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By Marshall Hill

Preamble: When thinking about this project my initial idea was to produce a manifesto for an abolitionist poetics. Yet as I continued to engage with abolitionist thought and practice I realized that the manifesto form, understood as a single or multi authored text prescriptive of poetic practices and values, could not contain the collective project of abolition. Or, rather, I found my single voice inadequate to thinking through the relational stakes of abolition as they impact the abstract topic of poetics that a manifesto takes up, unable to make these abstract possibilities concrete. Moreover, I faced a second constraint in the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic which further reduced the scope for collective practice and embodied relational thinking. To solve this problem and open up the form of the manifesto to a collective voice I turn to a longstanding technique of modernist poetics: collage. Thus, I offer here a series of quotations that have guided my thinking on abolition and poetics as a way of producing a phantom collective text, a gift to readers that can guide them toward their own practices of abolitionist poetics. Each section will open with a quotation from a critical work and close with one from a poem, with my own writing in between: this arrangement maps tentative terrains of collective thought drawn from a variety of genealogies and geographies of these Americas invoking various histories of struggle and resistance. These quotations and my thoughts on them are both a series of provocations as well as an emergent a network of solidarity via citational practice, forming not a finished piece but rather an open-ended engagement with the abolitionist potential of language through poetry.

A Un-Manifesto For Abolitionist Poetics by marshall hill

1.       Abolition refuses the inevitability of our present organization of human life:[1] to make an abolitionist poem that disrupts settled meanings and ways of being maintained through domination, that enlists the reader actively in its construction with the aim of collective liberation, is to make a poem that is a living entity. Poem life takes shape in the expansiveness and dispersion of meaning across readings that, through these readings, is continually reworking the terms of our shared humanity through all its necessary changes (…of reader, context, history, material reality…) like the cosmos of which we are a part: We are the war and we are the refuge[2]

2.       When we set about trying to transform society, we must remember that we ourselves will also need to transform. Our imagination of what a different world can be is limited. We are deeply entangled in the very systems we are organizing to change…Being intentionally in relation to one another, a part of a collective, helps not only imagine new worlds, but also to imagine ourselves differently:[3] the abolitionist poem puts enclosed identities under pressure through relation. It undoes the myth of transparent understanding by confronting the reader with their own unknowability, the contradictory ideologies and histories that inhabit them and they in turn inhabit. This is poetry against the transparent, self-possessed, unified and coherent subject, the subject that knows why they do what they does and who they are according to a pre-measured standard: When the Dakota people were starving, as you may remember, government traders would not extend store credit to ‘Indians’. / One trader named Andrew Myrick is famous for his refusal to provide credit to Dakota people by saying, ‘If they are hungry, let them eat grass.’ / …When settlers and traders were killed during the Sioux Uprising, one of the first to be executed by the Dakota was Andrew Myrick / When Myrick’s body was found, / his mouth was stuffed with grass. / I am inclined to call this act by the Dakota warriors a poem[4]


3.       Abolition is not absence, it is presence. What the world will become already exists in fragments and pieces, experiments and possibilities:[5] we can order literature into genealogies, traditions, forms, schools, influences, markets, geographies…but poetry as abolitionist practice is a constant experimenting with the uncontrollable, exuberant, terrible mess of language as it is embodied that various (all) peoples at various (all) times at various (all) places for various (all) reasons have devoted their lives to through a strange, irrevocable discipline of generosity and courage by which they imagine the world anew (…the play between various and all is the space in which poetry takes hold on its way to bursting forth across all boundaries in time and space…): inside the I is a word and a being, inside the being a peculiar thunder / rusty aftertaste of measuring and measuring the miraculous whose / version of this life we lose to a terrible twist: how much trust / to have in the idea of our voices altogether calling home calling home[6]


4.       Love is an unfinished relationship. In its state of being unfinished, love is boundless. We do not know where it will lead us, we do not know where it will stop; in these ways it is without boundaries. It ceases, is finished, when it is tried out and when its boundaries are clarified and determined - finally drawn. It represents an alternative to ‘the existing state of things’:[7] in the poem every line is a flight from and towards its inevitable end, the poem a touch offered to the reader whose contours are never final. Line after line the poet builds a labyrinth composed of dilating passages for readers to slip through on their way elsewhere. Together they resonate strange frequencies as beginning and ending are pulled apart, tangled in middle’s bloom while content is changed by form, form by content, like how sand becomes glass under heat and pressure. And as long as you look completely, with all your embodied senses, this glass will never break: and you’ll never remind me of respectable citizens / the profound animals and flowers / aren’t born from codes / I’d like you to tear out our hearts / and throw them to the highest wave / let us become anonymous / so that seized by mercy / together we’ll make marvellous mistakes[8]


