Resisting Arrest: Poems to Stretch the Sky, published by Durham's Jacar Press last spring, begins with two epigraphs. The first, "Writing is fighting," comes from Ishmael Reed, who is included in the anthology. It establishes the book's contested terrain as that of racial justice in America. The second, from Brecht, is, "You can't write poems about the trees when the woods are full of policemen." It echoes Adorno's famous but unheeded words. We kept writing poetry after Auschwitz.
Now we find ourselves in another historical moment when beauty alone seems insufficient at best, grotesque at worst as a response to various human crises, including the epidemic of police violence against people of color. The risk for poets, to continue Brecht's analogy, is of missing the cops for the forest.
But Resisting Arrest sees differently. It contains contributions from a wide range of writers, from accomplished North Carolinians like Metta Sáma, Jaki Shelton Green, and Howard Craft to Pulitzer or National Book Award winners such as Rita Dove and Yusef Komunyakaa. All their voices stream together in a democratic chorus with no hierarchical section breaks, resolutely focused on police brutality. Nobody involved, from the contributors to the publisher, is making a dime. At reading events like the one at Letters Bookshop next Wednesday, anyone is invited to read a poem from the anthology. The tacit argument is that if we're to continue writing poetry during our own slow, ongoing American genocide, the line between art being about social justice and art being involved must shift.
Tony Medina, a creative writing professor at Howard University who has been involved in a gargantuan number of book projects, edited Resisting Arrest. His introductory essay, "Call Their Names," comes directly to the point.
"The rate at which black and brown—and even white—people killed by police are packing American morgues is breathtaking," it begins. "The rotting stench of such outlandish policing is enough to lead mobs of people to their local jailhouses and police precincts demanding justice lest they turnover each façade brick by brick." Then Medina unfurls a funerary shroud of stories—Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Sandra Bland, Troy Goode, Tamir Rice, Andy Lopez, Walter Scott, Gilbert Flores, on and on—wound together by concise treatments of Black Lives Matter, the prison pipeline, and the normalization of police violence.
Another layer of the Brecht epigraph is revealed in Medina's growing sense of dark absurdity, which comes out when he touches on Durham's Jesus Huerta: "The narratives are becoming more Kafkaesque and absurd: handcuffed in the back of a patrol car, he grabbed the officer's gun and shot himself dead in his chest." The persuasive critique goes on for 2,500 words; poetry doesn't come up until the very end. It's clear in its intent to be a call to action, not an aesthetic object. Guernica, Medina signs off.
The poems, like the essay, teem with actual names, dates, people, and places. Urgency shines out in the emergency-broadcast quality of their titles: Camille Rankine's "Survival Guide for Animals Born in Captivity," Sáma's "How to Not Get Killed by the NYPD," and Medina's "#IfIDieinPoliceCustody," which asks us to know that "Regardless of my hands/ Cuffed behind my back/ That I preferred my blood/ Inside my body instead[.]"
As Medina drew upon his vast network of contacts to gather poems for the anthology, he found people not only eager to contribute but also to suggest others, which caused the book to swell to nearly two hundred pages.
"They wanted to be a part of something that was dealing with this major crisis in the country," Medina says by phone from Washington, D.C. "They gladly gave me the work." Contributors were paid in a copy of the book. All proceeds go to the Urban League's Whitney M. Young Social Justice Scholarship, which supports students in the D.C. metro area who are pursuing a field in social justice or police reform. Medina expects to hand over the first check, for at least fifteen hundred dollars, in August.
When I first came across Resisting Arrest last year, I wondered then what you're probably wondering now: How did such an ambitious anthology, curated by an influential Howard professor, wind up on a small independent press in Durham?
The answer lies in Medina's chance meeting with Richard Krawiec and the unique nature of his Jacar Press—the result of his long experience in writing and activism.