'Democracy Lessons'

Jennifer Karmin

Photo by Amanda Loch.
Note: This is our last Poetry and the 2020 Election post, opening the field to poets beyond our psychosm. We thank heartily the Hudson Valley poets who contributed to this effort, and Jacket2’s Kenna O’Rourke and Jessica Lowenthal for their continuous presence and care in making what we have done sing.

— Michael Ruby and Sam Truit


In the forefront of our move toward change, there is only our
poetry to hint at possibility made real. Our poems formulate
the implications of ourselves, what we feel within and dare
make real (or bring action into accordance with), our fears,
our hopes, our most cherished terrors.

— “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” Audre Lorde

Part 1: A Timeline of Waiting

Emails I received from writers while waiting for the 2020 election results.

November 5 at 4:45am Stephanie Strickland:

He is bound by Oath to support this Constitution.
Congress shall make no law respecting religion.
No law abridging freedom of the press.

November 5 at 6:58am Dawn Tefft:

Brown shirts are attempting a soft coup. The DOJ is telling America that it belongs to the man who created Trump Steaks. If there are no labor strikes and street riots, there will be no America left for anyone who doesn’t peddle their own brand of steaks.

November 5 at 7:19am Charles Bernstein:

I think what I wrote for you before works now too, alas.
Lying is not a means of hiding a policy: it is the policy. 

November 5 at 7:45am Felicia Holman:

The Great American Performance continues. The impeached traitor’s infamous 53% has now grown to 55%. McConnell and Graham bask in their calcified congressional fiefdoms, meanwhile Coney-Barrett nestles into her ill-gotten lifetime judicial appointment … GET ME THE FUCK OUTTA HERE!

November 5 at 7:46pm Achy Obejas:

wait wait wait wait wait
i feel an abundance of rain

November 5 at 9:22pm Harold Abramowitz:

These protesters gathered to demand that all votes be counted — a fundamental tenet of a political system that claims to be democratic. At the direction of elected officials, law enforcement arrested over 600 people and cited many others.

November 5 at 9:37pm Timothy David Rey:

Trump appears to me like Caligula. How the Romans grew to hate him and one afternoon the soldiers ushered him out of the viewing booth of the colosseum and simply did him in. 

November 5 at 11:07pm Andrew Cantrell:

Take it with a patience and a calm confidence even in our penury and exhaustion and as against the calculated violence and humiliation of the everyday. Take it not just against austerity or from fear of scarcity but with an expansiveness toward an opening to the margins of a possible world. Everywhere we organize one by one to make new kinds of power new embodiments and new relationality that refuse the endless cruelty of the long interminable now there is where we who once woke early because we found no rest may next wake early because we are ready to take the opening we have carried with us found and through our struggle made.

November 5 at 11:31pm Douglas A. Martin:

We sat down to watch Possessed (Crawford) once the polls had closed. I tied string around a Strength card in following days and wrote my sister — to warn, perhaps — how we might be coming to Georgia to help with the ballots if needed.

November 5 at 11:54pm Heather McShane:

Slow news. Last night vases of flowers flanking people interviewed from their homes, tonight a small stage on the shelves behind someone. Are we closer?

November 6 at 7:39am Tyrone Williams:

Same as my comment on the Orange Flame  situation still fucked up.

November 6 at 10:05am JD Pluecker:

An unhealthy fixation lodges in the sternum.
A sternum gapes wide open, heart still beating.
Which is the unhealthy fixation and which is the heart.

November 6 at 11:42am Chuck Stebelton:

Would freeze. Could flee. Should fight.

November 6 at 2:52pm Christopher Stackhouse:

The antidote to anti-love is overwhelming amounts of love; which is a word describing a feeling that should always be evaluated. This is especially true when that feeling attends disappointment. Nearly half of our country ignored the sacred principles of love and voted for a man whose emotional register has primarily swung between bitterness and jealousy. Patiently keeping love as a guiding philosophy under these circumstances is a mortal test.

November 6 at 6:46pm Douglas Kearney:

Whatever many will claim, Trumps cruelty, dishonesty, his greed, and his hatred for anyone not like him were not enough to make them say, the cost is too great, even if I get some things I want, even as they claim they didnt want his cruelty, dishonesty, his greed, and his hatreds. As the numbers come in, its still too close to call the election; but so much else is clear.

