The poetry collection Bullets into Bells (Beacon Press) stands as an innovative response to American gun violence. The work is a collection of poetry, each poem paired with a prose response written by an “activist, political figure, survivor, or concerned individual.” Many of the poems are in response to widely reported shootings, such as Sandy Hook or the murder of Tamir Rice, but there are also several accounts of less publicized shootings.
Despite the high coverage of gun violence in the media, reading this book gives the sense that this type of violence is even more pervasive than it seems, and that nearly all Americans have experienced some brush with the life-changing power that guns wield. The authors in this collection call out to politicians, gun owners, gun sellers, and everyday citizens to change our laws and culture around guns. As US Senator Chris Murphy writes in his response, “The only way we can change this reality is if people speak up, consistently and loudly. Ask yourself: what can you do to make sure that Orlando, or Aurora, or Sandy Hook never happens again? It can’t be solely thoughts and prayers buried in tweets or in moments of silence. We must continue to speak out—to tell the stories of loved ones lost and to push for action to save lives.”
Dean Rader, who is one of three editors on Bullets into Bells (along with Brian Clements and Alexandra Teague), was kind enough to talk to ZYZZYVA about the book and the ambitious campaign behind it.
ZYZZYVA: The book includes poetry and essays from a variety of authors, from well-known poets and activists to victims of gun violence and even the daughter of a man who was killed using guns. How did you go about finding contributors for the collection? What kinds of responses did you get?
Dean Rader: Brian Clements, Alexandra Teague, and I considered many different poems—we may have had as many as 100 at one time. But our publisher, Beacon, wanted to keep it to 50. That seemed like a good number and reasonable in terms of finding respondents. A side note—all of the respondents (and their subsequent pairings to poems) was done by Brian.
Brian’s wife, Abbey Clements, was the other 2nd grade teacher at Sandy Hook when the shootings happened in 2012. Instead of turning one way and going into Abbey’s class, the shooter went a different direction and murdered 20 children (as well as teachers and administrators). Because of Brian’s and his family’s involvement with the Gun Violence Prevention movement, he had access to a number of people who were eager to participate in the book. So, Tamir Rice’s mother, Samaria, writes in response to a poem by Reginald Dwayne Betts. The on-call ER doctor working at the hospital after the Sandy Hook shooting wrote a response to “The Bullet, in its Hunger” by Ross Gay. Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams wrote a response to Robert Hass’ “Dancing.” The poems are amazing works of art; the responses are emotionally wrenching direct human pleas.
The call and response structure of the poems and the responses is like nothing I’ve ever seen.
Z: What kind of work went into organizing and editing this diverse group of voices? Were any of these poems published previously or were all written on request for Bullets into Bells?
DR: Most of the poems included were already published, though around ten were written specifically for the anthology. Robert Hass, Dana Levin, Brenda Hillman, LeAnne Howe, Tess Taylor, Yusef Komuanyakaa and some others all wrote special poems for the book. Of course, all of the responses were written in response to individual poems.
The selection process for the poems was at times very difficult and at other times, quite easy. I think the hardest part was settling on only 50 poems. We also wanted the poets represented to be diverse—in terms of race, gender, age, and even in terms of “fame” or publication record. We were also willing to print some poems that were not explicitly about gun violence, like Jane Hirshfield’s “For Those Who Cannot Act” or Ada Limón’s “The Leash.” Brian deserves all the credit for pairing the responses with the poems.
Z: What role do you think literature, specifically poetry, plays in fighting something like gun violence? What do you hope this work can do to reshape how people think about guns?
DR: America has a history of responding to emotionally moving aesthetic texts. Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense was instrumental in solidifying sentiment toward American independence from England. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin galvanized middle class white opposition to slavery. Photographs by people like Dorothea Lange moved citizens and politicians to enact policies surrounding the Dust Bowl. Aesthetic texts like poems educate our emotions—they help us feel in a more informed way. This is important because we often make decisions based on our emotions—our fears, in particular, but also our hopes.
At times, when policy falls short, art must step in. You can list all the statistics in the world. You can give people all sorts of data. But, numbers are faceless. They are cold. They don’t activate our emotions. Poems can and do.
I’m not sure these poems and responses will reshape how people think about guns, but our hope is that they move readers to start examining their emotions about laws surrounding gun violence. The great American poet Wallace Stevens writes, “Poetry is a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right.” These poems, these responses, are trying to do just that.
By the way, the book is just one of three interrelated projects. The second is a plan to host a reading in all 50 states. Already there have been readings in Idaho, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Washington DC, California, Alabama, Massachusetts, and Maine. Others are scheduled for Illinois, Arizona, Colorado, South Dakota, and New York. If readers are interested in hosting an event, please get in touch with me. The third component is a supplemental website (https://bulletsintobells.com/) where you can find out more information about the book, its contributors, ways to get involved, other Bullets Into Bells events, and other poems that respond to the gun violence epidemic. I hope all readers of Zyzzyva will send in a poem.
Z: In this collection, there are many poems and responses by parents who lost their children to gun violence and most of them spend the rest of their life thinking about the what ifs. I found these pieces to be the most moving. As a father, you must be particularly invested in this cause. Have you found that becoming a parent changed how you think about gun violence and gun control? What kind of political action do you think is necessary for you and other parents to feel safe sending your children out into the world?
DR: It’s so interesting you asked this question. When I was on the plane flying out to the release party in Boston, I was thumbing through the book, and for whatever reason I kept landing on the very responses you mention. It was one testimony after another by a parent about their child getting shot and most often, killed. I remember tearing up there on the plane. That intense combination of the random and the unjust is almost too much to bear.
I don’t know that I fear for my sons’ safety, but I do know that anything can happen any time, any place. A safe neighborhood is safe until that moment is isn’t. A school is safe until it’s not. Our country, on the macro, is a relatively safe country—but not for everyone. And, it is certainly not safe for everyone in the same way.
There is no doubt that fewer guns out there in the world means fewer deaths. In my poem in the anthology I reference Japan, which has 127 million people and rarely more than 10 gun deaths a year. That’s about as many gun deaths as were in Sacramento County in 2016. Two things Japan has done is 1) simply decrease the number of guns and 2) make it very, very hard to get a gun.
If America’s culture around gun and sensible gun laws is going to change, it will be because of the current generation. Students in the 14-22 age range can, literally, change this country.