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***This is the fifty-eighth in a never-ending series called BACKSTORY OF THE POEM where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific poem and how the poet wrote that specific poem. All BACKSTORY OF THE POEM links are at the end of this piece.
#58 Backstory of the Poem
by Brian Burmeister
Can you go through the step-by-step process of writing this poem from the moment the idea was first conceived in your brain until final form? I started writing “Blockade” more than a decade ago. The humanitarian crisis in Darfur was at a fever pitch at the time, and the work of New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof, who widely covered the situation on the ground, really opened my eyes. The more I learned, the more I wanted to help.
I kept reading and reading.
Kristof’s articles became a gateway for me: there were so many great books raising awareness—The Devil Came on Horseback by Brian Steidle and Not on Our Watch by Don Cheadle and John Prendergast are incredible examples—and they all hit on the idea that the world doesn’t have to be like this. That was the first time I'd ever been moved to activism. And it was during that time I tried, also for the first time, using poetry as a medium to raise awareness for crucial issues.
This poem’s story is an amalgamation of many of the heartbreaking tales I’d heard or read coming out of that region and in other war-torn places on the African continent. It’s impossible, for instance, to watch Lisa F. Jackson’s documentary The Greatest Silence about the unfathomably widespread acceptance and application of rape as an inherent spoil of war in the Congo, and not simultaneously hate our world while still loving it so much you want to make it better. “Blockade” is very much inspired by that film and the brave women who shared their stories in it.
Many of the poems I wrote at that time tried to focus on one moment, one interaction, to tell a bigger story. I definitely wasn’t always successful in these aims, but my hope from the first word I typed of “Blockade” through the entire editing process, and on to today, was that the poem could spotlight some of the unforgivable systemic problems faced by victims around the world, while also recognizing the incredible bravery and humanity of those who have had some much taken from them yet still choose to risk even more in the name of justice. (Right: Brian Burmeister's writing space. Copyright permission granted by Brian Burmeister for this CRC Blog Post Only)
Were there any lines in any of your rough drafts of this poem that were not in the final version? And can you share them with us? One of my original intentions with “Blockade” was to have it function in an expository role at the start of a larger collection of poems. To this end, the first iteration of “Blockade” consisted of a poem in two halves: two distinct stories working in tandem to provide a foundation for the types of tragedies that live on long past the perpetrated violence. As I began assembling and arranging poems for what would become The Things We Did, All the Things that We Do, I made several tough choices and saw my vision repeatedly change. Amidst the other poems, I no longer felt the first half of “Blockade”—which was a found poem from the documentary film Darfur Now—added any content or themes which were missing elsewhere, and the immediate tone of powerlessness in that section was one I ultimately decided against. What was the first half of “Blockade” eventually became entirely removed from the poem.
The following is how “Blockade” once began:
This humiliation was started by the government.
Now we’re helpless.
I was shot.
I was shot in my leg and went to the government seeking help.
White doctors came to treat us
And the government said,
They came to treat us and the government said,
“You cannot help these people.”
Is between you and your Creator.
That is too much.
What do you want readers of this poem to take from this poem? My hope is that The Things We Did, All the Things that We Do helps not only raise awareness of important issues, but raises funds to support those whose lives have been permanently altered by war. To that end, I have pledged to donate 100% of my proceeds from the book to the World Food Programme, which did and continues to do great work for displaced persons around the world.
Has this poem been published before? And if so where? Yes, “Blockade” originally appeared in Verse Virtual alongside a few other poems in this series.
Anything you would like to add? I’d be remiss if I didn’t credit the influence and impact of poet and activist Heather Derr-Smith on my work. She was an invaluable mentor through the writing of “Blockade” and other poems in this collection. Her first book, Each End of the World, which is largely set in the aftermath of the Bosnian War and genocide, shaped my understanding of how poems can simultaneously work for effect in isolation and collectively, as well as awakened me to the power of poetry of witness.
We told the police what they did,
and the officers nodded,
They ripped our clothes,
we said. They made us walk
naked in front of all their men.
Their general smoked
as we walked,
and he smiled, too.
We told the police this,
kept talking, said the things our mothers
told us not to say.
These men we told, they nodded.
Their hands held paper,
and nothing would they write.
Thank you, they said and moved us away.
But do you know our names?
They placed their hands on our backs, pushed us away.
But do you know our names?
