The Hill We Climb

Amanda Gorman at the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, January 20, 2021.

— Amanda Gorman, January 20, 2021

Amanda Gorman was named the first National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017. Raised in West L.A., Gorman’s early worldview was shaped by her mother’s experience as a sixth-grade teacher in the (still, always) under-served community of Watts. Her work as an activist, which includes spoken word performances, poetry, children’s books, videos, and more, frequently emphasizes intersectionality, calling for unity even while celebrating our differences. “I feel it’s prudent to understand that to fight for one group of people is essentially to fight for all people,” she notes. “You can’t be against racism but anti-trans, just like you can’t be feminist and anti-black — they’re practically oxymorons! All communities are interwoven and affect each other, either directly or indirectly.”

[Research Note: Amanda Gorman]


— Imani Cezanne, National Poetry Slam, 2015

Imani Cezanne, originally from San Diego, is a poet, activist, and educator. Her spoken-word poetry is rooted in her experiences as a Black woman in the world, exploring race (see above), family (see above), violence (see above), injustice (see above), and protest (see above). She is the founding President of S.P.E.A.K. (Spoken Poetry Expressed by All Kinds), San Francisco State University’s first poetry-centered organization. She has won many Grand Slam Championships. She was the 2016 Women of the World Poetry Slam Co-Champion, and in March she became the 2020 Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion.

[Research Note: Imani Cezanne]

Not for Him the Fiery Lake of the False Prophet

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.
— Donald Trump, June 16, 2015

They woke him up by pissing in his face. He opened his mouth
to scream in Spanish, so his mouth became a urinal at the ballpark.

Scott and Steve: the Leader brothers, celebrating a night at Fenway,
where the Sox beat the Indians and a rookie named Rodríguez spun
the seams on his changeup to hypnotize the Tribe. Later that night,
Steve urinated on the door of his cell, and Scott told the cops why
they did it: Donald Trump was right. All these illegals need to be deported.

He was a Mexican in a sleeping bag outside JFK station on a night
in August, so they called him a wetback and emptied their bladders
in his hair. In court, the lawyers spoke his name: Guillermo Rodríguez,
immigrant with papers, crop-picker in the fields, trader of bottles
and cans collected in his cart. Two strangers squashed the cartilage
in his nose like a can drained of beer. In dreams, he would remember
the shoes digging into his ribcage, the pole raked repeatedly across
his cheekbones and upraised knuckles, the high-five over his body.

Donald Trump was right, said Scott. And Trump said: The people
that are following me are very passionate. His hands fluttered
as he spoke, a demagogue’s hands, no blood under the fingernails,
no whiff of urine to scrub away. He would orchestrate the chant
of Build That Wall at rally after rally, bellowing till the blood rushed
to his face, red as a demagogue in the grip of masturbatory dreams:
a tribute to the new conquistador, the Wall raised up by Mexican hands,
Mexican hair and fingernails bristling in the brick, Mexican blood
swirling in the cement like raspberry syrup on a vanilla sundae.
On the Cinco de Mayo, he leered over a taco bowl at Trump Tower.

Not for him the fiery lake of the false prophet, reddening
his ruddy face. Not for him the devils of Puritan imagination,
shrieking in a foreign tongue and climbing in the window
like the immigrant demons he conjures for the crowd.
Not even for him ten thousand years of the Leader brothers,
streaming a fountain of piss in his face as he sputters forever.

For him, Hell is a country where the man in a hard hat
paving the road to JFK station sees Guillermo and dials 911;
Hell is a country where EMTs kneel to wrap a blanket around
the shivering shoulders of Guillermo and wipe his face clean;
Hell is a country where the nurse at the emergency room
hangs a morphine drip for Guillermo, so he can go back to sleep.
Two thousand miles away, someone leaves a trail of water bottles
in the desert for the border crossing of the next Guillermo.

We smuggle ourselves across the border of a demagogue’s dreams:
Confederate generals on horseback tumble one by one into
the fiery lake of false prophets; into the fiery lake crumbles
the demolished Wall. Thousands stand, sledgehammers in hand,
to await the bullhorns and handcuffs, await the trembling revolvers.
In the full moon of the flashlight, every face interrogates the interrogator.
In the full moon of the flashlight, every face is the face of Guillermo.

