Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Occupied with Poetry

Art and politics intersect at Occupy Columbia (SC)

Art connected with politics, quite literally, on a warm October night at the intersection of Main and Gervais Streets in Columbia, South Carolina. A downtown poetry and pub walk, hosted by the local arts magazine Jasper, led right across the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse, where the Occupy Columbia protest was in full force, joined for the evening by a Latin American coalition.

We’d started off the evening at a local arts center with “Invocation” by Ron Rash, a poem in which Rash invokes the ghost of his grandfather over a jar of whiskey, asking him to guide him in his first collection, Eureka Mill, a poetry homage to the mill workers of the Carolinas during the 1930s textile mills strikes.

I was leading the pub walk. We had poets with poems, pretzel necklaces, a map with stops marked, and a pizza party waiting on us at the end of the evening. It was a lively group of fellow travelers, propelled by a couple of pints, a snatch of music at one local bar, and some fun (sometimes political, sometimes sexy) poems selected by local poets Ray McManus, Tara Powell, and Kristine Hartvigsen.

The statehouse grounds was on our map, since we had a couple of poems engaged with the difficult histories of our state—one by African American poet Nikkey Finney, “Hate,” and another by DC poet Dan Vera about one of the most awkward monuments on the grounds, “This is not the postcard for the monument to J. Marion Sims,” which he wrote after I took him on one of my “unofficial” tours of the grounds.

Sims, lauded as the founder of the modern science of gynecology, built his reputation by operating on slaves, as Vera points out. Elsewhere on the grounds are monuments to “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman (one of the founders of Jim Crow practices in the post-Reconstruction South), Strom Thurmond (his monument visibly altered to include his bi-racial daughter after his death), and a beautiful monument to African-American history, which our enlightened legislature approved but only if paid for by private not public funds. Oh, and the Confederate flag.

When we crossed Main to join the line of protestors waving signs at passing traffic, we had bags of popcorn to share with them, and a couple of poems we wanted to share as well.

I had been following Occupy Wall Street, and I’d seen the inspiring and arresting images as the movement gained traction around the nation. But it was when I drove by the capitol grounds in my hometown of Columbia and saw the local protestors that I was galvanized. As the local news media began to follow the protest, one image leapt out for me, a photo from the local alternative newspaper the Free Times.

In it, one of my former undergraduate students was leaning against a statue, watching Travis Bland, the movement organizer, raising his arms.

I wrote a poem, “Letter to Travis,” and I had it with me that night.

We asked if we could share the poem. Standing on the steps of a monument to the Confederate dead, I read the poem, phrase by phrase, and the protestors echoed it back in the mic-check format of the Occupy movement, transforming the poem into a call and response.

Letter to Travis

at Occupy Columbia, 22 Oct 2011, after reading the Free Times coverage

I saw that photo of you, lean, grinning, skinny jeans,

flannel shirt, newsboy cap, and nearby,

my former student Anna, hair dyed black, arms crossed

over her tie-dyed purple tee, leaning

on a not-quite-life-sized bronze George Washington

(the one boxed off at the MLK march

earlier this year, unfortunate fodder for FOX to spout off

about respect and legacy and shit like that,

the one with the broken cane, broken off by Union troops

in 1865 and never repaired,

as if he’s doomed to limp down here, and he was shot later

by drunken Governor Ben Tillman, the one

so racist he got his own statue in 1940, just

across the square from George, standing watch

now over a cluster of punks in sleeping bags, just down

the lawn from the one for gynecological

marvel J. Marion Sims, who Nazi-doctored black

women, then ran off to New York to experiment

on destitute Irish immigrant women—such difficult history here,

stories of the black, the poor.). I heard more

about George this morning on NPR, his whiskey distillery

back in business, though without the slave labor,

that story after the one about Occupy Washington

clustered near K Street. The front pages

of the local papers are Gadhafi’s slaughter, the body stashed

in a shopping center freezer, GOP

would-be’s descending on us for another debate, the state fair

ending this weekend, its rides and fried things.

I’ve got the list of what you guys need, Travis, gloves,

storage tubs, “head warming stuff,”

water, and I plan to drop by later with supplies.

For now, though, I look out my window,

the weather beautiful if cool, fair weather, the dogwood gone

red and finches fidgeting among the limbs.

Too easy, probably, to turn all pastoral at times

like these, to tend my own garden,

the last tomatoes ripening up, collards almost ready,

needing that chill to sweeten a bit.

A dear friend wrote me this week, says he’s scared

he’ll lose his job come the new year,

a fear we hear over and over, though the GOP folks

tell us it’s our own fault that we’re

not the rich—individual responsibility and all that.

I want to believe in the joy

and resistance I see there on your face, Travis,

the will revealed in Anna’s crossed arms.

I want to believe it, I want it to last, I want it to win.

I’ll stop by later with gloves and water.

While there can be many audiences for a poem, this was the perfect audience, and Travis, the Occupy Columbia organizer, was there among them. And when they repeated, forcefully, “such difficult history here” or “I want it to win,” I was so moved.

A couple of days later, someone forwarded to me an essay by Sarah Browning about poetry as a form of activism. In it, she writes: “Poetry and other art forms can combat despair, inspire those working in the trenches of social change movements, humanize those we are taught to fear, and build bridges across our differences, telling our human stories.” She adds—and I couldn’t help but think of my own take on our statehouse monuments, or Dan Vera’s poem—“A poem can be a history lesson.”

I hope this poem can do that kind of work. But my partner and I will still stop by again with more practical support: gloves, bottled water, “head warming stuff.”


Ed Madden teaches at the University of South Carolina. He is the author of Signals, which won the 2007 South Carolina Poetry Book Prize, and more recently, Prodigal: Variations. He is also the literary editor of Jasper. Photos by Kristine Hartvigsen.

Occupy Columbia


FOX coverage of the Washington statue


J. Marion Sims


A local feminist perspective


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