This week, First Lady Michelle Obama welcomed Rachel Robinson (wife of Jackie Robinson), cast and filmmakers of the new Jackie Robinson biopic “’42” to the White House for a “Film Workshop for Students.” Personally, I wouldn’t call this a workshop when students aren’t holding and operating cameras, writing scripts, or rehearsing/reviewing scenes. So this post will rename it a “Filmmakers Session for Students.” Maybe someone on the “’42″ team will say something that will inspire a future filmmaker, actor, writer, producer, set designer, or even baseball player. I’m placing my bets on Rachel Robinson.
Read between the lines in the First Lady’s
testimonial opening remarks as she hails Rachel Robinson and the story of the film. These two women are in the circle of historical “racial firsts.” And I’m sure Michelle Obama was not just talking about Rachel and Jackie Robinson when she describes the taunts, name calling, and verbal abuse from the stands. Listen carefully. She’s telling US something.
The actor playing Jackie Robinson is Chadwick Boseman. I was introduced to Chad in ’99 when he co-starred in my first full-length play Iola’s Letter about Ida B. Wells and the launch of her anti-lynching crusade in 1892. Ida may not have been a first, but she most definitely joins Michelle and Rachel’s circle of black women who’ve had to take the heat. Ida was taking the heat on her own, and packing it as well. “Iola’s Letter” was written at the request of Vera J. Katz, professor of drama at Howard. She was approved by her department to direct “a reading.” But it turned out to be a performance, fully staged, fully costumed, and a set — the actors memorized the lines and carried the scripts in their hands to stick to the original bargain. Eight
performances readings were scheduled for the black box theater. A ninth had to be added to accomodate audience enthusiasm (the 8 were sold out). ’99 turned out to be a great season. Here’s a clip from Act I, scene 1 from a the fairly damaged VHS recording. I hear you Marty Scorsese (2013 NEH Jefferson Lecture).
’42 opens in theaters April 12.
Wow, it’s been nearly a month since I last posted. So much going on, can’t pick just one, two or three. But there is something I’d like to share, it’s MAKERS. “MAKERS: Women Who Make America” (a production of Storyville Films) is just one part of the story. That’s the complete title of a new mini-series that will premiere on PBS stations February 26.
“MAKERS: Women Who Make America” is a 3-hour overview of the women’s movement in America, it’s key players, and pivital moments from the 1950s to the present day. One can debate who did what, when, where and the impact. For example who really blew the whistle that forced Anita Hill that forced the Senate Judiciary Committee to reopen the confirmation hearing for Clarence Thomas in 1991? Giving total credit to the women in Congress makes for a consistent narrative of women, politics, and power, but the messenger was NPR’s Nina Totenberg. The coverage of the hearing won NPR a George Foster Peabody Award. Anita Hill wrote a book and went back into academia. And Clarence Thomas is Justice for life on the U.S. Supreme Court.
There are great stories told, but 3 hours is insufficient to explore sex, race, class, from so many women’s perspectives and experiences from the last 5 decades. But where MAKERS loses time in broadcast, it more than makes up for with the MAKERS website featuring testimonials from many American “maker” women. The MAKERS website (www.makers.com) is a collaboration between AOL and PBS. Commercial and public media can peacefully coexist, and it makes for a wonderful partnership. The site aims to be the largest video collection of women’s stories. They are contemporary stories even though some of the women featured have joined the ancestors. Thank goodness they didn’t go silently into the night.
Friday, March 1 at 2 PM ET (11 AM PT) I’ll be hosting a social screening of the first hour of the documentary “Makers: Women Who Make America” with two makers:
Barbara Smith is a feminist writer, critic, teacher, and author who co-founded Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, the first U.S. publisher of women of color. Have you read This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (a KP classic). Even used, it’s selling for $92 on Amazon. Barbara Smith is currently serving her second term as a member of the Albany Common Council.
Amy Richards is co-founder of the Third Wave Foundation. She’s written several books including Manifesta, Grassroots and Opting In. She’s also written for major publications including the New York Times, Bitch, The Chicago Tribune, and also has her own “Ask Amy” column on Feminist.com.
You can join the social screening by clicking on this link for OVEE (online video engagement experience): https://ovee.itvs.org/screenings/j0cnk
Log in using Facebook or create an account.
Here are their MAKERS videos from the makers.com website. Browse through more interviews. Making Up takes time.
