Voices from the vigil for free expression

Writers of conscience confront hopelessness in the early weeks of the Trump presidency.

On the night of Feb. 11, attendees of the 2017 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference held a candlelight vigil in front of the White House. The videos below contain most of the speeches that were given at the event.

“Don’t stop using your words. It isn’t trivial. It is more important than ever.”

— Melissa Febos [part 1, 5:55]

Writer Carolyn Forche read Walt Whitman’s “This is What You Shall Do” [part 1, 8:00]:

“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

Gabrielle Bellot [part 2, 3:30]

We need to stop acting as if it is normal, after the second World War, for Nazis to tell the president what to do. We need to obstruct the appointment of politicians who want to take this country back to the days before integration.

We live in… a world where a hateful troll like Milo Yiannapolis is given a book deal on the grounds of free speech by the same company that refused to publish “American Psycho” on the grounds of decency.

I believe in love. I want to work together with people to make a world where we have to dream less. No matter their skin color. No matter their gender or race, or even their political affiliations. We need unity, not segregation, more now than ever if we are going to win back our freedom.

Poet Ross Gay read Cornelius Eady’s “Grattitude” [part 3, 4:20]:


In truth, I had no idea there was going to be a vigil for free expression that night. I didn’t know what (AWP) was until I googled it after the event.

I was walking back to the McPherson Square metro station to head home after covering an immigrants’ rights march that had concluded on the other side of the White House when I heard cheers.

In the middle of a crosswalk, I turned around and started heading back. The park was too dark to tell what was going on, but I knew I had to check it out. My mantra these last few months of observing and documenting these, often spontaneous, protests since the election has been “head towards the White House and follow the yelling.”

When I noticed the candles, my first thought was that it was an event organized by anti-choice activists (a large group of them were in town for some event that weekend). I walked around the growing mass of people until I ended up, basically by accident, right next to where the microphone was.

The speeches that followed were intimate, cathartic, and genuine. The speakers dealt with the existential questions we’ve all been asking ourselves since the election: Does anything we do now matter? Where, if anywhere, is there strength to be found in such dark times? How can we start rebuilding when we can’t stop the damage being done?

Melissa Febos left the crowd with a reminder to seek happiness, and to keep creating, even now [part 1, 5:40]:

Denying your own joy doesn’t deliver it to anyone else. It only deprives you before they get the chance to. So go ahead and feel afraid if you’re afraid, feel hopeless if you feel hopeless. Now is a period of keeping awake during the time usually spent asleep.

Don’t go to sleep. Don’t stop using your words. It isn’t trivial. It is more important than ever.

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