Womawords Literary Press, the heart-child of Mbizo Chirasha, is cohost of The BeZine‘s 2020 International Poetry Month celebration, a daily series of poems that begins here on the Zine blog tomorrow.
Womawords is a complex of efforts initiated by Zimbabwean poet activist in exile, Mbizo Chirasha (Mbizo, The Black Poet). I was curious—and thought others might be as well—about the inspiration for this ambitious and worthy effort that is devoted to giving women and girls a platform in which to speak out about their concerns and experiences and to share their wisdom.
—Jamie Dedes, Founding and Co-Manging Editor The BeZine
JAMIE: Why and when did you start Womawords?
MBIZO: The heart of a women is like an ocean, thus she must be proffered a free platform to express concerns, to speak rights, to voice against wrongs, to sing experiences and more. The world-over we are blessed with an influx of women and the girl-child gifted not only physical stature but mental beauty, endowed with wisdom to sub create and shape humanity. Womawords was birthed in April 2019 as a complimentary initiative during my eye-opening and life-changing tenure with the International Human Rights Art Festival.
JAMIE: Please tell us about the origin of the name.
MBIZO: The name pays tribute to the power and influence literary arts culture, words and poetry. The Womawords Project is a positive transformation from my initial project, Girl Child Creativity Project, which was Zimbabwean based, and transitioned it into an international literary-arts culture digital space exhibiting women’s voices and literature. Women are powerful trench soldiers; they experience a bundle of traumas from child birthing, rape, menstrual health issues, domestic violence, stigma, and discrimination. A whole lot of hardships, but also women are molders of humanity. I have always known of mother-tongue not father-tongue, hence Womawords—a metaphor that gives women from around the globe a space to express themselves through poetry, resistance literature, and resilience arts.
JAMIE: What are the current activities Womawords is sponsoring?
MBIZO: The 2020 main project is the Daughters of the Earth Project, an international writer’s contest. The writer’s contest gives an opportunity for women to raise their voice, exchange ideas and promote dialogue on Menstrual Equity and Health through poetry, stories, flash fiction, and essays. And there are a myriad of issues, unresolved problems, taboos and myth experienced by women globally. WOMEN must be given the chance to speak, to raise their concerns, to offer solutions and to tell their experiences through this Daughters of the Earth Writers Contest Project. For more details follow on the submissions portal on Womawords.
Other projects include:
Women of Residence Profile Features: The Press is anchored by FEATURES of Prolific Poets, Writers, Socialites, and Artistic Luminaries.
Liberating Voices: This is a quarterly collection of voices and is guided by a specific theme for every publication.
JAMIE: What are the long-term goals?
MBIZO:Womawords Literary Press is a formula of positive change and transformation in the area of exhibiting women’s artistic voices and resistance literature by the girl child. In the next five years we are growing into a reputable book and literary arts publishing republic.
Going forward within 2020 we continue to restructure by placing and appointing representatives in more than twenty countries around the globe. These are women—writers, poets, activist, and artists—using their words to bring forth transformative change, using their poetry to expose societal tumors, wielding their artistic weapons to slash perpetrators of barbarism, using their resistance literatures to shine a light on the madness.
In March 2021, we are hosting a Womawords International Symposium with editorial associates, contributing writers, women artists, and women arts cultural activists who will convene to share and exchange experiences through symposium presentations, poetry performances, and story readings .
*Editor’s Note: “The struggle continues.” It’s a rallying cry for freedom.
MBIZO CHIRASHA (Mbizo, The Black Poet) is one of the newest members of The BeZine core team. He is a poet from Zimbabwe who is on the run. We have been coordinating in the search for safe harbor.
“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” Elie Wiesel
Toward the end of June this year I was introduced to Kella Hanna-Wayne’s (Yopp) work via a Facebook link shared by my colleague here at The BeZine, Contributing Editor Michael Dickel, which he in turn received from his daughter. I subsequently included info on Kella and her post HERE. That’s the way the world moves these days. Though technology and social networking are mixed blessings in some respects, they’re effective tools for people like Kella and I who have work to which we are committed but deal everyday with serious physical disabilities that constrain (in my case prohibit) activity outside the home.
The link of which I speak was to a post in which Kella provided some well-considered guidelines and resources for protesting the migrant travesties on the U.S. Southern Border. As I investigated Kella’s site, I was impressed with her thoroughness and clarity. I wrote to her about doing an interview on for our activist poets, writers, and friends. She agreed. Here it is. Read on. / Managing Editor, Jamie Dedes
JAMIE: Kella, you have taken on such a range of causes, all of them important, critical. Not everyone can do that. I hear people talk about “compassion burnout,” which is understandable but irritating. It’s a luxury oppressed people don’t have. I usually respond with “pick a cause. Pick one cause and focus on that.” What’s your advice?
