Imagine what peace would look like with 3 or more women at the table. Actually numbers and sex can’t be the sole qualifiers. There are patriarchal women whose framing is no different from the patriarchal men at the table. Official peace processes in use were never designed, built by, for and with women and any marginalized group in mind. Through custom or tradition, the men, the patriarchy, the persons in power have at best put women on the table as transactional bargaining chips along with any disputed natural and financial resources for what becomes a negotiated power grab.
For a panel the Second Sex Conference in New York in 1979, self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde (1934-1992) remarked,
“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about
genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”
Nevertheless, women need and want a voice at this table. Too often the gun is the loudest voice while the women, children, elders, the vulnerable (those without military might) are mortally silenced.
The women who rise up, organize and demand a seat at the peace table don’t want to be treated like dinner guests. Presence isn’t power. For many women participation becomes a delicate balancing act of negotiating on two fronts: at the seats of power with governments, politicians, military officers, warlords; and on the home front in families where patriarchy can have its strongest roots and impact.
March 25 and 26 (9 pm ET – check local listings) PBS will broadcast Women, War & Peace II, a series of films by women filmmakers documenting the stories of women actively and nonviolently involved in peace making, risking life (and family life) with the hope of changing the course of history. The series is executive produced by Abigail Disney and Gini Reticker for Fork Films.
The series includes four stories many told for the first time on U.S. national television. We finally see the women of Northern Ireland’s Women’s Coalition (Wave Goodbye to Dinosaurs) at the negotiating table. The women elected to the task are steadfast to the goals of peace despite the dismissive and rude reactions from the men in the room. These women could be looking at the conflict reemerging with the UK’s Brexit separation from the European Union and the possibility of the return of a hard border (via trade) separating Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland.
The Trials of Spring, (directed by Gini Reticker) confirms the “Arab Spring” branding of the youth-led movement towards a more democratic Egypt was pre-mature. The removal of Hosni Mubarak from office followed by elections that brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power, then the military takeover lead to social regression and a precarious situation for nonviolent women activists and religious minorities.
Naila and the Uprising uses animation to recreate student organizer and activist Naila Ayesh’s story of her imprisonment for being part of a secret network of women in a movement protesting Israeli occupaton of Gaza. Naila’s infant son is brought to live with her in prison. The film tells her story to audiences and also servies as a family document for Naila’s now adult son about his early life through his parents’ experiences with the intifada.
One can’t avoid noticing A Journey of a Thousand Miles is the only story in the series where women are required to carry a gun to maintain the peace. The film follows the all-women Bangladeshi UN peacekeeping unit and their mission to Haiti following the 2011 earthquake that devastated the country. It is also a story of the impact of their service causing conflict in relationships back home.
The films in Women War & Peace II show how nonviolent peace making takes tremendous patience, courage, resilience, and a passion for justice. In these four stories women are forced to use the master’s tools to achieve peace goals. Sisterhood is their additional source of support.
The first 10 words in Toni Cade Bambara’s novel The Salt Eaters never cease to move me:
“Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?”
Before you answer, consider the next sentence.
“…Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.”
Wellness or wholeness have been hard to come by in recent months.
I‘m never sure if wellness is a priority in this culture. So many political points are gained when things fester and bleed and someone rushes in with the cure and saves the day vs. preventing the illness, preparing for the worst or de-escalating. On-going diplomacy doesn’t make good drama.
We’re talking about nuclear war again. Have we swallowed the wrong pill? Or has the Marvel movie fantasy franchise where superheroes survive catastrophic battles become our visual hallucinogenic? Though an interesting and useful narrative and analysis on power struggles for better and worse, the superhero and intergalactic war fantasies fail to remind us how fragile we humans really are. We embrace imperfection and I suppose that’s the primary attraction in the first place. Any problem can be solved by imperfect beings with unearthly powers. We can survive anything through pluck and luck. But is that living or being well?
Though these superheroes are now being held accountable on real world terms for the collateral damage from their battles with genocidal villains to restore a sense of “order”, we rarely see the ordinary mortal local folks coming out from their hiding places looking at the destruction and figuring out how to clean up the mess or where to bury their dead if they can find them in the rubble. Can we rebuild? How many years before the cities are inhabitable, if at all? Let’s not forget trauma. How do you cure that? When will we feel well and whole again? These questions frame real narratives in today’s real world.
Storytellers haven’t taken on the subject of thermonuclear annihilation in the same way they did in 1983, a direct response to the last years of the Cold War arms race between the US and USSR (aka Russia) with the release of “War Games” (1983), “Testament” (1983) and “The Day After.” In fact, “The Day After” was presented as a must-see national television event with a panel following the film. The 1980s took the apocalyptic scenario seriously featuring everyday people whose only powers were empathy and a desperate desire to be well after it was too late. We all got a taste of a real life moment caused by a sickness that released the mushroom cloud of fire. Bottom line the sickness kills.
Sports medicine might be a temporary remedy. The upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea has signaled a neighborly thaw between North and South Korea, or a low dose aspirin to lower the fever. Nevertheless, one keeps a one-eye-open button on his desk. We’ve all seen that red button in the movies or television. It launches the attack or the distress signal. This fever makes it difficult to tell which button is which.
Here in the US we talk about codes and a box that accompanies the President everywhere. But now this President orders a button too, bigger. One button against another button. How can we be so infected by these carriers whose buttons can be so easily pressed. The buttons should be configured to call in a nurse.
More and more we must decide if we want to be well, if we want to be whole in 2018. It is up to everyday people to take preventative measures and find healthy alternatives, remedies, and perhaps a cure. But first we have to want it. Wholeness carries weight of maintenance because there’s a lot of sickness around us. But it’s never as heavy as dead weight.
We are not superheroes who can only realize their purpose in grandiose life or death situations. We can carry our loads together. We can aspire to wellness and manage the weight of being whole.
And know this… about those first 10 words in The Salt Eaters. They come from the mouth of a healer to a woman in a hospital having failed to commit suicide.
I look upon myself as a link in the chain. I learned from Woody Guthrie just like he learned from others. I have been a sower of seeds. I have written a lot of songs about that. I am sure a lot of teachers have seen themselves as sowers of seeds. Some seeds fall on stones and don’t sprout, but some seeds fall on fallow ground and multiply one hundred fold.
Below is a clip from the upcoming documentary “Dancing In Jaffa” featuring Pierre Dulaine from “Mad Hot Ballroom.” Hilla Medalia is director and co-producer with Diane Nabatoff who produced the feature film version of “Mad Hot Ballroom,” “Take the Lead.” Pierre was played by Antonio Banderas. Morgan Spurlock of “Supersize Me” fame is an executive producer. An international ballroom dancing star in his own right, Pierre Dulaine brings his Dancing Classrooms home to Jaffa to fulfill his lifelong dream of teaching dance to Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli children, then pairing them in a competition. Were there conflicts? Of course. Was there frustration? Most definitely. Does peace have a future? We certainly hope so.
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.
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?
SB: DC has a long and rich poetic tradition, to which we are all the lucky heirs. Walt Whitman spent the Civil War years in the city and the Harlem Renaissance poetry movement was launched here by Langston Hughes, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Jean Toomer, and others. DC was home to influential Black Arts Movement poets Larry Neal, Gaston Neal, and Amos Zu-Bolton, among many others. Essex Hemphill was the best known Black gay poet of that gorgeous generation tragically lost to AIDS, those who came of age in the 1980s.
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.