Poetry Is a Shapeshifter by Linda Ravenswood

It is time for protest poems and for poetry. It is a time for poets and for shapeshifters.

Poetry Is a Shapeshifter

Poetry must be a singer,
to remain relevant. Poetry must be liquid.
It must penetrate many crevices of society,
must present itself in many genres, and on many platforms,
must raise its head from traditional ideas, modes and venues,
must cling within the souls of the artists,
but race to merge with the souls of the People.
Poetry must be unafraid,
Poetry must sing.

Poetry must embrace multidimensionality and multi-genre-ality
must be liberal, but fierce in its disciplines
must have a champion
must speak history
must be indiscreet
must be tactless, falling down stairs like a toddler,
slipping into ravines like a dancer on high alert,
forgetting the words but remembering the way.
Poetry must be improvised from years of preparation,
must be improvised from the genetic memory.
Poetry must be.
Poetry must be.

Poetry must be politic
must have muscles
must bend low to serve the People, not just aggrandize the poet.
Poetry must have a big heart
and a great sense of humor
must travel light, but bring with it
invisible cables of lineage, culture, resistance and resilience.
The poet must speak for everyone,
her duty must not be to factions.

She should know the Tongva, the Gabrielino, the Mexican, the Spanish.
She should not speak for only one segment of the population,
but for The German, The Irish, The Jewish, The Hmong,
The Japanese, The Ethiopian, The Laotian.
The poet should speak from the depths of poverty,
and from the hope of a just wealth,
she should speak from the streets and from the salon.

The poet’s hair,
if she has hair,
her arms,
if she possess them,
her eyes,
if they be,
must belong to her,
though they be recycled
from a hundred other sources.
From these vessels
and others,
she must give nourishment to a People.

The poet should know the land.
She should understand Chavez Ravine and Dodger Stadium,
and speak with mercy and generosity
toward both civic realities.
She must stretch imaginations, causes, firmaments and destinies
to search out justice,
and ultimate brother and sisterhood.
She must not be pigeonholed by politics,
but must use politics to resound fervent truths, to share place and to re + member hope.

The poet must understand the complexities in history,
yet not be bound only by their sacred facts and feelings.
The poet must be led by the ominous possibilities of universal evolution,
must light new imaginings for change,
must sing towards new roads,
must help to forge new alliances,
and even new friendships from broken promises.

The poet should live here,
in this gloriastic chasm
somewhere between student and teacher,
shaman and servant, magician and fool.
The poet must dance here
and bow to all dissemblers and non-believers.

She must perseverate,
when others pack up their rags and go home,
must stand in the dark, alone,
and wait on her own dime,
on her own frayed edges,
must cry, but never give out,
must go longer, and stronger,
Chiron searching endlessly
for answers, salves,
the objects and means of healing.

Because poetry must not be pigeonholed:
It must embrace all segments of the population,
The Russian, The Italian, The Yemeni, The Congolese,
must know multiple layers of histories, and see possibilities,
not roadblocks.
Poetry must not be pigeonholed to stand on a platform
for one kind of person, group or thought alone.
It must stand, voiced and supported by the ancestors,
comfortable in a boardroom or soup kitchen,
ready in a classroom, breathless on an airplane,
perched on the back of a tractor, dancing at a used-car lot,
waiting in the wings, or praying in a dirty bus station.
Poetry must mean these things
and be these things
and make these things
and honor these things
without a shred of pandering
and with all of her heart.

We must travel light but travel like lightning;
we must bring the force of light with us.
We must have stamina, strength, hope, vigilance, sight –
must be able to speak from the memory of place,
through personal trauma, for untapped dreams
only dared in crossed fingers and quick breaths.

It is essential that the poet be a mixed person,
maybe even dropped on her head once or twice,
maybe her father left
or stayed
but couldn’t speak
and another language had to be met
or maybe her mother was a circus rider
or she went to the pictures instead of Calculus
or maybe her teeth were knocked in
or she lay in Orthopedic Hospital all of 3rd grade
or she saw a man beaten on a corner,
out of the corner of her eye
and she never dis-remembered.
It is essential that the poet live in that liminal place
of the wholeness of humanity.

If the poet can be a person of multiple heritages,
with allegiances to all
If the poet can be college-educated
If the poet can be someone who experiences prison
If the poet can be a world-traveler
a seamstress
a high-school dropout
If the poet can live out of her car
or on the beach.

If she knows Dante’s Trail, the Magic Castle, the Paletero in Boyle Heights, Hop Louie’s, the Saugus Cafe, Llano del Rio, Geoffrey’s in Malibu, Angel’s Flight, the Red Car, The La Brea Tar Pits, The Farmers Market before The Grove, Ray Bolger’s dance at Good Shepherd Church, what the Third Street Promenade looked like before 1995, where Tony Curtis filmed in Los Feliz, the California Incline, Leimert Park and The World Stage, when you could swim in Santa Monica, the South Central Farm
If the poet can know
If the poet can remember
If the poet can sing
If the poet can be an old man and a young woman
If the poet can be an old woman and a young man
Poetry must be.
Poetry must be.

