Defining Diversity and Why #Black Lives Matter is a Statement of Unity

Blog Editor’s Note: “Diversity” is a big word. To encourage diversity in the literary arts and beyond–even to begin a discussion about it–requires that we first define it and establish a common understanding around which we can rally. Then we can create ways to promote, engage in, and embrace its power.

Poet Kathleen Aguero explores this issue and more in her post below, “Verse and Diverse,” an account of a panel she moderated which featured our own Solstice editors. Read how difference can be “celebrated” and seen as “useful and edifying,” and why the phrase #Black Lives Matter means much more than we may think.

–Amy Grier, Managing Editor/Blog Editor

Verse and Diverse

The powerful grassroots movement, #BlackLivesMatter, is sometimes countered with the slogan “all lives matter.” Well, of course they do. That’s the point of #BlackLivesMatter—to demand we acknowledge the importance of lives, Black lives, too often treated as if they mattered not at all, with tragic results. So how do people of privilege and of whiteness learn to drop their defensive, “me, too. I matter too,” stance, as if respect and empathy were limited resources, and see themselves in relation to others? Why is diversity important? What does the term mean? And what role might a literary magazine play in constructing a space in which everyone can speak, be read, and engaged with?

To explore this question, I’d like to reflect on observations made by several Solstice Literary Magazine poetry editors on a panel I moderated, “Verse and Diverse Walk into a Bar: A Conversation with Solstice Editors on Diversity,” at this spring’s Massachusetts Poetry Festival.

Consulting poetry editor, Danielle Legros Georges offers a cogent definition of diversity:

Diversity is not the people of color or queer people. We do not bring ‘the diversity’ and are not in and of ourselves carriers of “diversity.’ Diversity implies a context; exists in a context in which difference is celebrated and is considered useful and edifying. White people have race and are part of diversity, not the encouragers of diversity.

That last part of her explanation is key. Neither literary nor civic diversity are matters of “noblesse oblige.” Diversity is the context of 21st century life in the U.S. and provides fertile ground for educational, creative, social, and, dare I say, spiritual, progress. The Solstice mission statement reads, in part, “probing into diversity can create unity.” If you believe, as these editors of Solstice do, that speaking your story and hearing the stories of others is one route to encouraging dialogue, then how do you establish a structure, for structural change is key, that promotes a variety of viewpoints and literary styles despite sometimes uncomfortable conversations?

Both Legros Georges, who edited a issue of experimental poetry for Solstice, and poetry editor Ben Berman point to the importance of rotating and guest editorships, challenging because such a structure invites disagreement but key in preventing a lock-step aesthetic. Legros Georges says, “It is a form of engaging a multiplicity of stances, aesthetics, voices—with the result of a more thoughtful, reflective, thought-provoking and rich landscape.”

“Form is content” the adage goes, or, as Marshall McLuhan put it, “The medium is the message.” Electronic, visual, and performance poetry provide a powerful means to enlarge the conversation and engage new participants. If we truly want to acknowledge diversity, we cannot ignore stories presented “off the page,” neither their content nor their presentation. My undergraduate students taught me the power of spoken word poetry in which the stories told about their lives are inextricable from the way they are told.

Serious literary citizens need to make space for both innovative writing and the ancient but newly reimagined form of oral poetry and put them in dialogue with the more canonical poem on the page. That way we can learn from what they have to say each other. As an online journal, Solstice has the ability to include spoken word poetry. Regie Gibson, video performance poetry editor, looks “for literary performers who recognize that, sometimes, the words, in and of themselves are not enough to conjure experience. Works that recognize the ultimate power of literature often has its greatest power and resonance when it is a visceral and immersive celebration of both the somatic and the cerebral.” Taking Walt Whitman’s democratic impulse as precedent, he wants to establish a forum that appeals to younger writers involving a wide variety of voices “in formats they will find of interest.”

In a general sense, all poetry attempts to translate one’s ideas and experience into language whether rendered on the page or in performance, and reading/listening to such work is an attempt to open oneself in order to understand and complete that act of translation. What is the specific importance then of translating texts from another language?

Poet and translation editor, Dzvinia Orlowsky, contends “Translation engages us in a way that allows us to experience the ‘other’ in our own language. It connects us to other people and cultures that we might not otherwise experience. Through translation we become connected to our humanity, our collective diverse human experience.” I would contend that diversity without such connection and engagement cannot reach its full creative and healing potential. To translate from a different language and cultural context, Orlowsky says, one must maintain “the style of the original text as best as possible; grasping its spirit and resisting having the translation sound like one’s own poetry.”

Perhaps shaping a space for diverse literary voices can help us hear a variety of voices and perspectives without having to wrench them to fit our own narrative. Then, when some of us hear, for example, the message, “Black lives matter,” we may be capable of replying, “Yes, they do. Let me act to make that truth evident.”

These days I sometimes feel despair about the enmity stirred up among peoples and about its deep structural roots. As a citizen and as a writer, I feel powerless to contribute to meaningful change. By forging a space for diverse voices to engage, these editors of Solstice are committing to a difficult, joyous and vibrant conversation that heartens me. Through their work I can begin to learn commitment to a connected world.

 


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