Writers and Creators Discuss What It Means to Make Art in the Trump Era
How living in America has affected creativity in the year since the election
Creatives are critical players during political crises. At our best, we articulate danger now and danger ahead. We visualize possibility. We act.
I owe writers for what they did for me in November 2016. I didn’t feel a minute of relief from my post-election haze until I listened to the readers at “What Just Happened: Writers Respond to the 2016 Presidential Election.” Participants shared powerful stories. But there was also something about getting together that night. Community and the written word had us feeling energy that we didn’t have when we walked in the door.
Poet Willie Perdomo declared 2017 the year of “fear, angst, and Hell No”. That tidily summed up my year. But what about for others? One year later, I asked creatives to share how living in America in 2017 has affected their work and well-being.
Distracted, Angry, Vigilant
Respondents were asked how they were doing. Many shared some level of distress.
Rosebud Ben-Obi (poet): “I’m feeling a lot of things. Distracted. Angry. Vigilant. Every day we wake up to some new nonsense that our so-called president has created.”
Willie Perdomo: This is the year of Fear, Angst, and Hell No. The idea that there’s more hoax, and tragedy, and gunplay, and war, and taxes, and hurricanes to come, is enough to exhaust the soul. And, yet, it’s the soul that translates the most when these elements are at their apex.
Leslie Cain (independent film producer): For most of the past year I was constantly waffling between depressed incredulity and determination that America lives up to its promises, even if they weren’t sincere in the first place. I’m trying to focus on how to protect the least protected amongst us.
Peter Markus (fiction writer): I’m doing my best not to throw up my hands. I’m finding ways — small ways — to focus on joy, delight, pleasure. To have to be in this world and navigate the daily situations and relations and wonder, ‘Did the sweet fellow at the vet who is a lover of dogs and Bob Seger vote for that monster? Did my neighbor who is a good neighbor and who we chat across our yard about Michigan football and the Red Wings: I know how he voted. How hasn’t his opinion changed?
Serena Agusto-Cox (poet):I’m more anxious about the world and the role of the United States. I’m more concerned about my daughter’s future in a world where abuse and neglect are OK in the political world, as is regulating women’s rights and the rights of others.
Robert Fanning (poet): Artists and writers are feeling beings — I say that 100% unapologetically. It’s harder to escape now, to make those necessary imaginative flights — with a constant deluge of Bad News in every sphere: ecological, social, political. For me, it is harder to maintain concentration, to focus on the project at hand; my heart feels pummeled and pulled — by such massive and social political issues, by what feels like an assault on the very truth.
Barry Kaplan (playwright): I sometimes feel my retreat to the country makes me safe from the horrors of what is going on in America.This is not to say that people here are oblivious to the world; quite the contrary. But it is easier for me to be alone here and without TV or the newspaper I can feel like everything is OK.
Marc McKee (poet): A year ago I was seized with dread. Now I’m confronted with horror-creep, and it’s like endlessly, endlessly weeding a garden. Some of my friends have machetes and like heroes go to work. Every. Day. Some of my friends are crying from exhaustion and fear and real hurt. And still the weeds come on in fits and swells.
How do you pursue a writing career in Trump’s America without hating yourself?
The Lit Matchbox
I asked the respondents how Trump’s politics and policies affected their communities.
McKee: Trump is basically just a demented accelerant. He’s a lit matchbox dropped into 40 years of Republican gasoline, and though he’s scarcely worth the word, so incurious and unreflective and unreconstructed he is, his “politics” have further galvanized ignorance and fear.
I’m lucky to live in a college town, albeit a somewhat besieged one, ideologically speaking. We rallied for women in my town. We rallied for the Muslim community in my town, leaving a mountain of flowers at the downtown mosque. We have had marches for climate, we have stood outside representatives’ offices insisting that common sense prevail with regard to health care and gun regulation. And so far, none of the menacing policies brandished by an alternately empowered and chastened conservative “lawmaker” majority in Washington have proved out.