— Martín Espada

Martín Espada’s published his first book of political poems, The Immigrant Iceboy’s Bolero, illustrated with photographs taken by his father, in 1982. His book of essays, Zapata’s Disciple (1998), was banned in Tucson as part of the Mexican-American Studies Program outlawed by the state of Arizona. Professor of English at UMass-Amherst, Espada was awarded the 2018 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.

[Research note: Poetry (November 2018)]

The Last of the Line of Refugee Descendants

You give the world indigestion, and some other problems.
Don’t force the ground to vomit,
and stay close to it, very close.
A fracture that can’t be set,
A fraction that can’t be resolved
or added to the other numbers,
so you give rise to a certain confusion in global statistics.

Being a refugee means standing at the end of the queue
to get a fraction of a country.
Standing is something your grandfather did, without knowing the reason.
And the fraction is you.
The country: a card you put in your wallet with your money.
Money: pieces of paper with pictures of leaders.
Pictures: they stand in for you until you go back.
Going back: a mythical creature that appears in your grandfather’s stories.
Here endeth the first lesson.
The lesson is conveyed to you so that you can learn the second lesson, which is “what do you signify?”

On the Day of Judgment, they stand naked,
and you swim in the spillage from the cracked sewage pipes.
Barefoot — that’s healthy for the feet
but unhealthy for the ground.

For your sake we will set up rostrums and hold conferences,
and the newspapers will write about you in the appropriate manner.
A new formula has been developed to eliminate recalcitrant dirt,
and at only half the price.
Hurry to buy up half the amount,
because the water shortage is very acute.

Serious negotiations
are underway to provide ashes for free so that you won’t choke,
without affecting the right of trees to live on Earth.
Learn how to avoid using up all your ash allowance in one go.

They taught you how to lift your head up
so that you can’t see the dirt on the ground.
They taught you that your mother is the Earth.
And your father?
You’re looking for him to confirm your lineage.
They taught you that your tears are an extravagant waste of water.
And water . . . as you know!

It’ll be a good idea to get rid of you,
because the Earth would look better without you.

Children are like sparrows,
but they don’t build nests in dead trees.
And the U.N. agency isn’t responsible for planting trees.

Use yourself as a bargaining card,
as a piece of paper with a poem on it, a piece of toilet paper,
a piece of paper for your mother to light the stove
and bake some loaves.

The weather forecast:
The sun is lying in bed because it has a temperature.

The bones, clothed in flesh and then with skin.
The skin gets dirty and gives off a horrible smell.
The skin burns and is affected by supernatural factors.
Take yourself as an example.

Don’t give up hope.
Take heart from the exile from which you are fleeing!
This is intensive training for living in Hell
and in your harsh conditions.
My god, is Hell somewhere on Earth?

The prophets have gone into retirement
so don’t expect any prophet to be sent your way for your sake.
For your sake the observers submit daily reports
and are paid high salaries.
How important money is
for the sake of a decent life!

Abu Said’s felafel are exposed to contamination
and the dispensary is announcing that the inoculation campaign is ending
so don’t worry about your children being contaminated
as long as the dispensary is there.

Live coverage of the proceedings of the beauty contest.
That girl looks good in her bikini,
and that one has rather a large bottom.
Breaking news: Sudden Rise in the Number of Deaths
From Smoking.
The sun is still a source of light
and the stars are peeping in at you, because your roof needs

An argument at the taxi depot:
“We don’t have enough passengers to leave yet.”
“But my wife is in labour.”

