Where Does it all Lead?

In the end, we see how social justice poetry has grown from a history of speaking out and seizing an identity. Now, it is all around us, flowing through poems and voices, stretching from the page to the voice to the ear. We are the audience and the speaker. Rachel Rostad is a young poet, carrying on the legacy. But she is also a college student, a person. An individual with words and experience, bringing back the history of social justice to the public sphere.



Speaking Circles: A Look at Patrick Rosal’s Poem “About the White Boys who Drove by a Second Time to Throw a Bucket of Water on Me”

By Patrick Rosal


…there shall never be rest
’til the last moon droop and the last tide fall…
– Arthur Symons


The first time they merely spat on me and drove off
I stood there a while staring down the road
after them as if I were looking for myself
I even shouted my own name
But when they cruised past again
to toss a full bucket of water
(and who knows what else) on me
I charged–sopping wet–after their car


and though they were quickly gone I kept
running Maybe it was hot that August afternoon
but I ran the whole length of Main Street past
the five-and-dime where I stole Spaldeens
and rabbits’ feet past the Raritan bus depot
and Bo’s Den and the projects where Derek and them
scared the shit out of that girl I pumped
the thin pistons of my legs all the way home


Let’s get real: It’s been twenty-five years
and I haven’t stopped chasing them
through those side streets in Metuchen
each pickup b-ball game every
swanky mid-town bar I’ve looked for them
in every white voice that slurred and cursed me
within earshot in every pink and pretty
body whose lights I wanted to punch out


–and did to be honest I looked for them
in every set of thin lips I schemed to kiss
and this is how my impossible fury
rose: like stone in water I ran
all seven miles home that day and I’ve been
running ever since arriving finally
here and goddammit I’m gonna set things straight


The moment they drove by laughing
at a slant-eyed yellowback gook
they must have seen a boy
who would never become a man We could say
they were dead wrong but instead let’s say
this: Their fathers gave them their rage
as my father gave me mine

and from that summer day on we managed
to savor every bloody thing
that belonged to us It was a meal
constantly replenished–a rich
bitterness we’ve learned to live on for so long
we forget how–like brothers–
we put the first bite in one another’s mouths

Here is a link where you can listen to Patrick Rosal read this poem live. There are other poems which you can listen to by Patrick Rosal.


In this poem, the idea that prejudice and the anger that arises from prejudices is cyclic in its patterns. The end of the poem grows to this idea of feeding; the speaker is fed by the actions of the white boys. Yet, the speaker asserts that the food is also something that grows from tradition and what parents think. Therefore, the poem ties into the epigraph’s assertion that there is no rest. There is no break from the prejudice. This is emphasized by the poem’s lack of punctuation, especially periods which would give the poem a complete stop. As a spoken word poem, the rise and fall of the speaker’s voice brings back this idea of reaction. The poem is a reaction to something that happened, but it is also a call for change because it points out that which is absurd. By pointing out the cyclical sensation of this prejudice, the poem stands as a call for justice, for an awakening to the source of all the prejudice that goes on in the world. Thus, the poem stands as an interaction between audience and poet that calls awareness to the current situation in hope of change.


Taking Control Of Identity: Sarah Kay’s “The Type”

The following is a poem written and spoken by Sarah Kay:

The Type


Everyone needs a place. It shouldn’t be inside of someone else. -Richard Siken


If you grow up the type of woman men want to look at,
you can let them look at you. But do not mistake eyes for hands.


Or windows.
Or mirrors.


Let them see what a woman looks like.
They may not have ever seen one before.


If you grow up the type of woman men want to touch,
you can let them touch you.


Sometimes it is not you they are reaching for.
Sometimes it is a bottle. A door. A sandwich. A Pulitzer. Another woman.


But their hands found you first. Do not mistake yourself for a guardian.
Or a muse. Or a promise. Or a victim. Or a snack.


You are a woman. Skin and bones. Veins and nerves. Hair and sweat.
You are not made of metaphors. Not apologies. Not excuses.


If you grow up the type of woman men want to hold,
you can let them hold you.


All day they practice keeping their bodies upright–
even after all this evolving, it still feels unnatural, still strains the muscles,


holds firm the arms and spine. Only some men will want to learn
what it feels like to curl themselves into a question mark around you,


admit they do not have the answers
they thought they would have by now;


some men will want to hold you like The Answer.
You are not The Answer.


You are not the problem. You are not the poem
or the punchline or the riddle or the joke.


Woman. If you grow up the type men want to love,
You can let them love you.


Being loved is not the same thing as loving.
When you fall in love, it is discovering the ocean


after years of puddle jumping. It is realizing you have hands.
It is reaching for the tightrope when the crowds have all gone home.