This poem was read as the closing poem by Linda Ravenswood to more than 5,000 people at the 25th Empowerment Congress Los Angeles at the University of Southern California on Jan. 15, 2017.


Election Day in a Small Town
The Poet at the Polls, 2016
Glendale, California

I tried to smile for the camera
near the flag
blazoned across the fire house windows
on election day.

The sun was so high that morning,
my eyes squealed and watered
in delight of life,
and the briefness of the pain,

they blinked away,
relief at turning,
safety in numbers of
blinks per second,
near the old fire house.

I tried to tell them —
I’m here because of this office,
and that grant,
this bit of privilege,
this imprimatur of decent folk,
I do not sell anything, don’t be
scared, it’s fun,
a literary exit poll,
a bit of sweetness
to commemorate your service.

I smiled,
coming towards their confusion,
as they groped —
is this where I go, are these the right queues?
they sent this to me, but last time I went to another place,
my father is bedridden, can he come here?
I smiled, and
seemed to help.

I stood my place, enough away
from too much meddling
but close enough to hear,
​and​ lean, near nuzzling,
to the crowd;

the whole city was a polling center;
they poured out of curbed cars
where drivers set them free,
motors alive, stopping momentarily,
off to other errands
leaving people time
to be dutiful
and present.

They come, and come again;
they line with babies in arms,
coming from work, from home,
from Yerevan, Guatemala City,
Santa Monica,
come in ones and threes
and all with paper in clutches;

the typewriter makes them smile,
they remember her from
the long ago,
when class-time was skirts
and knee-high socks,
granny’s breakfast,
and two steps to their diploma.
They ask, do you remember
the sound of the keys
like we remember ?
Are you old enough ?
Do you love it the way we do?
You must,
mustn’t you?

I write their brief story,
what did this moment
signify, anything, a thought?
I’ll type it for you
and you might take it away —
would you like that?

So many smiles,
so many quick picks,
snapshots of
a thing we run to find
and remember.

Long ago
a goat’s head sang in a tree
on the outskirts of town.
The people stared
and followed
along the lay lines,
honing in
where the sound beckoned.
When they came upon it,
it was hoarse
and dripping from so much singing
and waiting,
the smallest goat grin
seemed to cross its
muzzle before it
threw its eyes closed
and was silent.
For a long time,
the people stood
and knelt and
about what it might mean.

This poem was written on Election Day as part of the #PoetsatthePolls project, originally sponsored by LA2050.


Linda Ravenswood

Featured photo: “The Story of the Los Angeles River” by Linda Ravenswood

Linda Ravenswood is a poet, singer, musician and performance artist from Los Angeles. Her work aims toward inquiry and uncovering, reminding viewers to hold memory, history, place and lineage as meaningful and available markers. Her work has been featured at or been commissioned for Cornell University, The Broad Theatre, AWP Pen USA, The Google Corporation, The Hammer Museum, The Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, The Los Angeles Arts Commission, The Angel’s Gate Cultural Centre, Highways, The Artery, The Bootleg Theatre, Gallery 16 (San Francisco), The Mayor’s Office of Los Angeles, The Lancaster Museum, The Hollywood Fringe Festival, The Japanese American National Museum, Casa del Tunel (Mexico) and Craftswoman House. She has been published in 30 literary journals, and her music is featured in three documentary films (PBS). She has four books in print (Sybaritic Press, Mouthfeel Press, Gallery 16 Press, LACMA Press – forthcoming), and she is a 2016 Vermont Studio Centre grantee in Poetry. A finalist for Poet Laureate of West Hollywood (2016), and twice nominated for The Pushcart Prize for Poetry, Linda is a lecturer, dramaturg and workshop presenter, most recently teaching at Occidental College and The 24th Street Theatre. Linda is NDN / First Nation, (Pokanoket, Wampanoag) and a Mayflower descendant on her mother’s side, and an Indigenous Mestiza from Baja California Sur on her father’s side. She was raised in Los Angeles by Jewish Holocaust survivors. Current projects include: sSISTERSs, USC Roski School of Art, 2017, The Los Angeles Poetry Anthology: Voices from Leimert Park (Ed. Shonda Buchanan), The 25th Empowerment Congress Los Angeles at the University of Southern California, an Artist residency at ArtShare L.A. and collaborations on two books. She is a 2016-2017 fellow at The Women’s Centre for Creative Work, and is the founder of The S1X 2 M1DN1GHT Performance Collective, a founding member of The Melrose Poetry Bureau.