Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.
-- Audre Lord
On February 8, the women of color poets of Ypsilanti-based Untold Stories of Liberation & Love gathered to talk about our vision for 2020. What were Untold Stories members yearning to be, do, and create this year? In what ways did members want to move forth our mission of amplifying and strengthening local women of color’s creative courage and leadership? Priorities such as community workshops and a podcast emerged, along with a deep yearning for more connection and a powerful theme that made us cheer. In 2020 Untold Stories would tell the world that “Our Stories Did Not Begin With Pain.” Now more than ever, we would lead with healed power for a future grounded in ancestral legacies of love and resilience.
One month later all of us were huddled, separately, in our apartments and houses, under Michigan’s shelter in place order. As members lost work or held down jobs online with children stuck inside all day, and scrambled to find masks and toilet paper, the death toll rose highest and fastest in our own Black and Brown communities, where the structures of racism threaten our lives each day.
When COVID hit, all our plans and poems seemed irrelevant. But as the weeks wore on, the need for community and space to name our realities grew urgent. The idea of a shared shelter-in-place poetry project was born.
On March 15 I sent a writing prompt to every Untold Stories member, inviting them to write, using a line from Native American poet Joy Harjo, “Perhaps the world ends here…”, as a place to start. For ten weeks the prompts continued, with Untold Stories poets producing more than 30 new poems and creating a long-overdue website to share our work with the public.
One of the poems generated from the first prompt was “Aunties” by Nuola Akinde, where she writes of her need for community:
I’ve lived enough to know
That I don’t know enough
to help us survive this
The second week’s prompt, echoing Black poet Audre Lorde’s words, “We lay a bridge across our fears…”, sparked Ugbaad Keynan’s poem “We Lay a Bridge Across Our Fears”, which describes finding present-day strength in the legacy of Black ancestors:
Because this bridge built over fire and flame
Which is mean to consume and destroy
Has carried those before me
And they are free now
And I can be too
With one painful step
That burns my flesh and rips the breath out of my lungs
And a second step whose pain I'm prepared for
By April, we were in our fifth week of prompts, with “Before you know what kindness really is…” from Arab American Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Kindness.” Erika Murcia offered these words from her poem, “Faithful Humility”, recalling her experience as a child in wartime El Salvador.
Holding hands as we
formed a circle to pray
so the bombing
in the mountains
in front of
would be stopped
Natalie Diaz’ poem, Grief Work, provided a prompt in May, which led Erica B. Edwards to write of pain and hope in her poem, “A Movement”,
Legs planted still in the uncertainty of uncertainty
Trusting that everything is occurring
as it should
While you quake and (re)member to breathe
Even in the face of death
By June, our experience with COVID’s horrific racial inequities fused with our outrage at relentless brutal racial injustice in the police murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Tony McDade. Untold poets like Desiraé Simmons took to the streets where they shared poems echoing the prompt “A thousand less police…” from California poet/activist Maria Poblet. In her poem, “Thousands March Forward”, Simmons writes,
in the land of abundance there is always more
it is our charge to remove what was never needed
what i know to be true is more love feels best
the less we see ourselves as divided
the more connected we are to why what is
was never good enough, not in a thousand years
Today, as the pandemic surges once again, Untold Stories continues, perhaps stronger than ever. Reflecting on the pandemic prompts, Erika Murcia writes, “My experience with Untold's COVID poetry project was a creative process in which I felt connected and rooted in collective love. This process meant an opportunity to stay present to my own daily truths as the pandemic unfolds every day.” The project’s impact spanned beyond our members; for example, a teacher at University of Michigan School of Social work is using our poems and the Untold Stories website in the curriculum for her social justice course, asking her students read our work and use the prompts to write their own "pandemic poems." In the fall, Untold Stories will take to the air with a new podcast hosted by Desiraé Simmons.
Poetry has always provided a deep source of power and wisdom in the darkest times. We pray that the words of Untold Stories poets continue to generate warmth and light in our world.
Julie Quiroz is the editor of the anthology Untold Stories of Liberation & Love, a book of poetry by Ypsilanti-based women of color. Stay tuned for her next entry in our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19 is impacting the nonprofit sector--and how they are innovating. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.ACT.