29 May 2007

Memorial Day 2007

Remembering, with particular thoughts of the men and women now buried in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetary

Facing It
from Dien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn't,
dammit: No tears.
I'm stone. I'm flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way--the stone lets me go.
I turn that way--I'm inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap's white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman's blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird's
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet's image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I'm a window.
He's lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman's trying to erase names:
No, she's brushing a boy's hair.

A clip from composer William Grant Still's In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy

05 May 2007

RFK Redux

Many thanks to the usually poetry-oriented Great American Pinup Blog for bringing this speech back. Would that we could bring Bobby back as well

Robert Kennedy from a speech delivered to the Cleveland City Club on April 5, 1968 one day after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated...

Mr Chairmen, Ladies And Gentlemen

This is a time of shame and sorrow. It is not a day for politics. I have saved this one opportunity, my only event of today, to speak briefly to you about the mindless menace of violence in America which again stains our land and every one of our lives.

It is not the concern of any one race. The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed. No one - no matter where he lives or what he does - can be certain who will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed. And yet it goes on and on and on in this country of ours.

Why? What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? No martyr's cause has ever been stilled by an assassin's bullet.

No wrongs have ever been righted by riots and civil disorders. A sniper is only a coward, not a hero; and an uncontrolled, uncontrollable mob is only the voice of madness, not the voice of reason.

Whenever any American's life is taken by another American unnecessarily - whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of the law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence - whenever we tear at the fabric of the life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.

"Among free men," said Abraham Lincoln, "there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and those who take such appeal are sure to lost their cause and pay the costs."

Yet we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike. We calmly accept newspaper reports of civilian slaughter in far-off lands. We glorify killing on movie and television screens and call it entertainment. We make it easy for men of all shades of sanity to acquire whatever weapons and ammunition they desire.

Too often we honor swagger and bluster and wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others. Some Americans who preach non-violence abroad fail to practice it here at home. Some who accuse others of inciting riots have by their own conduct invited them.

Some look for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear: violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.

For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.

This is the breaking of a man's spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all.

I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies nor is there a single set. For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done. When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies, to be met not with cooperation but with conquest; to be subjugated and mastered.

We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community; men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear, only a common desire to retreat from each other, only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this, there are no final answers.

Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is not what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of humane purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.

We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of others. We must admit in ourselves that our own children's future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.

Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course we cannot vanquish it with a program, nor with a resolution.

But we can perhaps remember, if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek, as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and in happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

Surely, this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely, we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men, and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again.

02 May 2007

You call yourself ...what?

I think I have come not to a certain wisdom but perhaps to a certain sense. I think of myself as a writer. What does being a writer mean to me? It means simply being true to my imagination. When I write something, I think of it not as being factually true (mere fact is a web of circumstances and accidents), but as being true to something deeper. When I write a story, I write it because somehow I believe in it - not as one believe in mere history, but rather as one believes in a dream or in an idea.

Jorge Luis Borges, "A Poet's Creed" from This Craft of Verse.

I recently had the pleasure of teaching a workshop at Coppin State University, and one of the students in the class asked me a question. I answered it, but I’m not entirely sure I gave her quite the response she was looking for. The young lady’s question was:

“What makes you a poet?”

Now, this is what I think she meant (and the question I did not answer then): I think she meant, how come our teacher has brought YOU in here and said, “HE is a poet?” Is it because you have a book? Because you’ve been published in journals? By virtue of going to workshops? Winning awards and recognition from teachers and academics? How come you get to call yourself a poet?

I partially answered this question by saying I tend NOT to call myself a poet, although I do write poetry. If pressed, I call myself a writer, because I write in a number of genres, and also because ‘Poet’ does function for me as a kind of title, as something that one gets bestowed upon them (although I’m not entirely sure who would do this form of anointing or granting of knighthood/ ‘poet-hood’).

There are a number of people, particularly but not exclusively, on the spoken word circuit that call themselves poets, or have ‘Da Poet’ in their stage names. Teens and young adults fill notebooks with writing and rhymes, and consider themselves poets. Kinko’s, desktop publishing software, and on-line printing services has enabled anyone to put out a book or chapbook, enabling the world to consider themselves poets.

I suppose part of what separates the wheat from the chaff as it were is consistency, determination, stick-to-it-tive-ness, moxie, and doing the work, actually writing, and being serious about your work (if not necessarily about yourself) that allows you to self-declare. Having the work published in different venues, awards and accolades, mention by instructors may be considered the outward signs of that seriousness, the attention you pay to your craft, to the art. But I think all of us who write know of others whose work we admire who have difficulty getting published or the recognition they deserve. Yet we consider them fellow poets.

The answer I gave, which, as I said I’m not sure satisfied my young interlocutor, was that being a poet is as much a mindset as anything else. If prose writers love sentences, or the paragraph, poets love words. The texture of certain words, what happens when they are placed next to other words – even what happens if you reverse the order of how those words are placed together – these are the things that excite me into poetry. Since I do write in different forms, it a poem occurs as opposed to an idea for a story or article, depending on the aura of the event, image, or phrase that I encounter. Some images to me declare themselves immediately to be poems, others as stories, still others as something that demands further exploration and explication. And yes, there are others that could ignite the desire to use all these modes to explore them.

Poetry is something that happens internally, something that has occurred on a particular rung of the DNA ladder, that moves someone to cast specific words into lines across a page. Poetry is as much a way of seeing the world, a mindset that causes you to have certain visions of the universe and how to express those visions to others, as it is a matter of what someone calls you, how many awards you win, how many teachers bring you into their classrooms to stand in front of their students and declaim, and assist them in their own explorations.

I ended by quoting something Harryette Mullen said when asked to define poetry (and reminded the students that she meant this in all its connotations): “Poetry is words playing with each other.”