Indigenous people once referred to the land that makes up North America as “Turtle Island,” before Europeans renamed it for explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Turtle Island Responds is an online poetry series under the auspices of Room Magazine, in which people from marginalized communities across the continent reflect on events from the current news cycle.
Edited and curated by Métis/Icelandic poet and author Jónína Kirton, the series welcomes original poems by both emerging and established cis and transgender women, trans men, Two-Spirit, and non-binary people writing in response to the current news cycle.
‘In a sense, a lot of the news we get is sanitized – even the good news,” she says. “It’s coming from one point of view. It’s time we started hearing from people within marginalized communities, and not just when someone holds a microphone in front of their face and asks them a question. With a poem, you have time to contemplate and put down your words carefully.”
She appreciates submissions that tie present events to the past. The inspiring event doesn’t have to be international, she explains.
“A poem can be inspired by a local article about a joyful accomplishment such as a community garden. It can be inspired by a social media exchange that’s touched the poet’s community and the poet. I’m casting a broad net.”
Kirton looks for compelling poems and author statements related to recent news from underrepresented voices. One of these is indigenous author Zofia Rose Musiej, who wrote “Home Is.” in response to the separation of children from parents seeking asylum across the U.S./Mexican border.
Musiej grew up as a foster child in Canada. In her author statement, she reflects on how current immigration legislation echoes the removal of indigenous children from their families for relocation in residential schools or with adoptive or foster families.
“Zofia is a brave Indigenous woman who is willing to use her story to support others coming out of the foster care system and to help educate people as to the painful effects of a system that separated her from her siblings and saw her living in many different homes,” Kirton explains.
Turtle Island Responds launched in May 2018 with Vancouver writer Fatima Amarshi’s “To All the White People Who Voted for Change but Not to Hurt Me.” It’s a prose poem written in response to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, with Amarshi’s observations – as a lesbian immigrant with a South Asian and Muslim background – on privilege and bigotry from the people around her. She begins:
“On Nov. 8th 2016, just before midnight, I began to disappear. The first thing to go was my voice. I remember because when I tried to tell you why I was afraid, you could only hear every third word and asked why I was talking gibberish.
“By the end of the night, all you could hear were squeaks and croaks, which annoyed you, so you walked away to share a drink with more pleasant friends.”
Kirton is also eager to feature Jude Hayes’ poem “fury,” in August 2018. Hayes is a white transgender man who writes about being an ally. “It is a powerful piece of writing. The poem lets no one off the hook, including the poet,” she says.
Advice for potential contributors
Kirton asks poets to consider their line breaks. “Line breaks can make or break a poem,” she says. “I’ve sat down with many people who didn’t change a single word – just altered their line breaks – and the poem sung.”
That said, she says that submitted poems don’t have to be perfect. “I do offer some editing,” she notes. “The author statement is equally as important as the poem. I am looking for compelling work that is an honest expression of joy or sadness or anger brought on by news that directly affects the poet and/or their community.”
Though Kirton is asking potential contributors to submit poetry, they don’t necessarily need to describe themselves as poets. “In my experience, when life events hit us hard, sometimes a poem presents itself,” she explains.
“Words matter,” she adds. “This is your chance to tell your side of the story.”
Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the author of Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, 2016) and Better with Books: 500 Diverse Novels to Open Minds, Ignite Empathy, and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Teens (Sasquatch, 2019). Web: melissahart.com.