Cameron Conaway, the Good Men Project’s new social justice editor, introduces his relationship with activism
Each square tile of my studio apartment floor in Tucson contained a book. Langston Hughes. Yusef Komunyakaa. Mary Oliver. Louise Glück. Denise Duhamel. Wallace Stevens. William Blake. Sylvia Plath. Walt Whitman. T.S. Eliot. Sharon Olds. Rita Dove. W.H. Auden. Jimmy Santiago Baca. Dorianne Laux. Allen Ginsberg….
A few months prior I’d lost for the first as an MMA fighter and now here I was a Pennsylvania boy in the desert with the title of “University of Arizona’s Poet-in-Residence” and therefore expected to know my shit. I didn’t. And if I did I sure as hell didn’t have the confidence to think so. All I really knew at the time was what I could feel: a deep percussion inside me to do something good and an awareness that even when I wasn’t doing something I was doing something.
Political tension was boiling throughout the state in a way I never felt in Pennsylvania. My home state had the same spectrum of people, far-left to far-right and everything between, but the arrows on Arizona’s spectrum often bent and aimed at each other. Stabbings and shootings and botched robberies that left nothing but broken glass and bodies. The news on television wasn’t only depressing, as it is everywhere, it was grotesque.
The residency allowed me to teach poetry on the Tohono O’odham Native American Reservation in Sells, Arizona. The reservation was an hour’s drive to Mexico, the place from which much of the political tension came. Bumper stickers tell the story best. Each drive to the rez I’d see a battered truck with a confederate flag design in the back window, a rusted NRA bumper sticker alongside the classic “American is Full. Go Home.” Other days I’d see trucks with stickers that read “Welcome to America. Now speak English” or, the one that I’ll never forget, “Illegal Immigrant Hunting Permit.” Along with these trucks I’d see the token Toyota Prius cruising by with “Democrat 4 Life” and “Sure, You Can Trust the Government. Just Ask An Indian.”
Another percussion came from volunteering to teach poetry inside a juvenile detention center through a program called Poetry: Inside/Out. I’d often leave the class teary-eyed due to the stories of these young kids. My emotions weren’t so much about their crimes, though some had committed serious offenses, it was the stories behind their crimes. The broken homes, the hitchhiking, the being raped by gangs or family members or both, the having to identify a parent’s mutilated body. The experience grew my forthcoming book of poems, Until You Make the Shore, but it also seemed to grow the state’s political divide. Although no tax dollars were paid to us volunteers, people began to write letters to the editors of local newspapers and even send threatening emails about what a waste of time and tax dollars it was to teach poetry to these criminals, these “barbarians.”
Then, in my final poetry workshop as a graduate student, Professor Richard Siken furrowed the crease between his eyes. The eight of us students leaned in because we knew this look from him meant that he was about to drop some crazy wisdom. Then, for lack of a better description, Siken cauterized what I’d been feeling. To paraphrase:
Everything you do is political. To think it isn’t political is silly. The car you drive or don’t drive. The branded shirt you wear or don’t wear. The food you get from Safeway grocery or Trader Joe’s. Each makes its own political statement just the same as if you chose for it to make a statement. The fact that you are here, a poet in graduate school when all signs point to a collapsing economy, it’s absurdly and even radically political. Look at you all. You aren’t getting an MBA where you might at least have some potential of making money. You’re getting an MFA in poetry and when you finish your studies you’ll be released into the world with a degree that some people think hilarious and other people think worthless. Things in life do not need to be expressive in their politicalness to be political.
Months of mulling over his words turned to years and so it’s no surprise now that I’m in Thailand, or that I’m visiting sex trafficking shelters in Bangladesh or excited to retweet news from @IJMHQ or @ChildLaborCLC. I suppose my story of becoming an activist wasn’t so much because I thought Allen Ginsberg’s activism was awesome (I did and do) as it was the simple realization that I was an activist whether I wanted to be or not. It only made sense that if I was going to be driving something I mind as well take the wheel.
Now I want your stories. Are you an activist? How did this come to be? What cause do you work for, and why that one? What was the moment when you decided you had to take action? Have you ever made a mistake as an activist, funny or serious? I want to hear who you are and what you do and why.
All well-written perspectives, including those previously published, are welcome. The only formal instructions: your non-fiction pieces of 500-1500 words (give or take a few) must adhere to the Good Men Project Style Guidelines.
Submit and query at [email protected]