This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

July-August 2020

A letter to Audre Lorde

There's nothing wrong with being unoriginal

Hadiyyah Kuma

Illustration by andrea bennett

Dear Audre Lorde,

My fingers ache. All I can do since this pandemic started locally is read and write. And not my assignments and essays; none of those thrill me. None get at what I really want to say; none encapsulate the expanse of human suffering we are seeing on our screens and streets. To feel the words I need to feel, I can only write poems.

For a while I didn’t know what it meant to be a writer. In academia, a world I was so unaware of before entering university three years ago, I felt the need to suppress all desires to write freely because writing freely means breaking the rules. Poetry is not academic, and if it is, it is canonical. If it is canonical it is white.

You knew this. You wrote of it all the time. I, too, write about it all the time. I insert the critical race theory I never learned into sociology essays about Marx and Durkheim. I zone out during lectures and jot down descriptions of people’s faces, try to recall the lines around my grandmother’s mouth. I try to achieve the “revelatory distillation of experience” you so wisely verbalized. You taught me to be preoccupied with generations of women of colour who have shaped my words.

Compliments no longer reward me, yet I am guilty of weaponizing poetry for my own pride. I must admit that much of my frustration comes from the accomplishments of others. Jealousy of my writer friends’ successes, boredom with my own work. Comparison is a truly depressing force. But when I read Poetry is Not a Luxury, I found that none of that mattered. What mattered to me most was this sentence: “there are no new ideas, only new ways of making them felt.” This quickly became my mantra. What is so bad about being “unoriginal”? It only proves that we are all experiencing similar things, similar joys, oppressions, and fears. The Western idea of poetry, the idea of whiteness and of canon, has caused the tension I feel when I am struggling to succeed. Succeed by whose standard?, I now ask myself. You write that poetry is a tool for survival and change.

“Art is unity,” I wrote in the mini notebook that waits for me after each meal and each sleep, after reading you. Two days ago, I joined a Zoom poetry group. Though I have been too shy to engage with the group, I continue to encounter poetry’s resultant community.

“Art is unity.” I wrote it in swirling letters, swept up in the communal feelings of reading at an open-mic—or at fundraisers like Climate Justice Toronto’s fundraiser, Pull Together: Toronto vs. Trans Mountain Pipeline, surrounded by audiences who truly wish for your success. Unity is a social tool for activism, for real steps to be made in fighting for causes that are worthwhile. In this way, I perceive poetry’s activist powers as a necessary form of expression. So, in times when it is hardest to write, I read poems. The words of other Black poets like Ross Gay as he calls for silver linings in “Sorrow is Not My Name,” reminding me of the treasures of spring, the simple pleasures. That “there are, on this planet alone, something like two / million naturally occurring sweet things,” and to even perceive them is a step towards hope. In this current moment, we are so starved for hope, but us poets are also prone to possibility. How can we make a new world out of this moment?

As this pandemic exposes the structures that have always caused harm, I turn to the creative works of visionaries like you in order to better understand how we can rebuild from here. Capitalism is being exposed as a dangerous tool for controlling access and distribution of resources. As always, communities of colour, poor, disabled, and lower income people are disproportionately being affected by this crisis.

But here on Earth we are hopeful. As you say, there is a poet within all of us who says: “I feel, therefore I can be free.” Thank you for the reminder.

In solidarity,

Hadiyyah Kuma

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