I take my class to a writing workshop with Jimmy Santiago Baca in The Student Union Ballroom. Last Friday, campus closed early due to a visit from a right-wing racist and provocateur who will say anything for money. It’s all about the money. Yeah, Simon & Shuster $250 000 to snowball more hate. I won’t use his name, but he pissed off Twitter enough to be removed. You could not imagine a more horrible hypocrite. Well, maybe you can, maybe you can’t get them all off Twitter. The riot cops combed campus. Tanks. Yelling. Libraries closed early. Classes cancelled. All the weapons paid by taxes to protect ugly white noise.
Baca’s prompting the room to write politically and poetically. Full of rage, doubt, despair, ecstasy, hate—just tell it. Take the braces off your soul. I used to teach at Yale. I used to tell them to write freely and they couldn’t. They’d been trained too well. In this country no one likes political poets, all the other countries like political poets… I’ve been a Buddhist for 8 years. Every morning at 4:30 you’ll find me naked and chanting. My daughters tell me I should be put away. I just wrote Trainspotting II. I got the only waterfall in New Mexico and only convict who write poetry can stay there.
He asks the room to write about our president. Not my fucking president. Never. Fuck that fascist.
I’ve sworn to never use The Orange Monkey’s name. Go ahead, put me on the deportation train. Brighton sang it best yesterday. In the last few months my status as possible immigrant has transformed into migrant. I’m clear, at least today, when this MFA is done, so I am. Does university dilute your ability to express your raw feelings? Baca asks. Sometimes. Yes. No. I don’t know but I do know I watch my mouth too much and I will fight for peace and healthcare and education and a society without weaponry.
How do you write about someone leaving prison? Told what to do for so long, just stood there. Scared of freedom. Baca reads from his next novel, I knew I would rather die than suffer another day as an obedient silent. Poems can get to my experience. When I apply myself to my craft I see the embers spark. He riffs from the American Dream to low-rider culture, from Hollywood scripting to white appropriation. He’s not afraid to say anything and just when you think he’s gone off the rails, he reels it all back together with heart-wrenching verse…where each one contains an aspect of its own journey…
Baca is filling me and the ballroom with hope. No fear mongering. Every job contract should have the right to protest written in. We should get holidays to protest. We are living under a pure evil dictatorship and we need to stands up… When we see the evil, we need to oppose it. The line between hate speech and free speech has thinned. I want love speech. And Baca is spewing.
Saturday before last, I went to The Women’s March, downtown Albuquerque. Not a cop in sight. No guns. No tanks. The speeches and dances and spoken word performances were fiery, outraged, full of indignation and frustration. But there was an underlying sense of love and hope and inclusion. Count the weapons and you will know the difference between hate speech and free speech. At the women’s rally there was no need for tanks and SWAT teams. Not a soul arrested.
At least twice a week, I pass a man on campus holding a bible and preaching hate against LGBTQ community, against Muslims, against anything he is not. I see the waves of hate emanate, smoke rising from internal fire. Sometimes I walk too close. I feel his hate like a magnate pulling toward reaction. I fantasize, “hey bro, you know Zidane?” and step my forehead hard into the bridge of his nose, not chest, and listen to the back of his skull crack on the cement fountain. But no, inhale, this is not sport, this is life. Inhale again, I think of my Christian office-mate, classmate, friend, my Muslim students afraid to speak, my gay brothers who avoid certain bars, the women who are afraid to walk alone at night and I shake my head, inhale yes, always inhale, conjure Gandhi, MLK, Mandela, and that hard-working bus-driver who’s always smiling and helping and opening his heart. I walk right through hate trap. It takes restraint and training and I’m getting better with age. Violence can breed nothing good.
Free speech is good. But we need to be extremely vigilant with our attention and resist evil with all our power.