Let’s Go Global: 100 Thousand Poets for Change in Wisconsin & Interviews with Co-founders Michael Rothenberg and Terri Carrión
by Lisa Vihos
Poetry is the liquid voice that can wear through stone.–Adrienne Rich
If you call yourself a poet, don’t just sit there. Poetry is not a sedentary occupation, not a ‘take your seat’ practice. Stand up and let them have it. –Lawrence Ferlinghetti in Poetry as Insurgent Art
Go back in your mind to March, 2011. Remember? The state of Wisconsin was smack dab in the middle of a very surreal moment: our then-new governor was—in the name of balancing the budget—dismantling many things most of us hold near and dear to our hearts: education, unions, and faith in our elected officials, to name a few. The capitol rotunda in Madison became the hub of a progressive community of like-minded people from all walks of life: teachers, nurses, fire-fighters, pipe fitters, librarians, police officers, and so many others who would not sit back and let Governor Walker “happen” without raising a collective voice in protest.
Meanwhile, Verse Wisconsin had begun the Main Street issue in late February and the contributions were incredibly heart-felt and inspiring. Not only poets and artists here in Wisconsin were contributing to the issue, but progressive thinkers from as far away as Nevada and California were watching us and sending us their support in word and song. Ian’s Pizza was getting calls from people all over the world to provide food to the protestors. There was a distinct feeling in the air that if so many disparate people could reach out to each other via the Internet using words, songs, images, and pizzas, then maybe, MAYBE, our virtual and actual “coming together” could effect change in Madison and make a real difference.
In March of 2011, we were at the peak of the protests. The 20-something daughter of a friend of mine had been sleeping for a week on the marble floor in the capitol. I wanted to go see her; see what was happening there. I was on Facebook, getting information. Prior to this, I had “pooh-poohed” social media in general and Facebook in particular. I could see no good reason to let my “friends” know that I was making soup or enjoying a particular song on a particular evening. But, once the protests began, I quickly found Facebook to be an amazing vehicle for getting and sharing information. It allowed me to connect to my community of friends in an immediate and easy way. So there I was, checking up on when was the next time I could get myself over to Madison to join the marchers in the snow, when I came across a profile picture of a man standing in front of a sunflower asking a question along the lines of: “Would you consider organizing a day of poetry to celebrate change in your community?”
The question—coming as it did right at that particular moment in time—really resonated with me. What if poets all around the world raised their voices on the same day in the name of peace and justice? Could poetry change the world? Could it at least wake people up to the fact that change is happening whether we participate or not? These were more or less the questions that Northern California poet and editor, Michael Rothenberg, implied in his request. He called his effort 100 Thousand Poets for Change (100TPC) and he wondered what would happen if poets got together and made a case for change; a change away from greed and war toward sustainability and peace. He set a date: September 24, 2011, and put the invitation out on Facebook. Thus, the wheel was set in motion.
I happened to be one of the multitude of poets in 550 cities in 95 countries around the world who said yes to his invitation. I worked with a few friends and together, we organized a day-long poetry event in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, where I live. Our state poet laureate, Bruce Dethlefsen, kicked off the day with an open mic reading at Mead Public Library. We traveled together to Bookworm Gardens, a children’s literature garden, for family poetry activities and “Picnic with the Poet,” and eventually ended up at Paradigm Coffee and Music, a local coffee house, for music and more open mic poetry well into the evening. I had no particular agenda in mind that day other than to get people in the Sheboygan community to realize that poetry is a force with which to be reckoned.
I think we were mildly successful and we are building on this effort in 2012 by joining forces again with the library, Bookworm Gardens, one of our high schools, and with another local grassroots initiative, an annual festival held each August in Sheboygan called Earthfest. By joining hands with other organizers doing other things, even at slightly different times, we can ultimately make a greater impact, raising awareness as we go. There are so many individual groups doing great things that bring the arts and activism together in Wisconsin: for example, Overpass Light Brigade in Milwaukee, and Solidarity Sing Along in Madison, to name just a couple of the many groups raising awareness in creative ways.