My first introduction to James McBride was James McBride the musician who had a really cool day job as a writer for the Washington Post. I also knew James had a pretty good rep for being a top notch journalist and quitting, then getting journalism jobs that any graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism then and now can only dream of. Before Columbia, James attended Oberlin College in Ohio. Though he and I didn’t cross Tappan Square at the same time, Oberlin would be the place where our musical paths crossed through a professor of jazz named Wendell Logan who passed away shortly after the dedication of the new Bertram and Judith Kohl jazz building which houses the Oberlin Conservatory jazz department.
James always seemed to be writing something including songs for Anita Baker and Grover Washington, Jr. But it was his talent with words, not music notes that launched him into artistic stardom. While playing tenor sax alongside Jimmy Scott, James spent downtime to work on his memoir The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother (Riverhead/Putnam). It’s the story of James’ mother Ruth McBride Jordan, a Rabbi’s daughter from a small southern Virginia town, who fled to Harlem, met and married a black man, (James’ father) and raised 12 children who all went to college. The Color of Water became a New York Times bestseller and an American classic. It is a standard text on school reading lists across the country. [Publishers have issued a 10th Anniversary release.]
James followed up the memoir with his first novel, Miracle at St. Anna (Riverhead 2003), a story set in WW II Italy. His uncle’s war stories sparked the interest. The process of writing the book took James on an extensive trip to Italy to bring the small Tuscan town and events during WW II to life on the page. Miracle at St. Anna was optioned for a feature film directed by Spike Lee and released in 2008. It was James’ first experience adapting a novel into a screenplay.
James added another novel to his repertoire: Song Yet Sung, (2009) set in pre-Civil War Maryland where a beautiful runaway slave takes a life-and-death opportunity to escape from the “real life” notorious slave catcher Patty Cannon and other profiteers and opportunists lurking in the swamps of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Song Yet Sung was selected for the annual statewide “One Maryland, One Book” campaign.
Recently, James and Spike Lee have collaborated on the feature film “Red Hook Summer” now in theaters nationwide. “Red Hook” is an independent project for Spike Lee and James who is co-writer and co-producer. Both James and Spike Lee are teaching at NYU: Spike heads the graduate film program at the Tisch School of the Arts; James is a distinguished writer-in-residence at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. For an introduction to James McBride, professor, start with a syllabus:
Be ready to write longhand. No computers. No cell phones in class. Pencil and yellow legal sized paper only. Please be on time. Bring a jacket and a metro card.
For the first class, there is absolute silence when you enter the room. No talking. Not even to say hello to your neighbor. You want to hear a hello? Here it is: Hello. Now, no talking for the first ten minutes of class. It sounds stupid, but it is our first exercise.
James’ son is beginning his freshman year at Oberlin with a bass in tow. I thought this would be a good time to reconnect with James for an “Eclectique Interview.”
What’s a “typical day” for James McBride when he’s working on something? What are your artist habits?
I wake up at 4:30 a.m. every day. Sometimes 5. And I write.
How did “Red Hook Summer” happen? Another way of saying who’s idea was it to make this film, your’s or Spike Lee’s? What took place in those initial conversations?
We were having breakfast at a diner and talking about movies we liked. Spike said, “Lemme ask you a question….” And Red Hook Summer was born.
Did you both know or decide from the top “Red Hook Summer” would be an independent production in terms of the financing?
Spike floated the idea and I agreed to have a go at it. Spike is always good for his word. That’s his reputation and it’s well earned and well deserved.
How long did “Red Hook Summer” take to shoot?
Three six week days. Were you on the scene during the filming? No. I visited the set a couple of times. But a director has work to do and doesn’t need a writer hanging around while he works because a director is writing on the set. It’s part of his or her job.
Were you involved in the soundtrack for the film? Spike Lee is making me a big fan of Bruce Hornsby.
No. Bruce Hornsby did a great job. He’s a gifted cat. And Judith Hill’s work is superb as well.
Are you exploring writing music for film? — You wrote some music for my 8 mm student film way back I the day (it did make it into a festival in NYC). No interest in writing for film.
There are some autobiographical elements in “Red Hook Summer” at least from what I remember from your memoir, “The Color of Water.” What did you drop into the script from your life story?
Plenty. It was filmed in the church my parents founded and the church where I was married, and the church that funeralized my mother, in a neighborhood that I still love today.
In your written work I’ve noticed religious or spiritual themes. In our times, religion is either associated with extremism, piety, or pegged as “preachy” (as critics often say). What leads you to “go there” to that spiritual or even metaphysical place in your work?
