Wednesday, February 22, 7 p.m., free
Letters Bookshop, Durham

Resisting Arrest: Poems to Stretch the Sky, published by Durham’s Jacar Press last spring, begins with two epigraphs. The first, “Writing is fighting,” comes from Ishmael Reed, who is included in the anthology. It establishes the book’s contested terrain as that of racial justice in America. The second, from Brecht, is, “You can’t write poems about the trees when the woods are full of policemen.” It echoes Adorno’s famous but unheeded words. We kept writing poetry after Auschwitz.

Now we find ourselves in another historical moment when beauty alone seems insufficient at best, grotesque at worst as a response to various human crises, including the epidemic of police violence against people of color. The risk for poets, to continue Brecht’s analogy, is of missing the cops for the forest.

But Resisting Arrest sees differently. It contains contributions from a wide range of writers, from accomplished North Carolinians like Metta Sáma, Jaki Shelton Green, and Howard Craft to Pulitzer or National Book Award winners such as Rita Dove and Yusef Komunyakaa. All their voices stream together in a democratic chorus with no hierarchical section breaks, resolutely focused on police brutality. Nobody involved, from the contributors to the publisher, is making a dime. At reading events like the one at Letters Bookshop next Wednesday, anyone is invited to read a poem from the anthology. The tacit argument is that if we’re to continue writing poetry during our own slow, ongoing American genocide, the line between art being about social justice and art being involved must shift.

Tony Medina, a creative writing professor at Howard University who has been involved in a gargantuan number of book projects, edited Resisting Arrest. His introductory essay, “Call Their Names,” comes directly to the point.

“The rate at which black and brownand even whitepeople killed by police are packing American morgues is breathtaking,” it begins. “The rotting stench of such outlandish policing is enough to lead mobs of people to their local jailhouses and police precincts demanding justice lest they turnover each façade brick by brick.” Then Medina unfurls a funerary shroud of storiesSarah Lee Circle Bear, Sandra Bland, Troy Goode, Tamir Rice, Andy Lopez, Walter Scott, Gilbert Flores, on and onwound together by concise treatments of Black Lives Matter, the prison pipeline, and the normalization of police violence.

Another layer of the Brecht epigraph is revealed in Medina’s growing sense of dark absurdity, which comes out when he touches on Durham’s Jesus Huerta: “The narratives are becoming more Kafkaesque and absurd: handcuffed in the back of a patrol car, he grabbed the officer’s gun and shot himself dead in his chest.” The persuasive critique goes on for 2,500 words; poetry doesn’t come up until the very end. It’s clear in its intent to be a call to action, not an aesthetic object. Guernica, Medina signs off.

The poems, like the essay, teem with actual names, dates, people, and places. Urgency shines out in the emergency-broadcast quality of their titles: Camille Rankine’s “Survival Guide for Animals Born in Captivity,” Sáma’s “How to Not Get Killed by the NYPD,” and Medina’s “#IfIDieinPoliceCustody,” which asks us to know that “Regardless of my hands/ Cuffed behind my back/ That I preferred my blood/ Inside my body instead[.]”

As Medina drew upon his vast network of contacts to gather poems for the anthology, he found people not only eager to contribute but also to suggest others, which caused the book to swell to nearly two hundred pages.

“They wanted to be a part of something that was dealing with this major crisis in the country,” Medina says by phone from Washington, D.C. “They gladly gave me the work.” Contributors were paid in a copy of the book. All proceeds go to the Urban League’s Whitney M. Young Social Justice Scholarship, which supports students in the D.C. metro area who are pursuing a field in social justice or police reform. Medina expects to hand over the first check, for at least fifteen hundred dollars, in August.

When I first came across Resisting Arrest last year, I wondered then what you’re probably wondering now: How did such an ambitious anthology, curated by an influential Howard professor, wind up on a small independent press in Durham?

The answer lies in Medina’s chance meeting with Richard Krawiec and the unique nature of his Jacar Pressthe result of his long experience in writing and activism.


Medina and Krawiec met at a reading in Bethesda, Maryland, several years ago. Krawiec had published Medina in an anthology, and they had similar views on the state of the nation. They kept in touch on Facebook. “There were a lot of poets writing about police brutality, and Richard had a similar idea,” Medina says. “I was like, ‘I want to do this anthology, are you down?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’ He was very supportive.”

Krawiec is a gregarious sixty-four-year-old New Englander with a lifelong attraction to the nexus of writing and social justice.

“I grew up one street over from the projects,” he says at Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe, discussing his childhood in Brockton, Massachusetts. “We weren’t upwardly mobile so much as trying not to fall backwards. I’d go play baseball in sneakers and dungarees, and the other kids had the cleats and stuff. I was subconsciously aware of exclusionthat people I hung out with in the projects, their voices were really not heard. I didn’t come to this writing about myself. I came to it writing about other people’s lives.”