Rosebud Ben-Oni (poet): My mother’s family lives on the U.S.-Mexican border, so I hear often about the daily political and social insults on their lives, which seem to be escalating as Trump wants to seize land to build his ridiculous wall. As a woman, as a Latinx, as a bisexual, I can’t not be affected by the current administration. I’m hyper-aware in that sense of looking over my shoulder again and again when I walk down the street. And I don’t mean only a literal street. But that, too.
Cain: Since the morning after, when my nine-year-old daughter woke up to find that Trump had won, I thought some of her faith in grown-ups knowing and doing the right thing faded. I saw her confusion and then the cloud. We were not what she thought we were and neither was the world.
What This Means for the Work
The political, social, and cultural dynamics of the last year affected respondents differently — but most reported personal impact.
Gloria Nixon-John (poet): I have had trouble focusing on my work as it seems less important than expressing my fears about what the current administration is doing, or might do.
Sarah Louise Lilley (actor): As an artist, if you’re work is not overtly political, it can be a challenge to feel that your voice matters. However, I believe more than ever that art is vital. Just making art now is a political act in itself.
I believe more than ever that art is vital. Just making art now is a political act in itself.
Cain: Art ignites, names demons and exorcises them, too. Art can quiet noise and the glare of purposefully placed distractions. This is why they go after art first, be it the NEA or PBS, because we are affirmed when we create and affirmed people know their power. So, I support and engage more art out of necessity now. It feels less about ego and more like a sin to not produce work.
Serena Agusto-Cox (poet): I’ve had a tough time writing poems on the two manuscript themes I have. Either I don’t write at all or I write angry poems about some news item or Trump’s policies in general. I’m generally not an angry person, but these poems need to get out so I can feel a sense of equilibrium these days.
Perdomo: I wonder about the cycles of destruction, the contempt for the Other, and how a percentage of the population (rabid White nationalists, probably minimal in number, but significant in power and holdings), believe that the country belongs to them and only them. Because then they seek ownership of our bodies, our communities, water. I’m interested in the gangster/politician analogy and how they are not far removed from each other. And I’m still disgusted that the best the leader of the free world could come up with were Bounty towel foul shots for a Puerto Rico that had just been decimated by a hurricane. When you see that kind of heavy, intentional symbolism, you have no recourse but to run to your notebook with a sense of urgency, and hopefully, a touch of what the fuck. I roll with Langston Hughes on guidance and advice: Hold. Fast.
An Open Letter To The Writers Speaking Out Against Trump
James Nolan (poet, novelist): My memoir of a politically radical, most unconventional life — Flight Risk: Memoirs of a New Orleans Bad Boy (University Press of Mississippi) — came out during the first months of the Trump presidency, and to promote it at book events during these polarized times has been a tricky experience. Until the election, I actually thought my life and its values had become fairly mainstream — but guess what? — it’s 1968 again, which ironically is where the memoir opens, at a chapter called “Sixty-Eight” set in the mental hospital to which my parents committed me for being an anti-war and civil rights activist.
In book talks I’ve avoided discussing with certain audiences several of the chapters, especially those concerning my girlfriends’ abortions, my bisexuality, being thrown into a Guatemalan jail because of my association with Latin American revolutions, the year I spent teaching in post-Maoist China, and my expatriate life during the heady la movida years in newly democratic Spain. I didn’t realize how truly divided the country is until I had to go on the road with this book. There was standing room only at my event in at City Lights in San Francisco, but I was uninvited to present the book in Jackson, Mississippi, the very place the book was published.
Koritha Mitchell (nonfiction writer): Trump’s ascension has not changed anything I’ve been saying or doing because I’m convinced that the unwillingness to call out white supremacy, white privilege, and white mediocrity helped get him elected. However, I have found myself even more committed to supporting writers of color. They are bearing witness in ways that should not be lost to us now or lost to posterity. And that’s true whether their work is engaging Trump or not.