I grew up very religious, as the movie shows. God has been good to me. But I don’t use his word as a baseball bat to bop people around and make them spend money they don’t have.
“Red Hook Summer” appears to question the relevancy of traditional Black Christianity especially with poor, urban, Black youth today. What do you see as the disconnect between the “old time religion” and today’s youth?
That’s too long to get into. One problem is that good small churches don’t get enough support, and huge, lousy churches get tremendous support. Another is that good spiritual music is used as a noose to hook church congregations. A lot of drums, guitars, shouting and hollering, but no meat.
Do you attend church now?
I don’t go to church that much. I read God’s word every day in the morning before I start my day. I go in spurts. Every Sunday for awhile, then tail off for a few weeks. But God has been very good to me. He’s given me more than I deserve.
“Miracle…” featured African American soldiers during WWII, “Song” opens with a runaway African American slave and white and black slave catchers in Antebellum Maryland. What interested you about those eras in American history? Are there other eras or aspects of the African American experience — Prohibition, Reconstruction, Civil Rights, etc.–that interest you?
No specific interest in any of those areas. I like all of black history except now.
During the height of the Civil Rights era, writer James Baldwin was compelled to come back to America from France, where he walked the streets and talked to people about what was on their minds. As a writer, are you having these conversations on the streets like Baldwin?
That’s where my stories come from, so I am always walking and talking. That’s my bankbook.
You’ve written 2 novels and are about to turn out a third. What attracts you to the novel?
Are you planning to write another memoir? “Fatherhood” appears to be a popular topic.
No more memoirs for me.
I met you through our mutual friend Dawn E. Robinson when you were working as a writer for the Washington Post and gigging on the side with friends and your saxophone. You left DC shortly after our Oberlin jazz professor, Wendell Logan came to DC for grant panels. You two had some conversations, and word has it those conversations led you to quit yet another great newspaper job and head up to NYC? BTW – since I arranged those reunions with Wendell, I’ve taken a little blame for that.
And God bless you for it, Michon, because I forgot all about that till now. Wendell did come to DC that time and saw me sit in with Richard Groove Holmes, the organist. Richard blew me off the bandstand. Counted off a tune at super speed and I sounded terrible. Afterwards I said to Wendell “I haven’t been on the horn that hard,” and he said, “I can see that.” I felt ashamed. I hated to disappoint him. He’d taught me so much music and for him to see me like that, six years out of school, playing so poorly, it embarrassed me. So you’re right. I quit the Post and went back to NY, started practicing, fell into that jazz bunch in Fort Greene Brooklyn, and eventually started working with Anita Baker, Grover Washington, etc. I eventually came back to DC playing tenor with Little Jimmy Scott. Played Blues Alley several times. Those were fun years.
I remember a story where you go to an interview as part of the application to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts for their musical theater program. What made you decide to take another road after that interview?
I went in there as a composition applicant for musical theater and the woman doing the audition was working out of an Oliver Nelson workbook that I’d worked through as a sophomore at Oberlin. There were two professors in the room, her and a guy. I auditioned for them both. I had to score two or three scenes and play them on piano and afterwards they said, “You passed. You were fantastic.” Then they asked me a bunch of questions, and one of them was, “If Al Jarreau asked you to go on the road with him, would you go on the road or stay here at NYU?” I said “I’d go on the road.” On that basis, they turned me down.
What’s new with the music? Performance? Compositions? Inspiration?
The music in me died as my marriage died. Now that I’m divorced, music is slowly folding back into my life. I wrote a musical that seems to be getting its legs. But I’m a father first. Before I’m a writer, or musician, or any kind of artist, I’m a father.
What are you listening to now?
Madou Djembe, Steely Dan, Ruben Blades, Ennio Morricone, M83.
What are you reading now?
Cormac McCarthy “The Road,” Michelle Alexander “The New Jim Crow.”
What movies are you looking forward to seeing or revisiting (oldies and classics)?
Can’t think of any.
Visit the eclectique916.com store for books, music, and films mentioned in this interview and other eclectique916.com posts.
Before there was a Civil Rights Movement, there was Ida B. Wells – 150th Birthday Anniversary July 16
Let me give you thanks for your faithful paper on the lynch abomination now generally practiced against colored people in the South. There has been no word equal to it in convincing power. I have spoken, but my word is feeble in comparison. You give us what you know and testify from actual knowledge. You have dealt with the facts with cool, painstaking fidelity, and left those naked and uncontradicted facts to speak for themselves.