November 6 at 9:46pm Dana Teen Lomax:

i tell my cousin that i dont want to fight about politics
my favorite people are dead
this entire country, this entire planet is on its way out
the milk toast illusion of democracy cant sustain us
but maybe we can learn from our hunger for each other,
let love fill the losses

November 6 at 11:23pm Sarah Rosenthal:

A cruel and ignorant man spins our globe on his fingertip. Wake from this nightmare, reverse realitys scale. Naughty little man, reduced by the power of the numerous.

November 6 at 11:32pm blake nemec:

graham north carolina formed a voters march, what beloved concentric circles, next to BLM defund the cops formations, forward to an Ironwood forest whose understory chatters and organizes during the knight, unwilling to sleep.

November 7 at 11:37am Douglas Kearney:

What would you write?

November 7 at 1:01pm Duriel Harris:

We the people are not one people; our dream is not one dream. We move at cross purposes to honor and manifest the promise of America. In this moment there is a temporary reprieve yet we must remain vigilant against its vicious charge, bloodthirst, apathy, and denial. Who stand for justice and against the colonizing tyranny of thingification in all its guises, its dynamics, and matrices — white supremacy, white power, racism, gender inequality, sexism, homophobia, transfobia, ableism, classism, fascism, religious bigotry, misogyny, empire, capitalism, etc. — must stand together, self-aware and courageous, committed to the struggle to bring forth the best of what can be.

November 7 at 1:48pm Rone Shavers:

Yall, that shit was crazy! What we experienced was the crucible: the darkest, craziest timeline right before the cleansing, cathartic dawn.

November 7 at 2:21pm Ananda Lima:

I am allowing myself space for relief, celebration, and awe at the brilliant work of organizers in Arizona, Georgia, and elsewhere. At the same time, I know we still have unacceptable systemic horrors in place and so much work to do. Lets make sure to rest, feel joy, then follow the activists that have given us this and keep working now.

November 7 at 2:32pm Edgar Garcia:

My contribution is a short excerpt from a longer poem written in iambic pentameter response to (and alongside a critical commentary on) the K’iche’ Maya story of creation the Popol Vuh (ca. 1702 CE). In that tale, there is a giant, greedy, boisterous, and rather ridiculous bird named Seven Macaw who has propped himself up as the sun itself, but he is a false sun, and he is eventually defeated by the hero twins of the tale. I see this bird as a combined figure of Primitive Accumulation (i.e., the expropriated resources of the Americas that fueled European empire and industrialization) and Donald Trump. Trump is this orange bird in its representation of the long-lived greed, theft, arrogance, and corruption that has devastated the people and land of this hemisphere, and whose reckoning is at hand. The hero twins prevail, and they do so by turning to what matters: not gold and jewels, but rather the sustaining crop of maize and sustaining power of community.

November 8 at 12:08am Anne Waldman:

all the wild ululation & yipping sound for the diversity of this plurality
this is the new book on the new entanglements with ripe tears
& dismantle systemic racism! 

November 8 at 10:38am Evie Shockley:

I was off celebrating!

Part 2: In Cahoots for Democracy

My response to Doug Kearney’s email, asking me about this election “What would you write?”

And if we dont fight
if we dont resist
if we dont organize and unify and
get the power to control our own lives
Then we will wear
the exaggerated look of captivity
the stylized look of submission
the bizarre look of suicide
the dehumanized look of fear
and the decomposed look of repression
forever and ever and ever
And there it is

—“There It Is,” Jayne Cortez 

A group political poem is not an election. It is a personal reaction to a moment in history. The poem can be informed by theory, but I believe that it favors the practitioners, highlighting types of collaboration that deepen our solidarity with others. Meaning is not controlled through solo authorship, so I get excited when the result is cross-community building.

I think one of the jobs of writers/artists is to remind us of what is happening in the world right now and to help us think with fresh perspectives. For example, we know that working people experiment every day to manage our lives. Paying our rent, feeding our families, and navigating the healthcare system all take a lot of innovation. The hypothesis being that everyone is a cultural worker.

Showcasing the time, energy, and labor involved with a group poem is a tactic to blur boundaries. It is a way to challenge the usual hierarchies that often play out in literary and art scenes. I love the giant smorgasbord of contemporary poetry and am uninterested in a poetics of singularity.

Part 3: Participatory Poetry


Photo credit: Amanda Loch
Photo by Amanda Loch.

My project  Democracy Lessens  Democracy Lessons follows a participatory practice of collecting language that I have used for previous public poems like Walking Poem and 4000 Words 4000 Dead. My poetic work is often based in collaborative forms and the ways words circulate in our everyday lives.

