On December 26, 2019, Sara Biel and her daughter joined a protest against the eviction of three mothers—Dominique Walker, Misty Cross, and Sameerah Karim—and their children, from a house on Magnolia Street in Oakland.
In November, with the support of Moms4Housing, a collective working toward pragmatic solutions to Oakland's housing crisis, the women had moved into the unlocked house, which had been vacant for two years. Working people who could not afford housing in Oakland, they squatted in a public and intentional manner, seeking to find a way to enter a housing market that has been manipulated by corporate developers.
"That they were being evicted at seven in the morning on the day after Christmas was straight out of the Scrooge playbook," said Biel, who is a psychiatric social worker, poet, and co-editor of Colossus:Home, a new poetry anthology that will raise funds for Moms4Housing.
Although there was a stay of eviction on that day in December, less than a month later the Alameda County Sheriff's office returned with a team armed with machine guns and a battering ram, knocking down the door of the house and arresting the women inside. Ultimately, as pressure from organizers led to some measure of support from elected officials, the county refused to press charges. But that was just part of an ongoing and as yet unsuccessful struggle of Moms4Housing, working with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and the Community Land Trust, to buy the house on Magnolia Street.
After the protest in December, Biel talked with her friend Karla Brundage to suggest that they support Moms4Housing with an anthology, the second in a series they were calling Colossus (after "The New Colossus," the Emma Lazarus poem that is written on the Statue of Liberty). The first anthology in their series, Colossus: Bay Area Poets Challenge Immigration Injustice, was born out of what Biel describes as her fury over the Trump administration's detainment and separation of immigrant families.
"I said, 'if it's for Moms4Housing, I am in!'" said Brundage, who is the program manager for 826 Valencia's Mission Bay branch by day.
'Colossus:Home' co-editors Karla Brundage (left) and Sara Biel.
Biel and Brundage have both been using poetry as a vehicle for social engagement and commentary since the early '1990s. In the early 2000s, Biel was a member of Blood Test, an all-female and distinctly feminist group that performed collectively written poetry; in the '90s, Brundage started doing street performance and poetic protest, a term coined by poet and activist Wanda Sabir.
When they put out the call for submissions to Colossus:Home, they were unprepared for the overwhelming response from writers and artists wanting to contribute. What they assumed would be a modest, scrappy volume has become an elegant, nearly 200-page book with 19 full color images.
"I thought if we get 26 poets to contribute that would be great," said Biel, noting that the first Colossus anthology featured 13 poets and was put together at her kitchen table. Biel credits book designer Fred Dodsworth with encouraging her to include visual art and prose in the anthology. The photography of Francis Baker is on the cover and sprinkled throughout the volume.
"It's a very diverse group of contributors," said Brundage. "More women than men, but we curated to have voices from the wider Bay Area, including newcomers (recently arrived immigrants), Black, Latinx, gender non-conforming, Arab, Palestinian, and Asian American writers. There are nine Bay Area poets laureate in this collection, including San Francisco's Kim Shuck."
Contributors (full disclosure, I am proud to have a poem in Colossus:Home) were clearly moved by the opportunity to support Moms4Housing. The collective's work has been cited by local legislators including California State Senator Nancy Skinner, who supported the passage of S.B. 1079, a bill that fines corporate developers who keep single family homes unoccupied for more than 90 days, and directs resulting funds to support low-income housing.
"Nobody should be sleeping on the street if there are empty spaces they could be sleeping in," said Biel, whose introduction to Colossus:Home touches on the historical roots of the current housing crisis in the redlining practices of the 1940s and '50s, and the more recent predatory lending schemes that have led to foreclosures, evictions, and empty houses.
In an effort to explore the multivalent meanings of home, Biel and Brundage organized the anthology into five sections: "Home Body," "Home Made," "Home Town," "Home Land," and "Home Coming." The categories reflect the various ways we might find ourselves at home—from being at ease in our own bodies to having a sense of belonging in a city or in a nation, or even on the planet or in the universe. Many of the issues that have come to the foreground in our volatile political moment relate to questions of how and when and by whom a place is called home.
In the forward to Colossus:Home, Dominique Walker of Moms4Housing writes: "Just as art should reflect the times, so should our collective resistance…I believe in the power of the people. We are what we need. Let's continue to create, capturing this history. Let it show resistance."
To order your copy and learn about upcoming Zoom readings from Colossus:Home, visit colossuspress.org.