Brave woman! you have done your people and mine a service which can neither be weighed nor measured. If the American conscience were only half alive, if the American church and clergy were only half Christianized, if American moral sensibility were not hardened by persistent infliction of outrage and crime against colored people, a scream of horror, shame, and indignation would rise to Heaven wherever your pamphlet shall be read.
But alas! even crime has power to reproduce itself and create conditions favorable to its own existence. It sometimes seems we are deserted by earth and Heaven—yet we must still think, speak and work, and trust in the power of a merciful God for final deliverance.
Very truly and gratefully yours,
Cedar Hill, Anacostia, D.C.
Preface to “The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and
Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States” pamphlet on lynching in America
by Ida B. Wells. Published 1895
In 1994, I completed a full-length play, “Iola’s Letter” dramatizing the catalyst for which Ida B. Wells, at the risk of her own life, became an anti-lynching crusader. In 1892, three black Memphis business partners (all friends of Ida’s), including the first black post office worker Thomas Moss, were victims of a triple lynching. Their only crime was opening an independent grocery store. Ida was away in Mississippi selling subscriptions to her newspaper. The cry of “rape” by a white woman was often justification for mob violence in the South. But that was not the case in Memphis. The Memphis lynching became Ida’s impetus for digging deeper into one of the most wretched blights of the Reconstruction/Jim Crow era. She would be relentless. “The Red Record” (preface printed above), was Ida B. Wells’ report of her investigations.
While writing “Iola’s Letter” (produced and directed by Vera J. Katz at Howard University, and published in Strange Fruit: Plays on Lynching by American Women edited by Kathy A. Perkins and Judith L. Stephens), I was introduced to members of Ida B. Wells Barnett’s family and have kept those ties ever since. As July 16th approaches, the family will be involved in 150th anniversary of her birth with activities in Holly Springs, MS (Ida’s birth place), Memphis, TN, and Chicago, IL (her permanent home). Below is a release I drafted for the family to promote the events in Holly Springs, and Memphis. Fundraising efforts are underway by Wells-Barnett’s great granddaughter Michelle Duster for an Ida B. Wells monument near the site of the former Ida B. Wells Housing Project in Bronzeville – Chicago. [The Ida B. Wells Housing Project homes were demolished in 2002 -- completely by 2011 -- to be replaced with mixed-income housing.]
Sadly in a time when information is in abundance and volumes can be stored on the smallest micro chip, Ida B. Wells’ story has somehow fallen into the information vortex of the digital age. Imagine how quickly the impact of this investigative journalist would’ve been had she used today’s technology or even the media strategies of the civil rights movement (television). Ida used the resources of her time — her pen, her press, her eloquence, and unbridled determination — to launch an anti-lynching crusade, advocate for women’s suffrage, and the rights of the disenfranchised in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Where would the civil rights movement be without her and many others that came before?
PIONEERING AFRICAN AMERICAN JOURNALIST AND CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST
IDA B. WELLS CELEBRATES HER 150TH BIRTHDAY
Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum in Holly Springs to Give a Birthday Celebration
with the Wells-Barnett Family July 13 – 15
(Holly Springs, MS) At age 29, a single black woman journalist launched an anti-lynching campaign from her newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee in 1892 after the murders of three friends and local grocery store owners Thomas Moss, Henry Stewart, and Calvin MacDowell. Her name was Ida B. Wells. She was known as the “Princess of the Press” and owner/partner of a newspaper titled “Free Speech,” a name she didn’t take for granted. Ida B. Wells would not only lose her own newspaper for her outspoken editorials on lynching, she would become an exile and one of the most influential journalists of her time. Frederick Douglass would become one of her mentors, and she later co-founded the NAACP with W.E.B. DuBois. Ida B. Wells also stood shoulder-to-shoulder with suffragists and women’s rights.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of Ida B. Wells’s birth. A birthday celebration is planned at the Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum in her birthplace of Holly Springs, Mississippi from July 13 – 15. On Friday, there will be an arts festival featuring gospel music including an open mic, and dance. Ida B. Wells’s granddaughter Alfreda Duster Ferrell and other members of the Wells-Barnett family plan to be in attendance for the birthday party and a family reunion. (Ida would marry another newspaper owner, Ferdinand Barnett of Chicago.) The museum serves as tribute, landmark, and art and cultural center focusing on the accomplishments of African Americans.
