"I am trying to check my habits of seeing, to counter them for the sake of greater freshness. I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I'm doing." - John Cage

Thursday, October 13, 2016

How can poetry be an agent of change?

“Poetry is a call to action and it also is action. Sometimes we say, "This tragedy, it happened far away. I don't know what to do. I'm concerned but I'm just dangling in space." A poem can lead you through that, and it is made of action because you're giving your whole life to it in that moment. And then the poem — you give it to everyone. Not that we're going to change somebody's mind — no, we're going to change that small, three-minute moment. And someone will listen. That's the best we can do.” - Juan Felipe Herrera

I was honored to speak on a panel about poetry as an agent of change for 100,000 Poets for Change at the Sierra Arts Gallery in downtown Reno on September 24th. 

The New York Times recently published I, Too by Langston Hughes as the voice for what they wanted to declare:

“Appropriately for a public museum at the heart of Washington’s cultural landscape, the museum’s creators did not want to build a space for a black audience alone, but for all Americans. In the spirit of Langston Hughes’spoem “I, Too,” their message is a powerful declaration: The African-American story is an American story, as central to the country’s narrative as any other, and understanding black history and culture is essential to understanding American history and culture.”

I, Too
I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,"

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

What would be lost in the poem if the simple word “too” was not included? These three letters link the poem to the history and context of ongoing conversations about race and what makes America America.  Poetry is a conversation between the speaker and the reader – an engagement with the reader.  This word “too” gives the poem its timeless relevance.

America is this abstract idea in the poem that is distilled into a person and a kitchen and a table and a meal.  This abstract involves beauty and shame.  For me, poetry merges oppositions in a way that makes ambiguity and emotional truth become the Ah ha! Moment.  And this happens because the reader is in the poem, experiencing the poem as a present act, like Juan Felipe Herrera describes.

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