As these different efforts are recognized, we begin to see that everything is connected. We all know this in theory. We just need to make better use of our knowledge in practice. Doing the local work is vital. Then, when we connect with other grassroots organizers elsewhere in the state, the country, and the world, we feel part of a much larger family. For me, this connection provides an added boost of energy and determination to the local effort. This is the value and beauty of 100TPC, as I see it: helping us to recognize that our work in any one place is part of a global community. People all over the world are working to create peace and justice in their immediate vicinity. That is a very heartening thought.
Last year, thanks to 100TPC and Facebook, I was able to keep in touch with my fellow-organizers around Wisconsin, and also with poets in Baltimore, Greece, Nigeria, Pasadena, and South Africa who were doing what we were doing here: organizing events around the concept of change in their own communities. It was breathtaking, really.
Now, a year later, 100 Thousand Poets for Change is gearing up for year two. This year in Sheboygan, I have more people helping me organize the event; more people doing more to integrate the power of words among their various constituencies. I know there is activity brewing again in Milwaukee. And, I recently got word that in Madison, organizer John "Vietnam" Nguyen and First Wave's Hip Hop Arts Learning Community will participate in 100TPC with an event. First Wave offers students the opportunity to live, study and create together in a close-knit, dynamic community on the U-W Madison campus. Administered by the Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives (OMAI), the First Wave Learning Community is the first university program in the country centered on spoken word and hip-hop culture. It is really exciting and inspiring to know that First Wave has joined the call.
As year two of 100TPC comes into sharper focus, I wanted to check in with Michael and his partner, Terri Carrión, to share their vision of a world community with you, the readers and writers of Verse Wisconsin. I’m so glad to present these conversations with Michael and Terri in the hope that you might be inspired to look into what was achieved the first year and to join this global community in 2012. This year’s event will take place on September 29 in a city near you. If you would like to see what is happening around the globe or plan your own event as part of the greater effort, visit the website, 100tpc.org or contact Michael on Facebook. It is not too late, and he will respond!
I began this introduction remembering the moment over a year ago when many disparate groups of people came together to protest against the policies of Governor Walker. Although the recall process ultimately did not succeed against 30 million dollars in advertising, we know we did not fail completely. On so many levels, we are all more aware of what can be done and what we still need to do. Words can help us. Poetry can help us. As Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote in Poetry as Insurgent Art, “Don’t ever believe poetry is irrelevant in dark times.” I am quite sure he is right about that.
1. Michael: Throwing Down the Gauntlet
LV: What were you doing in March of 2011 when you launched 100 Thousand Poets for Change? What was your impetus?
MR: Things were pretty depressing. We had two wars going on and a heartbreaking oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. I grew up in Florida, on the Gulf Coast. I spent most of my formative years there, around the Everglades, so it really hurt me. I had this sense of personal death. Terri and I were doing many benefit readings for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. We helped organize poetry and music events around Northern California and Los Angeles but the overall response to that was very weak. I thought everyone’s attention would turn to the Gulf Coast oil disaster, so I was extremely depressed when the national response was just as weak and the whole country did not rise in protest of the policies that led to this disaster. Then, Fukishima. It seemed the message was clear but still everyone went back to doing whatever they were doing. Business as usual. There was the Arab Spring; there was Madison. There were some good things happening, signs of hope, but I was really down. Did we need more major disasters to prove that things had to change? I mean, the Gulf oil disaster was the worst environmental disaster in the history of the United States, where was the outrage? I was saying to someone on Facebook, “there ought to be 100 thousand poets for change,” and the person said “that’s a good idea.” It was almost like a challenge. Oh yeah, right. It’s a good idea. The chance of getting poets engaged really seemed hopeless. But I said to myself, okay one more challenge. I’m gonna put down the gauntlet. I set up an event page on Facebook and it read, “Do you want to join other poets around the USA and across the planet in a demonstration/celebration of poetry to promote serious social, environmental, and political change? And I invited all my Facebook friends. I honest to God didn’t think anybody was going to respond.
LV: At what point did you realize you had started something that was snowballing?
