Wednesday Night poetry is a group of wordsmiths who have gathered in a "safe space" to share words every week since its inception in 1989. After Tuesday's events of 18-year old Salvador Ramos fatally shooting 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, many would consider themselves "lost for words" and in need of a "safe space."
WNP gathered the following day at Kollective Coffee & Tea to share poems, stories and songs among one another as they processed the tragedy, trying to remain hopeful for change as mass shootings continue across the country.
"It was hard to be a teacher today," Kai Coggin, WNP host and Arkansas Learning for the Arts teaching artist, said at the start of the evening.
"It was just hard to be in a room with kids that were the same age as the ones that were lost yesterday," Coggin said. "And they were writing poems about how they could save the world. And the world is still working. And we still try to have hope and try to bring light and try to bring joy and meaning to these little ones.
"And it was just a really hard day, and I just want to acknowledge teachers out there and parents out there, and grandparents out there and just all of us, man. All of us.
"Because it's been just so hard these last few days, months, years. And it's like trauma after trauma, and coming here to Wednesday Night Poetry, for me, it's a place to process. And I know that's true for many of us. We come here to sort of feel a sense of community, feel like we belong in this crazy world.
"We come here, and we say how we feel. This is our church; you're safe here. Whatever you believe in, you're safe here. Whatever race you are, whatever sex you are, whatever gender, whatever orientation you are, you're safe here. This is a safe space. And it has been for 1,739 weeks. ... Whatever is going on out there, you will always have a place to belong here."
To follow the tradition of late WNP founder Bud Kenny, Coggin started the open mic poetry reading with the words of another.
Let Them Not Say
by Jane Hirshfield, 1953
Let them not say: we did not see it. We saw.
Let them not say: we did not hear it. We heard.
Let them not say: they did not taste it. We ate, we trembled.
Let them not say: it was not spoken, not written. We spoke, we witnessed with voices and hands.
Let them not say: they did nothing. We did not-enough.
Let them say, as they must say something:
A kerosene beauty. It burned.
Let them say we warmed ourselves by it, read by its light, praised, and it burned.
When recent inductee of the Arkansas Writers Hall of Fame John W. Crawford approached the mic, among the songs and poems he shared, there was one song that resonated with the crowd.
Make you Feel my Love
by Bob Dylan, 1997
When the rain is blowing in your face And the whole world is on your case I could offer you a warm embrace To make you feel my love
When the evening shadows and the stars appear And there is no one there to dry your tears I could hold you for a million years To make you feel my love
I know you haven't made your mind up yet But I will never do you wrong I've known it from the moment that we met No doubt in my mind where you belong
I'd go hungry, I'd go black and blue I'd go crawling down the avenue No, there's nothing that I wouldn't do To make you feel my love
The storms are raging on the rolling sea And on the highway of regret The winds of change are blowing wild and free You ain't seen nothing like me yet
I could make you happy, make your dreams come true Nothing that I wouldn't do Go to the ends of the Earth for you To make you feel my love To make you feel my love
During the open mic, Coggin shared more sentiments, along with an original poem.
"Every time something like yesterday happens, I usually write a poem," she said. "I've been teaching ... second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh and eighth graders this week, all week, and when I heard the news about what happened yesterday, it just devastated me. Absolutely crushed me. Gutted me.
"And to have to go to work today and see them, and see the same little brown faces where I was at work today that ... were doing the same thing. That were laughing, that were being silly, that were hugging a little unicorn talking about summer break, that were being just silly little kids — and to feel that pain and that visceral loss from such a distant place; like I'm not a mother, I'm a teacher. But I mother everyone that I teach.
"But I cannot imagine how a mother would have felt yesterday. A mother whose kid went to school and did not come home. A mother whose DNA had to be used to identify their child because their bodies were so mangled.
"We do not need to have assault rifles in this country. We do not need AR-15's in this country. And this is our pandemic. This is our epidemic. This is our doing the same thing over and over and over again expecting it to change. Not making any action. Not taking any steps. ... We all feel it.
"We all felt the rage yesterday and the loss. So every time something like that happens I write a poem. I haven't written a poem yet, but I'm going to read a poem I wrote at the last school massacre."
Alphabet for American schools: For the students of Stoneman Douglas High School, and now Robb Elementary School, and for all the other school shootings.
by Kai Coggin, 2018
A is for AR-15 B C D E F G is for Gun. Gun. Gun. loud boom blood room lessons learned in school.
Alpha-BET you never thought you’d die here - not where you clicked with algebra, had your first crush, started to love poetry, finally remembered your locker combination, played the tuba, made a touchdown, forgot your homework, laughed, learned, blossomed, bloomed.
H is for “HELP! HELP US!!” I J K Kill Kill Kill L is for Lockdown drill
Alpha-BET you never thought becoming a teacher meant knowing how to panic herd 19 high school children into a closet and pray pray pray dear god pray it doesn’t end this way.
M is for Money N is for NRA O is a bullet-hole P is for Please, PLEASE DON’T SHOOT!
Alpha-BET the blood will never wash away from those classrooms, every lesson stained, every triggered memory blamed on this trauma that will never scrub clean, nightmare dreams running hallway screams - it shouldn’t be a both war zone and a school zone
Q is for Question their worth, America R is for Run. Run for your lives, children! S is for Seventeen dead T U is for United States of Guns V
Alpha-BET those mothers would have kissed their babies longer, would have traded places, would’ve held them tighter to their chests and said no baby you should stay home from school today, no baby, no baby, stay stay stay
W is for Why do we fail our children this way? X is drawn on the next targets Y is for You know it will happen again Z is like see—
See an alternative to this carnage See an end to this anguish and pain See our outrage turn to voices See our voices turn to votes See all the guns turning into flowers See children laughing See children learning See children safe and sound in school again
No more thoughts and prayers.