“This is her tenth pregnancy. Hasn’t she learnt anything? There are reports warning of random population growth. Random — that’s the word I’ve been looking for for ages. We’re living in a random world. We’re multiplying and our children stand naked. Sources of inspiration for film-makers, or for discussion around the table at the G8. We are small people but they can’t live without us. For our sake some buildings have fallen down and some railway stations have been blown up. Iron is liable to rust. For our sake there are plenty of picture messages. We are actors who don’t get paid. Our role is to stand as naked as when our mothers gave birth to us, as when the Earth gave birth to us, as the news bulletins gave birth to us, and the multi-page reports, and the villages that border on settlements, and the keys my grandfather carries. My poor grandfather, he didn’t know that the locks had changed. My grandfather, may the doors that open with digital cards curse you and may the sewage water that runs past your grave curse you. May the sky curse you, and not rain. Never mind, your bones can’t grow from under the soil, so the soil is the reason we don’t grow again.

Granddad, I’ll stand in for you on the Day of Judgment, because my private parts are no strangers to the camera.
Do they allow filming on the Day of Judgment?

Granddad, I stand naked every day without any judgment, without anyone needing to blow any last trump, because I have been sent on in advance. I am Hell’s experiment on the planet Earth.

The Hell that has been prepared for refugees.

— Ashraf Fayadh
(Trans. by Jonathan Wright)

Palestinian-born Ashraf Fayadh was arrested by Saudi religious police in August 2013 and charged with cursing Allah and the prophet Muhammad, insulting Saudi Arabia, and promoting atheism. He was released on bail, but was rearrested on January 1, 2014. On November 17, 2015, he was sentenced to death by beheading for heresy. In February 2016, his death sentence was commuted and he was sentenced to eight years in prison and 800 lashes.

[Research note: Ashraf Fayadh, Instructions Within (Brooklyn: The Operating System, 2008); Ben Hubbard, “Saudi Court Spares Poet’s Life but Gives Him 8 Years and 800 Lashes,” New York Times (February 6, 2016)]

The Sobbing School

is where I learned to brandish the black like a club
you know, like a blunt object, or cobalt flashes of strobe
dotting damp walls after dusk drops the dark motion
our modern world can’t hold. There’s a process
by which bodies blend in, or don’t, or die, or roll on
past the siren’s glow so as not to subpoena the grave.
Mama never said surviving this flesh was a kind
of perverse science, but I’ve seen the tape,
felt the metal close & lock around my wrists, witnessed
bone bisected by choke hold. A crow turns crimson
against the windshield & who would dare mourn
such clean transition, the hazard of not knowing
you are the wrong kind of alive. But enough
about extinction. Entire towns mad with grief, whole
modes of dreaming gone the way of life before lyric,
all faded into amber & archive, all dead as the VCR,
all buried below the surface where nothing breaks, bleeds.

— Joshua Bennett

American poet and performance artist Joshua Bennett studied English and Africana Studies as an undergraduate at University of Pennsylvania before earning his Ph.D. from Princeton University.

The Sobbing School was inspired by the words of Zora Neale Hurston: “I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. . . . No, I do not weep at the world — I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”

[Research note: Joshua Bennett, The Sobbing School (Penguin Books, 2016)]


Odd to be half-Mexican, let me put it this way
I am Mexican + Mexican, then there’s the other half
To say Mexican without the half, well it means another thing
One could say only Mexican
Then think of pyramids — obsidian flaw, flame etchings, goddesses with
With flayed visages claw feet & skulls as belts — these are not Mexican
They are existences, that is to say
Slavery, sinew, hearts shredded sacrifices for the continuum,
Quarks & galaxies, the cosmic milk that flows into trees
Then darkness
What is the other — yes
It is Mexican too, yet it is formless, it is speckled with particles
European pieces? To say colony or power is incorrect
Better to think of Kant in his tiny room
Shuffling in his black socks seeking out the notion of time
Or Einstein re-working the erroneous equation
Concerning the way light bends — all this has to do with
The half, the half-thing when you are a half being



How they stalk you & how you beseech them
All this becomes your lifelong project, that is
You are Mexican. One half Mexican the other half
Mexican, then the half against itself.

— Juan Felipe Herrera

The son of Mexican migrant workers, United States Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera grew up in the agricultural areas of the San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys. As a young man, he became involved street and spoken-word performances as part of the Civil Rights movement. After graduating from high school in San Diego, he earned a B.A. in Social Anthropology from UCLA, a Masters in Social Anthropology from Stanford, and an MFA from the University of Iowa. He is a Professor Emeritus of Creative Writing at UC-Riverside and CSU-Fresno.

