In Newtown, people still use the shorthand “12/14” when referring to the shooting that took the lives of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The date signifies everything; there is before, and after. In the five years since, there has been what can feel like an endless barrage of mass shootings. The names of their locations now ring out in a grim roll call. Towns that used to be just themselves now carry frightening associations for all that hear them: Orlando, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, San Bernardino, Newtown. We must continue, but how?
In Bullets Into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence, out this past December from Beacon Press, the keen observational eye and emotional antenna of the poet interacts with the testimonial and witness of everyday people, unfortunately made extraordinary through their often tragically intimate understanding of the gun. There is Billy Collins, the former poet laureate, with a poem about a young boy twirling around a statue, repeatedly shooting at it with a gun made of his index finger and thumb. There is Nicole Hockley, who became a gun-violence prevention advocate after her son Dylan was killed at Sandy Hook. There is U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy. There are the mothers of those killed by police. There is a Nobel Peace Prize winner. There is the Rev. Henry Brown, who has been working to stop the kind of quotidien gun violence in the North End of Hartford that doesn’t make national headlines when it occurs.
As the novelist and essayist Colum McCann writes in the introduction, the call-and-response nature of the contributions creates a “church of the possible,” in which people can speak to each other to imagine a different future.
Hockley says she had no reservations about participating. Brian Clements, one of the book’s editors and a founding coordinator of the Masters of Fine Arts program at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, was the one who reached out to Hockley, and is himself too familiar with gun violence. His wife, Abbey, was a teacher at Sandy Hook on 12/14, and survived the shooting. (She is also a contributor to the book, responding to a poem from Meghan Privitello.) “I trust Brian and his family completely,” Hockley says.
In many ways the book is the brainchild of Brian Clements (alongside his co-editors Alexandra Teague and Dean Rader). Through his personal connection to Sandy Hook and his professional connections in the literary world, Clements had exactly the right mix of experience for such a project. “I made it clear to [the contributors and publishers] that I wanted it to be more than just an anthology [of poetry],” he says. The result, Clements says, is that the book is a sort of “political artifact,” a snapshot of a kaleidoscope of experiences. “We don’t really have a gun-violence problem; we have many kinds of gun violence,” Clements says. There are domestic killings, negligent or accident shootings, a problem with illegal guns, a problem with illegal things done with legal guns. “We wanted the book to reflect that,” Clements says, calling it a “complex conversation about a complex problem.”
For the poet Afaa Michael Weaver, who lives in West Cornwall and teaches at Drew University in New Jersey, his poem is about an act of gun violence he witnessed as a younger man in the 1980s in his native Baltimore. Though the poem is most directly about a specific moment, in which Weaver witnessed one man chasing another man with a shotgun, Weaver says he is also trying to bring in the experiences of places that are far from Baltimore: places such as Wyoming where suicide by gun is a massive problem. By incorporating people such as himself and the Rev. Brown, from places including Baltimore and Hartford, the book incorporates “people who understand trauma” at a very elemental level.
The title of the book comes from a poem by Martín Espada, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, dedicated specifically to the community of Newtown. The poem is a call for nothing short of a revolution, for a different world where bullets melt into bells whose chimes heal “the cracks in the bell of the world.” The bells ring in Aleppo or Gaza, in “the ruins of a city where children gathered copper shells like beach glass,” but also in Newtown, “with a flagpole on Main Street, a rooster weathervane keeping watch atop the Meeting House, the congregation gathering to sing in times of great silence.”
In his introduction, McCann acknowledges that the contributions in the book certainly “lean toward those of us who might prefer to see guns vanish from our lives,” and that absolute believers in the Second Amendment will find much here with which they have to wrestle. Clements, Hockley and Weaver all point toward communication as one of the motivating factors behind their varying levels of involvement in the book. For Weaver, the book is a sort of antidote to the top-down legislative deadlock on the issue of gun control. “The bottom-up always works better,” he says.
Clements says he and the publisher are planning events related to the book in all 50 states, opportunities for people to meet and discuss. Check the book’s website for times and places, as well as supplementary media.
This article appeared in the February 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine.
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