Stanzas for social change: Christen Malloy on poetry and activism

Original article published on the CU Independent here.

Christen Malloy (Courtesy of Malloy)

Poetry is a powerful form of protest. From the women’s suffrage and environmental movements to civil rights and Black Lives Matter, poetry has been a rallying cry for justice that electrifies and unites crowds. For hundreds of years, poets have wielded language to give a voice to the oppressed, speak truth to power and demand social change.

At the University of Colorado Boulder, where activism flourishes, the protest poetry scene is likewise alive and vibrant. One leading poet is Christen Malloy, a junior majoring in computer science, who independently published her first chapbook, “Eruption: The Awakening of Self,” last year. In March of 2021, Malloy won the Center for Student Involvement’s annual Poetry Slam, the biggest poetry event on campus.

“We need (poetry) to lift us up, to remind us why (social justice) is important to fight for,” Malloy said. “It reminds us of what we have lived through and (shows) us how we can move forward.”

Malloy became passionate about the intersection of poetry and social justice while studying at CU Boulder. In the fall of 2019, she enrolled in an English elective course, “Introduction to American Women’s Literature,” where she studied influential female poets and writers from the 19th to 21st centuries, including Emily Dickinson, Gwendolyn Brooks, Kathy Acker and Renee Gladman. Malloy felt deeply connected to these women and their artistic activism, which focused on feminism, female empowerment, sexuality, rebellion and racial equality. 

Feeling inspired and empowered, Malloy decided to begin writing her own poetry to explore her identity as a trans woman. Poetry soon became an important creative outlet for Malloy, allowing her to reflect on life and society and share her passion for activism. As a computer science major, she also integrated analytical, cross-disciplinary thinking into her poetic style, notably with code poems. 

“Poetry is a bridge between my left brain and right brain,” Malloy said. “It has enabled me to cross-pollinate ideas from different (types) of thinking.”

After writing poems for a short time, Malloy set an ambitious goal for herself: to create and publish her own chapbook, a short collection of poems, by the end of the semester. She turned to her women’s literature professor, Amanda Hurtado, as a mentor and guide in the process. In 2018, Hurtado published her own poetry artbook, “CELL,” while pursuing her Ph.D. at CU Boulder. 

“Her plans for the book were big!” Hurtado admitted. “I often worried that a semester wouldn’t be enough time to bring them to fruition. But Christen was so passionate and driven that she did finish, print and hand-bind a small edition of her incredible work.”

“Christen is an inspiring, brilliant force of nature,” Hurtado added. “I am eager to follow her artistic career.”

By the end of the semester, Malloy finished writing all 20 poems for the chapbook, entitled “Eruption: The Awakening of Self.” Her code poem, “Life,” from the collection was selected for the TIMBER journal, CU Boulder’s MFA literary journal that features innovative and experimental writing. Written in formatted code, “Life” features an ironic function for how to be successful in life, given that luck is random and our mundane existence will inevitably end in death. 

“The point of (the poem) is there is no way to develop a fixed formula for how to live your life,” Malloy said. 

After being featured in TIMBER, Malloy decided to independently publish “Eruption” in a digital format and as a creative limited-edition book. Using Hurtado’s bookbinding tools, Malloy created 100 handbound chapbooks, adding her own cover art and artwork. 

“By making handbound chapbooks, I wanted (to create) multiple forms of art, combining poetry with printmaking and limited-edition artwork,” Malloy said. 

Soon after the release of “Eruption,” the pandemic struck, changing life in America and the rest of the world for the unforeseeable future. In response, Malloy felt compelled to document the collective trauma and isolation and began working on her next chapbook, “Poems from the Pandemic,” which will be published later in 2021. 

This semester, she has been showcasing one poem from the new collection, “My Country, ‘Tis on Fire!,” at several poetry events on campus, including CSI’s virtual Poetry Slam in March. Malloy won the slam, using it for the preliminary round and “Werewolf” from “Eruption” for the final round. 

For Malloy, “My Country, ‘Tis on Fire!” is a poem about processing the trauma and political and social crises of 2020, including self-isolation during the pandemic, climate change, BLM protests, political divisiveness and corporate corruption. Yet despite the darker themes, the poem ends with a hopeful call for liberty and freedom, “Let equality ring!”

“Fire (embodies) many aspects of 2020,” Malloy said. “The country was literally on fire. Parts of it were burning due to climate change and the BLM riots. There were also fires in the bellies of everyone protesting.”

“This current climate is not allowing for equality,” Malloy added. “We need change.”

So, pen in hand, Malloy continues to protest, demanding change now and dreaming of a brighter future with equality for all.

“Eruption” can be purchased on Malloy’s website here or accessed digitally here

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