MR: It was almost immediate. My expectations had been low. Along with inviting all my friends, I asked people I knew to post it everywhere too. I went directly to people’s “walls” and posted the invitation. I was pretty random. If you’re an activist, you have to post your message every place you can get away with it. You can’t discriminate where you put things. You can’t be too polite. You know, the media, corporations, and advertisers aren’t very polite in getting our attention. In a protest, a lot of the normal rules don’t apply. You are not trying to use the normal information flow, the restricted and conventional flow. You are interrupting the normal flow. Protest arises out of an emergency! Have I got your attention yet? As soon as I posted the invitation online, I had 10 people in different parts of the world agreeing to organize. I would have been shocked by five people. This was pre-Occupy. So generally, people were not clear on the idea of protest. There weren’t a lot of examples for many people to follow. The reality of Occupy helped change the paradigm of public protest and participation. By June, there were poets in 300 cities in 60 countries, more or less, signed on to participate in 100 Thousand Poets for Change.
LV: What is it in your background that led you to believe that poetry and change go together?
MR: When I first moved to California from Florida in 1975, I opened a tropical plant nursery and got very involved in the environmental movement. I worked with other organizers to get both Sweeney Ridge and Mori Point included in the national parks system. I served as a planning commissioner in my town as a result of my activism. That didn’t last very long because I wasn’t comfortable working within the system but I was willing to try anything. I had a mentor, Amy Meyer, who worked for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. She taught me a lot about activism. But prior to moving to California, I already believed that being involved in the world was part of my job as a poet. I learned from other poets as I was coming up. When I was in high school Ginsberg was running around protesting war, and obviously I was of that protest generation. But I understood that poets knew all about the world and cared all about the world. They were willing to go to jail for survival of the planet, to end war. Michael McClure was very influential. His Meat Science Essays opened my eyes immensely. Ferlinghetti was very outspoken. And I loved the Romantic poets and they were activists, they were engaged poets. They showed me the path, too.
As poets, we’re supposed to be well-read. We’re supposed to know all about rocks and stars, about nature and culture, about many languages and many countries and peoples and existences. We’re supposed to know about all of the arts, all kinds of artists, all kinds of schools of artists, not just our own. Poets are supposed to know about many things. At least that is what I was taught growing up to be a poet. For me, this is what it’s about to be a poet. And they participate in society, politics, and culture. That’s what a poet does. Gets involved.
LV: How has the effort to organize a world-wide poetry effort changed your view of your own work as a poet and editor?
MR: It’s made me more “worldly.” That’s a real cliché word. That’s a shorthand explanation. But if you look at that concept, when you actually know more people, read more people from different countries and cultures, you sense yourself as part of an international community. Your vision deepens. You sense the greater impact of your work and how your work is influenced by a greater community. So you keep that in your sensibilities as you create. The pond is clearly international and universal, the reverberations are universal. I don’t feel like an “American” so much as I feel like a citizen of the earth. It’s not like I’ve made some kind of philosophic choice. It’s a reality that I couldn’t avoid even if I wanted to. I must be this. It has nothing to do with patriotism. It has to do with the survival of the planet and interdependencies, ecosystems, which are not so much intellectual distinctions. It is interesting to note that business people, corporations, people with money and power have understood for decades that we are part of a global community. I am not sure they wanted the average citizen to see that, but they knew it, their economic welfare depended on realizing this. So of course, sooner or later the general public had to come to this realization. Funny, they don’t call corporations socialist when they go global but call citizens socialists when they realize their global community. Maybe that is a digression.
Other changes in my world since the creation of 100 Thousand Poets for Change are evident in Big Bridge [the online literary journal that Michael founded in 1997]. We’ve increased translations by 70 percent. We have artists not just from the US, but from Lithuania, Guatemala, Russia, Albania, Japan, France, Cuba, Italy, and Iran. In 2013 we will have poetry from India, Mexico, Moldova, Tibet, China, Mongolia, and more. All this is directly related to a new community created through 100 Thousand Poets for Change. I’ve always wanted to be part of this larger world, but I had no opportunity until now. I could have spent thousands of dollars to go to some conference on world poetry and the exposure and involvement through that channel would never have been as great. Instead, 100 Thousand Poets for Change opened a door for me to meet all kinds of people from all over. I just put out my hand and yelled and everybody responded back, “yeah, we want this.”
