THE VERSE IS YET TO COME:
WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH
THE POETS GET GOING
By C. J. Laity
(First published in the December, 2004 issue of Third Coast Press.)
The state of poetry in today's society is a "blue state" all its own, though most would agree it is a much too deep shade of blue for the Democrats to associate with.
Case in point: In February, 2003, an unbelievably naive First Lady Laura Bush invited some of America's most lettered poets to the White House for a symposium. Called "Poetry and the American Voice," the event was intended to celebrate the lives and work of political poets such as Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman.
When Zen Buddhist poet Sam Hamill (who, the White House must have known, ran for the California State Assembly in 1968 on an anti-war, socialist ticket) received his personal invitation to the White House, he was already feeling "personally nauseated" by Bush's "shock and awe" rhetoric. He reacted to the invitation by sending a simple e-mail message to a few of his friends in the literary arena. Included in his cc-list were such famous poets as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Philip Levine and Adrienne Rich. Hamill asked these poets to help him "speak up for the conscience of America." He proposed that the poets send him their anti-war poetry, and he promised to compile it into an anthology and deliver it to Laura Bush on the afternoon of the planned symposium. The original e-mail that Hamill sent was forwarded to a few more poets. They then forwarded it to more poets. In no time at all, the e-mail turned into a chain letter that spread across the entire world. Within four days, Sam Hamill received nearly 2000 anti-war poems for his anthology.
Catching wind of what was going to happen, Laura Bush attempted to silence the anti-war poets by completely canceling the symposium. Her reasoning for this action was publicly stated: "Some invited guests wanted to turn what was intended to be a literary event into a political forum."
As might be imagined, this struck a chord with the "blue state" of poetry, especially since the focus of the symposium, Langston Hughes, had been harassed by the likes of the FBI and Joseph McCarthy throughout his writing career. Walt Whitman, the other poet the sympsium was to celebrate, once described the White House as "bought, sold . . . and filled with prostitutes."
"These people wouldn't let Walt Whitman within a mile of the White House – the good gay gray poet! I don't believe anybody there has ever read Whitman," Hamill lashed out when he learned of the cancellation of the symposium. The response across the American poetry scene was tremendous. Instead of attending a White House poetry symposium, on February 12, 2003, the poets held thousands of poetry readings that occurred simultaneously across the country in protest of Laura Bush's act of censorship. Audio documentation of the Chicago area "Poets Against The War" readings are archived at the website PoetryPoetry.com.
Ever since George W. Bush sat down in the White House, poets in America have suffered, finding themselves a part of that half of America that Bush ignores, but they have also become more vocal and more politically aware. Audiences expect poets to have views that fall outside of the mainstream. So for some poets, such as Chicago Labor and Arts poet Nina Corwin, who appeared for the Third Coast Press / Chicago IndyMedia benefit at Hot House on election night, the current state of pro-war politics in this country has certainly been a boost for anti-war sentiments.
It should come as no surprise that the re-election of George W. Bush caused a wide range of emotions within Chicago's thriving poetry scene. It is, afterall, a scene that served as home for both Carl Sandburg and Gwendolyn Brooks, two of the most progressive minds of the last century. Chicago is also home to a poetry scene that can boast being the birthplace of several poetry movements, including the poetry slam.
As the organizer of the ChicagoPoetry.com Performance Series, I have had the opportunity to talk to a number of poets about how the re-election of Bush affects their lives and careers. Some describe the way they felt after the 2004 election as being "beaten by sacks of potatoes." Others simply see it as more of the same and more fuel for the fire. Most, however, agree that the prospect of four more years of "dictated moral high ground" might actually be healthy for an art form that feeds off of dissent.
Emily Calvo, who is a Poet-in-Residence at Chicago's Young Women's Leadership Charter School, and who was instrumental in organizing the 2003 National Poetry Slam held in Chicago, believes the troubled waters awaiting have more to do with the economy than anything else. "The conservative agenda yields a crushing blow to all the arts, including poetry," Calvo says. "The sluggish economy, as well as conservative priorities, have had a diminishing effect on funding for the arts, which is likely to get even worse." Calvo sites changing attitudes toward freedom of speech as another possible threat to poetry. "Under this conservative regime, I would not be at all surprised to see people become less tolerant of diverse voices. Poets may be asked to refrain from messages that do not support an agenda or that question certain methods."
Whitney Scott of Outrider Press, which publishes an annual anthology of local poets, takes pride in the fact that her non-profit neither seeks nor accepts government grants. She believes that the only way poets can remain strong and in charge of their work is not to succumb to the restrictions imposed by association with the government.
