The Power of Poetry

Poets resist anti-immigration laws with defiance, beauty, and social media


| November-December 2011



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Tim Gough / www.timgough.org

This is a story about one of the newest forms of communication—social media—and one of the oldest—poetry—and how the two joined forces for social change.

On April 20, 2010, nine students chained themselves to the Arizona state capitol building to protest Arizona’s new anti-immigrant legislation, SB 1070. Their slogan: “We are chained to the capitol just like our community is chained by this legislation.” While others chanted and gave speeches, the nine students sat silently and with dignity as police officers cut the chains and arrested them. Of course their protest was posted on YouTube, and when a friend sent the link to Francisco X. Alarcón, a prize-winning poet and professor at the University of California–Davis, Alarcón responded as poets have for millennia when they witness acts of courage in the face of oppression: He wrote a poem.

Alarcón posted “For the Capitol Nine” to his Facebook page, addressing the young people directly: “you . . . / chain yourselves / to the doors / of the State Capitol / so that terror / will not leak out / to our streets. . . / your courage / can’t be taken / away from us / and put in jail / you are nine / young warriors / like nine sky stars.”

So many “friends” and “friends of friends” responded to the poem that Alarcón decided to create a Facebook group and invite other poets to post poems on the subject.

The word went out over Facebook and Twitter and poet to poet, so that by August 2011 “Poets Responding to SB 1070” included more than 1,200 poems by prominent and emerging poets from all over the country and around the world. Eight volunteer moderators now manage the site, keeping up with submissions and choosing poems for a weekly feature on La Bloga, the Latino literary blog. They also are preparing a hard-copy anthology.

The site has received more than 600,000 hits, and dozens of readers comment on poems. “For me,” says Alarcón, “our poetic project is almost a digital return to the directness of the oral tradition. How many books or poetry anthologies could claim 600,000 visits?”