A Conversation with Editors Carol Alexander and Stephen Massimilla about Stronger Than Fear: Poems of Empowerment, Compassion, and Social Justice — curated by Tiffany Troy

Carol Alexander is co-editor of the award-winning anthology Stronger Than Fear: Poems of Empowerment, Compassion, and Social Justice  and the author of the poetry collections Fever and Bone, Environments, and Habitat Lost. Her poems appear in anthologies and journals such as The American Journal of Poetry, The Common, Caesura, Cumberland River Review, Denver Quarterly,  Free State Review, Hamilton Stone Review, Matter, Mudlark, Mobius, One, Pif, Ruminate, Southern Humanities Review, South Florida Poetry Journal, Stonecoast Review, Sweet Tree Review, Terrain.org, Verdad, and Third Wednesday. New poetry appears or is forthcoming in Another Chicago Magazine, Narrative Northeast, Potomac Review, RHINO and The Summerset Review. Alexander earned her PhD in American Literature from Columbia University. She has worked in the field of education, first as a university lecturer, then as a writer and editor specializing in educational publishing. She has authored numerous works of children’s fiction and nonfiction.

Stephen Massimilla is a poet, painter, and author, most recently of the award-winning poetry collection Frank Dark (Barrow Street Press, 2022) and, with coeditor Carol Alexander, Stronger Than Fear: Poems of Empowerment, Compassion, and Social Justice, winner of the American Book Festival Award. His multi-genre Cooking with the Muse (Tupelo Press, 2016) won the Eric Hoffer Award and many others. Previous books and honors include The Plague Doctor in His Hull-Shaped Hat (SFASU Press Poetry Prize); Forty Floors from Yesterday (Bordighera Prize, CUNY); The Grolier Poetry Prize; the Van Rensselaer Prize, selected by Kenneth Koch; a study of myth in poetry; and award-winning translations; etc. His work has been featured recently in hundreds of publications ranging from AGNI to Denver Quarterly to Huffpost to The Southern Review to Poetry Daily. Massimilla holds an MFA and a PhD from Columbia University and teaches there and at The New School. (Website: www.stephenmassimilla.com )

Tiffany Troy: What initially inspired the two of you to begin this anthology?

Carol Alexander: Several years ago, Cave Moon Publisher Doug Johnson and I began conceptualizing an anthology of poetry relating to the empowerment of girls and young women around the world through education and the creation of safe spaces. Cave Moon donates all proceeds from their publications to specific causes, and we chose the Malala Fund as the recipient of earnings from this book. Really, Malala Yousafzai is one of our muses. At the same time, Doug was interested in connecting peace and art more generally as part of a multifaceted venture aimed at bringing together visual artists and musicians, along with writers. 

Stephen Massimilla: When I agreed to coedit the anthology, there was a broader discussion about what this book might encompass. Considering the crises brought about by Covid, enforced remote learning, book banning, police violence, and the backlash from some quarters against progressive values, we decided to go beyond our initial idea to include poems with various social, political, and personal concerns. At the same time, I suggested the phrase “Stronger Than Fear”—from the Malala quotation that became the book’s epigraph—as an anthology title that honors the original idea while encompassing the broader thematic range. 

TT: How did you balance gathering emerging and established voices, professional poets and activists who also write poetry?

SM:  That’s a question that perhaps speaks to our process of soliciting new work directly from poets who, as we knew, write very well in these veins, and gathering additional poems selectively though open calls. We were delighted to receive enthusiastic responses from so many excellent writers. As you can see, myriad voices and approaches are represented in this anthology. We were sent work from teachers working in traditional and nontraditional classrooms, including in prison and special education settings. Many of today’s best poets write, at least at times, about the work they do in either or both settings. And we happily accepted other poems that sprang from a deep, compassionate wellspring.

CA: The poet and the activist are often one in the same, in that many of today’s most powerful poets write out of a strong sense of engagement with the times we live in, and great writing generally requires courage and generosity, even or especially with regard to the difficult realities of trauma, marginalization, and the struggle to inhabit the self fully and freely. And even when they might not make an overt statement, poems that touch honestly on such themes as fear, empowerment, and empathy can of course speak to the human condition in a way that suits the themes of this anthology. That’s why, taken as a whole, these poems offer what Donald Revell referred to in his lovely blurb as “a thrill of humanity.”

TT: Can you speak about the poems featured by Tupelo Quarterly?

CA & SM: We are so impressed by all the poems in the anthology. The hard-hitting yet nuanced pieces by Toi Derricotte, Mervyn Taylor, Ross Gay, Laura Tohe, and Kim Addonizio and Jane Hirshfield as well, can all be said to be social justice poems. Apt and powerful poems by Desiree Alvarez, Jenny Molberg, and Maria Mazziotti Gillan also appear in this selection.