LV: I have heard you say that some poets have been reluctant to get involved. Why are they reticent do you think?
MR: I think it’s several things. First, I think it upsets their sense of order. 100TPC is a grass roots thing; it is decentralized. Some people like to sense an authority and structure in their activities. Especially an older and established authority and structure. They want to know who the rock stars and leaders are. 100TPC is inclusive, not exclusive. There are no real hierarchies. It is not a top-down movement.
Secondly, some poets might have thought this initiative was going to fail. Maybe there would only be 50,000 poets for change! So they preferred to wait until we fell on our faces trying to make a better world. I don’t mean to be cynical. I am just trying to answer your question and test out some possible answers. Who knows! Pick one. Really, it’s about change, not so much about poetry. It’s about all artists and all people. People can join the movement and judge each other until they are blue in the face. But judging isn’t necessary. I had someone say that they can’t stand to listen to “bad” political poetry. There are some people that think political poetry is inappropriate. They say they like to keep their poetry and politics separate. I don’t know where they got that. Or how it is even possible. Literary tradition in practice doesn’t support that idea. Look at Denise Levertov, Leroi Jones, Keats and Shelley, Langston Hughes, Ed Sanders, Pablo Neruda, Diane Di Prima, June Jordan, Maya Angelou…
I think people are looking for excuses not to do anything. “In dreams begin responsibilities.” If you do something you might have to do something else. Oh my gosh! If you are successful with your actions you’re really screwed because you have to abandon your addiction to hopelessness and failure. You can’t crawl back into your comfortable and cozy despair. Your have to do more. Reaching your goal is not a party. People know this at a gut level. So they become comfortable in their denial and delusion. And of course, they have jobs and they have family and they have to go to the gym and they have to go shopping and they have to do this and that and besides who has the time, and nothing ever changes, “Oh, I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody outside of a small circle of friends….” (Phil Ochs)
LV: Tell us about the involvement of poets in the United Arab Emirates and your trip there last fall.
MR: Right in the beginning, I was getting tweets of interest from the UAE, The Sharjah International Book Fair and Arabic Book Club. Then it got real quiet. And I thought, “well, that’s over.” Then they started to contact me again to let me know they were indeed planning an event in Sharjah. Right after the September 24 event we started to get photos and video from the Sharjah event. It was mind-blowing. I had never seen a poet in a hijab. I had never seen Arabs reading poetry in an open mic reading either. Obviously I had been sheltered, hidden, and just plain ignorant of the Arab world. But at that point I was receiving communication from Sharjah and I was developing my sensitivities to the Arab World. This was largely because the Arab Spring was in full bloom. To have poets in the Arab world actively involved in 100 Thousand Poets for Change was mind-blowing. I mean, think about it. Why would these people, at this time in their history, at this critical moment, why would they look to us? They saw that what 100TPC was doing was essential. They were trying to increase their connection to a changing world. They want to interact. There’s comfort in global community. And there’s hope. Hope for them and hope for us.
Then, I was amazed when they invited me and Terri to the United Arab Emirates to be guests at the Sharjah International Book Fair [in November, 2011]. It was incredible.
LV: You mention your partner, Terri Carrión. What is her role in all this?
MR: This all would totally be impossible without her. She has been writing text, announcements, setting up the website, the structure, the design, the logo, communications with all the Spanish-speaking people; she did ALL the communication with Central America, South America, and Mexico. Day and night she was helping everybody. She helped people tell their story. You really should interview Terri as well.
LV: I will! What would you say is the major thing that has drawn poets together in organizing 100 Thousand Poets for Change?
MR: There is a great sense of desperation and despair all around the world. There is a general sense of isolation everywhere. But we all want the same things. We want peace, freedom of speech, a healthy planet, community and a greater sense of shared destiny. The 100 Thousand Poets for Change effort reminds us all we’re not alone.
LV: What, for you, was the most surprising thing that has come out of the whole effort?