The Ida B. Wells-Barnett museum is housed in the Spires Bolling/Gatewood House (1853) in the East Holly Springs historic district. The original owner of the house, whose last name was Bolling, was a major builder in town and owned slaves. Ida’s father James Wells’ was both the property and son of Mr. Bolling by another slave named Peggy. Bolling had no children by his legal wife and gave James Wells an apprenticeship in his building business. James continued working for his father even after Emancipation and married another slave owned by Bolling named Elizabeth. Their first child, Ida Bell Wells, was born July 16, 1862. Ida’s family life would be changed forever by the yellow fever epidemic. At 16 she lost both her parents and her youngest brother. She took her parents’ place and cared for her remaining siblings with the help of relatives. Ida dressed more mature so she could get a teaching job to support her family. She would move to Memphis, just 40 miles away where her journalism career took flight through a series of publications owned and edited by Black journalists.
Having never known life as a slave, Ida B. Wells was part of a new generation and movement for civil rights decades before the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In 1884, Ida B. Wells refused to give up her seat in the ladies section of a train and move to the crowded smoking car (reserved for Black passengers). The conductor tried to remove her by force. She bit him on the hand and later sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad and won a $500 settlement, which had to be repaid when the railroad company appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Tours of Ida B. Wells’s Holly Springs to Memphis life are available from Heritage Tours in Memphis, Tennessee founded by sisters Elaine Turner and Joan Nelson. The Ida B. Wells tour was originally created for the Wells-Barnett family during their visits to Holly Springs, but is available to other visitors. The tour begins in Memphis and includes stops at the two sites of the offices for “The Free Speech,” The Peoples Grocery Store, the jail and the “killing field,” the scene of the catalyst for Ida B. Wells’ anti-lynching crusade. Rust College (formerly Shaw University, Ida’s alma mater) and the museum conclude the tour in Mississippi. Other tours of Memphis’s African American heritage are available.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett 150th Birthday Celebration
July 13 – 15, 2012
Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum, Holly Springs, MS
220 North Randolph Avenue
Holly Springs, MS 38635
Monday – Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Saturdays – Noon to 5 p.m
Closed – Christmas, New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving, Easter
Admissions – Donations
Adults – $3
Children – $2 (under 12 must be accompanied by an adult)
Contact Heritage Tours for schedule and tickets
It’s been awhile since the last Eclectique Interview. This will be the second interview with a poet. That’s Sarah Browning, director of D.C. Poets Against the War and Split This Rock Poetry Festival. Sarah is also author of Whiskey in the Garden of Eden (The Word Works, 2007), and co-editor of D.C. Poets Against the War: An Anthology (Argonne House Press, 2004). She’s an active community organizer and poet (often at the same time). The Split This Rock Poetry Festival is coming up March 22-25, 2012. For 4 days the festival engages poetry as activism in community building, justice and social change. Yes, Virginia, and Maryland and all the states that surround the monumental colony we call, Washington, D.C. – the city is a poetry capital.
SPLIT THIS ROCK POETRY FESTIVAL: POEMS OF PROVOCATION & WITNESS
WHAT: Four days of readings, workshops, panels, open mics, youth programs, and activism, bringing poetry into public life and exploring the role of poetry in social change.
WHEN: March 22-25, 2012
WHERE: Washington, DC – Multiple venues in the U Street Corridor and Columbia Heights. Visit the website at www.SplitThisRock.org for details.
CONTACT/INFO: info[at]splitthisrock[dot]org, Tel. 202-787-5210, blogthisrock.blogspot.com, @tweet_this_rock
E916: What inspired Split This Rock Poetry Festival?
SB: Split This Rock emerged from DC Poets Against the War, part of a national movement founded in response to President Bush’s drive to war with Iraq in 2003. Our local group united poets working in a variety of styles – across differences of race, ethnicity, age, gender, and sexual orientation – to speak out for alternatives to war and for a radical reorganization of our nation’s priorities.
As I discovered when I moved here, DC poets had always written with this clear-eyed. But they did not always have a platform from which to speak these truths. There were few institutions supporting and promoting this kind of poetry, poetry that bears witness to the injustices of the world and, through compelling and powerful language, provokes change.
We designed the first Split This Rock Poetry Festival to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq in March, 2008, and put out the call nationwide for poets and activists and dreamers to join us.