Do not spend time wondering if you are the type of woman
men will hurt. If he leaves you with a car alarm heart, you learn to sing along.


It is hard to stop loving the ocean. Even after it has left you gasping, salty.
Forgive yourself for the decisions you have made, the ones you still call


mistakes when you tuck them in at night. And know this:
Know you are the type of woman who is searching for a place to call yours.


Let the statues crumble.
You have always been the place.


You are a woman who can build it yourself.
You were born to build.

In this poem, the speaker’s address to woman comes as a call of arms. Throughout, the poem places the ‘you’ as the direct agent of the verb, the subject that is acting. Thus, the poem strains against the objectification and mistreatment of women, while simultaneously striving to give identity to women that is not limited to ideas of victimization. The final lines emphasize this call to action, taking a typical anecdote and twisting the meaning; men usually are the ones who are associated with building things, but here, it is the woman who does not need to rely on man in order to build, she is just able to build by herself. This is played out in the poem’s agency. The woman can ‘let’ the man look at her, but it is a choice, an action. This claiming of agency makes this poem very much rooted in defining an identity. Similarly, it brings to play a social topic of sexuality and the idea of equality between men and women. The call for action places this poem directly under the realm of social action.

The Spoken Word Legacy: Patrick Rosal and Sarah Kay

As a major re-birth of the oral aspect of poetry, the effects of slam poetry can be seen in many living poets today. Two poets with different backgrounds offer insight into how claiming an identity and interacting directly with an audience has shaped contemporary social justice poetry.
The son of Philippine immigrants, Patrick Rosal has published three books of poetry: Boneshepherds, My American Kundiman, and Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive. He has received many different awards and fellowships such as a Fulbright Fellowship to the Philippines. 

Sarah Kay is the co-director and founder of Project VOICE, an initiative to bring poetry to youth. The author of the book B, she works as an editor for Write Bloody Publishing and has given many talks about poetry including one presented at the 2011 TED Conference. In 2006, she was the youngest poet competing at the National Poetry Slam.

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Slam Poetry: An Outlet For Identity Expression

Most individuals are familiar with the concept of slam poetry; people sitting in a coffee house or lounge listening to a poet stand on a stage and rant in metaphor and poetic phrases about the world to the echoes of approval and or disapproval. Slam poetry is what many people think of when they imagine a poet in today’s world. It brings the spoken word to a competitive plane with audience interaction.
Slam has very particular characteristics simply put as no limitations. The founder of slam, Marc Smith writes, “Slam is about all styles. It is about expanding the possibilities of poetry instead of limiting them, about injecting performance into the art of poetry, and most importantly about creating community amongst poets and audiences of diverse natures.” Within this broad concept of slam, however, the idea of diversity pulls forth to fashion a particular identity around slam. “It’s open to all types of people. It provides a forum for performing artists to develop new works and push the envelope of their creativity” Smith writes.

As a result, slam takes on the image of identity expression and where the marginalized come to speak about their backgrounds. And all this is accomplished through writing that is accessible to all. Susan Somers-Willett touches on the significance of the poetry’s mode, “Slam’s emphases on diversity, inclusion, and democracy have resulted in a ‘pluralism’ among its poets. . . Such pluralism, the scholar Tyler Hoffman remarks, ‘points to the fact that the spoken word in the U.S. in recent decades is tied up in powerful social movements that re framed– and validated– cultural identities of minorities.'”

From this, it is evident that Slam serves as a medium for social justice/action poetry. It centers on the socio-political in an accessible way, bringing the topics of identity and marginalization that appears in poetry to the attention of the audience. This interaction may be seen through the following videos of slam:

In both poems, the topics relevant to the speakers also connect to this idea of marginalization due to minority.

Thus, it can be seen how what is discussed in thought on the page and how the seizure of an identity by the poet is brought to the people directly by word of mouth.

What is Social Justice Poetry?

It is difficult to come up with a clear-cut definition of Social Justice poetry. So, to approach this idea, here are some definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary about what Social Justice and Social Action itself means, outside of the realm of poetry:

“social justice   n. chiefly Polit. and Philos. justice at the level of a society or state as regards the possession of wealth, commodities, opportunities, and privileges. Much of the debate surrounding social justice has been concerned with the precise nature of fair distribution, and to what extent this may conflict with individual rights of acquisition and ownership.”

social action   n.  (a) deliberate action that results or is intended to result in a change in the institutions or conditions of social life; an instance of this;  (b) (Sociol.) action that takes place in a social context; action involving or oriented towards one or more other individuals; an instance of this.”

From these definitions, the poetry’s background is set. Social Justice/Action poetry then refers to poetry that pays special attention to individuality, rights, and ownership.