Not Apologizing: On the Role of Art in the Referendum

“We’ve covered the stage in flowers and lights,” the emcee says, “because we want our poets to feel appreciated in this space. The way you’d decorate your house before the arrival of a cherished guest.” I’m at a Poetry Marathon for Repeal. The room is small but packed. Many people in the audience have been tirelessly canvassing and campaigning for weeks; here they can still participate in activism, but in a warm, supportive, and restorative environment. It is a space for healing. It is a space for friends to convene. “When female poets bring politics into their work,” the emcee notes, “they are expected to do it in the most apologetic way possible.” Tonight is about rejecting that expectation.

Fifteen female, trans, and gender non-conforming poets read their work. Their poems are funny, angry, whimsical, melancholy, political, contemplative, and hopeful. Listening to these voices, I was reminded of one of my favorite pieces of writing, and one to which I return again and again, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” by Audre Lorde. In it, she argues that “poetry is not a luxury” for women, but rather “a vital necessity of our existence,” because writing poetry allows women to shape their emotions first into words, and from words into action. For Lorde, emotions have profound political power: “within structures defined by profit, by linear power, by institutional dehumanization, our feelings were not meant to survive. Kept around as unavoidable adjuncts or pleasant pastimes, feelings were meant to kneel to thought as we were meant to kneel to men. But women have survived. As poets.” The fifteen poets who read in this marathon spoke from a place of vulnerability and deep feeling, but, rather than apologizing for what they felt, they channeled these emotions into powerful critiques of Irish society and hopeful visions for what a more equal Ireland might look like.

This poetry marathon represents everything I will miss about Dublin when my Mitchell year comes to an end. People who care deeply about their country and each other. People who make daring art and create platforms for their fellow artists to share their work with a wider audience. Women who lead grassroots initiatives to fight for their bodily autonomy and men who support them, quietly but wholeheartedly, with warmth and active listening.

I don’t know which way the referendum will go. But I do know that, even if the pro-choice movement does not succeed in this present moment, it will not have been for nothing. My studies of American and Irish history have taught me that it takes decades for profound societal change to take place, and progress never occurs without its setbacks. Whether or not it achieves its goal in this referendum, this movement has brought new art, new ideas, and new communities into existence, and has carved out space for them in the public sphere. These are meaningful achievements in and of themselves. The Irish discourse on women’s rights has pivoted on a social and cultural level, and I believe there is no going back. Whether or not the Eighth Amendment is repealed this month, I am optimistic that future generations will learn about this movement, and will read the words of these poets or other young Irish artists from this moment. I have faith that the art will endure long after May 25.

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