McKenzie Harpe’s debut collection, When Pens Became Megaphones is aptly named because of how powerful the writing is in this book. The poems in this book are passionate and compelling in examining a variety of themes. A few of the themes covered in this book are mental health, relationships, family, racism, and social injustice. . The book is divided into four sections which are, “Speak With Yo’ Mind”, “Speak with Yo’ Soul”, “Speak with Yo Fist” and “Speak with Yo’ Heart”. Harpe does not mince words or is subtle to express herself in her poetry and that is something I greatly admire. I also want to mention that the format and presentation of the book is very professional and flawless in how it’s laid out making it very appealing for the reader. I will discuss 2 poems from each section that really spoke to me.
The first section “Speak With Yo’ Mind” talks frankly and honestly about anxiety and the feelings that come along with it and how the poet copes. The poet presents a true understanding of how some people feel with the burden of anxious thoughts and how trying to find peace with that can feel like an uphill battle. A poem that spoke to me about dealing with anxiety was Medicine. The poem Medicine talks about the healthy coping mechanism that music can be for someone with mental health issues. This is presented in the fourth stanza with the lines “music is my only redemption/the only prevention/for lost hope” (Harpe,15) As a person with mental health issues myself, music is one of my healthiest coping mechanisms. When the world gets too “noisy” for me, I tend to put my earbuds in and play something to either calm me down or hype me up depending on my mood. Another poem from this section that resonated with me was Evicted. Evicted presents a picture about kicking anxiety out. This is presented when the poet states, “see, I only came to organize/my thoughts on my hanger, /but now I’m cleaning out more than my closet. /I’m kicking you out, anxiety” (Harpe,17) There is a power in that verse which shows the poet taking her power back from anxiety taking up space in her mind. As a person who also suffers from anxiety, I completely get it.
The second section pays a tribute to where the poets come from and her family. Harpe does this by talking about the women in her family as well as her friends. One poem that I especially loved was My Day Ones where she captures the ease that comes from long term friendships or connections. This is stated in the poem, “a necessary vent/ after years/of personal growth/and that vibes still the same” (Harpe,31) This poem resonated with me because it reminded me of the connection I have with my childhood friends from Hawaii. Weeks or months can pass by without us talking and out of the blue one of us will say something in our group chat and we’ll catch up on life. Another poem I absolutely loved from this section was Auntie. It displays the resilience and strength of a woman who has breast cancer. Harpe shows this woman’s strength from the first line, “I know a woman/who’s not afraid of monsters” (Harpe,36). This poem resonates with me when I think about breast cancer survivors and victims of breast cancer . Another thing I like about this poem is that Harpe captures the essence of this woman going through something really harrowing in a way that respects her humanity.
The third section Harpe explores the great social injustices that have been happening and still happen in this country. Harpe does this by talking frankly and honestly about racism and white privilege. The poem Armed is one of my favorite poems in the whole book. It speaks about how words can be weapons of change. When Harpe says, “I load my pen with thoughts/the aim with precision/ spit fire on these pages/ and hope you see my vision/ this is more than just a poem (Harpe,59), she speaks the truth with how people tend to underestimate the power that artists can have when to comes to social change. This poem reminded me that one of the reasons I write is to give a voice to the marginalized immigrant community that I come from. Another poem that really resonated with me in this section was the poem The Five Senses. This poem addresses how white privilege continues to undermine and oppress minorities in this country. I was blown away by how the poet used all of five senses to do this. For example, for the sense of hearing in stanza 2, the poet states “what does it sound like? /hearing a native language/and calling it a threat. /yelling at minorities/to go back home/to places they never even met/like we didn’t forget/you never discovered/this country to begin with, (Harpe,66). That stanza gives me goosebumps from how powerful it is in addressing racists and calling out their hypocrisy. This part in this poem really resonated too since I have been subject to prejudice and discrimination due to my ethnicity and former immigration status.
The fourth section “Speak with Yo’ Heart” explores themes related to love and it’s not just centered on romantic love, but it also talks about self-love. I really resonate with the poem Dramatic. In the first stanza the poet states “when you date a poet/understand that your attitude/will become similes/your emotions/will become metaphors/your actions/will be the starting line/for each stanza ( Harpe,83) How true is this for many poets who will take their inspiration from their romantic relationships. Some of us even have a blog dedicated to this type of poetry (😉😏). Another poem that really stood out from this section was Saving Grace. In this poem, Harpe talks about her “toxic relationship with anxiety” and how it has impacted her. A powerful verse in this poem was “this time I felt sad/lonely/and nonexistent. /turns out, he had changed into this person/called depression (Harpe,93). Harpe shows how agonizing it feels like for a lot of us when our anxiety turns into depression. I also want to mention that the end of this poem was very hope and filled with faith. Once again, Harpe captures the painful truth that most of us with anxiety and depression must live with.
With her debut collection, Harpe presents an amazing talent for being open and honest about life, identity, social justice, and mental health. My only complaint about this book is that I wanted to read more. Yes, that’s how good this poetry collection was. I don’t usually read a book in one sitting but Harpe’s writing captivated me in such a way that I couldn’t put it down. I highly recommend this book for anyone who likes poetry that’s inspiring and empowering. I look forward from reading more from this poet. Below is a link to When Pens Become Megaphones