Although poets generally remain strong willed through times of crisis, they have not been immune to the feeling of depression and hopelessness that many progressive thinking people experienced after John F. Kerry failed to inspire any change in this country. Some poets have experienced what they describe as a post-election syndrome that has caused them severe writer's block. "This election would have kicked rant writing into high gear, except I'm too pissed to write much of anything at the moment," says Charlie Newman, host of the WZRD Radio poetry talk show, Aloha Circus. "I'm really disturbed about what it all says regarding the voter. Values were supposedly important, but a majority elected a low-level con artist." However, Newman believes that freedom of speech is not ultimately in peril. "These jamokes think they can't be touched by the power they understand, much less poetry – a power they don't understand," Newman explains. "My guess is that this lot goes overboard and self-destructs."
There are a lot of poets in Chicago who are much more dismayed than Newman by the election of 2004. Some have even considered moving out of the country. Noted Mexican poet and author of the book Very Chicago, Jose Bono, shared these candid thoughts with me: "A friend of mine in Mexico wrote to me stating 'I cannot believe that all the stupid people in the world live in the same country.' I have to agree, after this election, Democracy is a fallacy in this country. It was proven during the last presidential election, in which G. W. Bush was appointed by his Daddy's friends the Supreme Court. The war mongrels are in power and they are not going to relinquish it. In all probability, I will save my money and I will leave the country in a year and impose self exile, because I cannot in good faith continue working here and pay taxes to the Bush / Cheney war machine."
Steve Shroeder, who teaches Humanities and Philosophy at Roosevelt University, and who has been published in such respected poetry journals as Rhino and Rambunctious Review, performed poetry for many "Get Out The Vote" events. But Schroeder thinks the recent election changes nothing. "I'm no more depressed now than I was before the election. This is not the end, not even the beginning of the end. It is the middle of the middle. And the artist, in the middle with everyone else, can do at least two things at once. First, we can shine a light on just how screwed up the middle is. Second, we can dream dreams and share visions of truth and beauty, peace and justice, that are in the middle, too—not in some future paradise to which some hero will lead us." Shroeder encourages artists to be more understanding and tolerant toward those who are responsible for putting us in the current situation. "I won't join the chorus that says Dubyah and the people who voted for him are evil or stupid," Shroeder says. "They are flawed human beings participating in a system of power and privilege by jockeying for position as close to the top as possible—not so different from Kerry and the people who voted for him. What I find most distressing about an election like the one we just went through is the concentration of so much time and energy on a contest between two children of privilege. Both of them will, as they say, land on their feet with money in their pockets. This time and energy could have been directed to dismantling the system of power and privilege itself. It's an incredible machine, but artists are good at finding the cracks in it."
There are some poets who claim that they are unfazed by the entire fiasco. Jim Coppoc, who is the editor of Tens: An Anthology of SlamFusion Poetry in the Midwest (Iowa State University), plans to fight harder. "It's four more years of open season for dissident poetry. I think poets everywhere need to take this time to stop and reflect. Poetry venues are always blue states. Don't preach to the choir."
Michael Burke, whose work has been published in TriQuarterly and who posts ChicagoWriter.blogspot.com, agrees that poetry is usually at its best in times of turmoil. "Here's the awful paradox," Burke says. "What's terrible for the world is often great for art. Think of all the astonishing words seeded by breathtaking sorrow--from Homer's description of Achilles' grief to the thousands of poems written in the past two years protesting Bush's invasion of Iraq. While I'm pessimistic about the future of our country and our world, I'm optimistic about the great work that poets and other artists will create in the coming months and years. Art survives."
In the long run, it is the poetry itself that will be created during the next four years that will speak the loudest for the poets in Chicago. And poets are wasting no time in this area. Take for example, the following words, sent to me by Arthur E. Holland Sr., host of CAN TV's Works of Art poetry talk show:
He got his war, he got his way,
and now act two comes into play,
Ignored the poet's words of grief,
declared "All hail, All hail the chief!"
Now those who thought we'd acquiesce,
Or choose against the plan of peace,
Will have to face the mammoth tears,
of suffering for four more years,
"No child left behind" – Sounds great.
His legacy in tact – But wait!
Whose child did G. W. have in mind?
Whose pockets did he line?
When body bags return in mass,
and he tells us to kiss his wife
I write a muse of history,
and bare the true conspiracy,
Of epochal plans some will never know
existed 'neath a winter's snow.
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Note: Click on the headline for a reprint of the popular Third Coast Press article. Emily Calvo, Jose Bono, Charlie Newman, Jim Coppoc, Steven Schroeder, Michael Burke, and Arthur Holland, Sr. speak out about the re-selection of George W. Bush.