A is for Action.
"When I wrote that poem in 2018 after that shooting, I still felt that power of, 'I can still change the world, I can still do something about this, we can vote, we can still change things,'" Coggin said after her reading.
"And yesterday, I heard the news and my wife and I still went to our volunteer fire department, cast our ballots in the primaries ... (because) we still have that little thread of hope that maybe if all of us hopes a little bit more, maybe if we decide once and for all that our children are more important than our guns, something will finally change."
Storyteller Randy Malone approached the mic with his own words, saying although he "avoids making public comment like the plague," he felt "compelled."
"There are plenty of talking heads in our society that are eager to tell you what to think, how to feel, how to act; without me adding to the mix. But tonight, I feel compelled.
"We're all hyper-aware of the tragedy that occurred yesterday at Robb Elementary in Uvalde. Now, talking heads will tell you that there were 21 victims of that horrific event. I beg to differ. There were 19 victims. Seven, eight, nine-year-olds are innocent. They have no business contemplating what happened, much less have it happen to them. So we mourn them as victims.
"But two people died yesterday that did not die as victims, and that's the two adults that died. One was a teacher, I'm not sure if the other one was I have not gotten that news yet. But they did not die as victims. They died as warriors.
"The definition to me of a warrior is someone who puts themself between danger and what they hold sacred and love the most. And that's what those two individuals did. They died protecting children. So what I would tell you is this: Mourn the 19 children, mourn for their families — it's horrific what happened — but celebrate those two adults.
"Because I'll tell you this. If I know anything, I know this: They died as warriors, and the way they died tells you everything you ever need to know about how they lived. So celebrate that and celebrate their lives, mourn the children, honor them, and thank God that there are still people like that in our world today."
Betty Brown, Japanese teacher at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts, approached the mic with an original poem.
"This is a poem that I've been wanting to write for awhile, but it's about yesterday's events," Brown said. "I felt like I shouldn't take the attention off of the students and what happened, and make it about me, but it really is about every teacher, it's about every student and this is just my experiences with all of this."
by Betty Brown, 2022
I became a teacher to share my love of languages
to create a classroom community where my kids are safe, loved, challenged, welcome.
22 years old, a student teacher
I help corral 100 kids into the cafeteria and stand in front of the door that will not lock
ready to use my body as a shield
I text mom and dad “I love you,”but the signal is too weak.
The next year, when I teach in Germany, my parents and grandparents ask if I’m scared because of the recent terrorism but I’m not and I never worry I’ll have to hide in a closet or be a human shield.
One month into being a real teacher and we have our first active shooter drill.
I go home and search for bullet proof vests online and realize I can't afford one on my teacher's salary especially as I make my student loan payments.
Now, everyday, as politicians paint me and my colleagues as "groomers" and say we are "indoctrinating" their children
say they are "fighting for the right to life" as they legislate uteruses and fight more for the right to bear arms than the right to life of actual, real, live children
"Am I next?" "Are my students, my kids, next?"
Toward the end of the evening, Coggin shared one more original poem written after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Connecticut, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 students and six staff members.
"It's about when President Obama was our president and when he talked about what happened at Sandy Hook and he was the first president to ever cry during a press conference or speech, and everyone made fun of him," she said.
by Kai Coggin, 2012
Every time I type gun violence on my new iPhone, the autocorrect changes it to fun violence, because in 2016 there is an autocorrect to our thoughts that tries to stray us away from the truth, there is an electronic veil that keeps me from tasting the metal under my tongue from the wild gunfire cracking open an asphalt night, sidewalk chalk has a different meaning when it has arms and legs and a head with no face, and another body leaving the world without a trace, yesterday, the President cried presidential tears into the January 5th afternoon, an executive order was signed in the blood of too many names, and today it is not as easy to buy an M-16 at your local Walmart as it was yesterday, because the President is a man who has had enough,
yesterday, the President shed tears for Sandy Hook, the first graders that are learning their alphabet in the clouds, and you would think that a massacre of first graders would stop this national crisis of guns, but even the youngest and most innocent have had no weight on all the horror that's been done,
and yesterday, the president wiped away tears for all of the children, too many young black boys who never became old black men, and toy guns are just as deadly as the real thing especially if you are 12 and black and playing make-believe on a playground, and the police need policing, and the mothers' grief needs releasing, and it is all starting to bubble up into the throat of our leader, the choke of a trigger has found the tipping point's needle, and yesterday the President cried the tears of a nation, as a black man, as a father, as the Commander in Chief reaching frustration, and when I saw those tears fall, I felt a change in the wind, I see his presidential tears as a baptism, a cleansing on the face of a dirty country, his cheeks glistening with the last remnants of a history about to change,
yesterday, the President cried Presidential tears, and a poem my FB friend wrote about gunshots ripping apart classrooms went viral on the internet, there is a new canon of poetry born of blood and bullets, and the readers of the future will look back on these literary descriptions of our existence, and I hope they will have no idea how to identify this type of barbarism in their real lives, and when they type "gun violence" into their holographic iPhones, the autocorrect will change it to "fun violets" or have no suggestions at all.
"Nothing's f***ing changed," Coggin said after her reading. "That's what's sad. That's what's sad about reading these old poems that we've written. Us poets that take that home and write up these injustices and write up these tragedies — nothing's f***ing changed and kids are still dying."