MR: The very fact that anybody cared. That was surprising. Every time someone writes me and says they want to participate, I’m surprised. I wonder what’s happening in New Delhi. Imagine all of these wonderful places and people. This year, a lot of people who didn’t participate last year have signed up. And we have added 100 Thousand Mimes for Change in Istanbul, Turkey and Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt. We have added 100 Thousand Musicians for Change and already have 50 music concerts confirmed around the world. In Los Angeles we have Free Tibet 100TPC, and they will put on a concert of Tibetan Poetry and Music on September 1 to get the month of 100 Thousand Poets for Change events going. Then on September 2, Beyond Baroque Cultural Center will have all-day poetry events with multiple stages which includes more than 50 poets, one segment will be all Spanish poetry, and the political rock band Rooftop Revolutionaries will be performing alone with other musicians alternating throughout the day. They estimate 75 percent poetry and 25 percent music. In Hollywood, Alison “Metalbabe” Cohen is planning a concert with four rock bands. At another venue Bob Malone [John Fogerty piano player] and Paul Zollo [songwriter, journalist, and editor of classic works on songwriting] will put on a blues, folk, and R&B concert. That is just a start. It is all surprising and exciting. The whole movement is growing on its own. It is an arts and people movement. We just need to keep reaching out.
LV: What have you found frustrating in the process and what has it taught you?
MR: First of all, there are a lot of things going on in people’s lives, I understand. We are worried and busy. There’s the economy and jobs. There are activities, organizations and things people are already involved in that take their attention. There is just so much any one of us can do. But what I’m suggesting is that people look at 100TPC as a way of organizing a coalition that has an arts base to it; that pulls all the other concerns together under one umbrella. That together we can do what we are already doing but have the impact of community strength. You can do a 100TPC event in solidarity with the anti-war movement!
And some people ask me, “Where is PEN? Where is Poets & Writers and where is the American Academy of Poets? Why aren’t they supporting 100 Thousand Poets for Change in a more aggressive way?” I don’t know how to answer this question. Everyone can’t do everything. But we do look to our more prominent poetry organizations to connect with this. We should be building alliances not empires. Of course, maybe they don’t know about 100TPC yet. We are new and have to do more outreach.
LV: Tell us about the archiving project at Stanford. What is the significance of that?
MR: One of the goals of this movement is to tell the story of the planet today. How we write, how we create, how we see the world. And what we dream and what we desire. There needs to be a record, a history. Stanford came along and volunteered to archive everything—the blog, the website, everything, through the LOCKSS program. They felt 100TPC was an historical movement and had a history worth saving. They got the Archive Foundation involved. And so all the text, video, audio, posters, comments from individual event location blog pages on the 100TPC is archived.
There is a story of world poetry that has been told to-date through 100TPC. If you sat down and read it all, you might have the most complete record compiled of world poetry ever. Where else will you see 500 cities represented, through poetry, posters, community reflections all in one place? And there is the 100 TPC YouTube Channel where there are hundreds of videos of poetry readings and other events from all around the world, for and from September 24th 2011 and beyond, available for viewing! For a historian, for an academic, for a librarian, anybody who is interested in the history of the world, this is huge. I’ve always found the libraries to be very cool.
LV: Could 100 Thousand Poets for Change have happened without social media do you think?
MR: All of what is going on right now is born of social media. It is creating new ways of connecting. This is all heavily documented. Look at the Arab Spring. We are able to create new communities that did not previously exist by changing channels. We can become a community because a way now exists for connecting at a new level. Social media enables us to speak with each other in new configurations of community.
LV: What is going on this year on September 29? How are you doing this year’s organizing effort different, better, or otherwise?
MR: Well, it is only June and we have over 550 cities in 100 countries already signed on. In so many ways, the second event is a continuation of the first. The website is going to be better. We’re going to create a more accessible, functional website, so people can help us archive more easily. In general, we can focus more on outreach because we have a stronger base and a better idea how the whole thing works. This is a big plus to help us expand the initiative. We started the fundraising effort on Kickstarter this year to support the organizing effort and we’ve reached our goal and then some. Maybe we can get a foundation grant. It’s easier for me to talk to people now. I don’t have to tell the story like it never happened.
LV: Is there one great joy in all this that you point to?