Let’s begin with Mervyn Taylor’s “Gum,” a searing poem that in four quatrains underscores the brutality and inequity protested by the Black Lives Matter movement. Taylor juxtaposes the suffocation of George Floyd with the outrage perpetrated against a woman who stands naked, “just out the shower,” as law enforcement breaks into her home. Her vulnerability and fear do not faze the intruders, one of whom ignores her cry: “Wrong house, you got the wrong house!” Taylor’s use of vernacular recreates the scene in its stark immediacy.  Meanwhile, the officer simply keeps masticating a stick of gum, a banal and gritty detail that highlights the terrible insensitivity of the victimizers.

And Toi Derricotte’s “Why i don’t write about George Floyd” expresses the weariness of soul that overwhelms this poet, who has written about her identification as a biracial person and about the permutations of race prejudice in this country. The obvious irony is that she does find deeply sincere words even as she describes the difficulty of responding to Floyd’s needless, horrifying murder. Derricotte writes lines that express raw emotion, lines that seem to reverberate in her mind: “Because there is too much to say...// Because it hurts too much to say...” The words are “stuck” in her throat like “an apple,” “a knife,” “a foot,” “a body.” These unadorned lines send a chill through the reader.

Ross Gay comes at the killing of another victim, Eric Garner, in quite another way. His poem “A Small Needful Fact” observes that Garner, who once worked for Parks and Recreation Horticultural Department, might have, “with his very large hands,” nestled the plants into the soil that “feed small and necessary creatures //...[also] converting sunlight / into food...making it easier / for us to breathe.” While the news media reported how Garner’s own labored breath was cut off during his fatal arrest, Gay focuses on Garner’s life, emphasizing as well that what he planted might still grow. The tone of this poem is contemplative and gentle, in contrast with the violent subject matter; its quiet activism is very moving.

Laura Tohe’s “Little Sister” is a beautiful, heartbreaking persona poem. Tohe’s speaker inhabits the soul of a young girl, victim of vehicular manslaughter, who had already succumbed to alcoholism, “the jagged promise of empty bottles,” when she pursued a life off-reservation in a midwestern city. Estranged from nourishing ancient traditions, violently killed in an almost casual way, the speaker yearns to be one with her family and origins, as opposed to being used as material for heartless statistics (“They arrange my life in numbers...put me into neat boxes for storage”). Her spirit finds its rightful place in the tribal singing and dancing, while “In the blossoming light the earth goes on gathering the dripping fruit of mulberries” and the girl, no longer lost, “danced the fury of buffalo.” An amazing poem—it’s tempting to quote almost every image, every line. 

In her masterful “High Desert, New Mexico,” Kim Addonizio explores a post-biblical, post-Dantesque landscape, where the inscription on the gates of hell (“Abandon hope all you who enter here”) is turned on its head, becoming a life-affirming entreaty to “Abandon / your despair, you who enter here forsaken.” The poet reminds us that the desert is not an infernal wasteland, but a complex ecosystem teeming with life and value. To pay attention to its sights and music is redemptive, as here one can “almost forget the shame of being human.” In fact, this sonnet that at first may seem to be barren of key traditional attributes proves, to one who pays close attention, to be full of subtle rhymes and everything one could hope to find in a perfect example of the form. In a broader sense, we are reminded that, in the pursuit of compassion, belonging, and justice, we must never abandon hope.   

Jane Hirshfield’s “The Bird Net” is perhaps about entrapment in, and liberation from, anger. Trying formally to explicate this delicate piece right now might not do it justice. In a special Buddhistic way, it explores the nature of feeling itself, and “what the earth’s yellows & nectars were made for.” It embodies yet another example of how, by revealing painful realities in surprising ways, the poems in this book draw the reader into others’ experiences, while also helping the reader to find a way forward. 

TT: What are your hopes for this collection?

CA & SM: We’d love to see the anthology adopted in course curricula and are happy to say that a number of teachers are eager to make that happen. Some educators we know personally are already sharing the book or selected poems with students, opening up important avenues of discussion. 

And naturally, we believe the anthology should be read, appreciated, and taken to heart by a broad audience. We believe that poetic craft and artistry can be a meaningful vehicle for change. As we say in our introduction, poetry can serve not only to portray experiences and convey perceptions and emotions, but also to articulate positions, focus the attention, ask important questions, provoke thought, and redefine our engagement with the role that language plays in our lives. By collecting such a diversity of fine and important writing, we’d like to think that we have curated a book that will be on shelves and in circulation for many years to come.