Lisa Birman

From Lafayette to Tahrir Square

It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there.

William Carlos Williams, Asphodel, That Greeny Flower>


I wanted to stay on Pennsylvania Avenue. I wanted that proximity. My first night in DC, I walked the three blocks from my hotel to the White House and stood outside. Everything glowed. I was surprised that I could walk all the way up to the fence. That I could loiter. Behind me there were protestors. I wondered if there were always protestors. Tonight, February 2, 2011,  it was a protest in support of Egypt. There were police on horseback standing behind the protestors. It was the White House, me, the protestors, and then the police. The order surprised me.

I spent much of the night watching the news. I don’t have a television at home, but put me in a hotel room and I’ll go wild for it. Everything’s different on television. People look different. Products look different. And the news is a show. I tried to find the local news to hear about the protest a few blocks away, but maybe there isn’t local news in DC. Maybe national news is local news. International news is local news. So I watched CNN, I watched the protests in Egypt. I listened to people chanting and gathering and promising to stay.

I spent most of the next day at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference. I went through the bookfair, attended some panels, caught up with friends. It was a different world. There was no Egypt here. I wondered if some of the writers staying in the hotel were upstairs in their rooms, watching the news. I would ask people, “Did you see the news today?” As if the news is something to be seen, not read, not heard. The whole day went by without reference to the way the world was changing. There were readings and parties that night, but I went back to my hotel. To my secret viewing station.

The next day was more of the same. Panels, readings, books. The world of the conference. One of the things I love about working with writers is that the conversations usually make sense to me. In a previous world, I worked with accountants. Also with sales people. Lovely people. But the conversations didn’t make as much sense. And here I was amongst my colleagues. Not having conversations.

Can we really get the news from poetry? Can we really affect change? Be unacknowledged legislators? It didn’t seem like it. It seemed like we were distracted. Self-involved. I went out for dinner. At the table next to me was a group of UNICEF staff. High level staff. I ate my kofta and learned about sewerage treatment and open defecation rates. Someone even pulled out a laptop and showed a series of slides. This wasn’t a business meeting. These were colleagues talking about their work. They weren’t talking about Egypt either. It made me feel better.

I still needed the news, and it seemed I wasn’t going to get it through poetry or UNICEF. So back to the television. I was sitting on the bed, going through the schedule for the next day.


Line breaks.

In the news.

Anderson Cooper was speaking in line breaks.



Fear has been defeated, they’ll tell you. There’s no turning back.


Dug up rocks, bandaged bodies.


They speak about freedom and fairness and justice.


Fear has been defeated. There’s no turning back.


It wasn’t announced as a poem. On screen there was a photo collage of images from the last eleven days. Bloodied faces. Bloodied flags.

Peacefully protesting. Their lives on the line.

A man holding a rock with his peace-sign fingers, smiling.

This was the news. He was telling us the news in a poem. He broke form. Found a new way to communicate. Or reverted to an old way. This was the news. This was what I’d been waiting for. For the form to break. For us to become uncontained. We didn’t manage it in the safety of the conference. But Anderson Cooper managed it in Cairo. And CNN news directors managed it too.

How do you express the extraordinary using the ordinary? That’s one of the challenges of poetry. To unstrange the strange. To strange the unstrange. On February 4, 10:57pm, I understood the news a little better. I listened more carefully. I was reminded that poetry is not a luxury. That it is necessary. That it is the way we speak when we are most endangered.

Editors’ Notes

Lisa Birman

Lisa Birman Lisa Birman is the author of For That Return Passage – a Valentine for the United States of America, co-editor of the anthology Civil Disobediences: Poetics and Politics in Action, and has published several chapbooks of poetry, including O–A Conversation and deportation poems. Her work has appeared in Milk Poetry Magazine, Trickhouse, thuggery & grace, and not enough night. Lisa is the Director of the Summer Writing Program at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, where she also teaches for the MFA in Creative Writing.