Michael Warr by Patricia Zamora

Poetry as form of protest in new Norton Anthology

Sitting in his office at the Museum of the African Diaspora, where he’s served as deputy director since September, Michael Warr holds a copy of the just-out Norton Anthology Of Poetry and Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin, which he edited with Phil Cushway.

“This makes me think of when I first graduated from high school in San Francisco, going to my first job and being at a bus stop and seeing a police officer with a .375 Magnum pointed in this teenager’s face,” Warr says. “His hand was just kind of shaking like this, and I actually intervened. I mean, I was like 18 or something like that, and that has stuck with me to this very very day.”

He also recalls being among a group of students who would go from classroom to classroom every Friday, reading their poetry. “This goes way back for me,” Warr says, “this engagement in poetry, and this view of poetry as something that can actually help transform.”

The book features poems by more than 40 prominent living African American poets, paired with personal statements and intimate photographic portraits shot by Victoria Smith. Each poet is presented so that their words and lives are inseparable: the story of each inherently a lifelong fight against oppression, the words a protest against that oppression. Archival materials from the civil rights movement are scattered throughout the book, leading up to what Warr calls “the new civil rights movement.” The result is both harrowing and heartening.

For instance, early in the book is a full-page spread: The left side is an old copy of a 1964-65 “partial list of racial murders,” each of which contains a brief description followed by “no conviction,” while on the right side is a version of this same list from 2012-15.

Despite the weight of this horrifyingly obvious continuity, there exists on page after page a personal brand of resistance.

“Emotionally, it’s a very difficult subject to have to deal with, despite the fact that it’s been with me my entire life,” Warr says. “But I think having a range of writing on it that gets at this issue in different ways — it’s not just about murder, it’s about survival; it’s not just about ugliness, it’s about beauty — there are all these different ways of showing that this is a part of our lives.

“I mean, I am deeply touched and deeply impacted by police brutality and police violence when it’s unjustified, but I continue to live my life as someone trying to transform the society around me. You can’t just get sucked into the negativism; you have to bring what’s positive. So the book tries to capture not just the impact of murder, but the impact of the efforts for change.”

Warr adds he sees “Of Poetry and Protest” as one tool of many “to hammer away at this. It’s not just an issue; it is a part of American life and it needs to be stopped. It needs to be changed.”

C.S. Giscombe, devorah major and Al Young, who are profiled in the book, join Warr for the kickoff to a national tour.


Of Poetry and Protest: 7 p.m. Thursday, June 30. Free. City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave., S.F. 

This article originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo by Patricia Zamora

Other book events

James J. Siegel’s Literary Speakeasy celebrates its one-year anniversary with readings by Peter Bullen, Ginger Murray, Jim Provenzano and Anna Pulley, and music by Jeff Desira (7 p.m. Thursday, June 30, Martuni’s, 4 Valencia St., S.F., free).

The second year of the Hundy, a 15-day poetry and performance festival, continues with a double-header at E.M. Wolfman: Ronaldo Wilson, Suzanne Stein, the Third Thing and Anne Lesley Selcer at 7 p.m., followed by Grace Ambrose, E.R. Conner, Liz Kinnamon, Tessa Micaela and Connie Yu at 9 p.m. (Friday, July 1, 410 13th St., Oakland, free).

Ishmael Reed, Halifu Osumare, Marvin X, Cecil Brown, Jesse Allen-Taylor and Justin Desmangles discuss their contributions to “Black Hollywood Unchained,” followed by a Q&A (1:30 p.m. Sunday, July 3, San Francisco Public Library, 100 Larkin St., S.F., free).