Ill Fares the Race

Art is identical with a state of capacity to make, involving a true course of reasoning. ~ Aristotle

It’s not only artists and philosophers who understand the value and power of art and artistic endeavors, how the same inspires us and changes our lives for the better. Winston Churchill, UK’s former Prime Minister and British Army officer, many years ago said, “The arts are essen­tial to any com­plete national life. The State owes it to itself to sus­tain and encour­age them….Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the rev­er­ence and delight which are their due.”

Imagine a world without art, without culture? How do we exist in a world void of culture?  How do we express ourselves? How do we comfort ourselves? How do we rid ourselves of ruinous emotions? How do we redeem ourselves?

We can’t, we don’t, we won’t. Our primal urge to create works of art, however, will not end by way of Trump’s blunt spear, but it seems our new administration and our intellectually, culturally, socially and morally challenged POTUS aim to point us toward a second Dark Ages.

But it won’t happen. This morning, I attended a cultural conversation about arts and humanities led by U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse—a longtime ardent supporter of the arts and the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities—and hosted by the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts and the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities. In the audience were many artists—writers, poets (including Rhode Island’s poet laureate Tina Cane), storytellers, musicians, actors, painters, photographers and the like—all of whom are understandably anxious about Congress’s zeroing out of funding for the arts.

Of the NEA defunding, Whitehouse said that the “bottom line is a horrible budget out of [POTUS], but the bottom line is that it doesn’t matter.” The budget process, he said, has become a theatre, and the real bottom line “is where the budget meets the road [which is] at the Appropriations process.”

And a glimmer of light. Because the road has paths that lead to alternative funding. And because Senator Whitehouse, as well as Senator Jack Reed and other RI representatives believe, know, that our artistic community is integrally linked to our state’s economy. And because the NEA’s budget is only 4/1000s of our entire budget. The National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities each have budgets of approximately $148 million a year. Add in the Corporation for Public Broadcasting at $445 million (as of the end of January 2017), and combined we spend only $741 million dollars on our arts and humanities programs, which is “less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the United States’ annual federal spending, an amount supporters say is too small to make a difference.”

It was roughly six years ago that NEA’s then acting chairman, Rocco Landesman, praised RI’s artistic community. “There are three key ingredients for the arts to thrive:” said Landesman, “a local tradition of the arts, a committed philanthropic sector, and political leadership that ‘gets it.’ … The arts are flourishing in our state,” he said, and that “is a great testament to the dedication and support that began with Senator Whitehouse, and indeed, all of Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation.”

Six years later, Senator Whitehouse is still fighting for the arts. It was an encouraging moment (yet sad) when the senator promised that “[Art and Humanties] programs are going to be significantly cut, but only over our dead bodies.” Saying that “arts are a critical part of every young person’s education,” he reminded us that through art, young minds learn to think creatively and critically, which translates to better scholars and collaborators. Though we already know this, don’t we?

Seems our youth do, too. At the meeting, two fifth grade girls (twins) from Warren asked the final question: “Why can’t we do so much more art in elementary school?”

The U.S. owes it to itself to sus­tain and encourage the arts and humanities. We know this, our children know this. But how to convince our country, our communities, of the importance of the arts?  “You can’t bargain with these people, Whitehouse says. “You can’t stand up to a bully by saying maybe if you take my lunch money I’ll keep my hat.” While congress may be driven by statistics, the senator says that they’re also driven by the power of story. Nothing is more powerful than story. “Tell your story. Go to your passion,” says Whitehouse. “Show individual cases where what you do makes a difference; [by using] emotional appeal in your argument [you can] control the narrative in Washington.”

Defunding cannot silence us, cannot break us. Tell, show, your story from the top of every mountain to the bottom of every valley. Write, speak, act, paint your story. Let Congress know how the arts have impacted your life.

IMG_2189

 

 

Trump, Poetry & Erasure

For almost a year, now, I have been working on a collection of erasure poems (which may also be called “found poems”). An erasure poem is formed by working with an existing text —any sort of text: a story, a book, a letter, a code, a dictate—and erasing therefrom words, phrases, whole sentences and paragraphs, while keeping select others. The poet might use a tool, such as a black sharpie or Wite-Out liquid, or paint or collage, to physically erase the text. The erasure poem, in a way, is a kind of thievery, which may be a kind of crime, but one perpetrated for the sake of what remains. That is, the remaining text. What remains in my poems ordinarily reflects, contradicts or enhances the original text.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “erasure” as: 1. The removal of writing, recorded material, or data; or 1.1 The removal of all traces of something; obliteration: ‘the erasure of prior history.’

