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‘Bullets Into Bells': The Activist Power Of Poetry

Published: December 7, 2017

NOTE (Thursday, December 7, 2017; 12:13 pm): This feature has been updated to remove one reference to 12/14, and to properly reflect a detail concerning Abbey Clements.

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In an age where everyday gun violence and mass shootings have become commonplace in the United States, a new book serves to remind readers of the activist power of poetry. A compilation co-edited by Western Connecticut State University Professor of Writing, Linguistics and Creative Process Dr Brian Clements, Bullets into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence was released on December 5 by Beacon Press.

The anthology is a collection of 54 poems that pairs poets with citizens and their responses to gun violence. It was in the wake of 12/14 that Dr Clements had an idea for a poetry collection featuring poets and those most impacted by the crisis of gun violence in America. Alexandra Teague and Dean Rader were also working on a similar idea, so the three writers banded together to contribute to and edit Bullets into Bells.

Ms Teague, an associate professor of poetry at the University of Idaho, is also the author of two books of poetry, one of which won the California Book Award for Poetry. Mr Rader is the author of two books of poetry and editor of a poetry collection.

Bullets into Bells is introduced by Irish author and National Book Award winner Colum McCann, with a foreword written by Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly.

Mr McCann writes in part: “The poems attempt to create a community built not just of grief, but of hope, too … The poems assert the possibility of language rather than bullets to open up our veins.

“Many people in this book have suffered publicly, but the point of their poetry is not to whine or moan or even set things aflame but rather to communicate the intricate nuances of that suffering with others,” he continues. “It is a form of public sharing. Take these words. Weigh them up. Listen. Pause a while. Help reality touch justice.

“One of the beauties of poetry is that it is essentially an act of nonviolence. It can make us feel the pain, but we do not necessarily have to suffer it,” he also wrote.

The book, according to its editors, is the first part of a three-pronged project, which includes additional poems and other content on the book’s website, and a nationwide series of readings from the book and discussion among local poets, activists, and audiences. The first of those events will take place at Boston Public Library on Wednesday, December 13.

The collection is framed in a call-and-response format from some of today’s most celebrated poets and everyday citizens most affected, including gun violence survivors, politicians, gun violence prevention advocates, those who have lost loved ones to gun violence and gun-related suicides, and others. It is, according to the publisher, meant to serve as a moving testament to the urgent need for gun control.

Dr Clements is the author of multiple books, most recently A Book of Common Rituals, and the editor of An Introduction to the Prose Poem. He lives in Newtown with his wife, former Sandy Hook Elementary School teacher Abbey Clements.

Ms Clements was inside the school on 12/14. She heard every one of the 154 shots that rang out inside the former building at 12 Dickinson Drive that morning. She continues to teach in Newtwon, and she has joined the growing number of educators lobbying against bills that would allow guns in schools.

In her response to “[when a child hears gunshots]” by Meghan Privitello, Ms Clements wrote in part, “Parents shouldn’t have to worry about whether or not their kids will make it home from school.”

Additional paired poems-citizen responses include “Jordan” by Nick Arnold, who honors his cousin Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old shot to death outside a gas station in Jacksonville, Fla., following an argument over loud music. The response is offered by Jordan’s mother Lucy McBath.

The American poet Richard Blanco wrote “One Pulse — One Poem.” The work in part encourages readers to memorialize those killed at Pulse night club in Orlando, Fla., on June 12, 2016, by placing “each memory like a star, the light of the past reaching us now, and always, reminding us to keep writing until we never need to write a poem like this again.”

Ladd Everitt, director of One Pulse for America, calls Mr Blanco’s work beautiful, but also shares a feeling of anger combined with weariness when he writes, in his response, of one day building “awe-inspiring memorials to all the beautiful souls we have lost to gun violence and remember them with smiles and laughter. I just wish that day felt closer.”

Martin Espada’s “Heal the Cracks in the Bell of the World” is coupled with a response by David and Francine Wheeler, whose son Ben was among those killed on 12/14.

Former Connecticut Poet Laureate Billy Collins wrote “Boy Shooting At A Statue,” which was paired with a response by Sandy Hook Promise Manager Nicole Hockley, whose son Dylan was among the children killed on 12/14.

Dr Clements’s offering, “22,” begins with a look back at different points in his life that were affected by people carrying .22 pistols. The final verse steps thing up, however, when he writes of 12/14 and not only the two pistols the shooter carried that day, but also the semiautomatic Bushmaster rifle and hundreds of rounds of ammunition he also carried, along with the shotgun in the car he drove to Sandy Hook School that morning.

A passionate response to that poem is offered by Po Murray, fellow Newtown resident and cofounder of Newtown Action Alliance. She writes in part that while “it did not matter to the National Rifle Association … that a hundred thousand Americans are killed or injured by guns in our towns and cities across the nation every single year … it still matters to us, we will work to hold all state and federal elected representatives accountable for standing with the NRA instead of taking action to keep all of us safe from gun violence.”

Additional poets include Rita Dove, Mark Doty, Naomi Shihab Nye, Patricia Smith, and Natasha Threthewey, among others.

Other citizen responders include Team 26 Founder Monte Frank; former Newtown High School teacher Lee Keylock, now the director of programs for Narrative 4; Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America; US Senator Chris Murphy; and the Reverend Sharon Risher, a relative of the victims of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., on June 17, 2015.

Nick Ripatrazone, writer for the online magazine The Millions, has already picked Bullets into Bells as one of the notable poetry books of December 2017.

“Poetry won’t make us whole again, but we need a form for our shouts and our cries,” he wrote.

Bullets into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence is a 208-page paperback from Beacon Press ($15). It is also available for Kindle reading ($13.99). It can be purchased through the publisher’s website, Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble online and in stores, and other outlets.

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