June 30, 2011

Poets Speaking Out for Social Justice, June 26

I've know the folks behind the Riverwood Poetry Series since the Connecticut Poetry Festival back in 2008, then the re-named Riverwood Poetry Festival in June 2009.

I was pleased & honored to be asked back to read at this event with poets Eileen Albrizio, Jean-Yves Solinga & Elizabeth Thomas. Equally thrilling was to read at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, CT -- not just the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, you know.

After Sonya welcomed us to the Center, Julia Paul talked about the Riverwood Poetry Series, then Kathryn Kelly & Terry Klein did tag-team introductions of the poets.

I was up first, starting with "The Communion of Saints," important to name our own heroes, then a selection of political poems reaching back as far as "I Thought I Saw Elvis," up to the recent "Chatham Peace Vigil, & including poems from Poeming the Prompt & Baghdad/Albany & other Peace Poems.

Eileen Albrizio read just 2 pieces, one a poem, the other an excerpt from an unpublished novel. The poem, "Oh God, What Have We Done?" combines 2 incidents from 1998, the murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming (for being gay), & the murder of James Byrd in Texas (for being black); it's in her collection Perennials: New & Selected Poems (Ye Olde Font Shoppe, 2007). The excerpt from her novel was set in the past in North Carolina & was the grim tale of the lynching of a young black boy, I guess for the crime of reading.

Jean-Yves Solinga is from the Marhreb but has been in the USA & taught in schools for years. In "The Sheets Have to Be Clean" he brought in elements from an NPR interview & Rembrandt, contrasting the daily work of women with the killing work of men. Other poems were "Haiti from Barbecue to Misery," "Litanies for the Devil" (philosophical ponderings on evil), a poem about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina "The Danzinger Bridge" (on exceptionalism), & "Africa in Harmony" on the nature of exploitation, in the images of animals.

The poetry of Elizabeth Thomas centers around her experience teaching, & many of the poems were performed from memory. She opened with her "favorite poem" "Revelation" about a student with a tee-shirt that says "I Am God." Then a piece in the language of drug addiction, "On Words & English Teachers." In "The Games We Play" a student returns to Israel to fulfill military service, with similar issues brought home in "I Ask My Grand Daughter," & in "Mother's Work" she created a celebration from piled up images of birth & violence & the work of women. Her final poem was a collaborative piece (including a line from her mother) from folks at a health care center for Seniors proclaiming what was "Beautiful."

The reading was followed by a lively & provocative question & answer session, with the audience challenging us poets to articulate in ways different from our poems the issues of writing about politics & social justice & protest. Perhaps the hardest part of our performances today.

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