Black Market Poetry

By Zarah Virtanen Windh

 

I got into black market poetry when I was only sixteen years old. 

Back then, I didn’t know how big the movement was, or was going to become. I didn’t know how much people depended on it, and I didn’t know that six years later I would take the step from consuming and passing forward, to picking up the pen on my own. I didn’t know I would actively beacon the revolution myself. 

It started with a friend, a guy who was into it. I saw him exchange a small, dark vial with a person on the street; they hadn’t even looked at each other and yet somehow the vial had exchanged hands. My friend’s face was a mask of unfazed neutrality. Like nothing had happened, he kept walking. I stared at him and asked him about it, and then his expression changed into something more . . . scared. First, he tried to tell me it was nothing, that I had seen something that wasn’t there. But I knew he still had the small bottle in his hand. He refused to show it to me. As intriguing as it was, when he lied I mostly became grumpy and gave up trying. Which, of course, was why he showed it to me in the end, anyway.

He dragged me, hand around my waist, into an alleyway, a nook where few people walked and where we couldn’t be seen from the main street. Then he looked at me, eyes glistening with a secret, a secret he was going to share, and I couldn’t help but feel—though still grumpy—the tiniest bit of excitement. He whispered instructions, in a hurry almost, urging me to take the bottle and open it. I was positively thrumming with anticipation and followed his instructions. I felt like I was doing something genuinely Wrong™. The cork made a little plopping sound when I pulled it out, and my friend looked around to see if the coast was clear before he nodded “continue.” Out of the container came a tiny piece of folded paper. It was more brittle than normal paper, thinner too, and I could already see that there were words written on it. I asked my friend what it was, and he hushed me, told me instead to open it, carefully, and read it. So, I did. I drew a breath to read it aloud, but got hushed again and told to do it silently. 

 

We live in darkness, my friends, and this is where we thrive
We have never needed light and we will never see the day
But we are a 'we' in a time of 'them' and that makes us the living

 -- C. Fortress 


It felt like I was reading something that was not meant for my eyes, a part of a conversation I was not involved in, that was too big for me and had deeper meanings than I could fathom. I was sure I’d found something valuable. I had never known that this was something that existed, and even so, I felt like I had long wanted to relish in it. And yet, I was slightly disappointed. It was just some words scrawled on a miniature piece of paper. I couldn’t comprehend the value yet, so the poem was nowhere near as staggering as I wanted it to be. It was a surprise, but I had thought there’d be more to it, especially after the thrill of secrecy and the rush of the exchange.

I looked up. My friend nodded, asked if I had read it, and I nodded back to him. I didn’t know what to say. He took the poem, read it himself, held it between his finger and thumb, and then set the paper on fire. Gasping, I rushed forward, but the paper was gone, the words with it. My friend looked at me like I was so utterly young.

"This is what you must do," he said. "When you’ve read it, you burn it." 

There were a great many things I did not then understand, and he told me he couldn’t tell me there, on the near-to-empty side-street, that it was too “dangerous.” It didn’t make any sense, but I understood how serious he was. I saved the vial in my backpack, and we stepped out onto the street again, carrying on like the interruption had never happened. 

That was the first time, but not the last. Once I knew that it could happen, I found that oftentimes it did. Strangers, at least to me, but I was ninety-nine percent sure they were to him as well, knew my friend was interested in getting their small containers, so they gave them to him. Just like that. Or maybe not so casually, because it was with the utmost care and precision; there was never any doubt that he would accept them. 

He finally explained it to me, in the safety of his room, in his house, whispering because he didn’t want his parents to find out. It was a sort of underground movement. A revolution, if you will, one with the two most powerful weapons of all: hope, he explained, and words. I wasn’t sure what they were fighting for, why this was something secret, and why they couldn’t share their thoughts, their poems, their hope, openly. He told me that it would be illegal to do so. Technically, you could write anything, so the law said, but the truth was something else. He explained the government-issued rules, in place for several decades, some of which were downright ridiculous. Some, he said, went directly against basic human rights. 

It struck me then what a twisted time we lived in. Even though I had never realised it before, it was clear to me now that the written word had become a rarity. At least the word free from regulation and control. I hadn’t known there was a need for hope. I hadn’t known there was something else to yearn for. I hadn’t known this was going to become an obsession I could never shake.

