Poet Robert Lipton has witnessed violence in the Middle East — and in his East Bay hometown of Richmond. They are not the same, but both drive him to commit poetry.
His literary efforts and resistance activities — such as the one that took him to Israel and the West Bank with the International Solidarity Movement in 2002, during the Second Intifada — come together in the way he engages with communities struggling with conflict and pain.
Poetry and social activism have the power to “bring peace to dangerous places,” Lipton said. “I’ve seen things change. You have to have hope.”
Since 2017, he has served as one of Richmond’s poet laureates, a literary honor awarded to highly accomplished resident poets. They are expected to perform at local poetry events and to facilitate the creation of poetry by others in the community.
“I want poetry to become a comfortable part of the surround, whether through spoken word, on the page, producing the work or appreciating the work,” said Lipton. “I want it to be normal.”
Lipton said the poet laureate program has been a personally enriching experience, giving him the opportunity to contribute to Richmond’s literary scene through workshops, writing contests and panel discussions.
“You become a part of the structure of the city,” said Lipton, who currently shares the title with two other laureates, Ciera-Jevae Gordon and Daniel Ari.
Richmond is a multiracial, industrial city in the East Bay that boomed in the World War II era but suffered economic decline in the following decades, resulting in issues with gangs, rampant gun violence, drug abuse, neglect and poverty.
Lipton also has observed some of these conditions in Israel and the West Bank, where he has engaged in anti-occupation work for many years. He contributed an essay called “Bearing Witness in the Promised Land” to the 2003 anthology “Live from Palestine,” which also included contributions from Hanan Ashrawi, Edward Said and Rachel Corrie.
I have an absurdist sensibility on the page where you are unsure if you’re supposed to laugh or feel awful.
In addition to graphic descriptions of violence he has seen, Lipton tracks his own responses in his poems. In the aftermath of a 2002 Israeli military operation in the West Bank town of Nablus, near where he was visiting, he wrote:
“It is not my blood running out my mouth/and it is not my smile stuck to my face/like paper donkey’s tail./I am still telling this story/an insightful, and more to the point, living narrator/who lets you believe death/is for someone else/in some other place.”
The poem “Not Me in Nablus” is included in his 2006 collection “A Complex Bravery,” which covers a wide range of personal experiences and incidents observed: children cursing at police officers, the aging hands of grandmothers, tension between lovers, ruin in the West Bank.
“I have an absurdist sensibility on the page where you are unsure if you’re supposed to laugh or feel awful,” said Lipton.
Raised in a Conservative Jewish family of Eastern European and Sephardic Jews, Lipton affiliated with the anti-occupation organization Jewish Voice for Peace decades ago. “I’ve always been anti-Zionist or non-Zionist,” he said.
And while he feels he has been on the receiving end of discrimination by the mainstream Jewish community for holding these political views, he is also cognizant of his racial privilege in Richmond, a city predominantly populated by black and Latino communities. He keeps that in mind as he mentors local youth, helping them to cultivate their own voices.
“I have to step gently because I am a white guy,” said Lipton. “My laureate status has to be a very inclusive and participatory thing. I don’t want to be the fearless leader. I want to be part of the group.”
In the spring, Richmond poet laureates judged a West Contra Costa public school arts competition called “Richmond Writes! Poetry Contest,” organized by the Richmond Arts & Culture Commission. Student winners had the opportunity to read their work alongside the city’s poet laureates at a local café.
Despite ideological battles and social inequalities that exist in all places, Lipton told J. he wants the Richmond poet laureate program to inspire diverse generations to share their stories and help the city heal.
“We are trying to make it so that they can have a place to express themselves and see themselves represented,” said Lipton, who in his professional life is a spatial epidemiologist, who studies the geography of health and disease. “My voice is a voice, but there are others.”