we march on: #1- Zoe Leonard
Updated: Feb 22
TRIGGER WARNING: Today's poem contains offensive slurs, curse words and violence against minority communities
Hello and welcome to We March On, a series where we'll be revisiting iconic protest poems from the past to learn from those who came before us and honour their legacies. Today we'll look at a protest poem from the rather recent past, Zoe Leonard's incendiary manifesto of furious love that is 'I Want A President', originally published in 1992.
Just so we're all on the same page, you can read the poem below but if you prefer to listen, here's a link to watch Mykki Blanco (rapper extraordinaire) read it aloud:
[Poem Image Original Source: http://artistsbooksandmultiples.blogspot.com/2017/05/zoe-leonard-i-want-president-transcript.html ]
Zoe Leonard is a creative and activist now in her 60's living in New York. In the times before the poem garnered international traction, she was (and remains) committed to taking action for the LGBTQI+ community by campaigning for victims of AIDS to get proper treatment and care, and by championing queer rights and identity via her art.
The period of the 1970s to the 1990s were the years the AIDS crisis was at its most destructive, with millions of people worldwide being affected one way or another. In the UK, the 1980s were a time of severe repression and enforced suffering for the LGBTQI+ community. To add to the marginalization of queer identities already underfoot due to the AIDS epidemic, the Tory government under Margaret Thatcher banned all education surrounding homosexuality in schools, anything that could be deemed to be encouraging homosexuality or queerness was stamped out with the Section 28 clause in 1988 (It was only the year 2000 when this clause was revoked).
Leonard's poem is written from an American perspective, but the harms of homophobia, transphobia and bigotry are apparently sadly the only things that can cross borders with no problems . The poem laments the disconnect between ordinary people and political leaders, but the poem is not morose or accepting. It rages with tenderness, making an obvious point: the people who control our lives must also know, also feel, how we live them if they are to have any real authority over us.
'I Want A President' was initially inspired by Leonard's poet pal Eileen Myles deciding to run for president in 1991. Myles is a non-binary writer who during 1991 had no health insurance, using their candidacy to highlight the huge disconnect between the needs of real people and the political slogans and power-moves of politicians.
However, one of the beautiful aspects of this polemically charged poem is that in asking for new kinds of leaders, it points to fact there can never be one leader who encapsulates us all. Starting with wanting 'a dyke* for president', the poem goes on to embrace people suffering under environmental issues, abortion rights, immigration transgressions and racism. Highlighting how the harms we encounter individually are part of a network of pain that profits those entrenching our differences, Leonard's poem unabashedly demands that power reflects and serves those it's supposed to.
'I want a president' still resonates strongly today, as we see so-called political leaders buckle under pressure of burgeoning social awareness, fuelled in particular by the activism of young people. Demands for the decolonization of British institutions and customs, and calls for better handlings of environmental concerns are but a few examples of urgent problems that the leaders of political parties are unwilling to tackle head on for fear of loosing support. But whose support?
Leonard's poem reminds us of where power really resides: the people we rarely see championed at Westminster. Not only that, it instructs us how to access this power: we must care for one another. Only through community, through sharing our struggles and using our voices to decide on what must be done, will we ever live to see the necessary faces of power reign.
Please share your thoughts and feelings about Zoe Leonard's poem if you have anything else you'd like to add (this blog is meant to be a space for conversation!) and please do suggest any poets or poems you would love to see included in this 'We March On' series!
*'dyke' is a fraught term that when used by heteronormative institutions or individuals is loaded with a history of pain and discrimination. Zoe Leonard using the word (among other derogatory phrases hurled at the LGBTQI+ community) is not a slur however, but a reclamation of language designed to deride and silence. These words are NOT for everyone to use, so be respectful!!!