I have found myself even more committed to supporting writers of color. They are bearing witness in ways that should not be lost to us now or lost to posterity.
Kaplan: As a white male playwright, I find that the temper of the times is such that more and more theatres in New York and regionally are soliciting plays from women, transgender people, and people of color. As a citizen of America I find this a thrilling development; as a playwright, it feels, for the first time, that I am being shut out.
In the Classroom
Nixon-John: While I am having trouble focusing on my writing, I have been more available to help students, many of whom are adults working on worthwhile manuscripts.
Olivia Kate Cerrone (fiction writer): I take great inspiration from the poet Cheryl Buchanan, who founded Writers Without Margins which partners with various shelters and nonprofit organizations in [Boston], such as the Pine Street Inn and St. Francis House, providing a supportive, creative space to nurture and uplift marginalized voices. Buchanan’s work is a constant reminder of the power that individuals still have at the grassroots level, making a real difference in their communities.
Novelist Chinelo Okparanta shared an unpublished essay she wrote after a white male student brought a story to her predominantly white writing workshop at a Pennsylvania university. The story culminates with the targeted killing of all of the Black population.
Okparanta : There’s a way in which the pulse quickens and the eyes tear up and the face burns with heat when one stumbles upon a story like this. If one is a particular kind of person, anyway. Say, a dark-skinned person reading about the destruction of herself by her very own student — the student she comes into contact with at least twice a week. The student she had no idea was capable of harboring such destructive thoughts, even in a fictional universe.
What They Didn’t See Coming
Serena Agusto-Cox (poet): None of it. Except for maybe the cowardice of the Republican party, refusing to stand up for the country and its citizens rather than corporations and their own party victories. Why they do not act to get rid of someone so harmful and unconscionable is beyond me.
Nixon-John: Knowing about [friends and family] support for Trump has changed my feelings about each of them. I have had to avoid some ‘friends’. Some are relatives. I know hate is poison, but it surfaces whenever I see the President’s face. And I don’t think I am the one who needs therapy.
Markus: Oh I saw it coming. I saw all of it coming. I saw the election result coming. I saw the hatred for the other coming. I saw the power and the permission to voice that hatred coming.
Oh I saw it coming. I saw all of it coming. I saw the election result coming. I saw the hatred for the other coming.
Nolan::A Holocaust survivor once explained that the oppression of German Jews began when Hitler gave people the moral permission to act out their long-simmering resentments. I didn’t expect the resentment in the U.S. to explode quite so quickly after Trump’s election. This has happened on both the extreme right and left, and their street and campus clashes threaten to boil over into a civil war.
McKee: Trump makes me feel as though he is the last object lesson we offer ourselves before we implode into violent irrelevance. I don’t see that coming, but that’s what scares me.
What Gives Them Hope
Markus: I see the faces of my children.I hear their voices. I see my wife, I hold her hand, and I know that I am loved.
Cerrone: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently offered this quote: “The true symbol of the United States is not the bald eagle; it is the pendulum, and when the pendulum swings too far in one direction, it will go back.” The Democratic victories in Virginia give proof to this sentiment, especially considering Danica Roem’s historic win. The tide is turning against hate and discrimination.
Ben-Oni: Ruben Quesada is a powerhouse of Latinx and LGBTQ activism; check out his recent poem “Angels of Paradise.” Lynn Melnick has done incredible work over at VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, and her recent book “Landscape with Sex and Violence” is a must-read, especially right now. Read all the Gabby Bellot you can find; here’s a good start. Jose Hernandez Diaz’s “Jorge Ramos Is from Guanajuato”. Charif Shanahan’s “Plantation.” Tiana Clark’s “Nashville”. Nate Marshall’s “the valley of its making.” Mai Der Vang’s “After All Have Gone.” Brian Kornell’s beautiful Fat & Queer series. This is a terribly abbreviated list. Go to CantoMundo, Cave Canem and Kundiman to check out some incredible poets.
