Abolitionist Poetics

Abolitionist Poetics




In the first of four essays, Atmos collaborates with interdisciplinary art and archival research studio The Bureau on “A Drop of Sun,” a series asking Black artists and writers to imagine Black futurity through rigorous exploration of abolition, radicalized environmentalism, and robust artistic expression. Here, writer Devyn Springer imagines a world in which police forces and prisons are abolished.

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Many summers ago, I wrote a poem for a lover in the breezy, open-air kitchen of a pinkish-white home in Vedado. I tend to write the bulk of my work in the early mornings, immediately after praying fajr, but always before the rest of the world opens its eyes. This time, I tasked myself to write a poem which described the world of abolition that I envisioned as a gift to this lover.


Outside the kitchen, I could hear the streets begin to wake: workers began to resume construction projects, taxis started a long day’s work, the bustling of buses and shuffling of feet began to pick up outside, and so forth. Frustration grew between me and my pen; I couldn’t quite find the words for the poem which I’d challenged myself to write. Others have found poetic language sufficient for abolition—why couldn’t I?


I put the pen down, realizing a simple yet necessary truth: nothing I can write with this pen, in this poem or prose, can change the world—nothing which could flow in flowery language and soothe with measured tone would make the walls of Parchman fall or return Mumia Abu-Jamal from captivity, nor could they forever disappear the pigs that killed Natasha McKenna, Tony McDade, Anthony Hill, George Floyd, or the thousands of others whose names we have never learned. What am I writing for? If I cannot touch the world in which I want to build, not even in poetry, what do I have to write about it?


I could sit here and write theoretical positions, propositions, and materialist splendors of what is to come, but it would still be a description of an event and process which ultimately remains unwritten. There are examples for us to follow, histories to guide us on the potential for a world after capitalism, neo-colonial strongholds, and imperialist domination, which may lend themselves towards the image of abolition. There are histories which exist largely outside of poetry, outside of prose, and outside of a ballot box. Cuba, for example, a place which isn’t perfect but is working towards something that transcends perfection, something birthed from undoing capitalist and colonial vestiges rather than redoing them, often acts as a stand-in for my visage of revolution and what it means work towards abolition. There, police exist, but function in a radically different way, where their primary concerns of the day may be to assist in construction sites, support community defense committees, help the elderly, intervene in intimate violence, and essentially maintain a revolution, as opposed to stop-and-frisks, criminalization of survival, maintenance of rigid class structures, defending private property, and naked violence against Black people.

It is everything that we do, which eats away like acid at the prison walls—at the empire, at the police budgets and police unions, at their bullets, at their Black sites across the country, at their asylums where they make people seemingly disappear, at their sanctions and dirty wars—and at their borders, which were drawn without legitimacy.

Devyn Springer

I often think about Queen Latifah’s 1993 “Just Another Day” as somewhat of an abolitionist literature. In what I’d call one of the best hip-hop songs of all time, she describes experiencing just another day, but in a world painted by her words that feels distantly relatable. Her perfect day isn’t free of tension nor hardship, as stated in the lyrics, but she does place herself in control of her own destiny, comfortable in her own community, and brimming with agency. It’s just another day around the muthafuckin’ way, where she doesn’t get hassled by pigs, she picks up a bean pie from her local Black Muslim peddlers, she is armed for self-defense—and she’s ultimately just Dana, not Queen Latifah. This is how I want to feel after abolition: empowered, having agency over my own life, safe in my own community on my own sidewalks. But still, a feeling or its description (no matter how calculated the vocabulary) is not itself revolutionary, nor is it substantial for revolutionary world building.


And maybe the space where the poem remains unfinished, incapable of completion in technical terms, is the space from which we might draw the most strength. Maybe the imagination remains radical—revolutionary, even—when it is able to breathe, wiggle, be in tension, and to build upon and learn from radical processes like the Cuban Revolution. Does the poem have to change the world? Has a poem ever changed the world? When we believe the stakes are as high as we say they are, we move differently, we act differently. When we no longer simply say the stakes are high, but actually believe it, we accept that this prose or any other poem is insufficient for abolition.


I think of the stakes right now: the deteriorating Earth, the oceans, land, and air giving us approaching deadlines for salvation, and the white supremacist, carceral, capitalist, cis hetero-patriarchal US empire counting down the days until it is all ‘too late’ to shift course—and I now think of abolition as every radical act that we do with great intention to try ‘before’ it is too late. It is everything that we do, which eats away like acid at the prison walls—at the empire, at the police budgets and police unions, at their bullets, at their Black sites across the country, at their asylums where they make people seemingly disappear, at their sanctions and dirty wars—and at their borders, which were drawn without legitimacy. It is everything we do now to build away from capitalism-imperialism, before we once again run out of options.


A poem, much like a vote, won’t do this work. Neither poem nor prose can bring back the dead, remove shackles, defund pigs, organize communities, or take up arms. When Saidiya Hartman asked poet Amiri Baraka if there was a more effective way to bring about change than poetry, he told her “the gun.” Baraka understood that the poetics, the flowery words, and the soundbites—in all their beauty—were still unqualified to do the work of revolution. But it was a poem by Audre Lorde, which reminds me, often, of Eleanor Bumpers being “shotgunned against her kitchen wall by rent marshals in the Bronx.” And even Assata Shakur, the communist revolutionary who escaped captivity and has lived in marronage ever since, ended each chapter of her autobiography with a poem. If even Assata, who merged her imagination with her determination out of necessity, still saw the value and power in a poem, and in that tension between description and action, then I guess I should, too.

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