The Poetry of Protest

 

Audre Lorde once stated: ‘Poetry is not a luxury’.

Art should never be a luxury enjoyed by the elite or a separate domain enjoyed by the few. It is, and always has been, a weapon for social change: a means through which we can reshape our entire understanding of life itself.

For this reason, art is deeply political. It can be the voice, and the image, of stories and lives that are silenced. Art is present everywhere and it should be used to embody alternative voices and different perspectives.

The idea of art as something apolitical, separate from grassroots existence and unnecessary to life and culture, is a conception used by Neoliberal thinking to formulate everything in relation to its ability to produce profit. Capitalism leads us to view worth as correlative to function and profit – as such, we are often taught to see art as a cultural luxury rather than an essential weapon in the armament of revolution.

Earlier last year when I was working as the co-director of literary organisation Scissors Paper Pen, we organised a spoken word event with the ANU Women’s Department. At the event – ‘Spoken: Women Armed with Words’ – an autonomous group of women-identifying people came together to claim a space and share experience with their words and stories. Public space is often dominated by men, and so we utilised this gathering to combat the unequal representation of women in art and politics. We used poetry to battle ongoing barriers to liberation. This night evoked a combination of anger, sadness and hope as we shared personal experiences of oppression and expressed our sense of community. We were able to protest inequality through the act of art.

During last month’s Canberra Slamboree, I read a poem called ‘Womanly Touch’ that was fuelled by a patriarchal encounter I’d had. I wrote about the way women are viewed by men as an object owned by other men rather than as human beings with individual opinions and aspirations. I had been congratulated by a man on my ‘womanly touch’ and needed to protest this assumption against my autonomy. So I threatened to cover the patriarchy in period blood – let the misogynists clean it up with their disgusting mouths. Reading this poem was liberating for me and the other women in the room. We felt a sense of solidarity and pride in being women and we re-created our identities in a way that refused to comply with the rigid structures of the patriarchy.

In the band Late Night Cooking my bandmates and I use music to dissent and rethink the status quo. Through songs such as ‘I am a Feminist’ and ‘Unsolicited Advice’, we protest ideas of sexism, elitism and homophobia. Much like poetry, music cannot be separated from the social realities it is created in. For example, the seemingly uncontroversial act of women participating in music became a political protest in Iran, when societal regulations forbid them from doing so.

In the Union movement we get creative in order to mobilise groups of people who are de-politicised by a neoliberal culture. As part of our campaign against corporate tax evasion, we ran a covert protest during the launch of Canberra IKEA. This is a company that doesn’t pay its fair share of tax – money that should go towards things like giving safe asylum to refugees, funding public education and making university free. So we created fake IKEA brochures containing information on ‘tax deductible items in store’, then we dressed up as ‘Fakea’ workers and handed out these materials to customers. This form of protest was creative and used art to raise awareness about inequality. Collective action such as this has taught me to see the connection between protest and art, not only due to the theatre and materials involved but also because it showed me the way in which anything can be art, especially when we are fighting for a better world.

The truth is that art comes from human reality. It emerges from the barriers, divisions and oppressions that exist and reconfigures them; it creates the possibility of a different way of living. The act of art itself is radical protest.