Writer in Residence

My issue with social justice poetry

By Dane Swan

We need to have this discussion. As the world becomes a more unstable place, with more incompetent leaders, more writers will be driven to write and perform politically-driven poetry. But, most social justice poetry is ... awful. It's bad. There's a reason why so few poets, whose work is primarily tied to social justice get published. Yes, part of it is tied to racism, but the primary reason is the quality of poetry produced.


Even good poets suck at writing protest poems. Often, we go to protests, poetry slams, or open mics and hear an alleged poet preach about something everyone in the audience agrees with. We listen, we clap, and then we forget what they said. Maybe you've been invited to read at a protest, or, you're submitting a poem to an anthology of like minded minds. You want your work to standout and be remembered. More importantly, you should want normal literary audiences to accept your work. As someone who has somehow convinced a publisher to publish two books filled with verse that explores race, social justice and human rights I feel uniquely positioned to lend my advice, as more writers feel motivated to share their bad poetry about what's wrong with the world.


Here are some simple tips:


1/ Study before you write: These poems need substance. You should know what you're talking about. Research isn't bound to books or websites – talk to people. Take in as much information as possible, from as many resources as possible. You should consider yourself a resource, not the singular source of information for your work. Furthermore, if you're poem, or piece, is to be spoken aloud study spoken word performances, famous speeches, legendary comedians. Don't steal their content, listen to their cadence, modulation of volume, how and when they ramp up their performances. No one wants to hear you scream at them for 3-5 minutes.


2/ Do not use safe language: Don't talk about multiculturalism. Talk about racism. Don't talk about women's rights talk about sexism. The people who read/listen to your work shouldn't feel good about themselves after they take it in. They should feel motivated. If you're writing for a poetry slam, that audience may reward you for making them feel better, but that diminishes your work. Are you trying to win a slam, or inspire people to act?


3/ Make it personal to the audience: You could tell me about the most heinous act ever, but unless you shape it in a way that makes me invest in the story, I will forget it. We all have dealt with tragedy. Why is this tragedy bigger than mine? Make it real to me. Give your listener new eyes. Your poem should follow them home.


4/ Use literary device and methodology: Just because something horrible happened to you, or you believe in something strongly, your audience shouldn't be subjugated to hearing your drivel. If it's not forced, rhymes are okay. Make it catchy – use rhythm, maybe some type of repetition of a line or theme. If you've properly studied successful speeches, spoken word pieces, etc it shouldn't be difficult to do so. Edit. Please, edit your work! Having a message is not an excuse for poorly constructed work.


5/ Edit your work: Let me repeat the above, “Having a message is not an excuse for poorly constructed work.” Seriously, why are there so many people who think, because they're on the right side of a debate, making their work lyrically tight and emotionally compelling is irrelevant? Do you want applause, or do you want cheers?


6/ Review your writing: After you've written the great poem/speech/short story that will motivate masses, ask yourself:


Is this a work of substance, or something to build up my own ego?

Will this motivate others to act?

Does the work take the listener/reader on a journey?

Emotionally, does the work have peaks and valleys, or does it just scream at the audience?

Is the quality of writing worse, on par, or above what I expect of myself when writing on other subjects?

Has this work been substantively edited, and shaped?


If you're new to writing about social issues, welcome to the club. You're probably going to suck, but like minded people will politely applaud your efforts. If we meet, I might even give you a hug. If your ego can handle the fact that you get support whether you suck, or not, and if you follow these six guidelines, eventually, people are going to cheer for you, instead of politely applaud. They're going to remember lines. You will motivate others. You might win people over to your side of the debate. And when we hug I'll tell you, “That was a very good poem.”

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Dane Swan is a Bermuda-raised, Toronto-based internationally published poet, writer and musician. His first collection, Bending the Continuum was launched by Guernica Editions in the Spring of 2011. The collection was a recommended mid-summer read by Open Book: Toronto. In 2013 Dane was short listed for the Monica Ladell Award (Scarborough Arts) for his poem "Stopwatch."