"Don't Mourn. Radioize!" Lorna Dee's Paper Delivered at the AWP
Poetry makes nothing happen -- People do. Poetry is not politics. Politics is not poetry. Politics is not what you write or say, it's what you do. Do it. Do it and what you do will infuse and instigate.
Poetry is not a weapon. Poetry is a way of vision, the most potent and powerful tool there is, just one small part of a process and the one most easily afforded. Poetry, instigated and infused with political action, allows one to write in a language of discovery and not just in rhetorical verses of terse nonsense that make nothing happen.
And there is much that is happening.
And there is much to do. In a world fraught with political peril, a planet in the process of collapsing in on itself due to perilous politics and a distinctive lack of vision, it's as the Borinquen Nuyorican poet, Pedro Pietri, used to say, it's poetry or suicide -- mass suicide without the mass of poetry and the politicized masses.
So, what to do? Don't mourn. Radioize. For the past couple of months I've been involved in the Free Radio movement. Pioneered in the early 90s by Stephen Dunifer of Free Radio Berkeley who would roam the Berkeley hills with a radio transmitter he designed and built, about the size of a six-pack -- with the FCC far in pursuit, Free Radio Berkeley managed to stay on the air for years until a court injunction slapped Stephen with a $10,000 personal fine -- for violating the rights of the rich and privileged to monopolize our airwaves and own our right to peaceful assembly -- on air; for free; in the privacy of our own homes. Free radio is currently involved with Project TUPA. Named after a Mixtec god from Oaxaca, a spirit of the mountains and forests which seemed to fit the "ethereal nature of radio waves," TUPA stands for Transmitters Uniting the Peoples of the Américas. They help to empower people in impoverished communities by offering free and low-cost workshops training people to assemble and maintain their own low-watt radio and television stations in places such as Haiti, Brazil, Venezuela, Chiapas and Oaxaca where last fall a young U.S. journalist, and ex-Boulderite, Brad Will was shot to death while documenting abuses and violent repression against teachers and others protesting a government they feel is corrupt.
My latest book, DRIVE: The First Quartet, opens with a highly unpublishable poem, "Coffee", about the massacre of 45 mostly women and children in Chiapas, in a place called Acteal. Yes, highly unpublishable. I know this. But what I did not know is that it is also an "unairable" poem, even on public radio, even on Democracy Now for which a public reading of it was taped for broadcast until I got to a certain line, naming and criticizing the government (oops, I meant to say the transnational corporate oligarchy) [sings: "N-E-S-T-L-E-S! Nestles makes the very best ... MURDER!"] when David Barsamian and the producer just removed their headsets and shook their heads at each other. It never aired. The poem was presented to about 6,000 assembled under a giant tent at the Dodge Poetry Festival and recorded by Bill Moyers crew -- which appeared on television in a curiously and severely edited and spliced together video version of the original which makes is appear as if I advocate violent revolution. I do not.
I am not a political poet. I am a politicized poet, which is to say, not a drunk or a suicide. As I said in an AWP panel last year on (what else?) the Chicana/o poet and politics, I said that one of these days, one of these years, I will be invited to a conference such as this to speak about "the line" in poetry, and started to cry.
I'm 52 years old. I started at age 8, after being inspired by something I heard on the radio, public radio. That's a lot of lines under someone's thumb. I urge you today -- to do it. Go out and buy someone's book of poetry. Go out today and write some lines. Freely. Openly. And with integrity, the greatest asset a poet can own. And, as I always tell my students, do what is the first, but not sole order of poetry, as one of my favorite poets and philosophers, Joan Armatrading sang it: Show some emotion. E - motion. That wordless state which follows any action. Act. And say. And, do it on air. Sign up for a 4-day summer workshop in Oakland, or bring the workshop to your own communities and for $200 you can learn how to build your own micro-watt radio transmitter and antenna good for broadcasting 10-25 miles or more depending upon the height of the antenna. Let a thousand stations blossom. After all, we are living in a state of emergency. Or, build one and donate it to an impoverished indigenous community. For what greater gift can you give than to help give voice to the voiceless?
And, if not, do what I do. If you can't do, pay. I'm collecting whatever you can donate today to Project TUPA and Free Radio. They need a mere $2,500 to $3,000 to build another 25 radio stations in Mexico. Give what you can now and receive my latest book, my latest "unpublishable" poem. Go to www.freeradio.org and www.radiotupa.org and donate online or send a tax deductible check to Project TUPA/ Global Exchange. Or visit my blog for more information and links. Let me know if you do and I'll send you my book. Donate $200 or more and I'll send you a copy of my 200 page manuscript of new and selected love poems (sure to be a rare collector's item) and 7 cds of love songs. For what can be more political or more politicized than love? Or, more revolutionary.
Now, I'd like to close with one of the most political poems I've ever written. It's a love poem entitled, "Nothing Lasts."
Only the land lasts, not you.
Only your steps upon it, the cut
glass of memory and your smile within
it survives. Only the land lasts; simple rock
and the dumb scape of lusting lack,
the rack and pinion of flight and fall.
Autumn doesn't last. Not spring
with all its fine tithings. Not the shine
of those young girls' hair, not the waists
of women, not the fading fire. Not you
and the way we were. Only the land
lasts, and the ridges of waiting wearing
out the pursed lips of furrowed ranges,
and not the cold within their lair. Only
the stunned shale, the red-faced cliffs,
the heights where someone sometime ascended
and stood, and loved, the land layering there
laid out out in its full affair, the glinting
mica and the dream of hard brooding diamonds,
all the hidden glory, the unseen flake
of gold and petrified burl. Not this
hand stroking life into an empty palm,
the smooth skin of summer, the sudden
skim of a wayward glance. Nothing of you
or the lonelier retreat of other
killer mammals and their heat.
Nothing lasts but the land, not the water
or the tearing, not the creeks and the clearings,
not the withered heart nor the soiled clothing
of social graces, nor the mouthy flaring
of wondered disgrace. Nothing lasts of this house,
not the boards nor the worms nor the birds. Not
the words I use to slow it down and make it stick.
Nothing lasts like the red clouds on the day
of your passing, the wicked gassing
or the olvido. Nothing lasts but this sand
drained of your sea; this chisled frown
in the chipped flint, this skirting of canyon,
this flaw and filing, this grinding down
but lasting, the silk touch in a handhold,
in the holding out for the summit. Nothing
but the wounding in the craters, the uplift
and the gurgling lava; all the ways we read
a stone's hieroglyphics, the ore's heavy lead.
Were we to discover, we would uncover a myth,
the stories we tell to renew the pact
with this earth. This, love. Nothing lasts
but the land and our love
Lorna Dee Cervantes
presented at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Atlanta, GA
March 3, 2007
[*Note: All offers still hold]