5.       Language is more than just a functional mechanism. It is a spiritual energy available to all. It includes all of us and is not exclusively in the power of human beings - we are part of that power as human beings…When you regard the sacred nature of language, then you realize that you are part of it and it is part of you, and you are not necessarily in control of it, and that if you do control some of it, it is not in your exclusive control:[9] we work towards a poem that circles what is essential but cannot be divulged. That offers the world in its unsayability, in its mystery, in its generativity without loss - or rather, that gives the loss alongside the potential for repair: there are things we need to know that can only be known in the act of writing; things we need to say that we have no language for and in poetry we search for that language, lay hands on it and breath into it our fragile lives: As for me I sometimes fit sulphurous wicks between my boa fingers for the sole pleasure of bursting into a flame of new poinsettia leaves all evening long / reds and greens trembling in the wind / like our dawn in my throat[10]


6.       The space the poet occupies is against the official narrative. The poet collects the sounds, the meanings, and through accumulation something appears. The job of the poet is to notice[11] and from this noticing and accumulating they offer the poem as a gift to the reader, a gift that is the very possibility of relation towards liberation. In poetry you approach life not as a complete narrative, as an object already given, but as a dispersion of fragments, known and unknown, woven into and out of reality. Bound up with desires and acts, structures and relations, histories and inheritances - when you approach this mess and give it form in and through language as an offering to others you are able to hold each other in the world, apart and yet together: I am sitting in a cell with a view of evil parallels, / Waiting thunder to splinter me into a thousand me’s. / It is not enough to be in one cage with one self / I want to sit opposite every prisoner in every hole[12]


7.       abolition :: this hunger for freedom and beauty :: poetry


[1] Rinaldo Walcott, On Property, (Biblioasis, 2021), 15.

[2] Dolores Dorantes, “13” in Style, Trans. Jen Hofer, (Kenning Editions). This book, and much of Dorantes’ work, concerns contemporary femicides along the Mexico-U.S. border, many victims being young working class and Indigenous women who moved into the area to work in the maquiladoras.

[3] Mariame Kaba, “So You’re Thinking of Becoming An Abolitionist” in We Do This ‘Till We Free Us, (Haymarket Books, 2021), 4.

[4] Layli Longsoldier, “38” in Whereas, (Graywolf Press, 2017), 53. This poem is written concerning the Sioux Uprising and subsequent hanging of the Dakota 38 on December 26, 1862 - the largest ‘legal’ mass execution in U.S. History.

[5] Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Making Abolition Geography in California’s Central Valley” in The Funambulist, (21, Dec 20 2018),

[6] Canisia Lubrin, The Dyzgraphxst, (McClelland & Stewart, 2020), 30.

[7] Thomas Mathiesen, The Politics of Abolition Revisited, (Routledge, 2015), 50.

[8] Selva Casel, “Sometimes a Terrible Darkness” in We Do Not Live in Vain, Trans. Jeannine Marie Pitas, (Veliz Books, 2020), 37. Despite being written in a Neo-Baroque style this book of poems, first printed in 1978 during the Uruguayan dictatorship, cost Casel her position as a professor of sociology at the Universidad de la República for its frank engagement with the realities of terror and violence that saturated everyday life at the time.

[9] Simon Ortiz, “Song/Poetry and Language - Expression and Perception” in Speak to Me Words: Essays on Contemporary American Indian Poetry, eds. Dean Rader and Janice Gould, (University of Arizona Press, 2003), 240.

[10] Aimé Césaire, “Preliminary Question” in Solar Throat Slashed, trans. A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman, (Wesleyan, 2011), 125.

[11] Dionne Brand, “Q&A: Canisia Lubrin speaks to Dionne Brand about her two new books, The Blue Clerk and Theory,” Quill & Quire, (Online, Sept 2018),

[12] Bob Kaufman, “Jail Poems” in The Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman, eds. Neeli Cherkovski, Raymond Foye, Tate Swindell (City Lights, 2019), 42. This poem was composed in 1959 from San Francisco City Jail Cell 3.

A Un-Manifesto For Abolitionist Poetics

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