Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Poet As Public Citizen: Melissa Tuckey

Continuing our coverage of talks from AWP, here are Melissa Tuckey's remarks from Undivided: Poet as Public Citizen.

Details about the events can be found here.

Introduction and remarks, Poet as Public Citizen, AWP, February 2011
Melissa Tuckey

Welcome to the poet as public citizen panel. I want to start with a poem by the great world poet Mahmoud Darwish.

The Prison Cell—Mahmoud Darwish

It is possible…

It is possible at least sometimes…

It is possible especially now

To ride a horse

Inside a prison cell

And run away…

It is possible for prison walls

To disappear,

For the cell to become a distant land

Without frontiers:

-What did you do with the walls?

-I gave them back to the rocks.

-And what did you do with the ceiling?

-I turned it into a saddle.

-And your chain?

-I turned it into a pencil.

The prison guard got angry.

He put an end to my dialogue.

He said he didn’t care for poetry,

And bolted the door of my cell.

He came back to see me

In the morning,

He shouted at me:

-Where did all this water come from?

-I brought it from the Nile.

-And the trees?

-From the orchards of Damascus.

-And the music?

-From my heartbeat.

The prison guard got mad;

He put an end to my dialogue.

He said he didn’t like my poetry,

And bolted the door of my cell.

But he returned in the evening:

-Where did this moon come from?

-From the nights of Baghdad.

-And the wine?

-From the vineyards of Algiers.

-And this freedom?

-From the chain you tied me with last night.

The prison guard grew so sad…

He begged me to give him back

His freedom.

Mahmoud Darwish,

translated by Ben Bennani

I share this poem, with Egypt and Tunisia on my mind, as an example of what poetry can do at a time of great transformation and as a reminder that before any change can come—it must be imagined first.

We’re here to celebrate the gifts that poets bring to social change- the naming of injustices, the stealing back of language, amplifying the voices of those without power, engaging multiplicity and complexity in a time of sound bites and corporate propaganda, humanizing the dehumanized, making visible the invisible.

Split This Rock grew out of the Poets Against the War movement and was founded in 2006 by Sarah Browning, myself and a group of local poets in Washington, DC as an opportunity to call poets together from across the country, to speak out against unjust wars and to celebrate poetry of witness and provocation. Our first festival in 2008 brought poets from across the country together share poetry, resources and conversation about critical issues at the intersection of social change and poetry.

At this first festival, we learned about incredible work being done by poets in communities across the nation— teaching poetry in public schools and prisons, working with veterans and victims of war, working with youth, offering workshops to survivors of violence, creating conversations about environmental change, working in homeless shelters and domestic abuse shelters, taking poetry into places where it is needed most. We celebrate the many ways that poets are speaking out, organizing, and engaging with the wider community.

Our third Split This Rock Poetry festival will be in 2012 and we hope you will join us.

Adrienne Rich writes, "The poet today must be twice-born. She must have begun as a poet, she must have understood the suffering of the world as political, and gone through politics, and on the other side of politics she must be reborn again as a poet.” (from What is Found There: Notebooks on Politics and Poetry).

In this panel we’ll be talking about that journey and talking about some of the many ways poets are engaging in the public realm. There is a fear for many poets that politics will somehow taint their poetry. We’re here to assert that social engagement or activism will enrich your view of the world and your poetry.

Our panelists are poets whose aesthetics are socially engaged and whose lives too are socially engaged. I don’t think I’m overstating it to say these are poets whose work as writers, activists, as translators and editors and builders of poetic movements have helped shape American poetry. I’ve asked our panelists to share news with us about their own work in the public realm, and the work of others who are models for this work and to think also about how we might engage and support young poets in this work and to help us think as a community about creative ways of responding to crisis and trauma.

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