KELLA: I think all of us, including activists, can agree that social justice is simply overwhelming. There are so many causes, there’s so much to learn about every cause, and to make things even more complicated, the needs of each cause are constantly progressing and changing. It’s a lot to keep up with.
But one of the fundamental ideas behind my blog is that there are a basic set of guidelines that you can follow that will help you understand any source of oppression. Instead of learning about male privilege, and then white privilege, and then financial privilege, why not learn how the concept of privilege works so that you can apply it to any new cause you learn about? There are so many challenges marginalized groups face that they have in common with one another: microaggressions, oppressive language, policing of their emotions/bodies, even difficulty accessing medical care. I think that if you learn the functionality of the oppressive systems that are at work and all the basic components of social justice, it enables you to support these groups of people much more effectively and thoroughly than if you were trying to learn one cause at a time from scratch.
I also think that even if you do choose to focus primarily on one cause, it’s important to be aware of the basics of the other ones because social justice issues are all inextricably connected to each other and ignoring the way intersectionality impacts the problems that we’re tackling tends to leave holes in our solutions.
JAMIE:What then are the steps activists can take to minimize burnout?
KELLA: No matter how narrow your focus, social justice issues are far bigger than any one person can solve. Because activism has to be a collective effort, I think it’s really important to recognize that completely fixing the problem is an impossible standard to hold yourself to. You are one piece in a much larger effort to create change. Even when you are focusing on what is within your personal power, you have to be realistic about what you can actually accomplish. If there are 20 different tasks that you could do as an activist and each one is individually within your ability to do, it’s likely doing all 20 of them is not. You have to choose what it is that you are going to do.
To make that choice, I recommend focusing on forms of activism that…
Are sustainable so that you can continue to do them over time
Are empowering to you so that you feel motivated to continue
Aren’t deeply upsetting or draining in such a way that the cost of the task is greater than the positive impact the action has
Feel right to you.
Which forms of activism meet those criteria is going to be different for everyone. For example, I believe that calling your representatives is an effective way to impact the future of our country but I find making phone calls incredibly anxiety-inducing and I have to spend a lot of energy to get myself to make one. That’s not a good use of my resources. On the other hand, writing comes easily to me, I find it rewarding, and it’s something that a lot of other people can’t contribute. I can accomplish way more by writing on behalf of activism than I could if I were using the same amount of resources to make phone calls. Whenever I feel the push to do more for a cause, I re-center on the importance of my writing and how much I’m offering in the work I already do.
A philosophy I carry around with me wherever I go is that everyone has something of value to offer. You have to find what your offering is.
JAMIE: Tell us about Yopp Academy.
KELLA: Yopp Academy is a section of my blog that focuses on educational material. It’s where I’m outlining that basic set of social justice guidelines I mentioned earlier.
To distinguish the amount of prior knowledge that’s needed to understand a given article, I used a college-style course numbering system, so articles are sorted into 100 level, 200 level, 300 level, etc. If you’re brand new to social justice, you start with the 100 level articles and work your way up. It really does function like a set of college courses in that articles of higher levels directly reference ideas from the level 100 articles, so the more of them you read together, the better your understanding will be of the subject as a whole.
The articles I have published currently only go up to level 300 because I’ve been putting my focus on establishing all the basic concepts before adding more advanced stuff. I’m currently working on a lesson plan of over 40 educational articles to serve as a foundation of knowledge which you can use regardless of your level of involvement with activism, which will include higher-level articles in the future.
JAMIE:Tell us about your Facebook debates.
KELLA: I’ve always had a lot of friends on facebook who are into social justice and some of them have such large friends list that anytime they posted something controversial, it would spark a discussion/debate. I started jumping into these discussions and offering my opinion and I got a reputation for being good at explaining basic social justice concepts to people who weren’t familiar with them and for clearly outlining the problems in someone else’s argument.
I used Facebook debates to practice my writing, increase my own understanding of social justice, it introduced me to a bunch of other amazing people that cared about the same things, and because managing my disability/mental illnesses made traditional activism prohibitive, it gave me a way to be involved in causes I cared about. Spending so much time arguing with people who I disagreed with also gave me a lot of insight into the places people were most likely to have holes in their understanding of our social systems which in turn has really informed the content and the structure of my blog. I often say the reason I started a blog in the first place was that I got tired of writing out the same explanations/arguments over and over again, and just wanted to write out the article once to link to every time I came across the same issue again.
