Poetry as Penumbra in the Midst of Political Upheaval (and meet our new intern!)

Managing Editor’s Note: Today we feature poet, essayist, and social justice activist Robbie Gamble. Robbie considers the purpose and function of poetry in the context of this year’s solar eclipse and political upheaval, writing that poetry can help us “explore the emotional nuances we are experiencing at the edge of all the chaos.”

First, read an introduction by our new intern, Anita Ballesteros. Anita comes to Solstice Magazine from Lesley University’s MFA program, where she studies fiction writing. As you’ll see, Anita has led a fascinating life full of travel, diverse experiences, education, and motherhood. Welcome Anita!


Anita Ballesteros–An Introduction

As a young child, having just turned eight, I moved to England from my native New York with my family, embarking on a childhood of travel and growing up in different cultures.  My father, a first-generation Spanish-American who grew up in Spanish Harlem and Brooklyn, was the first in his family to graduate from college, and gladly embraced every opportunity to travel that IBM presented to him.  My mother, a second-generation Jewish-American, was a housewife who married my father terribly young, and, true to the expectations of the era, followed him wherever his career took him.  My younger sister and I attended private British and French schools in England, Paris, and Portugal.  My parents would never have been able to afford such an education for us had we remained in the States.  I attended schools with a prince from Saudi Arabia, a refugee from Iran, the Italian daughter of a movie producer.  I also attended schools with “regular” kids, of which I was one, comparatively speaking, at school and at home.  That is, if you can call being an ex-pat a “regular” kid.

Lisbon, Portugal

My most formative years, my high school years, I lived in Portugal.  Now a booming country and part of the EU, when we moved there a few years after the Portuguese revolution in 1974, the Carnation Revolution.  Most of those with wealth had fled to Brazil and other countries, fearful of the democratic and socialist drumbeat that was the backlash against the authoritarian dictatorship that had ruled the country for decades.  From my privileged private-school viewpoint, my eyes were opened to a world that my parents had known and told me about but which I had never seen.  I lined up at the train station to buy my monthly pass behind dozens of locals who could only sign their names with an X.  Local public schools had minimal hours, the government was short on cash, and kids my age had no jobs and plenty of spare time to wander the streets.  Unemployment was high.  Shanty towns sprung up along the train tracks in empty lots, and I gazed out the windows with sorrow in my heart as I rode to school, or to join my friends in town, or to head to the beach.  I remember the day a man rang our doorbell and the maid who was included in our house rental answered, and then told my mother that he wanted to sell us his youngest child.  He ran a concession cart across the street from our large house just on the other side of the highway from the beach, and had severe epilepsy and could not afford another child on top of the six he already had.

When we returned to the US, I was almost seventeen and went straight to a small private college.  The culture shock was immediate and difficult.  Having spent my life surrounded by both privilege and poverty, discussions about politics and social responsibility, as well as an indescribable human diversity, I felt ill at ease in a nation that celebrated television and big cars and celebrities and football (the American kind).  I had missed the 70s here entirely, and it was now the 80s, with its excesses and Wall Street.  I was determined to pursue a career to benefit others and the public good, choosing science, and ultimately obtaining a PhD in Molecular Oncology.  I have toiled in research labs, worked in scientific publishing, and currently work to facilitate the development of scientific discoveries from university and non-profit laboratories in cancer research into treatments that will help the patients that need them.

I also raised two children, young adults now, of whom I am very proud, and whose minds are open and curious, accepting and tolerant, fiercely opinionated about right and wrong in the best sense possible.  In this spirit, I am enthusiastically embracing my own drumbeat for change.  The desire to write and to immerse myself in the world of writing has been calling to me for a very long time, since I put it aside to pragmatically pursue a scientific career.  It was this call that made me apply to and enroll in Lesley’s MFA program in Creative Writing focusing on Fiction.  The experience so far has opened my heart and mind in a way that it needed to be opened again.  My focus in my writing is one that I have been drawn to through my nomadic and multicultural life experiences, the questions of identity, who we are, why we are, what shapes us, and where we belong.

I am excited to be joining Solstice as an intern during its tenth year.  A literary journal that embraces diversity and social justice has the potential to create a much-needed voice in this day and age, and I am passionate about the breadth of possibilities such an endeavor presents.