[Research note: Juan Felipe Herrera, “Half-Mexican,” Notes on the Assemblage (San Francisco: City Lights Book, 2015), pp. 87]

Minidoka, Idaho

In Minidoka
I ordered a pair of white
majorette boots
with tassels from
Montgomery Ward
and swaggered in
ankle deep dust.

I heard
bullsnakes were sprinkled
along the edges
to rid of us dread
A few of their orphans
hatched and escaped behind
barbed wires
befriended by boys
with mayonnaise jars.

Let them go I said to Joe
they will poison us.
But they are lost, and see? Blind
Joe said.
We rescued them
from the bullies.

— Mitsuye Yamada

Mitsuye Yamada was born in Japan and moved with her family to Seattle when she was three years old. Her father was the founder and president of the Senryu (Japanese 17-syllable poetry) Society in Seattle. Mr. Yamada was arrested, accused of being an enemy of the state, on December 7, 1941. In 1942, Mitsuye was imprisoned with her family in the Minidoka internment camp in Idaho.

[Research notes: Camp Notes and Other Writings (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press: 1976), p. 18]

With A Lantern of Hope

Drifted in by tidal waves
with hugs of attachment
on the shore of the North Sea
a poem from Burma washed up.

No sun, no moon, can be seen
on the Norwegian beach.
Wearing the robe of mist
going up the Scandinavian mountain
with a shaken, broken voice
singing a home-sick song.

I will surely arrive at some point.

Though our homeland is under darkness
it will be short-lived.

Soon in the sky
dull darkness will clear,
a brightly coloured dawn
will arrive.

A journey of ten years
as short as a snap of the fingers.

A poem
will pack treasure
enter the village gate
greet ‘hello’
a chance to hug the public.

But now . . . atop a snow-covered mountain
while hoping for the light
singing homesick songs
lighting up a lantern of hope,
to keep singing of what I miss.

— Tin Moe
(Trans. by Wai Yan Phone, Violet Cho and David Gilbert)

Poet Tin Moe was active in the Burmese democracy movement and became a member of the National League of Democracy after the August 1988 uprising. As a result of his political activities, he was held for six months without charge in 1991 before being incarcerated in the Insein prison for four years. He was not given any reading or writing materials during his imprisonment. He escaped Myanmar in 1999 and received political asylum in the United States in 2000.

[Research note: Tine Moe, Kabya paung choat-1999 (A Collection of Tin Moe’s Poems — 1999) (Blacktown, Australia: Alinga Publishing House, 2004); Sean O’Brien, “Bones Will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets – review,” Guardian (February 8, 2018)]

When It Happened

I was playing, I suppose,
when it happened.
No sound reached me.
The skies did not darken,
or if they did, one flicked
away the impression:
a cloud no doubt, a shadow perhaps
from those interminable aeroplanes
crossing and recrossing
our sunbleached beaches, Carbis Bay
or the Battery Rocks, where
all summer long we had dived
and cavorted in and out of
the tossing waters, while
the attention of the adults,
perpetually talking,
seemed focused,

No sound reached me
when it happened
over there on that
complicated frontier
near Geneva. (Was the sun
shining there too?)
I did not hear you cry out,
nor feel your heart thump wildly
in shock and terror. ‘Go back,’
they shouted, those black-clad figures.
‘Go back. You are not permitted to cross.’
Did the colour drain from your face?
Did your legs weaken?
‘You are under arrest,’ they barked.
‘Go back and wait.’ Back to the
crowd waiting for the train, the train. . .East?
Did you know what it meant?
Did you believe the rumours?
Were you silent? Stunned? Angry?

Did you signal to them then,
When it happened?
To the welcoming committee
one might say, on the other
side of the border.
To your husband and his friends
just a few yards away,
there, beyond the barbed wire,
beyond the notices saying,
‘Illegal refugees will be shot.’
They called across, they said,
‘Run, jump, take the risk,’
the frontier is such a thin line,
the distance so short between you and us,
between life and death,
(they said afterwards).
How was it you lacked
the courage (they said
afterwards, drinking tea).