I know I differ from a lot of people in that I believe debates on social media, even the “unproductive” ones, are an important branch of activism. Not only do they spread information to larger audiences of people (while only 10 people might be commenting, 1,000 could be reading the comments) but they serve as a means of socializing bigots to understand that their bigotry will be met with hassle and frustration rather than easy acceptance like they’re used to. I think that practice has a lot more power than people think it does.
JAMIE: So many people – like you and me – live with chronic, even catastrophic, illness. What can these illnesses teach us about social justice and advocacy?
KELLA: If you hold a conference for activism regarding chronic illness but you organize it in a similar way that you would any other business conference, your collection of speakers, organizers, and attendants are likely to be mostly healthy people rather than chronically ill people. If it’s energy-intensive to leave your house/travel, if you need frequent breaks or a special housing set up, if you have extensive food restrictions or you need to hire a carer to accompany you, it’s going to be very difficult, resource costly, and risky to go to a conference that healthy people can attend with ease. Even in attempting to center the chronically ill, if you organize from the perspective of a healthy person, you will leave chronically ill out of their own activism. That’s because the default systems that we have in place for most aspects of society make it very difficult for chronically ill people to participate let alone succeed.
Anytime you design a solution for the social issues chronically ill people face, you have to start by adapting your mindset and prioritizing accommodation of an experience that you’re not familiar with, or you’ll fail at your advocacy from the beginning.
And this idea is not at all exclusive to chronic illness. You see the same problem with white people organizing on behalf of people of color, cis people organizing for trans people, abled people organizing for disabled people, etc. You have to go in understanding that in order for your advocacy to be successful, you have to dismantle the relevant oppressive systems that are within your scope of power and create new systems, a new foundation before you attempt to build any kind of structure on top.
JAMIE: Your site is about eighteen months old as we work on this post. What are the goals for the next couple of years?
KELLA: I’m still very much working out what my ideal version of Yopp would be or what I want it to accomplish but so far, my concrete plans are:
Switch over to a new, more modern and accessible website
Finish writing the basic building blocks for Yopp Academy (all 40 of them!!)
Build up my Patreon supporter base– my first goal is $800 a month
Acquire enough sponsorships that I can publish up to 4 times a month
KELLA HANNA-WAYNE (Yopp) is a disabled, chronically/mentally ill freelance writer who is the editor, publisher, and main writer for Yopp, a social justice blog dedicated to civil rights education, elevating voices of marginalized people, and reducing oppression; and for GlutenFreeNom.Com, a resource for learning the basics of gluten-free cooking and baking. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine blog, Multiamory, Architrave Press and is forthcoming in a chapter of the book Twice Exceptional (2e) Beyond Learning Disabilities: Gifted Persons with Physical Disabilities. For fun, Kella organizes and DJ’s an argentine tango dancing event, bakes gluten-free masterpieces, sings loudly along with pop music, and makes cat noises. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, Patreon, Medium, and Instagram.
[Mary MacRae] wrote and published poetry the last ten years of her life, after ill-health forced her to take early retirement from teaching. She taught for fifteen years at the James Allen Girls School (JAGS), Dulwich, London. Her commitment to writing led to her deep involvement with the first years of the Poetry School under Mimi Khalvati, studying with Mimi and Myra Schneider, whose advanced poetry workshop she attended for eight years. In these groups her exceptional talent was quickly recognised, leading to publication in many magazines and anthologies. MORE [Second Light Live]
This poem is excerpted from Mary MacRae’s book, Inside the Brightness of Red.
Reprinted here with permission. All rights are reserved by the publisher, Second Light Network.
A breathing space:
the house expands around me,
unfolds elastic lungs
drowsing me back
to other times and rooms
where I’ve sat alone
writing, as I do now,
when syncope –
one two three one two –
the half-glazed door with colour,
enamelled the elder tree
whose ebony drops
hang in rich clusters
on shining scarlet stalks
while with one swift stab
starlings get to the heart
of the matter
in a gulp of flesh
and clotted juice that leaves me
gasping for words transparent
as glass, as air.
♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
My profound gratitude to poet Myra Schneider for the introduction to a new-to-me poet, Mary MacRae, and to poet Dilys Wood of The Second Light Network (England) and editor of ARTEMIS Poetry for granting this interview. J. D.
JAMIE: Clearly, and as has been stated by others, Mary was profoundly inspired by art, nature (particularly flowers and gardens), and love. What can you tell us about her life and interests that would account for that?
