(Photo by Flickr user Doran, used under a Creative Commons license)
When poet Cynthia Dewi Oka received a grant from the Leeway Foundation to run a workshop for migrant poets alongside Asian Arts Initiative, the mission was to build skills and expose participants to American poets writing from migrant backgrounds.
Then Nov. 8 happened, and Donald Trump won the presidential election after two years of spewing xenophobic rhetoric. His victory was immediately followed by an outpouring of hate crimes against immigrants, Muslims and people of color.
Trump’s election has given Oka’s workshop new direction and purpose.
“It was a skills training workshop, but now it’s a lot more content-driven around bringing [migrant] lives and struggles into the light,” Oka said. “We need to get people to pay more attention.”
There’s already a “huge under-representation” of migrant artists, Oka said, especially in poetry. Those voices need to be amplified. They’re missing from national discourse, as made evident by Trump’s election.
“It feels like there’s a really important need for articulating what it means for migrant communities to feel safe and to re-articulate their relationship to place and belonging.”
Oka hopes the workshop is able to bring migrants from different backgrounds together. The goal is to position the migrant experience as a point of connection rather than point of separation. No wall-building, no religious registry, no comparing refugee children to bad batches of candy.
But it will be intentionally political. Though the core components of the workshop haven’t changed, political motivation is the real pivot.
“The shift has primarily been from a focus on craft to a focus on political urgency. That’s part of what needs to happen more broadly with artistic communities,” said Oka. “There’s no such thing as apolitical literature. It just doesn’t exist.”
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