October 18, 2016
It was overdue, but I surrendered to reading selected works of the 1950s Beat poets only weeks before I encountered slam poetry in 1980s Chicago. It was not difficult to draw comparisons between the two styles. Both seemed to fly from the pens of young writers motivated by events of their time, with political undercurrents that demanded to be spoken, if not roared, aloud.
Slam poetry relies on the spoken word. It is a product of competitive events where the artists employ rhetorical skills to capture the attention of their listeners, accomplishing this, in some cases, by discomforting their audience. When it comes to social issues and political themes, slam poets want to wake you up.
Daughter of the Marshall Islands
When I heard Marshallese poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner speak in Portland, Oregon, on September 29th, she seemed too polite—almost shy—to deliver a riveting call to action. She referenced slam poetry and gave some background on her adoption of the style following her years at Mills College and her inspired participation in the Poetry for the People program at the University of California, Berkeley. By the end of the evening it was clear that this writer speaks strongly for her generation, and will no doubt remain on the front line of arts activism.
Tell Them We Are Whispering Prayers
Jetnil-Kijiner wants to open the eyes of the world to climate change, before it is too late. Her poem Tell Them pleads with the world community to recognize the plight of island nations, and denies that resident relocation is a viable solution to rising sea levels. World leaders believe that the earth can warm another 2 degrees before calamity occurs, but beyond 1.5 degrees the oceans will rise to a point that renders these Micronesian islands uninhabitable. As the sea begins to wash over the land it claims the history, traditions, and identity of the indigenous people.
tell them we are descendants
of the finest navigators in the world
tell them our islands were dropped
from a basket
carried by a giant
but most importantly tell them
we don’t want to leave
we’ve never wanted to leave
and that we
are nothing without our islands
United Nations Laureate
In the autumn of 2014 Jetnil-Kijiner was selected from 500 applicants to speak at the United Nations Climate Summit in New York. The committee referred to her as a Climate Change Poet and tasked her with writing a new poem. She was given two weeks to “write a poem that will save the world.” (She stifled a nervous laugh.)
She admitted it was difficult, if not daunting, to think of what to say in front of the United Nations, but much easier to find the necessary words when she imagined speaking directly to her newborn child, Matafele Peinam. The resulting poem Dear Matafele Peinam received a standing ovation.
they say you, your daughter
and your granddaughter, too
will wander rootless
with only a passport to call home
no one’s drowning, baby
no one’s moving
no one’s losing their homeland
no one’s gonna become
a climate change refugee
or should I say
no one else
Paris Conference • Taking It to the Street
Now in the international spotlight, Jetnil-Kilijner welcomed an opportunity to take part in the 2015 Paris climate conference (COP21). This time she took her poetry to the street, with a slam poetry style that had sharpened its edge.
People of Color on the Front Line
Former Oregon congresswoman JoAnn Hardesty served as MC for the September Portland event. An inspiring speaker, now president of the NAACP Portland chapter, she plainly stated that people of color are positioned at the forefront of environmental issues like climate change. Who knows better, she asked, than people of color, who are more likely to live without access to clean water, and who find fast food more available in their communities than a basket of strawberries?
Jetnil-Kijiner has become keenly aware of her role in the broader indigenous community. She is strongly inspired by Dallas Goldtooth, a descendant of the Mdewakanton Dakota and Diné tribes, and the Spirit Camp Warriors (aka Water Protectors) who are fighting to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. The message of the Native Americans is akin to that of the Marshall Islanders—the world community must wake up to the urgency of accepting alternatives to fossil fuel. The quality of our water and the stability of our oceans depends on it.
Jetnil-Kijiner’s poem For the Dakota Water Protectors closes with these words:
You were meant
for a life pure enough
© 2016 Cynthia Albers, All Rights Reserved
All poetry, excerpts, and video performances © Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner
Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner is a Marshallese poet, writer, performance artist, and journalist. She has used her poetry to raise awareness of the struggles of her island nation, including social justice issues and forced migration. Raised and educated in Hawaii, she studied at Mills College and the University of California, Berkeley. She currently serves as Pacific Studies instructor at the College of the Marshall Islands. Her book, Poems from a Marshallese Daughter, will be published by University of Arizona Press. Poems of a Marshallese Daughter and visit Kathy’s website
Next: Poet Ruth Thompson