The response was so phenomenal. Hundreds of people from our city, our region, and throughout the country found the festival so necessary, that we went to work building a permanent home for socially engaged poets. In addition to presenting a biennial national festival (which is equal parts festival, conference, and political action), Split This Rock now also presents readings, workshops, and discussion series year-round, publishes poetry of provocation and witness in electronic forums, sponsors an extensive program for youth, including the DC Youth Slam Team, and spearheads campaigns to integrate poetry into public life.
E916: How did poetry become so popular in Washington, DC? What makes DC a poetry or a poetic city?
It’s no coincidence that most of these poets are African American, of course. Our city’s Black writers and artists have always nurtured and supported one another, developing a strong cultural voice that has been critical to the survival of the District’s Black community.
Today is no different. Older poets mentor younger ones, communities of poetry form and dissolve and re-form. DC becomes a living center for oral poetry – the oldest of poetic forms – newly named “Spoken Word.”
The District of course is also home to the federal government, an institution endlessly dissected and analyzed by the press and the popular imagination. Those of us who live here, in contrast, are often forgotten. We claim our place in the world, therefore, with poetry. Here is our story, our poems declare. Pay attention.
E916: When did you become a poet?
SB: I come from a family of poets and English professors, so it took awhile for me to accept that I had no alternative but to be a poet. I was busy differentiating myself by becoming a community organizer. But I discovered that I couldn’t do one without the other. I needed a creative life, a language with which to explore the complexities of the world, my relationship to the society in which I found myself, all the ways that history shapes us and frees us. I was almost 30 before I began calling myself a poet and found a way to put poetry at the center of my life.
With first DC Poets Against the War and now Split This Rock, I have found a way to unite these two commitments, to be a poet and an activist, to be undivided.
E916: Who are you looking forward to seeing at the festival? Give us a few highlights. Who’s coming to the event?SB: Split This Rock 2012 features a spectacular line-up of poets! DC favorites Sonia Sanchez, Alice Walker, Kim Roberts, Venus Thrash, and Naomi Shihab Nye will be joined by poets new to most of us: Homero Aridjis, a leader of Mexico’s environmental movement; Sherwin Bitsui, a Navajo poet devoted to keeping Navajo language alive among the next generation; spoken word superstars Carlos Andrés Gómez and Rachel McKibbens; Khaled Mattawa, a Libyan who lived in exile in the United States for decades and now divides his time between his home country and the country that gave him asylum for so many years; Douglas Kearney, who’s both a hip hop head and an opera librettist; and more.
We’re also paying tribute to the life and work of poet-activist-essayist-teacher June Jordan during the festival, as 2012 will mark the 10th anniversary of her death. Several sessions will reflect on Jordan’s legacy, focusing on her writings on environmental justice, sexual violence, and creative resistance.
E916: How do we appreciate poem? Does a poem make its best impression when read on the page or read aloud?
SB: When we attend a live reading, we hope that several of our senses will be excited: the language will delight our ear (even if the topic is a difficult one); the music of the poem will tickle our rhythmic sense; and the eye will receive gifts from the poet himself. We also have the pleasure of a live, communal experience, the kind whose magic we know from musical and theatrical performances. We are both alone and in a crowd as we listen and watch.
When reading poetry on the page, on the other hand, we have the pleasure of solitary communion with the poem. We can take all the time we want with it, reread it, read it aloud, yell at it. The eye is the most essential organ to this experience: The poem’s form should inform its meaning. Every mark on the page asks a question, suggests a possible reading. Which is why poets are so meticulous, can struggle for years with a single poem. The possibilities are endless; English in particular has a huge vocabulary compared to many other languages. And so the poet seeks and keeps seeking the language, the form, to carry her vision into the world.
This year’s festival’s tag line is “Poetry by and for the 99%.” When and where does poetry occupy public space?
Poetry is everywhere! Poets have been occupying and occupiers have been writing poetry. A new anthology, Liberty’s Vigil: 99 Poets Among the 99%, has just been published by Michael Czarnecki’s FootHills Publishing. Split This Rock poets have led open mics and given workshops and slept out and marched alongside and been beaten alongside as well. We carry lines of poetry through the streets during demonstrations, we hand out poems, we recite poems into mics.
Yesterday, the cashier at the grocery store was moved to tears when I told him of reading poems in front of his country’s embassy, drawing attention to its repression of poets and activists. I cannot help him go home. I cannot help his family join him here. But on a busy day at Trader Joe’s, we will shake hands, and our tears will tell of the power of words, the essential place of poetry in making a better world.