OK, so there’s a bit of a buzz about tomorrow evening’s poetry workshop which I’m teaching at UC Berkeley. I’m looking forward to this. One thing I am doing differently this time is to have a space to discuss the ever elusive, “What is poetry?” Or maybe better yet, what does poetry do? Does poetry do anything? We’ll be reading and discussing, writing from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Poetry as Insurgent Art:

Poetry destroys the bad breath of machines.

Poetry is a handprint of the invisible, a footprint of visible reality, following it like a shadow.

Poetry a shining spear for the poorest warrior.

It is the ultimate Resistance.

The poet a subversive barbarian at the city gates, non-violently challenging the toxic status quo.

Poetry the last lighthouse in rising seas.

Again, back to Hayan Charara:

And while I don’t believe that poems will keep bombs from falling on schools, or bullets from entering bodies, or tanks from rolling over houses, or men or women or children from being humiliated, poetry insists on the humanity of people, which violence steals away; and poems advocate the power of the imagination, which violence seeks to destroy. Poets change the world. I don’t mean literally, though some try. I mean with words, with language, they take the many things of this world and make them new, and when we read poems, we know the world and its many things differently—it might not be a better or worse place than the one we live in—just different—but without the imagination, without poetry, I don’t believe that the world as most of us know it would be tolerable.

These passages are reassuring, and then not. If folks, if our culture is already suffering from lack of imagination, then can poetry truly be a remedy? I know we can’t just throw poems into the world and have that be the solution. But when do we ever have the space to read, and to have meaningful conversations about what we’re reading, about why what we’re reading is important to us and to the world? How to discuss this last point without feeling foolish and abstract.

Today, I return to Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is Not a Luxury“: “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.” And this:

Sometimes we drug ourselves with dreams of new ideas. The head will save us. The brain alone will set us free. But there are no new ideas still waiting in the wings to save us as women, as human. There are only old and forgotten ones, new combinations, extrapolations and recognitions from within ourselves, along with the renewed courage to try them out. And we must constantly encourage ourselves and each other to attempt the heretical actions our dreams imply and some of our old ideas disparage. In the forefront of our move toward change, there is only our poetry to hint at possibility made real. Our poems formulate the implications of ourselves, what we feel within and dare make real (or bring action into accordance with), our fears, our hopes, our most cherished terrors.

I wish that I had so much more than two hours to spend with all of these young Pin@ys. There’s always so much, I never know where’s a good place to start, and sometimes the conversation only gets going hours later, days later, weeks later, years later.

I get this sense that young Pin@ys always have poets and “spoken word artists” dropping in on them for a couple of hours at a time for a quick uplifting talk and quick packaged exercise (Martín Espada: “A poem is not a pop tart.”). What else can you do when you’re only given a couple of hours here, a couple of hours there, with little or no compensation for your time and expertise, or if you’re an org who’s only got a couple of hours’ space and no funding. In this existing model of the artist as the community’s unpaid labor, there’s little consistency and space to actually nurture a young writer into emergence; into drafts, editing, and revision; into reading and discussing worlds of literature and subsequently expanding one’s palette; into articulating use of form and language deeply, substantially.

In this existing model, I also see how we fall into “poetry does nothing,” because we don’t have the time to meditate on, and to discuss what Hayan Charara has written (above). In a quickie, sound-byte world, I wonder if “imagination” loses all meaning. Hence, all kinds of notions of poetry, not even speaking of diverse poetries, not having relevance in our lives.

So tomorrow evening, I just have to do the best I can. Some of what I’m using for workshop:

  • Lawrence Ferlinghetti, excerpts from Poetry as Insurgent Art.
  • Miguel Piñero, “The Book of Genesis According to St. Miguelito.”
  • R. Zamora Linmark, “They Like You Because You Eat Dog.”
  • Saul Williams, “The Future of Language.”

Addendum: Other texts/snippets/quotes to be used/talked about:

  • Audre Lorde, “Poetry is Not a Luxury.”
  • Hayan Charara, “Animals: On the Role of the Poet in a Country at War.”
  • Emmanuel Lacaba, “Open Letters to Filipino Artists.”
  • Roque Dalton: “… la poesía es como el pan, / de todos.” “Poetry, like bread, is for everyone.”
  • Pablo Neruda, “Poetry is an act of peace. Peace goes into the making of a poet as flour goes into the making of bread.”



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