Poetry: Perspectives and Responsibilities

What are the responsibilities we, as poets face? Documenting history and being non-judgmental are paramount in maintaining humanity. How can we write without editorializing? Whether one writes a poem about those who died in their quest for the summit of Mount Everest or about a five year old Cambodian prostitute, The Tree Man (Dede Koswara), who has growths covering his entire body due to an over abundance of HPV, or Christopher McCandless, the young man known as Alexander Supertramp from Into The Wild, it is up to the writer to accurately portray his/her subjects. Of course, one brings emotions into whatever he/she writes about; in fact this is a necessary part of writing. One must, however, honor and respect one’s subjects.

Many people remain voiceless while countless others died and are dying because of their opinions, which intimidated governments and those in charge. Often, they were killed for their writing; tortured, imprisoned, even murdered. By writing about atrocities, they took risks which many times signed their death warrants.

As a Western woman, I have little to worry about. Whether I write about indigenous people in the Northern Kalahari Desert, or about my views on the Iraq War, I need not worry about my safety. Perhaps people will not be interested in my subjects, and I may not sell my work, but I can go about my daily life without fear of repercussions.

Cesar Vallejo, for example, put his life in jeopardy for his beliefs. He spoke out, and he wrote about injustices he saw. He was murdered for this. May Swenson, a lesbian ahead of her time, was able to write about her love of women, her beliefs, because she wrote in what many see as code. She wrote about the natural world and love without seeing them as mutually exclusive. What if she had written openly about being a lesbian?

Photojournalists round the globe document the lives of others. Some would argue that it’s wrong to take pictures of people in war, famine, and other horrific situations. By documenting the stories of those who are not seen, I would argue that this is the opposite of exploitation. The photos of a five year old Cambodian prostitute, a Java sulfur mine worker at the top of a dormant volcano, or a man about to be shot in Darfur, are people the world needs to be aware of in order for change to be made.

As a writer, I assimilate the information I take in, and I have a choice as to what I want to do with it. I may write about my own life, or perhaps, a scenic moment on a little island off the coast of Maine. I, however, at anytime, can choose to write about the little girl in a brothel in Cambodia, a prisoner in Latin America about to be burned alive, or genocides taking place round the world. The little girl, the prisoner, they remain imprisoned while I can walk away.

I can only bring forth the information and thoughts I view and write about my beliefs and hope the world will open up and change.

Here is an example of a poem I wrote after seeing a photo of a Cambodian prostitutes taken by a photojournalist who worked for National Geographic. He wanted to free them, but a fifteen-year-old boy with a gun made that impossible. Instead, the photographer took pictures, which were used in a story called Sad Little Girls by Susan McClelland.


Sold for five dollars; given drugs to make them jump like monkeys in a cage–the foreigners are turned on by this; go crazy for it. Girls as young as five run up to the men on the streets and say; Mister, want some yum yum? They have sleep in their eyes and don’t understand. Mister, want some yum yum? I will not think of my father, who married a Cambodian woman. Mister, want some yum yum? I will not think of him. Mister, want some yum yum? I jump like a monkey.

© Justin Guariglia

“Cambodia” was first published in failbetter: www.failbetter.com

Erika Lutzner

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