My friend taught me the “rules,” and I say it with scare quotes because there weren’t any real rules. Still, things were done in a certain way: a closed container, thin paper, one poem, the name of the author, and finally, burn it after you’ve read it. These led to other things, like the fact that my friend carried a lighter with him, everywhere, always. With him, it wasn’t strange, because he smoked, but once I started with poetry, I was always afraid that the lighter in my pocket would somehow make me conspicuous. If I accidentally gave a light to someone who asked for it, would I be caught? The first year, I was always walking on eggshells. My anxiety was high every time I put a pin to my jacket’s left sleeve, every time I was handed another poem, every time I set it on fire after slurping up the words like another fix. It also led to me have numerous containers in my backpack at all times. There were vials, tiny medicine bottles, various vessels, mini flasks, things with cork plugs, things with screw corks, snap lids, anything and everything that was small enough. 

It took me a long time to ever send them back out. A long time before I felt brave enough to copy the words I had read onto my own paper, place it in a circular jewellery box with a lion painted on the lid, and walk on the busy main street until I found a person I could hand it to. That first exchange hadn’t been a good one. I hadn’t learned how to do it properly. I messed up. The young woman who was supposed to accept the snuff-box was walking faster than I had anticipated. I practically collided with her, and the box fell out of my hand and clattered to the ground. Thankfully, the woman was a quick thinker and she slid her bag off her shoulder letting it drop to the ground, giving herself an excuse to reach down for it, together with my poem. A furious look flashed across her face when she did so. I excused myself, telling her I was sorry, and that I hadn’t looked where I was going. She turned and was gone before I could draw any more attention towards us, and I stared after her for several seconds before walking in the opposite direction, heart hammering, hands trembling. But finally, I had taken part. Finally, I was no longer just a consumer, but someone who was passing things forward. I was becoming an active part of the community. I was joining the revolution. I was eighteen years old and I felt like the world had been laid bare before my feet. 

My friend introduced me to a friend of his, a girl he knew from school and the three of us decided to move in together while continuing our studies. This girl was the one who had introduced my friend to the movement, and she proudly declared herself a "revolutionary poet," a statement that would later come back to haunt her. I had to do a double take when she told me her pen name, L. Firezents, because it was a name that I recognized, a name I had mentally preserved, the author of a number of poems I admired, and often spread forward. She blushed when I told her that, but she held her head high, because she knew it wasn’t empty praise; it was real; it was me telling her she was doing well. It was proof that she mattered.

 

We are radicals, but so are they
And what we see is what they feed

 
-- L. Firezents

 

I quoted this, a poem I had stumbled across several times during the years. It was usual that the same poems popped up, that you got some that had been around for years and years because they were powerful enough to be remembered and to be heard again and again. I didn’t mind, seeing poems again, but sometimes I felt like those poems—the old ones—were living in a time we still strived for, but could never muster up the courage and organisation to fight for. 

To some people, it seemed that as long as the word was written, that was good enough. That it was passed along, that it came out, and that people could read it was enough. That was the end goal of their revolution. The black market was their way of coping, of fighting the power. The revolt lay in defiance rather than in striving for change. I played along, because I had yet to open my eyes to further possibilities. 

My friend got his pen name because Firezents was arrested. I had not yet picked up the pen myself, but he decided it was time for him to do so. He wrote his first poem with his hands still shaking from the adrenaline of watching her being taken away, unable to do anything about it.

  

Flame, she said
All it needs is a spark
Then we burn, burn, burn
Firezents is gone
Let her words
Never die

 
-- O. Nectu

 

His became a frequent name after that, taking over after his friend—our friend—and spreading the same message of unity, calling out what he saw, what the world was really like. Sometimes he gave me his poems to forward, somehow trusting me with the originals, and maybe that’s why we grew so close. We had lost the third part of our little gang and had to hold on tighter to what was left. We had to trust because if we didn’t, we would have had nothing left.

We kept going. Years. Secret after secret, vial after vial, burning, burning, burning. 

Somewhere in it all, I lost focus. Or better yet: my focus shifted. I yearned for more, and for difference. Tiny bottles with scribbled words like stolen kisses in the dead of night didn’t suffice anymore. I wanted the freedom we could taste before fire devoured it. I wanted to believe that in my day and age there would be what many before me had hoped there would be. I was quickly growing restless, and soon I would be aggravated and frustrated that there wasn’t yet anything more. My friend, since he could never give me more, sensed my frustration. He understood my position, but he did not share my views. He didn’t have the spark, ironic, because it was he who set me aflame. 

The way he spoke of the world as free, of people as free, and because I trusted him more than anything, I began to understand what I could have: what we and the world, my country and its people, were deprived of. And it was no longer enough to just hope. Hope, the second most powerful weapon, was not powerful enough for me because I needed something that could blow up big. Forwarding was hope. It was playing on the defensive. Writing was offensive—in several meanings of the word—and I was ready to attack. 

