Monday, March 23, 2015

Interview with Bob Holman, a Finalist for the 2015 Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism

The Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism, sponsored by the CrossCurrents Foundation, recognizes and honors a poet who is doing innovative and transformative work at the intersection of poetry and social change. The award, judged this year by Sheila Black, Martha Collins, and E. Ethelbert Miller, is being given for the second time in 2015. Tickets now on sale! Join us on April 2, at the Arts Club of Washington, as we honor Mark Nowak for his work establishing "poetry dialogues" among workers around the globe.


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Equal parts spoken word performer, professor, impresario, activist, proprietro of the Bowery Poetry Club, filmmaker and host of Language Matters, a two-hour PBS special on Endangered Languages, to Bob Holman it's all just part of the job. He's a poet. From Slam to Hiphop, from performance to spoken word, Bob's been a central figure in redefining poetry in the US as existing on, off, and beyond the page. Author of 16 poetry collections, most recently Sing This One Back to Me (Coffee House Press, 2013), Bob has been dubbed a member of the "Poetry Pantheon" by the New York Times Magazine. As an arts administrator, Bob's served as coordinator and readings curator at St. Mark's Poetry Project, original Slammaster and a director of the Nuyorican Poets Café, as well as founder and proprietor of the Bowery Poetry Club. He is a co-founder and co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance. Read more about Bob and his accomplishments on his website.


What ignited your passion for language preservation?

Hiphop! My students were telling me that my reading list wasn’t relevant. What’s relevant? I asked. Well nothing, really, was the reply -- it’s hiphop, we just make this shit up. What about the contemporary iteration of the African American Oral Tradition? I countered. Where can we find it? they asked. Good question. So I went to Africa in search of the griot tradition. Made “On the Road with Bob Holman” for LinkTV. And discovered from the linguists I met there that these most valuable traditions were dying out as their very languages died.

What role does poetry play in preserving language?

Language is the essence of humanity. Poetry is the essence of language. Poets are in charge of preserving language -- not just our own, but all languages.

How do you think globalization has affected the vitality of language?

The Horrific Triumph of Capitalism’s main job is to create a homogenized consumer base. I agree that it would be terrific if we all spoke the same language, or make that two languages—English and Mandarin, which is what the apocalypsists say might be the case in 300 years. But we don’t need to be monolingual to all speak the same language. The answer to the language crisis is multilinguality, and respecting all Mother Tongues.

Of the different languages you’ve encountered throughout your career, which stood out the most, and why?

I've dived really deeply into Welsh. The Celtic sounds and cynghanedd poetic forms tremble my mouth, and I love the Welsh people. Saying hello in Dogon takes at least 5 minutes, and I’ll never forget how to do that. But I’m inspired by Margaret Randall’s returning to the US after years of self-imposed exile in Mexico because she wanted to speak English again as reason to not denigrate the joys of my own Mother Tongue. Even if it is a bully.

Are new languages being created as old languages go extinct?

First, it’s totally politically incorrect to say languages are going extinct! The revival of languages like Wampanoag, which had not been spoken in over 100 years, show that all languages that have been written or recorded can be revived, if the people will it so. No, these languages are not extinct. These languages are sleeping. But to answer the question, a new language was found a couple years ago in Australia. The linguist called it Light Walpiri. It’s got elements of several Aboriginal tongues including Walpiri, and English, but has a grammar all its own. It is spoken only by people 35 and under.

Is there a specific moment or experience working on Language Matters that didn’t make it into the documentary, but sticks out to you?

When Charlie Mangulda, the last speaker of Amurdak, began speaking in a language that had heretofore never been recorded, it was simply passed over in the moment, until I broke into the camera zone, hooting and hollering about the newspaper headlines that would follow: TV Crew Discovers New Language! So we went back and recorded Charlie’s reaction to my freakout, and Nick Evans, the linguist and I did a section about the discovery of Wurridik. What I wish had made it on TV was my going bananas. There was also the moment that the wave inundated me in Hilo and almost dragged me out to sea, but that’s another story.

One woman in the documentary mentions that she speaks so many languages out of respect to other villages and people. What role does respect play in the preservation of language?

Thinking of languages strictly as means of communications makes it seem like nothing could be better than all of us speaking the same language. The answer, as poets know, is that languages are our true identity, they are who we are. Languages might even be defined as consciousness itself—I mean how can you define anything, except through language? And respect for Mother Tongues is the way to keep languages alive. Each of us needs to take this on as part of our work—to want to know about other languages. To not be afraid to learn a little bit of a language when you are meeting someone who speaks something other than English.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a section of the Brooklyn Rail’s “Critic’s Pages” which includes poets, poet/painters, and poet/filmmakers. I just got a travel grant from the Ford Foundation to take Language Matters to language revitalization centers in Hawaii and Alaska. And my new book, The Unspoken, will be published next year.

What is one piece that you are most proud of?

I’m very proud of my newest poem, “The Hammer of Justice,” which I wrote with Papa Susso. It’s the first time we’ve started with a poem of mine, and then worked out translations into Mandinke, instead of the other way around. It’s about how #BlackLivesMatter will never begin to be healed without Reparations.

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