Nikkita Oliver has been a staple in Seattle poetry for a few years. (She's also a lawyer, a mentor artist in 4Culture's Creative Justice department, an activist, and a writer who contributed a guest ed to the Stranger.) If you didn't see her win Seattle Poetry Slam's Grand Slam in 2014, you may have even seen her perform on the Late Show with Macklemore back in February. If you didn't see any of that, you can catch her tonight at Lit Crawl during Working Stiffs: Tales from the Grind.
Another video/poem of Oliver's, "Black Lives Matter," offers a powerful and moving response to a white guy who thinks that phrase only serves as a cudgel, a way to implicitly call him a racist. Bryan Tucker directs her latest, "Firearms," which tells the story of the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent trial of George Zimmerman from the gun's perspective, though she does not name him.
This poem challenges me. Personifying handguns is usually the domain of gun advocates. I hear the echo of that horrible refrain "guns don't kill people, people kill people" when the speaker of this poem, the gun, says, “Why must you act so vicious, like monsters, blood thirsty making sport of each other with my flare. All I wanted to be was a firework.”
Seeing a gun as a firework is a metaphorical leap that refreshes the image of the gun for me, that makes me see it in a new way. Hearing the gun critique patriarchal systems when it says, "But I guess this is how fire works in the hands of men" makes me think the gun has a pretty right-on perspective. And when the gun returns to the shooter’s hand in the poem, hoping it won’t be used to “bring pain,” I empathize with the gun. If I were a gun who just wanted to be a firework with a nice flare that just so happens to operate as a vehicle for bullets, I wouldn't want to shoot anyone. I, too, would find my owner “irresponsible” for using me to kill people and then blaming me for his actions. But I don't want to to empathize with the gun that killed Trayvon Martin. I don't want to empathize with any gun. If I were a gun, I would hope I'd want to self-melt.
At the emotional climax of the poem, the gun claims to know that it was wrong, but says it could not flee. “I am the gun used to murder Trayvon Martin," it wanted to shout during the court proceedings. The gun tried to tell the truth: “I’m the gun he used to murder Trayvon Martin.” But, the gun continues, “They didn’t listen, they didn’t want to know the truth.”
The thing that confuses me: The question during Zimmerman's trial wasn't whether Zimmerman used one gun or another to shoot Martin, but whether or not the shooting could be considered murder or manslaughter in the state of Florida. (Zimmerman was found not guilty.) If the gun's confession was something like, "I murdered Trayvon Martin," then that would be a whole other story.
But I think that if I see the gun as the symbol of power more generally, then the underlying idea that terrible men woefully misuse power shines through a little more clearly for me.
Maybe I'm just a crazy idiot who is reading this poem incorrectly? I'm sure you'll let me know in the comments.
This post has been updated.