No sound whatsoever disturbed me
when it happened.
I slept well. School
was the same as usual.
As usual I went swimming,
or raced down the hill
on my scooter or on foot
laughing with friends.
Often at night
in the dark of my bed,
I would hear the trains being
shunted down at the station,
their anguished whistling
stirring my imagination
drawing me towards oblivion.
At last, no more embarrassing letters
arrived in a foreign language
witnessing my alienation
from the cricketing scene.

Distracted and displaced
when it happened
I did not hear you ask
which cattle truck to mount,
nor, parched in the darkened
wagon, notice you beg for
a sip of water. On the third day,
perceiving the sound of Polish voices,
I did not catch you whisper to your neighbour,
‘It is the East. We have arrived.’
Nor, naked and packed tight
with a hundred others
did I hear you choking
on the contents of those well-known
canisters marked ‘Zyklon B Gas’
(It took twelve minutes, they say.)
I was not listening
when it happened.

Now I hear nothing else.

— Hilda Schiff

Hilda Schiff arrived in the United Kingdom as a seven year old school girl, sent from Germany with her sister Gitti (Gisela) on a Kindertransport in February 1939. In London, she was separated from her sister and was eventually evacuated to Penzance. Schiff’s father escaped Germany to Switzerland and survived the war. Hilda Schiff’s book, Holocaust Poetry, grew from her efforts to learn the exact circumstances of her mother’s death during the war. Schiff died before she could publish the book she was writing about her mother and the Holocaust.

[Research note: Hilda Schiff, Ed., Holocaust Poetry (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995)]

Claudette Colvin Goes to Work

Another Negro woman has been arrested and thrown into jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus and give it to a white person. This is the second time since the Claudette Colbert [sic] case. . . . This must be stopped.
— Boycott Flier, December 5, 1955

Menial twilight seeps the storefronts along Lexington
as the shadows arrive to take their places
among the scourge of the earth. Here and there
a fickle brilliance — lightbulbs coming on
in each narrow residence, the golden wattage
of bleak interiors announcing Anyone home?
or I’m beat, bring me a beer.

Mostly I say to myself Still here. Lay
my keys on the table, pack the perishables away
before flipping the switch. I like the sugary
look of things in bad light — one drop of sweat
is all it would take to dissolve an armchair pillow
into brocade residue. Sometimes I wait until
it’s dark enough for my body to disappear;

then I know it’s time to start out for work.
Along the Avenue, the cabs start up, heading
Toward midtown; neon stutters into ecstasy
as the male integers light up their smokes and let loose
a stream of brave talk: “Hey Mama” souring quickly to
“Your Mama” when there’s no answer — as if
the most injury they can do is insult the reason

you’re here at all, walking in your whites
down to the stop so you can make a living.
So ugly, so fat, so dumb, so greasy —
What we have to do to make God love us?
Mama was a maid, my daddy mowed lawns like a boy,
and I’m the crazy girl off the bus, the one
who wrote in class she was going to be President.

I take the Number 6 bus to the Lex Ave train
and then I’m there all night, adjusting the sheets,
emptying the pans. And I don’t curse or spit
or kick and scratch like they said I did then
I help those who can’t help themselves,
I do what needs to be done . . . and I sleep
Whenever sleep comes down on me.

— Rita Dove

Claudette Colvin in 1953. Image courtesy: The Visibility Project / Claudette Colvin

Rita Dove, former Poet Laureate of the United States, wrote this poem about Claudette Colvin, a fifteen-year-old high school student from Montgomery, Alabama. On March 2, 1955, as Colvin was on her way to school at Booker T. Washington High School, the bus driver demanded she give up her seat so a white woman could take it. Colvin refused to get up and was subsequently dragged off the bus and sent to an adult detention center. She was eventually convicted in juvenile court of disturbing the peace, violating the segregation law, and assault.

[Research note: Rita Dove, On the Bus with Rosa Parks (New York: W. W. Norton & Co.), p. 79]