Krawiec developed a sharp social consciousness early, perhaps because of his liminal class position (the novelist Richard Price comes to mind). He carried a fish around his neighborhood when he was eleven to protest the slaughter of baby seals. In the sixties, that conscience found ample ways to express itself, first through the antiwar movement.

“That opened up everything: civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights,” Krawiec says. “I started to see it as all interconnected.”

After graduating from the University of New Hampshire with a creative writing degree, Krawiec made his first steps into publishing. Most notably, in 1986, Viking issued one of his novels, Time Sharing, which was favorably reviewed but poorly promoted after Krawiec’s editor left the publishing house, stranding him at midlist.

This was one of several experiences that shaped the model of what would eventually become Jacar Press. Another was founding a nonprofit called Voices, which, among many activities, offered literacy workshops in writing, a rarity in a field that usually focused on reading skills. Krawiec ran it through the eighties and into the nineties.

“We did a lot of work in homeless shelters and women’s shelters,” Krawiec says, “and I believe were the first to publish an anthology of writing by homeless people in the country.”

Voices’ publishing projects, which also included textbooks on teaching writing to adult learners and inner-city poetry anthologies, set the scene for the next phase as Krawiec became disillusioned with the nonprofit worldsomething that crystallized around 2008.

“When Obama got elected and talked about a stimulus plan for the banks, and I thought poets could have a stimulus plan too,” Krawiec remembers. “I thought of this anthology called The Sound of Poets Cooking, with poems and recipes by poets. I tried to give it to so many publishers but said I wanted the money to go back to fund workshops in low-income communities, and no one wanted to do that. So I said ‘screw it’ and started a press. Then we just kind of continued publishing, because you can’t have too many ways to lose money, right?”

Jacar set out to be what Krawiec calls a “community active” press. “You’re not going to make money anyway,” he says, “so I started from that notion, that I’m doing this instead of buying a new car or house. It was very freeing.”

Though Jacar doesn’t have nonprofit statusKrawiec had been there, done thatall the money it generates from book sales funds future publications and community work, or goes to causes such as Black Lives Matter and the Dakota Access Pipeline. The poetry doesn’t always, or even often, have an overtly activist bent, but the structure behind it explicitly does.

“One of the models I had in my head was Alice James Books in Boston, kind of a cooperative,” Krawiec explains. “When they started people thought of them as self-publishing because everyone contributed [money]. Our writers don’t contribute, but I liked the communitarian model that incorporated writers into the press.”

Jacar writers teach workshops and work as editors and readers for the press’s online journal, One. The press handles its own distribution to avoid fees that would cut into donatable proceeds.

“When Tony said to me, ‘We’ve been writing about this shit for decades, we’ve got so many poems about this and should put [Resisting Arrest] together, we thought it was a great idea,” Krawiec says. “There are too many black people being killed and we have to do something. It was Tony’s vision, and we knew it would be wrong to make money on it.”

Jacar doesn’t follow the traditional publishing model that Krawiec calls “launch, then forget,” and the promotion of the book goes on. The Durham event this week follows large readings in Brooklyn, Washington, D.C., Raleigh, and elsewhere. As at those events, the one at Letters will feature a mix of invited performersincluding Howard Craft, members of Black Ops Theatre Company, and filmmaker Rodrigo Dorfmanand audience members. Anyone who comes is invited to participate by reading a poem and weighing in during the discussion that follows. Future events for Greensboro and Wilmington are in the works.

“We want to try to break it down,” Krawiec says of the audience-performer divide, “and to involve people who don’t normally think of themselves as readers. It’s not just the stage, and we’re watching itwe are the stage. I don’t want to take ownership of it, but for each community to facilitate it, how to move forward and address issues of race and violence.”

This widening circle of involvement represents what poetry can do that other kinds of reportage can’t.

“It humanizes,” Medina says, “outside of statistics and news items, where people become numb to things. It gives you the interior and puts some meat on the bones of those victimized. All these poets come from various aesthetic backgroundsit’s multigenerational, multicultural. In the introduction, I’m mentioning not just African Americans being killed by police, but white folks, Native Americans, Latinos.”

For Jacar Press, “the activism is not exactly separate [from the poetry], it’s kind of the outcome of our values,” Krawiec says. Resisting Arrest treads the same line between fine art and active activism. Medina is teaching it in his classes at Howard, and students are writing responses to the poems.

“We wanted it to be an artistic tool and also something that’s used for activism,” Medina says. “But it’s ultimately about art. The poetry itself has a lot to teach us in terms of language, poetics, metaphorshow we perceive things and the ways in which we enter into these lives that have become broken through violence. There’s always this dichotomy between art and social responsibility. This, I think, just fits perfectly with the two. The art is just as important as what is being discussed about human behavior in our society.”

At a time when anxiety over the efficacy of art is understandably high, Resisting Arrest is an example of how art can matter. Add your voice to the chorus at Letters Bookshop in a week.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Fighting Words.”