On the Art of Political Poetry

Recently I’ve been invited to give a workshop for university students in a course on “Women, Poetry, History.” My first reaction was: “What? Me? A poet? No, no, you got it wrong. I ain’t no poet. I’m a fiction writer, a novelist. I don’t do poetry.” But then, slowly, I realized that actually, I am a poet. Well, sort of. For those who read my work, this might be confusing, as you’ve probably come across my poetry. And to be honest, it confused me as well.

Poetry. That unidentifiable, slippery, tricky form of writing. Those pieces of writing where you keep digging to reach all layers of meaning, ending up dissecting the poem into fragments, and still not getting at what the poet had in mind.

Going back in time, poetry is the place where I started. Rereading dog-eared, falling apart notebooks, I discover crude attempts at imitating dead poets. Mostly, they were poems about the loneliness and confusions of growing up. Over the years, I’ve graduated to more mature and politically-oriented writing. Although my main focus is fiction, poetry still plays a major role in my life.

I never sit down at my writing desk with the conscious intention of writing a poem. Sometimes a poem sneaks up on me, like a mysterious lover, brushing a gentle kiss of words, and leaving quietly. At other times, a poem bursts out of me like a tornado, after building up in the depth of my stomach. No matter how – gentle or violent – it always comes unexpected, but almost predictable.

Still, it’s the one constant form of writing in my life. It has accompanied me throughout the years. Poetry comes to me when I have no words left. When the emotion reaches a point beyond words, that’s when poetry makes its grand entrance. Because what words can you use to express your anger at yet another murder of a woman for no reason other than being a woman? Everything has been said already. Poetry is the only form left, because speak out we must, as Audre Lorde says: “When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.”

And this is how “Set My Body on Fire” was born. I read the news item about the murder of Raneen Rahal, my stomach in a tight knot. There were no words that could express my outrage. My hand intuitively reached for a pen and the notepad I keep on my desk. The poem wrote itself in less than a minute.


Set my body on fire


But before that,

Run me over

With your truck

Kidnap me

Take me to the woods

Hit me with a hammer

Then, just to make sure,

Hit me 11 more times until

my skull is fractured.

Then set my body on fire.


My name is –

My name was –

Raneen Rahal. I was brutally murdered by my brother.


No, there’s no alliteration, similes, metaphors, rhyme, or any of the other elements that supposedly define a “good poem” in here. There’s only truth, pain, and rage here – words picked from a single news item.

Sometimes, poetry can be appreciated for its beauty and aesthetic value. But just as often, many of us, especially women, have used poetry as a vessel to express our outrage and anger at social and civil injustices, to scream out against them. I draw inspiration and power in knowing that I am not alone in creating this kind of poetry; that women before me screamed out in words on paper. Women like Maya Angelou and Audre Lorde, whose poetry should be read in its historical context and their position both as women and as black women. Audre Lorde’s poem “Power” resonates strongly with me, and I can connect to it from a personal place. I can feel Audre’s rage as she wrote these lines:

“Today that 37 year old white man

with 13 years of police forcing

was set free

by eleven white men who said they were satisfied

justice had been done

and one Black Woman who said

“They convinced me” meaning

they had dragged her 4’10” black Woman’s frame

over the hot coals

of four centuries of white male approval

until she let go

the first real power she ever had

and lined her own womb with cement

to make a graveyard for our children.”

So, without alliteration, similes, metaphors, or rhyme, without sitting down consciously with the intention to write a poem, I think I have the right to claim the title of a poet. I also hope to see more women taking up the pen and speaking up against injustices in the form of poetry. Like I wrote in a previous post, I am now collecting the poems I wrote throughout the years, and which I have just realized fall into a number of categories, and am hoping to publish them independently in the fall. Anyone who has pledged $5 or more in support of my work will receive a free digital copy of the collection. To support my work, please visit: www.patreon.com/khulud_khamis

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