There’s always a little bit of heaven in a disaster area.
—Hugh Romney at Woodstock
When former NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti asked me to submit a poem for consideration as part of an anthology commemorating the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I was both honored and humbled. I was also a bit intimidated. What could I possibly say that had not already been said – and said better – by other poets? Sure, I had written poems about that horrific day and about the wars that followed. I had written poems about the young man I love like a son who was sent to fight in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I never felt that any of these poems were worth submitting for publication. I also had not looked at them for years.
I admit that I do not like writing “occasional” poems and have written very few. So, I thought about going back through my work and trying to find an appropriate poem. I could revise one of the poems I had already written. But Joseph, and co-editor, David Potori, a 9/11 family member and the former Literature and Theater Director of the NC Arts Council, had issued a challenge. They asked us to go deeper. In their email invitation to submit a poem they wrote:
“As you contemplate your poem, consider this: 20 years later, no matter how you were touched by 9/11, that moment continues to resonate. There are so many lenses through which to view it, and such vast associated collateral fallout to consider. It was a day that seemed to set the agenda for the 21st Century, seeding Islamophobia, the vilification of immigrants and undocumented aliens, ramped-up xenophobia, nationalism and isolationism. It unleashed war and supercharged military budgets that continue to impoverish our nation, with accompanying losses of community, health and hope, and concurrent rises in homophobia, transphobia, virulent racism and domestic terrorism.
The wounds of 9/11 are many: physical, environmental and psychic.”
Although I did not know anyone who was killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I viewed this invitation as an opportunity to reflect on the past 20 years – both my own personal journeys during this time and the changes this country and world have experienced since that day that divided time. At the end of the email, the editors invoked the poet Carolyn Forche:
“Ultimately, we’re looking for what Carolyn Forche calls, “the poetry of witness.”
I do know a little about the poetry of witness. I taught my graduate school seminar on “The Poetry of Witness” in 2003. I had also revised and expanded the seminar into a 10-week poetry class that I taught for the University of North Carolina Asheville’s Great Smokies Writing Program.
As I developed that class, I created a writing exercise that produced the first poem I wrote for what would become The Serial Killer’s Daughter (2009, Main Street Rag), a collection of poems that arose from the execution of Velma Barfield in Raleigh, North Carolina, on November 2, 1984 – another day that divides time for me. Writing those poems was both difficult and cathartic. The work took me back to intensely personal events that marked the beginning of major changes in my life. I had not planned to write those poems and was surprised that 20 years after the execution, the events of that day remained so much a part of me. As horrendous and unthinkable as that day was, there was much kindness, grace, and affirmation of how wondrous life remains. In the middle of a disaster area, I found a little bit of heaven.
Now, 20 years after 9/11, what remains from the horrors of that day? What have we learned? What has our country become? The immediate reactions of shared humanity and grief brought us together. But the solidarity did not last long. Soon, our country was at war again, and the divisions began to grow. In the last 20 years our country has become more polarized and divided so that today, the biggest terrorist threat to the United States is home-grown terrorists. The insurrection at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on January 6, 2021, threatened not only the lives of our elected representatives, but also threatened to destroy our democracy. Our future remains uncertain.
How do we cross this rift? Is it even possible or will we destroy our democracy as we continue to demonize each other? I do not know, and some days I despair for the future. But on those days, I remember the many younger adults, the teenagers, the 20, 30, and 40-year-olds that I know and love. They are smart, they are kind, they are savvy, they are compassionate, and they are changing the world as we know it.
During 2016-2018, I had the privilege of mentoring high school student poets as part of the NC Poetry Society’s Gilbert Chappell Distinguished Poet Series. These students were all born after 9/11. As I thought about the poem I would write for this anthology I kept returning to an early spring day when I met with a high school poet in the Jackson County Library in Sylva, NC. Her parents were immigrants who were baffled by her interest in poetry. Her school had been on lockdown several times because of gun violence threats.
“I shouldn’t have to be afraid to go to school,” she said as we talked. No, she should not be afraid to go to school. I found myself apologizing for the mess of a world she has inherited from my generation. It’s not the country I had hoped for during the 1960s and 1970s, when I still believed that radical change was possible, when the first “Earth Day” promised a new commitment to our planet, when the Vietnam War ended, and when the Black Panthers provided free breakfasts, and migrant farm workers were organizing.
But this is where we find ourselves as the pandemic continues and the divisions in our country widen. May we all continue to find little bits of heaven. The poems in Crossing the Rift are powerful and offer hope that by remembering we can bring about a better country and world, maybe just in little bits of heaven that we find and create.
Check my Events page to see when I’ll be reading from the anthology.
Crossing the Rift review
Find the book at Press53
When My Student Tells Me She’s Afraid to Go to School we’re sitting in the library, tucked in a corner room. She describes the week’s active shooter scare, how they all filed outside and waited, unsure what comes next. Her dark eyes search mine for reassurance, something I can’t give. Her hair falls below her shoulders, shiny as crow’s wings folded down her back. A gunmetal gray sky, heavy with snow, lurks outside the window where crocuses bloom. She holds my gaze, this child of immigrants, high school junior, an American girl. Her mother from north Vietnam, father from the South. Born in North Carolina, she’s never left, but here in this rural mountain town people still ask, where are you from? She writes poems about her life as other, her plans for college, medical school. But first she must survive high school. She fears the classmate with an AK-47 who arrives at school intent on slaughter. Not that it’s happened here—yet. I want for her what she wants, safe passage, a path free of landmines. This sixteen-year-old never knew a world before that clear September day when terrorists shattered everything we thought we knew about safety. Even that day when we mourned together, comforted each other in this land of immigrants and ignorance, a boy who looked like her heard a classmate yell at him, go back where you came from. His true answer, the same as hers—I am an American. But what does that mean? Who gets to tell her story? She inherited a country formed from ash and toxic dust, part zombie apocalypse tale, part Broadway fantasy, a nation that keeps ending. But she can begin anew, running toward her fears, like an airline passenger attacking hijackers. You can turn this country toward a new direction. Run, as if your life depends on it. Because it does. Because you must. —Pat Riviere-Seel