Mitchell: James Baldwin and his writing and speaking always give me life. I’m constantly struck by his vision and his willingness to call things exactly what they are. Throughout the Obama presidency, so many simple truths seemed unspeakable. Indeed, Obama modeled the tendency to leave white supremacy, white privilege, and white mediocrity unremarked, despite how fundamentally they continue to determine outcomes for every American. Baldwin’s work models precisely the opposite tendency because he believed that a commitment to democracy required no less.
Lilley: Donald Trump has woken everyone up. We can no longer pretend, we can no longer keep quiet.
Donald Trump has woken everyone up. We can no longer pretend, we can no longer keep quiet.
How to Maintain Creative Energy During This Time
Markus: I do my best to be who I am and to love who I love and to try to act with patience and kindness in every interaction of my every day.
Lilley: I think self-care is more important than ever. Whatever that looks like for you — time in nature, turning off your phone, meditation, exercise, taking a bath or journaling.
Kaplan: I have always liked being alone and working alone and that has not changed as I’ve gotten older and the world has become a more worrisome place. I still go to my desk every day and write and try to learn about myself as I do it. My dog is a wonderful writing companion. I can look away from my desk, across the room at the armchair where she is sound asleep and making little noises in her throat, and be reminded that this is what life is.
Mitchell: I maintain consistent energy and avoid mood swings because I don’t eat sugar or flour. It’s so much easier to find oneself in intense anger and sadness when one’s hormones are out of balance, which sugar and flour almost guarantee in most people.
Fanning: I’m working hard to try and stay away from the edge of that black hole, which is essentially the self sliding into the self, the spiritual flesh flipping backwards upon itself. It really hurts when that happens, so I’m trying — baby steps — to eat better, sleep better, exercise, practice self-maintenance and care. I love going for walks with my wife most mornings beside the river and through the woods. I am, wherever I can, replacing social media and the phone with books (a constant battle). I am working hard on being present for my wife and my children — especially in the moment, looking at them when they’re talking to me, holding them close.
Max S. Gordon (essayist): [I’ve] found myself thinking: If they are going to blow our asses up anyway, and we all end up going to war, maybe I should get high one more time, you know, just go out with a bang? I know better, of course, and it won’t happen, but these are dangerous times for an addict. These are dangerous times for all of us.
What Comes Next
Gordon: Something is definitely coming, and to deal with it we need to be whole. We can’t be fragmented with each other, or within ourselves. The thing that’s coming needs you to hate yourself so you will feel nationalistic pride when they try and build a wall. It needs you afraid at night, hiding behind the shades, so you can be manipulated into a travel ban. The thing that’s coming is counting on you to be a mess, in debt, traumatized, dissociated, drunk, high, angry, racist, lonely, heartbroken, in despair, cynical. It needs you to think Black/White, Palestinian/Jew, Man/Woman, Gay/Straight, Them/Us, Me/Other. The thing that’s coming needs you numb and asleep, so it can organize at night. Then, suddenly, you get up one morning and see the men in the streets with machine guns. Because they know by then it will be too late.
The thing that’s coming needs you numb and asleep, so it can organize at night. Then, suddenly, you get up one morning and see the men in the streets with machine guns.
Fanning: The job of the poet is now as crucial, more crucial than ever — to continue to speak truth, to continue to speak imagination, to speak hope, and to speak love.
Agusto-Cox: Focus on your self-care and family, then do good in your community. Keep hope alive. Even if you don’t have the money to give, give a little of your time or the clothes you don’t wear anymore. Help kids in your community do homework. Anything.
Markus: People need to pay attention. We need to listen and need to take words at their face value. Words say what they say and they often say more than what they say. Words as deed as the saying goes. We need to act, even in small ways: the daily acts of kindness, toward each other, toward total strangers. A simple hello, good morning, how are you? And to listen, I mean really listen when people speak. What people want more than anything else is to hear from you, “I hear you.” Which of course is another way to say, “I feel you. I am with you. We are all in this together.”