On my twenty-second birthday, I picked up the pen, my friend sitting opposite me at our kitchen table. He was scared. He didn’t want to lose me like we’d lost Firezents, and I told him what a fucking hypocrite he was because he had been writing ever since. It was time for me to do the same. He didn’t agree, but he didn’t object either, and I set the pen to the delicate paper. 

We are radicals, I wrote, starting the poem just like Firezents, because it needed that recognizable feeling to it, but my continuation differed.

 

We are radicals, but are we really, though?
Subdued by them, hiding, wishing absently
For a world outside the walls of censorship
But we are the fire in the darkness
And maybe it is time to let us free

 
-- K. Celensator

 

I showed it to him and he nodded. Little did we know that it was the start of a new era. Little did we know that not only would this be my first poem but also one of the most important ones for this next era to really burst into life. 

I do not write this because I have to, but because you have the right to know. To know that I started something I was not ready to shoulder, not ready to even comprehend the meaning of. My friend was the ignition, but my poems became the spark for what would come to be the biggest revolution our country had ever faced. Of course, I was not alone, and my poetry was not the only thing to give way to uproar, but I did write the first poem. I changed the game, and for what it’s worth, I want to apologize to everyone who got caught up in it and got hurt. I am responsible, and I am sorry. I should have prepared better. Frankly, there are a lot of things I should have done, but I was young and naïve. I'm not apologizing for doing it, but for not doing it better

We didn’t know what had happened, that anything had happened, until a few days later. I had sent out more poems, but I hadn’t picked up any new ones. I didn’t want my attack to be clouded by anyone else’s words. I was taking a stand and hoping other people would too. I should have had more faith. The black market had exploded. My poems were shared and shared again. Once I started picking up vials again, in those first few weeks, nine times out of ten it was just my own poems, copied. I kept having to set my words aflame, and it made me wish even more for a day when I, instead, could put them on the wall or have them written in a book.

Slowly but steadily new poems surfaced: words that were no longer tentative or distant, but full of action and flare. Anger. Suddenly, everyone was so angry. It was unnerving to understand that this all came from changes in word choices, from the way letters were harshly written. The revolution was already old. It had been going on for at least a decade, but this was new. This was moreI did the best I could with the resources I had. And we were in for a ride. 

It started simply. A meeting. A physical meeting with more people than anyone had expected. The passing of poems was a discreet experience, so it was hard to know how many of us there were. Now that I could count, there were so many that I lost count. The date, place, and agenda must have been the most forwarded message, and it was hard to believe that we had all been able to gather without word getting to someone who was not to be trusted. I met so many people. I saw so much courage. Loud voices and strong minds, tired souls with rage in their hearts. Fighters. Everyone was building up to becoming ready, and although no one knew exactly what we were readying for, it was without a doubt something meaningful. 

I met the author of the first poem I ever read, C. Fortress. She told me she was inspired by my writing and everything just became surreal. Not only was I a household name, but a beloved one at that. With my friend at my side, I spread my message. And it was received, heard, and acted upon. 

In the blink of an eye, the market went from underground to high up above. It went from trying to keep focus away to trying to obtain every focus possible. It rid itself of shame and of secrecy and it grew into a full-fledged uproar. We screamed loud and clear the words we had long kept written in our hearts, and we did not surrender. Even when failure clouded our steps, not once did our hope—our flame—die out, and because we persisted, we found that the hope spread like an uncontainable forest fire. The people who cared somehow managed to engage the ones who didn’t. We were unstoppable.

We won. Outdated laws were cut to shreds by our words because they were more frightening to the people in power than any weapon they ever pointed our way was to us. I was scared, yes, everyone was, but nothing could scare us into silence once we finally found our voices. Some suffered consequences I do not dare to even think of. Although I feel responsible, I also know that if given the chance, none of them would have done anything differently. But we won. The words, and with them us: we were free. 

I got into black market poetry when I was only sixteen years old, and I can proudly say that now, twenty years later, I no longer partake in it. Simply, because there is no longer anything illegal about it. We don’t need it anymore. We got our freedom. Now, it is just ‘poetry.’ 

I am a revolutionary poet, and I have nothing to fear by proclaiming that to the world. 

I was afraid to write. I am to this day. But please, learn from the past and do not fear. Write, speak, share, and love, but remember the time, effort, passion, and resistance it has taken a great many people for you to be able to do so. Remember us, and remember what came before us, so that we will never again face a world where these necessities are overlooked. Remember that the two most powerful weapons on earth are there to be used by the people, and that the government should embrace them. There is nothing the two won’t break through with enough time and dead-set believers. 

 

For when the word is written
and when hope is felt
nothing can stop it
from fuelling our fires
and letting us burn.
 
-- K. Celensator