Healing words

Tim McKee

Photo by Larry Dalton

“Let us repeat again our message of peace/ Let us whisper into the giant’s ears/ that every drop of spit he exhales in hatred/ will come back to haunt him in hurricanes/ and our reminders will endure/ like the delicate paper/ that still flutters intact through New York skies/ while the hard steel/ that was meant to last for centuries/ settles as dust.”

—from “The Pages That Remain” by Tim McKee

Last week, while struggling to understand the violence and trauma that had erupted in my country, I read a poem titled “The Pages That Remain” distributed through an e-mail newsgroup. It was written by Sacramento poet Tim McKee in response to the tragedy. Moved by the verse, I invited him to share his ideas on the healing power of art in this time of confusion and sorrow.

What is poetry’s role in the world today?

I believe in the importance of contributing to the world and social justice. If one is really a writer and that’s their gift, there’s a responsibility to share because of the healing you can do with your words. If someone relates to you and feels less alone, that act does a lot in the world. To the poet who sits on secret notebooks I say, “Risk more!” Share with your mom or with your friend. Share that thing you wrote about them.

How did “The Pages That Remain” come about?

I felt it was important for me to let people know what I thought about what happened [on September 11]. Getting back to that poetic responsibility, with all of the uniform voices that we get from our mainstream storytelling, especially on TV, I believe it’s important for people to hear something different. Believe me, I was impressed with how sharp and untired [our leaders] were around the clock, but they essentially say the same thing. It’s the same thing I’ve been hearing since I was a kid and will probably always hear from them. I hear these tiny portals into truth that they don’t enter. So I felt like it was my responsibility to do that.

I personally needed to do it because, without writing, I get really confused and sometimes numb. The writing of that poem was a very emotional experience for me. It filled me with a beautiful feeling. Not because what I wrote about was positive, but because I found some resolution. I understood what I thought.

How can poetry guide America’s response to the tragedy?

The story that we’re told again and again, in this crisis, in other crises, in our movies, is that the way that humans are supposed to deal with grief is to transform it into anger, blame and hate. I believe that the hope for humanity is that we learn that doesn’t have to be the case. We’re trapped into thinking that we’re showing the degree of our grief by how much we hate whomever did it and how much we want to get back at them. But I think that, as humans, we can transform that grief into love. It’s our hardest work, but it’s the work that we’re here to do. It’s the most empowering thing you can do. I think we need to embrace every chance we have to do that and here we have this chance.

So, as a poet, I believe I have to talk about that to provide an alternative. People look to the media to know how to feel, especially in this confusing time, and they’re all being told the same lesson. When I was living in South Africa, I saw a whole population of Africans who had been oppressed for hundreds of years and I saw, with Mandela’s election, the forgiveness there. To see the outpouring of grief, but to see that not be transformed into hatred for the whites who’d done that to them—it changed me. I expected the Africans to be a lot more pissed than they were, but they were forgiving because they haven’t gotten into the trap of linking grief to hate. They have a concept called “ubumtu.” It means, “your humanity is tied into my humanity.”

I went to a rally yesterday which was part of making San Francisco a “hate-free zone,” meaning, “we’re going to respond to this with horror, with grief, with sympathy, but not with hate.” Spearhead [a Bay Area band] and other speakers led 10,000 people in transforming that grief into love. I came depressed, dark and not knowing how to feel. By loving each other and sending loving feelings to everybody in the world, I left feeling high.

How many times do we need to see that it’s circular? How many times do we need to see that warmongering in the face of injustice or tragedy just adds to the problem? And yet, it’s our default response. It’s mine, it’s yours, it’s human. But it’s just as human to overcome that, and until we understand that, I believe these situations will just keep coming. No matter how much money we spend, whether we “win” the war or not, until we make that click-over, we’re going to live in a cycle of retribution.

What is the role of poetry in politics?

If politicians and our leaders really spoke their hearts and didn’t spin things and repeat ridiculous cliches, if they spoke how they really felt—I would rather hear that than this party line that everyone’s towing. The second I hear any leader speak a little more truthfully, to me that’s poetry. My ear has an orgasm and my heart jumps, even if I don’t agree with what they’re saying. The problem starts when we masquerade as something else, and they’re all masquerading. None of them can really say what they think, but do they try? Do they push that envelope?

I would love to read my poem to Bush. It would be great to have an open mic shown on TV with poets’ responses to this, just to really get out the different truths. It would be so different, how everyone would respond, but at least they’d be real seeds verses these plastic trees.

Hey, that rhymed!