Writers’ Conference; completed Affirmative Acts, a new collection of political essays; and collaborated on a CD recording of I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw The Sky, an opera for which she wrote the lyrics and the libretto. Jordan was born in New York City of Jamaican immigrant parents.

ColorLines: You have written that “poetry is not a shopping list, a casual disquisition on the colors of the sky, a soporific daydream, or bumpersticker sloganeering. Poetry is a political action.” What is poetry to you?

June Jordan: Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth. In the process of telling the truth about what you feel or what you see, each of us has to get in touch with himself or herself in a really deep, serious way. Our culture does not encourage us to undertake that attunement. Consequently, most of us really exist at the mercy of other people’s formulations of what’s important.

But if you’re in the difficult process of living as a poet, you’re constantly trying to make an attunement to yourself which no outside manipulation or propaganda can disturb. That makes you a sturdy, dependable voice—which others want to hear and respond to. So, poetry becomes a means for useful dialogue between people who are not only unknown, but mute to each other. It produces a dialogue among people that guards all of us against manipulation by our so-called leaders.

CL: How did you become a poet?

JJ: I became a poet because my father forced me to read and memorize and recite from Shakespeare’s plays, the Bible, and the poetry of Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Edgar Allen Poe—all before I was five years old. This literature was completely incomprehensible to me, but I became immersed in the sounds of the language of these great writers. That, of course, was the hook that I seized in order to try and memorize this stuff so I could avoid getting beaten in the morning. The music of language became extremely important to me, and obvious to me. By the time I was seven I was writing myself. I was a poet.

CL: How did you become a political activist?

JJ: I was living in the public housing project in New York with my son when I met Evie Rich and her children at a playground. Evie lived across the street with her husband, Marvin Rich, who was the director of national CORE. CORE was committed to nonviolence, but I was not. But, based on my friendship with Evie as young mothers, I started going on freedom rides in 1966. The purpose of my first freedom ride was to try to desegregate the bus route from New York to Maryland. I said I’d go, but I didn’t say I’d be nonviolent.

We got to New Jersey someplace, and we went in to get a cup of coffee, and they wouldn’t serve us. We waited so long I fell asleep at the counter. The next thing I knew, this big white guy in a Marine uniform was waking me up and talking about I should get up and give him my seat. I just turned around and went “boom” with my elbow. We traded words and oh, it was a mess! People from our side came over to talk to me, and I thought, this nonviolence thing is not working for me. The rage I felt never left me. I kept thinking, if my son had done what I did, he would have been killed.

I decided from that point forward that I was “in,” but “in” on my own terms. I remember listening to Dr. King on the radio saying “if any blood shall flow in the streets of Birmingham let it be our blood and not the blood of our white brothers and sisters.” I really thought he had lost his mind. I think that was the first time it occurred to me that I had my own ideas. Dr. King was my hero. I just realized that I completely disagreed with him. I thought, “No way. It’s not gonna be our blood.”

CL: What does it mean to be a black radical in 1998?

JJ: It means to educate myself incessantly about the world around me. We need to fathom the varieties of oppression that have made human beings suffer not only in this country but around the world, and to battle against the competition of miseries, to instead search for connections among peoples who have suffered from white supremacy or capitalist obsessions or unmitigated power.

I guess I’m saying that I don’t think of myself as a “black radical.” Every one of us is becoming more precise about how we understand who we are. For example, I’m half Asian—my dad was half-Chinese and my mom was half-East Indian. I think it’s important for everyone, including so-called white people, to be more precise about who you are, to just be truthful and sane. This would help to mitigate against the dichotomizing demagoguery that has poisoned so much of radical politics here in the United States. Too many folks are unwilling to recognize that race is a social construct and that it was put together for certain reasons. That unwillingness continues to maim the ability of progressive people to come together without fighting each other.

CL: California’s Proposition 209 eliminated affirmative action. As a result of Proposition 209, U.C. Berkeley’s Fall 1998 admissions show a dramatic drop in the percentage of students of color. How are you and Poetry for the People responding to this?

JJ: I’ve been trying to imagine what the Berkeley campus will look like this coming fall, and it fills me with dread. It may look like Princeton in the 1960s. One of the reasons I came to Berkeley was because I saw so many students of all different colors speaking so many different languages and ferociously presenting all these different views. I thought, this is the 21st century and I want to be here! So the idea of a post-209 sterilization of higher education is really horrifying.

There’s a war going on inside the United States—1.4 million children in California are at risk of becoming a servant class! There’s a redefinition of “the people” going on, a redefinition of a most painful, revolutionary sort, about who are “the people” and what entitlements the people of this country should have.

CL: In your own work, which poems have been most transforming for you?

JJ: It’s difficult because every poem I write changes me, but I guess “Poem About My Rights.” It specifies the struggle against apartheid, but it was about all kinds of stuff, not just South Africa. It documents a conceptual breakthrough that was also an emotional breakthrough for me. “Ghaflah,” about my mother and her suicide, was also very important for me. “Poem About Commitment,” which I wrote this past spring, was the first time I’ve said in a poem what I intend to do. It was a poem coming from my rage.

CL: Which of your poems have had the biggest public impact?

JJ: “Moving Toward Home,” “Apology to the People of Lebanon,” and then, way later, “Lebanon, Lebanon.” I wrote those poems for myself, as a way of being a soldier here in this country. I didn’t know the poems would travel. I didn’t go to Lebanon until two years ago, but people told me that many Arabs had memorized these poems and translated them into Arabic. Haas M. Mroue [Lebanese American poet] has told me what it meant when he read the lines “I was born a black woman. Now I have become a Palestinian.” This was unbelievably shocking to Arab peoples.

If I may, I’d like to say something about poetry. What’s important about poetry in the context of leadership is that most of the time, power has to do with dominance. But poetry is never about dominance. Poetry is powerful but it cannot even aspire to dominate anyone. It means making a connection. That’s what it means.