The evening before Presidents Day 2020, I sent out an email that began:

hi friends … i want to make a poem with you. let’s document our feelings about this president, this election, this democracy.

I listed the prompt THE PRESIDENT IS and explained that the poem would be assembled in the order that the words were received. My plan was to accept a maximum of forty-five words per writer, since we were/are in the midst of dealing with the forty-fifth American president. I thought of this as a twenty-four-hour poetry experiment but also stated that “differences in the perception of time, dates, and simultaneous dimensions are encouraged.” For me, experimenting with the structure of a poem can involve experimenting with the structure of time. It was February 16, so the expansiveness of pandemic time had yet to come into my consciousness.

With this email, I received responses from sixty-nine contributors. Building off the submissions, I created a choral poem that became a dialogue on the rhetoric of democracy. I based the poem’s democracy chorus on statements contributed by Kisii University students during my performances and workshops in Kenya as part of the fall 2016 Kistrech Poetry Festival organized by Christopher Okemwa. I asked these students to give Americans advice about democracy. This was my second opportunity to talk to young Kenyans about their hopes for their country while dealing with an unstable government. In winter 2009, I participated in the Kwani literary conference in Nairobi organized by Billy Kahora and was able to interview local activists about the post-election violence that had just occurred in 2008.

Part 4: Excerpt from  Democracy Lessens  Democracy Lessons



Contributors: Harold Abramowitz, Kazim Ali, Emmy Bean, Charles Bernstein, Stacy Blint, Nicole Bond, Amaranth Borsuk, Jessica Bozek, Andrew Cantrell, Kevin Carollo, cris cheek, Andrew Choate, Joseph Duffy, Joseph Emanuel, Noa/h Fields, Annie Finch, Tim Fitzmaurice, Cean Gamalinda, Edgar Garcia, Cassandra Gillig, Laaura Goldstein, Philip Good, Duriel Harris, Mike Hauser, Marcy Rae Henry, Nathan Hoks, Bob Holman, Felicia Holman, J’Sun Howard, Douglas Kearney, Toni Asante Lightfoot, Ananda Lima, Dana Teen Lomax, Danna Lomax, Kimberly Lyons, Jill Magi, Douglas A. Martin, Heather McShane, Laura Mullen, blake nemec, Janet Neuwalder, Achy Obejas, Daniela Olszewska, Maureen Owen, Julie Patton, JD Pluecker, Anja Bozek Queen, Timothy David Rey, Sarah Rosenthal, Michael Rothenberg, Elizabeth Metzger Sampson, Martin Glaz Serup, Rone Shavers, Alix Anne Shaw, Evie Shockley, Mike Sikkema, Christopher Stackhouse, Mark Statman, Chuck Stebelton, Mojdeh Stoakley, Stephanie Strickland, Dawn Tefft, Matias Viegener, Lina Ramona Vitkauskas, Anne Waldman, Tyrone Williams, Elizabeth Willis, Keith S. Wilson, and Sara Zalek.

Part 5: An Ending is an Opening

Over the years, I have often read and reread
Revolutionary Letters as a kind of poet-activist self-help book. Even just carrying it around in my bag or having it next to my bed has helped me to feel better, strengthening my revolutionary optimism.


These are transitional years and the dues
will be heavy.
Change is quick but revolution
will take a while.
America has not even begun as yet.
This continent is seed.

— Diane di Prima

in celebration of her life
August 6, 1934–October 25, 2020

 Jennifer Karmin’s multidisciplinary work has transpired at festivals, in artist-run spaces, and on city streets across the US, Cuba, Japan, Kenya, and Europe. Her performances have been featured at venues such as the Poetry Project, the Walker Art Center, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, and Woodland Pattern Book Center. Her books include the text-sound epic Aaaaaaaaaaalice and The Sexual Organs of the IRS, a collaboration with Bernadette Mayer. She teaches creative writing to immigrants at Truman College and has been a Visiting Writer at Naropa University, Oberlin College, California Institute of the Arts, and a myriad of sites. Since 2005, she has curated the Red Rover Series in Chicago and often led ensembles of poets improvising together. An intermittent upstate New Yorker, she grew up in Buffalo, studied in the Poetics Program at SUNY, and has spent many summers sitting by the spot where the Tsatsawassa Creek meets the Kinderhook Creek in Poetry State Forest. More of  Democracy Lessens  Democracy Lessons is online at Aurochs.