Voices, Not Statistics: A Look at Big Shoulder Press’s AMERICAN GUN

Book trailer for American Gun, created by Bill Glader and Susan Rohrback.

American Gun begins with the grim numbers, the horrific accounting of shootings in Chicago, a daily reckoning of despair. What literary form best expresses this communal devastation? Oral history was the mode for How Long Will I Cry, the inaugural title from Big Shoulders Books, a DePaul University initiative that creates and disseminates free of charge “quality works of writing by and about Chicagoans whose voices might not otherwise be shared.” Chicago is a quintessential American city, and the experiences, emotions, and creativity found in these innovative works resonate in every community. This year, Big Shoulders Books turned to poetry as a forum for confronting the tragedy of unrelenting gun violence, but this is no ordinary poetry collection. To make clear and ring the deep and endlessly debilitating impact of this persistent plague among plagues, editor Chris Green, poet and professor, has assembled a reverberating communal poem written by 100 poets.

How can 100 poets––a diverse group that includes both young and emerging poets as well as such distinguished contributors as Haki R. Madhubuti, Ed Roberson, Ana Castillo, Marc Smith, and Kevin Coval—write a poem together? American Gun is a brilliant and radical use of the pantoum, a form adapted from a Malayan oral tradition, as poet and contributor Edward Hirsch writes in his indispensable A Poet’s Glossary. A pantoum is powerfully rhythmic, a run of quatrains in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza are repeated in the next stanza as lines one and three. Green penned the first stanza, and 99 poets followed, each writing a quatrain based on the previous stanza. This repetition embodies the grim nature of gun violence, its devastating perpetuity, its inescapable ripple effects. As Hirsch’s observes, “the reader always takes four steps forward and two back.” And: “the pantoum is always looking back over its shoulder,  . . . that’s why it works so well for poignant poems of loss.”

American Gun arrives with the continuing rise of the profound Black Lives Matter movement demanding that we as a nation fully acknowledge and dismantle systemic racism, a movement beaming light on the many dire consequences of the racial injustice woven into every aspect of our society, consequences that include gun violence and its disproportional outbreaks in Black communities and communities of color.

“So what, we choke on strange fruit and
Slam our forks and knives onto the table.
Sundays bring guilt, as bread and wine is passed
By gusts of wind carrying thoughts to prayers.

(83-Henry Carlson)

Slam our forks and knives onto the table.
We’ve had enough…boom…boom but they won’t stop
Gusts of wind carry thoughts to prayers.
Stomp our feet and sing our hopes but those bullets just won’t stop.

(84-Maya Wilhelmy)

We’ve had enough but they won’t stop 
We pray to ancestors now cause god’s line is always too busy 
Stomp our feet and sing our hopes but those bullets just won’t stop 
And when it’s our time we sit with hollow point shoulders ready for our last supper”

(85-Taisaun Levi)

Each element in this communal poem—from the hypnotic repetition of lines to the entwinement of diverse voices—creates both pattern and ambush, mirroring the interconnectivity of city lives beneath a façade of divisions and echoing the perpetual shock and horror of gun violence. 100 Chicago poets have built an elegy of rare synergistic and compassionate imagination and profound resonance.

Brief bios are provided for all 100 poets, so, too, is a study guide and a list of Chicago-area anti-violence organizations. The ebook for American Gun can be downloaded free of charge here, and print copies, also free, can be ordered.

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About the Author:

Donna Seaman is adult books editor at Booklist. Her radio interviews are collected in Writers on the Air: Conversations about Books (2005). Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Donna.

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