(“Blockade is inspired by and contains words from the documentary The Greatest Silence)
Brian Burmeister is an educator living in Iowa. While earning his MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University, he was President of Ames-ISU for Darfur. His debut collection of poetry, The Things We Did, All the Things that We Do is currently available for preorders from Finishing Line Press. For more information on him or his work, please visit his author website. He can be followed on Twitter @bdburmeister. (Left: Brian Burmeister in his writing space. January 10, 2019. Copyright permission granted by Brian Burmeister for this CRC Blog Post Only)
BACKSTORY OF THE POEM LINKS
001 December 29, 2017
Margo Berdeshevksy’s “12-24”
002 January 08, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher’s “82 Miles From the Beach, We Order The Lobster At Clear Lake Café”
003 January 12, 2018
Barbara Crooker’s “Orange”
004 January 22, 2018
Sonia Saikaley’s “Modern Matsushima”
005 January 29, 2018
Ellen Foos’s “Side Yard”
006 February 03, 2018
Susan Sundwall’s “The Ringmaster”
007 February 09, 2018
Leslea Newman’s “That Night”
008 February 17, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher “June Fairchild Isn’t Dead”
009 February 24, 2018
Charles Clifford Brooks III “The Gift of the Year With Granny”
010 March 03, 2018
Scott Thomas Outlar’s “The Natural Reflection of Your Palms”
011 March 10, 2018
Anya Francesca Jenkins’s “After Diane Beatty’s Photograph “History Abandoned”
012 March 17, 2018
Angela Narciso Torres’s “What I Learned This Week”
013 March 24, 2018
Jan Steckel’s “Holiday On ICE”
014 March 31, 2018
Ibrahim Honjo’s “Colors”
015 April 14, 2018
Marilyn Kallett’s “Ode to Disappointment”
016 April 27, 2018
Beth Copeland’s “Reliquary”
017 May 12, 2018
Marlon L Fick’s “The Swallows of Barcelona”
018 May 25, 2018
Juliet Cook’s “ARTERIAL DISCOMBOBULATION”
019 June 09, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher’s “Stiletto Killer. . . A Surmise”
020 June 16, 2018
Charles Rammelkamp’s “At Last I Can Start Suffering”
021 July 05, 2018
Marla Shaw O’Neill’s “Wind Chimes”
022 July 13, 2018
Julia Gordon-Bramer’s “Studying Ariel”
023 July 20, 2018
Bill Yarrow’s “Jesus Zombie”
024 July 27, 2018
Telaina Eriksen’s “Brag 2016”
025 August 01, 2018
Seth Berg’s “It is only Yourself that Bends – so Wake up!”
026 August 07, 2018
David Herrle’s “Devil In the Details”
027 August 13, 2018
Gloria Mindock’s “Carmen Polo, Lady Necklaces, 2017”
028 August 21, 2018
Connie Post’s “Two Deaths”
029 August 30, 2018
Mary Harwell Sayler’s “Faces in a Crowd”
030 September 16, 2018
Larry Jaffe’s “The Risking Point”
031 September 24, 2018
Mark Lee Webb’s “After We Drove”
032 October 04, 2018
Melissa Studdard’s “Astral”
033 October 13, 2018
Robert Craven’s “I Have A Bass Guitar Called Vanessa”
034 October 17, 2018
David Sullivan’s “Paper Mache Peaches of Heaven”
035 October 23, 2018
Timothy Gager’s “Sobriety”
036 October 30, 2018
Gary Glauber’s “The Second Breakfast”
037 November 04, 2018
Heather Forbes-McKeon’s “Melania’s Deaf Tone Jacket”
038 November 11, 2018
Andrena Zawinski’s “Women of the Fields”
039 November 00, 2018
Gordon Hilger’s “Poe”
040 November 16, 2018
Rita Quillen’s “My Children Question Me About Poetry” and “Deathbed Dreams”
041 November 20, 2018
Jonathan Kevin Rice’s “Dog Sitting”
042 November 22, 2018
Haroldo Barbosa Filho’s “Mountain”
043 November 27, 2018
Megan Merchant’s “Grief Flowers”
044 November 30, 2018
Jonathan P Taylor’s “This poem is too neat”
045 December 03, 2018
Ian Haight’s “Sungmyo for our Dead Father-in-Law”
046 December 06, 2018
Nancy Dafoe’s “Poem in the Throat”
047 December 11, 2018
Jeffrey Pearson’s “Memorial Day”
048 December 14, 2018
Frank Paino’s “Laika”
049 December 15, 2018
Jennifer Martelli’s “Anniversary”
O50 December 19, 2018
Joseph Ross’s “For Gilberto Ramos, 15, Who Died in the Texas Desert, June 2014”
051 December 23, 2018
“The Persistence of Music”
by Anatoly Molotkov
052 December 27, 2018
by Michael Farry
053 December 28, 2018
by Renuka Raghavan
054 December 29, 2018
by Gene Barry
055 January 2, 2019
by Larissa Shmailo
056 January 7, 2019
by Len Kuntz
057 January 10, 2019
by Camille T Dungy
058 January 11, 2019
by Brian Burmeister
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