Poetry as Penumbra in Political Times   

by Robbie Gamble

Writing poetry with an eye to the presently charged political atmosphere can be exhilarating and complicated. Emotions are raw all along the spectrum, and new personalities and controversies emerge almost daily, begging for commentary. Social media threads, TV talk shows, and editorial pages are crackling with outrageous statements, conjectures, charges, countercharges, counterpunches to the countercharges, and enough spin to make anyone dizzy. It’s captivating, exhausting, frequently depressing, and as a writer and poet who has long been involved in social justice movements, I am wondering more and more about where poetry fits into all of this.

I recently had a conversation with a friend, a wonderful lyrical poet who asked me for feedback on a draft of a poem he was working on that ventured into more explicitly “political” content than was customary in his writing. Much of the poem dealt with images and actions of a certain prominent statesman whom I will not name here. I found that the direct focus on this individual detracted from the intriguing emotional currents of the poem, because his character is so ubiquitous, so constantly in the media’s glare, that his presence nearly blinded me to the subtler gestures taking place in my friend’s piece. And this got me to thinking about how poetry can address the controversies of the present age in a manner distinct from all the jabber on the airwaves.

Our conversation took place soon after a solar eclipse ploughed a dark swath across the country this summer, to the fascination and awe of millions. I was not in the path of totality for this eclipse, but it brought back vivid memories of another one I experienced years ago when I lived in Ontario. As the celestial bodies lined up that summer afternoon, the air cooled and darkened, and everything seemed to come into a crisper focus. Birds settled to roost in the trees, and neighborhood dogs barked uneasily. When the totality was complete, I looked up to see the absence of the sun, and in its stead I saw the delicate rays of a corona spreading away from the blocked brilliance, with incredible ropes of shadow streaming earthward from all around the eclipse’s circumference, the penumbra. This strange and complex interplay between light and dark, right around the periphery of the sun, usually too blindingly familiar to consider, is indelibly imprinted in my memory.

And I think this is a role that poetry can play in this age of discord, setting up a shield to block out the bright and loud particulars of the characters and events of the day, in order to be able to explore the emotional nuances we are experiencing at the edge of all the chaos. This isn’t a new idea, but I do find useful the image of eclipse as a metaphor for this strategy, one that poets have used for ages to explore politically-charged subjects without staring at them straight on. I think of poems like Philip Levine’s “They Feed They Lion,” where he uses incantatory vernacular language to explore the rage of the African-American diaspora without naming it directly, or Wislawa Szymborska’s haunting “Hitler’s First Photograph,” where she coos and fawns over an adorable baby picture, leaving it to the reader to imagine how this infant will later shape history. I have tried my own penumbral poems: a monologue constructed completely out of monosyllabic words, in a manner that could have conceivably been delivered by the aforementioned statesman, and an erasure poem that takes words out of the Preamble to the Constitution in order to give it a chilling new message. There seem to be endless ways to explore this liminal world of corona and shadow in order to generate insights we can’t find on the nightly news feed.

I’ve been reflecting recently on a well-known quip by Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” There is a lot of bewildering talk and action going on; it can all seem overwhelming, and most of it I hope will be forgettable. But I also believe that poetry will necessarily help us to remember what we feel.


ROBBIE GAMBLE holds an MFA at Lesley University. He has poems out and forthcoming in the Naugatuck River Review, Poet Lore, Slipstream, and The Stonecoast Review. His essays have appeared in Writers Resist and on the MassPoetry website. When he is not trying to string words together, he works as a nurse practitioner caring for homeless people in Boston.

 

ANITA BALLESTEROS holds a PhD in Molecular Oncology from NYU and works in the Innovations office at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Originally from New York, daughter of a Spanish-American father and Jewish mother, her childhood was a nomadic adventure throughout Europe.  She continues to enjoy traveling domestically and globally to explore different cultures and the various facets of herself that she leaves behind in each place. Currently she is a third-semester student in the MFA program in Creative Writing at Lesley University, where she is focusing on Fiction, but she enjoys writing poetry and non-fiction as well. Anita is a proud single mom of a daughter and a son both in their 20’s, and lives just west of Boston, where she is learning how to empty-nest with her two cats, who are excellent writing companions.


Thank you to Pedro Szekely and @pfsuarez for the photos

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