MR: I think of the friends that I’ve made. I feel it really deeply. It’s not a superficial deal for me. These are my friends. These are people whose issues are dear to me. I can’t wait to maybe, someday, be able to meet everyone personally. I want to get a grant to drop in on Ellis in the studio where he made “Better By Now.” [Ellis Ebakor is a poet and musician living in Nigeria]. So many new great friends in Volos, Greece, and Mexico City to start. And you in Sheboygan!!! We need a think tank to sponsor us to get together somewhere. Someone has to write a proposal to one of the think tanks, some foundation that will fund a meeting to bring 100TPC organizers from around the world to sit down together and talk. The energy and knowledge we would gain together in one place would be amazing.
LV: Can poetry really change the world? What would it take?
MR: Someone said to me the other day, “It’s not going to change anything but you’ll make your mark.” I heard this from a person who is extremely supportive. It is important to think about this. I could say, “No, nothing’s gonna change.” But, if you make your mark then something has changed. Are we going to be able to stop the industrial military complex? I don’t know. Is it unreasonable to imagine a world in which we finally realize that we can’t afford to waste and destroy our air, our water? Poetry makes us aware and awareness creates change. It’s simple. Of course poetry can change the world. It does all the time.
LV: What makes you keep going, despite frustrations or setbacks?
MR: For me, there is nowhere else to go. This is my life. There is no “if I don’t do this, I’ll do that.” I’m a poet. I’m an activist, that’s who I am. That’s what I do.
2. Terri: Finding Our Activism
If Michael is the driver of the car that is 100 Thousand Poets for Change, then his partner, Terri Carrión, is the engine. Or as Terri said to me when we spoke, “Everybody is the engine. Michael deals one-on-one with people, but I’m more behind-the-scenes doing attention to detail.”
LV: What did you think when Michael first came up with this idea?
TC: I kind of ignored him at first. I thought, that’s great, whatever. For the first couple of weeks, he’d be screaming from his office, “I got another city to sign up!” I was hanging back a little at first, not really sure what was going to happen. Until it started growing really fast.
LV: When did you notice that the movement was becoming something major?
TC: I don’t remember exactly, but I know that right near the beginning we had videos from Ellis in Nigeria. That was pretty amazing. I wasn’t online like Michael, chatting, or on Facebook spreading the word. I was more in the background. So when the videos started coming, that’s when it really got me. Like the videos from Damali Adele Ife and Yashika Graham in Jamaica, or the little video from Guatemala or the anonymous video from Barcelona. It was just like, “Wow, people are really responding with this desire to communicate.” That’s what made it really exciting.
LV: What has surprised you?
TC: The good, the bad, and the ugly. The good is the amount of people that have gotten inspired all over the world. They’ve been sitting in the back of the room at the poetry readings all this time. We came along, and they said, “This is what I have been wanting to do.” To be a truly political and social poet. Not just to stand there and read a political poem and then go home. The ugly surprising thing was the people who didn’t get involved who you assumed would. A lot of poets I thought were political and had activist leanings turned out to be posers. They may have felt something about it, about their role as a poet in society, but they were really not interested in acting on it.
LV: What has inspired you?
TC: I’ve always been radical, too loud, too “angry.” There I was in my MFA program, and I discovered pretty quickly that a lot of students were not getting an MFA because they were artists. They were mainly careerists. Creative expression was just a tool to sell something, to promote the work with their self as the focus. I wanted to hook up with people who practiced poetry and art in another way: something that would make me feel empowered and involved as an artist. 100TPC helped me not to be embarrassed by my radical-ness. Not to feel alienated and marginalized by it, but to embrace it and be inspired by others who also choose to be heard for reasons bigger than themselves.
LV: What was your experience in the United Arab Emirates?
TC: That was totally, totally amazing. I love to travel, I’ve traveled to a few countries. But to be able to go to the Middle East, it was unbelievable. We were kind of dreading that the Sharjah International Book Fair would be something very formal and that we would have to give a lecture or do a panel as poets from the United States. (We were two of the three guests from the US that were invited!) We were surprised to find that it was very informal for our group of invitees. Our host set up a lounge space right in the middle of the entrance hall. He had invited people from all over the world, cartoonists from Lebanon and China, writers from Scotland, Egypt, and Australia. He said to us, “100 TPC, do a poetry open mic over here, cartoonists do a drawing jam over there, you guys talk about what you’re doing in Edinburgh over here.” We were treated like honored guests but it was very “unscheduled” on a daily basis as far as what we were going to do for the book fair. We spent a lot of time just hanging out and getting to know everyone, which was beautiful.