DILYS: Mary writes tender and accurate poems about wild nature, creatures and landscape, drawing on her stays in a cottage on an untamed part of the coast in Kent, England and visits to her daughter living in remote West Wales. In her London home, it’s easy to guess from her poems about garden birds and flowers how much time she spent at the window. She almost always sees nature in flux, changing moment by moment, unpredictable, mysterious, a spiritual inspiration. One of her great strengths as a poet is catching movement.
Many of Mary’s poems focus on love between close family members. This may relate to a difficult relationship with her own father, which she sought to understand, and the relationships which compensated (with mother, sister, husband Lachlan, daughter and grandchild). A back problem prevented her from holding her baby daughter and she often refers in her poems to young children. She clearly has a yearning towards them.
JAMIE: She wrote poetry apparently only at the end of her life and for ten years. What were her creative outlets before that? How did she come to poetry?
DILYS: Mary was a dedicated teacher of English Literature and language in a leading girls’ secondary school. She was also deeply interested in music and painting (these are strongly reflected in her poetry). Though she had written as a young woman she followed the pattern of many women creative artists in becoming absorbed into her home life and her paid work, only turning to writing when her illness released her from the daily grind of intensive teaching. The remarkable, rapid development of her poetry shows how strong her latent powers really were.
JAMIE: Was writing poetry a part of her healing process when she was diagnosed with cancer? If so, how did it help her?
DILYS: I’m confident that Mary’s diagnosis with cancer enabled her to change her life-style and from then on concentrate on her poetry, urged by the sense that she might be short of time. There is no evidence that Mary wrote therapeutically to come to terms with her cancer. In fact she only ever addressed her illness in relation to the possible unkindness of fate in cutting her off from beloved people and life itself. The poems written in the last 2-3 years of her life give the impression that her dedication to writing, with the spiritual experiences which accompanied it, enabled her to bear terrible distress. She records this distress, using imaginative and metaphorical approaches to focus it, and these poems make heart-wrenching reading.
JAMIE: Can you tell us about her process? When did she write? Where? For how long?
DILYS: I have the impression that Mary’s life revolved around three things, people she loved, gathering experiences that would feed her poetry (travel, listening to music, visiting galleries) and very hard work in direct furtherance of her writing (extensive reading, attending workshops with other inspirational poets, writing, revising and submitting her poems to criticism from critics she respected). She used notebooks to make a full, accurate record of those experiences – landscapes, human encounters, thoughts – that would feed her work. There is an extract from one such entry in the section about keeping a journal in the resource bookWriting Your Self, Transforming Personal Material by Myra Schneider and John Killick. This book also includes a contribution in the chapter on spirituality which reveals much about Mary’s attitudes to life, nature and also her writing process.
JAMIE: Do you have any advice from her for other poets and aspiring poets?
DILYS: Mary was a dedicated writer, entirely sincere in her commitment to poetry as opposed to ‘career’ as a poet. She was always ready to enjoy and praise the widest range of subject-matter, approaches and styles from other poets, providing she thought they were ‘busting a gut’ to get their poems right, and not indulging in the trendy or superficial, which she despised (whether from well-knowns or unknowns). She put much emphasis on wide-reading of both past and contemporary poets and she herself had absorbed a huge amount of other poets’ work, always quoting fully and accurately. She liked using another’s work as a starting pont for her own (the Glose) and particularly admired the work in strict form (includingSonnet, Villanelle and Ghazal), which began to be more acceptable from the mid-1990s (eg from such poets as Marilyn Hacker and Mimi Khalvati).
JAMIE: Are any other collections of her poetry planned? If so, when might we look forward to them?
DILYS: When putting together ‘Inside the Brightness of Red’, Myra Schneider and I went through the whole of Mary’s unpublished work and selected all those poems we felt were both complete and would have satisfied her high standards. What remains unpublished would be mainly fragments and early versions of poems she did more work on. There will not, as far as we know, be a further book, but Mary did achieve her aim of being a significant lyric poet, whose work is very attractive, polished and, above all (as she would have wished) deeply moving and consolatory.
* The Second Light Network aims to promote women’s poetry and to help women poets, especially but not only older women, poets develop their work. It runs weekends of workshops and readings in London usually twice a year, a residential extended workshop with readings and discussions at least once every eighteen months and occasionally other events. It is nationwide (England). Dilys is the main editor of ARTEMIS Poetry, a major poetry magazine for women produced by Second Light twice a year. It includes a lot of reviews and some articles as well as poetry by Second Light members who receive it free as part of their subscription. An e-newsletter is sent out every few weeks. A few anthologies of poetry have been published by the network but now this magazine developes books under special circumstances only – such as Mary’s collections.