As I think about erasure within the context of our current political climate, it’s been challenging for me to go on with this project, to wipe out words from the source text. It feels wrong in light of what must be considered: an ignorant, narcissistic, racist, misogynist, homophobic, xenophobic, intellecto-phobic, president-elect who will too soon occupy a chair in an oval office in a white house in the capital city of the United States of America, land of the free. A president-elect who has already betrayed this country in countless ways—most notably, in ways that call for the witing-out of millions of Americans whose skin is darker than the palest pale. And so I am forced, now, to think about erasure in terms of 1.1 above: obliteration. This is the politics of erasure: denying the validity of a given race or any other whom does not reflect the face of the eraser. To erase anything is a form of obliteration. When the day’s history lesson is erased from the classroom’s blackboard, it is obliterated.

Last February, The New York Times Magazine published an essay titled Fighting ‘Erasure’ by Parul Sehgal. In it, Sehgal wrote, “‘Erasure’ refers to the practice of collective indifference that renders certain people and groups invisible. The word migrated out of the academy, where it alluded to the tendency of ideologies to dismiss inconvenient facts, and is increasingly used to describe how inconvenient people are dismissed, their history, pain and achievements blotted out. Compared with words like ‘diversity’ and ‘representation,’ with their glib corporate gloss, ‘erasure’ is a blunt word for a blunt process. It goes beyond simplistic discussions of quotas to ask: Whose stories are taught and told? Whose suffering is recognized? Whose dead are mourned?”

Erasure is what Trump is talking about when he says he’s going to build a wall, or prevent certain ethnicities, or those with certain religious affiliations, from entering this country. Erasure is Trump populating the White House with white nationalists. Erasure is the abolition of diversity, histories, innocents, traditions, language, color, poetry. Erasure is loss. It is our president-elect’s desire to lose the idea of freedom, or morality, or humanity. Which is not a particularly novel idea or response by those keen on running a country by means of tyranny.

(Poet Anjali Barot’s video erasure poem—using Trump’s acceptance speech—gives us a glimpse into the future of Trump’s America.)

The practice of erasure in politics is a worldwide crisis.

I believe it is an artist’s duty to speak out against cultural erasure, to bring light and truth forward through one’s art. Looking at the body of my erasure work, I think, in large part, that what I have been pursuing (consciously or not) is the gravity of survival, renewal and remembrance—poems that reveal the stories, suffering and mourning of all. Poems composed of glittering fragments of hope and love and compassion.

A poem from my collection in progress:

germp1.jpggerm2.jpggermp3.jpggermp4.jpg

Sweet Things Among the Dead

At my father’s grave, I dig a thin trench into the hard ground that surrounds the stone marker with his name on it. Etched into the granite is a peaceful scene of a lake, a tree, loons, the sun, and an oft heard declarative statement of his: “Another beautiful sunset.” I don’t know if it’s permitted, but I sprinkle sunflower seeds into the trench and with my bare hand swipe the dusty dirt over the seeds and replace some of the scraggly ground cover around the stone’s perimeter. So no one will know.

In Maine, by the lake, there were, there are, many beautiful sunsets. Summer nights, Father and Mother went out to the shore to watch the evening glow, the gentle transformation of the sky—waves of saturated blues, golds, pinks, reds, lavender—until the prismatic curtain curled inward and closed at the horizon.

The horizon. The outer limit. A cemetery—the boundary where compact dirt separates the dead from the living. The dead, beyond all limitation, reside here in this sea of tombs. And the living, the very limited, come to meet them, say prayers, trace letters stamped in stone, remember sunsets, and place sweet things among the graves. An angel, a toy tractor, a cross, a bunny, a cowboy, golf balls, plastic birds, flowers, plaques, cards.

I walk the grounds and find the inscribed names of old friends and classmates—Cindy, George, Denis—who transport me back to high school, to Father’s classroom, to days we thought would never end (or, at times, endless). Sweet things are everywhere. Even here, at this terminus, far from school days, from the lake in Maine, from horseback riding, late night swims and campfires. Here, in all this passed-on sweetness, is where the eternal kaleidoscope sunset meets the horizon. At Father’s grave, again, I dig into the soil and set a purple petunia below his peppery headstone.