Poets, at heart, are revolutionaries. In addition to being incurable romantics, they are idealists. Even in their poetry, they seek the ideal. They are always in search of the ideal.
I also met Susan Rosenberg through my work with PEN America’s Prison Writing Program (PWP). A fellow poet, we sat on the PWP Poetry Sub-Committee, which judges PEN’s annual Prison Writing Awards, poetry being one of the categories. As a fellow poet, I immediately felt simpatico with Susan. (And, of course, we are both cerebral Libras!)
Before I met Susan, I knew her by reputation, a self-styled “radical.” One thing I have learned during my odyssey, is that you can’t judge people by their book covers.
Susan is a gentle soul. It’s part of her DNA. A stint in prison doesn’t change one’s DNA, or character. And any ideas of “rehabilitation” are despite, not because of, the prison system. People, men, and women, forge themselves in the fiery furnace that is prison. All the prison provides is the fire. As Norman Mailer wrote in the introduction to Jack Henry Abbott’s New York Times bestseller, In the Belly of the Beast, America not only locks up the “worst of the worst,” but also the brightest, the boldest, the most unbroken of, mostly, the poor, Black and Brown men (and white people who ally themselves with Black and Brown folk).
Despite being sentenced to a ridiculous amount of time in prison, 58 years, Susan remained unbroken. Since America doesn’t respond to poetry, one day Susan found herself in possession of a large cache of explosives, and firearms, including automatic weapons, for the Cause. She was linked to the May 19th Communist Organization and had been sought as an accomplice in the 1979 prison escape of Assata Shakur and the 1981 Brink’s robbery.
The only redeeming thing President Bill Clinton did in terms of crime and punishment, was to commute Susan’s sentence to time served on January 20, 2001, his final day in office. She had served 16 years. (Not really an aside, but white folk in America who ally themselves with Black folks – and it’s a long history, just use the revolutionary abolitionist John Brown as a starting point, Jewish people during the Civil Rights Era, and revolutionaries during the 1960s and 1970s – are targeted and imprisoned or killed. Compare their treatment with the January 6th Insurrectionists!)
I wish America responded to poetry. This is an overstatement, but poetry, in all its revolutionary and even radical glory, could be our salvation. Drop poetry, not bombs!