On Literary Activism

By | January 15, 2019

This week we’re celebrating the publication of Critical Creative Writing: Essential Readings on the Writer’s Craft, a comprehensive introduction to the key debates in creative writing today, from the ethics of appropriation to the politics of literary evaluation. Today’s post is from Dr. Craig Santos Perez, whose essay “Poetry, Politics, and Letters to the Empire” is featured in the collection.

In 2014, students from Dr. Perez’s creative writing graduate course organized and hosted a food-themed poetry reading at Kokua Market, Honolulu’s only co-op grocery store.

My contribution to the Critical Creative Writing anthology is titled, “Poetry, Politics, and Letters to Empire,” in which I describe some of my experiences as a “literary activist.”

For more than a decade, I have been both a poet and an activist. I believe that poets and creative writers are a necessary and vital component of every activist movement. Poets can inspire others to speak out and write their own truth. Poets can change minds, capture hearts, and humanize others. Poets help nurture our imaginations, which we will need for creative non-violent activism. In turn, I believe social movements can invigorate and transform one’s creative writing.

In the English department at the University of Hawaiʻi, I teach undergraduate and graduate courses that have focused on the relationship between creative writing and politics, environmental and social justice, food sovereignty, and decolonization. In my courses, I require students to participate in literary activism and to explore new ways in which we can apply the literary arts to activism.

The list below are some ways that creative writers can become involved in literary activism, thus bringing critical creative writing pedagogy and practice into the community and public sphere. I hope this list will be helpful for other writers and educators in their lives and classrooms:

Organize and host a reading group at the local library, community center, or public schools focused on political poetry, poetry of witness, social justice poetry, and/or environmental poetry.

Organize and teach community and/or after-school creative writing workshops that focus on local political, social, or environmental issues.

Organize and host a free open mic, poetry reading, or poetry slam at a local organization and/or public space that highlights local political, social, or environmental issues.

Organize, publicize, and judge a community poetry contest with political, social, or environmental themes relevant to the community.

Edit and publish a chapbook, zine, or literary journal focused on political, social, or environmental issues. Distribute the work to local schools, public spaces, and libraries.

Collaborate with local non-profit, labor union, and/or social justice organizations and offer to teach creative writing workshops for their membership.

Create poetic protest signs and/or compose poetic slogans, mottoes, chants, or ditties for marches, protests, or rallies.

Perform your socially-engaged poems at activist events, rallies, or protests.

Send political poems to your legislatures.

Submit and publish your political poems in newspapers, magazines, or on social media.

Organize and host a creative writing booth/desk/circle at activist events, protests, or rallies.

Organize and host a literary fundraiser, in which proceeds from a poetry reading or book sale is donated to a non-profit organization or to disaster relief efforts.

Dr. Craig Santos Perez is a poet and activist from the Pacific Island of Guam. He is an associate professor in the English Department at the University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoa. His essay “Poetry, Politics, and Letters to Empire” appears in Critical Creative Writing: Essential Readings on the Writer’s Craft, now available from Bloomsbury.

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