LV: Do you ever feel discouraged by the effort?
TC: Michael and I both have our moments of exhaustion. We are both pretty high strung under pressure. When things are good and moving along, we get a lot of things done. But, overall, as far as other people’s involvement, many do seem to want to check out when the idea of activism is brought up and it is a lot of work to try to encourage them to get involved. This is discouraging, yes. And that’s part of the overall problem. But, what kind of life is that, to be checked out? People shield the problems of the world from their children. They go into their little Disneyland of denial. Then nothing gets done. The young people are the ones that are really going to make a difference at this point in our history, if we can keep them out of the illusion and denial bubble and help to educate and empower them early on.
LV: Can poetry really change the world?
TC: That’s one of those questions out there. It’s not so much about poetry itself, really. It’s about change in general, I think. Teresa Mei Chuc is out there all the time. She teaches high school in a mostly immigrant neighborhood in Pasadena, she has her own kids, but she still finds the time and strength to work regularly on projects for Free Tibet. Damali is still out there, using her poetry and voice to work on literacy issues in Jamaica with groups like the Poetry Society of Jamaica. And Nana Nestoros in Volos, Greece appeared on local television to speak about 100 TPC and art and activism. And there are many others. Change is not some cosmic thing like the clouds are gonna part because someone read a poem and everything is going to change all of a sudden. Rather there are these pockets of people working honestly and passionately, making things happen in their area through the arts, and changes like that can spread. You have to keep getting people involved. Get groups to join forces. Make change here and there; it grows. It is contagious. And so is art and poetry.
But there is a big problem with the provincial way of living and thinking in this country. Everything becomes very limited if you are too narrowly focused on just your own community. So there needs to be a balance, an understanding of our bigger role in the world as well as in our immediate communities. Because we’re all human beings living on the same messed up planet. People travel but not always for a true cultural or educational experience, they are traveling as tourists, so they may not see their role in society in a visceral, global way. That’s the amazing part of 100 Thousand Poets for Change; it connected me with people I would never have met otherwise. I got to hang out and read poetry with Middle Eastern women and men in the UAE. I have friends now in Greece, Colombia, Africa, Jamaica. We can’t keep looking across the planet like “those other” people are not like us. It is amazing to me that there are still such prejudices at all!. Sometimes it seems like it is getting worse, instead of better. Where we live here in Northern California, there is a very literal line between the Mexican community and the whites. For me it is hard to accept these divisions. I just can’t accept them. That is one of the root problems in the world, the ongoing cultural prejudices. A black poet in Nigeria raps about the devastation brought on by the oil companies, and to some people in the US, that’s not poetry, or even music, much less worthy of attention. I had someone tell me that when she played the video for some friends they turned away in disgust as soon as the rap started and said, “I can’t listen to that!” The truth is we are not listening. We’re judging. This is what really needs to change, before we can truly move forward.
LV: How has the experience changed your work, if at all?
TC: I am not writing much now, but working mostly on Big Bridge doing visual art and design and of course on 100 Thousand Poets for Change. I’ve done some translating of Spanish poetry and prose, which is something I enjoy a lot. This led me to join up with a local collective here in the North Bay that is starting a new bilingual paper, Occupied Press/Prensa Ocupada. I will be translating for the paper as well as helping put together a cultural column that will feature poetry and art, etc., in both English and Spanish. You know, I was listening to the local bilingual radio station the other day and there was a story about the very calculated and indiscriminate disruption of the Mexican communities in Sonoma County by the police under the premise of looking for illegal aliens. The woman who was working to block and expose these traps said in Spanish, essentially, “You have to find your activism.” For me, for us, the 100TPC community, it is in poetry, music, and art where we are finding our activism. And, hopefully, I can continue to inspire those hiding in the back of the room at the poetry reading. This all gives me much more satisfaction and joy than I ever got from writing a poem. At least for now.