Editor’s Note

WLT EIC Daniel SimonThou shall not be a perpetrator; thou shall not be a victim; and thou shall never, but never, be a bystander.
– Yehuda Bauer


Just this morning, as I began drafting my note for the current issue, Dictionary.com named complicit as its word of the year for 2017. “Complicit,” write the editors, “has sprung up in conversations about those who speak out against powerful figures in institutions, and those who stay silent.” Among the many who spoke out against complicity this past year, the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities made headlines in August when its remaining commissioners resigned en masse to protest President Trump’s “refusal to quickly and unequivocally condemn” the violent “Unite the Right” rally, which had erupted in Charlottesville the week before. In their letter of resignation, the sixteen commissioners wrote: “Ignoring your hateful rhetoric would have made us complicit in your words and actions.” That the first letter of each paragraph spelled out the word resist was not lost on many observers. 

The current issue of WLT gathers the voices of four writers into a cover feature devoted to “writing as inspired resistance.” As we assembled the issue, my editorial colleagues and I discussed what forms such resistance might take—our initial inclination was to focus on political acts of resistance, like the worldwide Women’s March of January 21, 2017. In the end, the section coalesced around cultural forms of resistance, especially at the level of language, hence the “Words Matter” tag line. Maureen Freely, current president of English PEN—in a lively exchange with Michelle Johnson, WLT’s managing editor—points out the limits of what she calls “the theater of resistance, with the world’s media systems whirling madly around it”; rather than getting sucked into such political theater, Freely focuses instead on “the traditions of inspired resistance observed by beleaguered writers—and readers, publishers—in countries like Turkey.”

Elsewhere in the section, Greek poet Iossif Ventura contributes a poem of “witness and testimony,” imagining marchers and beating drums in Athens’ Syntagma Square, while Italy’s Anna Maria Carpi reminds us that the poet’s task, since Homer, is “to sing, to tell.” For Liliana Ancalao, a Mapuche writer from Argentina, the urgency of defending her language, Mapuzungun, and her culture from extinction is paramount: “I’m talking about an ancient language and the ignorance of men who mapped a country over a territory full of names, elements, and meanings, silencing it. I’m talking about what we lost. All of us."
That theme of resistance also resonates in other pieces throughout the issue, including the interviews with Li-Young Lee and Eleni Kefala, in Dunya Mikhail’s essay on a Yazidi man who risked his own life to rescue dozens of others, and in the co-authored poems of Fady Joudah and Golan Haji. For Kefala, poetry, like life, is an “act of resistance against nihilism.” At its best, inspired resistance counters the nihilism of our age by wagering on culture as the most enduring reflection of the human spirit—long after the protest marches end.
“We, all of us are, and each and every one of us is,” writes Li-Young Lee, “a member of one of the most violent, destructive, desirous, disputatious, creative, innovative, loving, tender, hateful, brute, reflective, imitative, cowardly, irrational, reasoning, unconscious, insensitive, and visionary species on the planet.” In Lee’s poem “God Is Burning,” he reminds us that “Cain was my brother, / and so was Abel.” In other words, the brute and the visionary reside in “each and every one of us”—on both ends of the continuum, and every gradation in between. If there’s any hope for our species, surely it resides in moving beyond complicity with brutishness and listening to those writers who inspire us to visionary alternatives.

Daniel Simon

Daniel Simon is a poet, essayist, translator, and WLT’s assistant director and editor in chief. His 2017 edited volume, Nebraska Poetry: A Sesquicentennial Anthology, 1867–2017, won a 2018 Nebraska Book Award. His most recent edited collection, Dispatches from the Republic of Letters: 50 Years of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature (Deep Vellum/Phoneme, 2020), was a Publishers Weekly starred pick. Under a Gathering Sky, his third book of poems, is forthcoming from SFA Press in April 2024.