Monday, June 29, 2015

A CHAT WITH SUSAN CHAST ~ ON POETRY AND SOCIAL JUSTICE

My friends, get ready for a serious, but very enjoyable, conversation on a topic our community has demonstrated a concern about - our need to live in a world of social justice. I have long admired Susan Chast's poetry, and her lifelong and ongoing activism. You know Susan from her blogs, Susan's Poetry and Susan, Continued, and as a staff member at Poets United. You will get to know her even better, through this conversation. Draw your chairs in close, and get ready to be inspired!







There can be no peace without social justice.
Benjamin Creme

Sherry: I have been itching to have this conversation, ever since reading your kick-ass poems about social justice. So let’s dive in.

Susan: You know, Sherry, there is not much to talk about.  I’m not an Allen Ginsberg speaking for a generation, nor a Mary Oliver riding the juncture between spirituality and activism, nor an empath able to tell you what it’s like to be an oppressed person.  Peace and non-violence and active advocacy for equality matter to me, so they end up in my poems, and before I was a poet, they were in the theatre that I did—but no one can prove a direct relationship between artistic expression and political change. 

Sherry: But, Susan, I have always admired your long history of activism in the movement for social justice.

Susan: Thank you, Sherry.

Sherry: Would you tell us a bit about this journey, and your involvement in various movements over the years? What first galvanized you into taking action?



Banner at The Women's Encampment 
for a Future of Peace and Justice, 1983

Susan: In 1968, when I was a High School senior, the lottery began for the draft into the Vietnam War.  Graphic images of violence were everywhere, showing tragic consequences for soldiers and civilians of color.  That year, sit-ins by Black students in select colleges finally won them the admissions and scholarship support they should have been getting.  So by 1969, my freshman year, my entire campus was involved in anti-draft and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations.  This and spiritual and educational thought like Ram Dass, Ivan Illich and Paul Goodman completely engaged me.  And then I started meeting feminists and reading feminist thought, which empowered women to take leadership in birth control, abortion and abuse of women as well as other gender, race, class and sexual-choice issues. 

Sherry: A fascinating time. How has your poetry and your passion for these causes intersected?



As a theatre director in the 1980's,
while a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley



Susan: I became a teacher of theatre and language arts and discovered that learning with students means engaging with these issues because these issues are theirs. But I didn’t “come out” as a poet until 2010 or so.  By then, I suppose being aware of oppression and empowerment issues had become part of my way of life and choices about where and how to live—including the faith I practice and the kind of activities I enjoy.  Everything I do is based on seeing people as equal and seeing the need to eliminate poverty and hunger as part of achieving a non-violent peace.   I think I'd have to stop reading news and current events to disengage from it totally.




Aria da Capo 1991
at Wells College in New York State



Angels in America 1998
at the College of William and Mary in Virginia

Sherry: I know what you mean. Yet I have this persistent need to know what’s going on, though it causes me angst! Does being able to express your beliefs through your poetry help ease your pain over the injustices we witness daily through the media?

Susan: Yes.

Sherry: What is your hope for such poems?

Susan: I read them in community settings whenever I get a chance.  I haven't had much luck submitting to magazines.  But I just published my first two books and I am trying to get my work out there.  I’d like to give reading tours, I suppose, in an ideal world.  But for now, I'm just finding out what is inside of me that wants to be expressed poetically, quite unsure of how it will ever be used.

Sherry: What do you hope people take away from reading them?

Susan: Oh, gosh.  I suppose, first, just to see if anyone connects to what I am talking about.  Then, I’d like to discuss the motifs and inner life on the edges of conflict and feelings of helplessness.  Most beautifully, because of online blogging, I've seen poems dialogue with each other and cross-fertilize each other as voices in the discussion.  It’s making me wonder if all poets are politically engaged, or as some say, politically correct.

Sherry: That is a very intriguing thought, my friend. From our shared experience online, the answer to that might just be "Yes". Let’s take a look at a couple of these poems. You have written so many stellar, moving, inspiring ones, it will be hard to choose just a few. One that really speaks to me is “Sleeping In Public". Let’s take a look.


Unbridled whiteness fires me up to share
my privilege:  Please pull up a pillow,
rest a while, let me protest all despair.

White cops’ mis-justice hurts me, too, I fear.
I’m not safe if you can be held so low.
I can't feel happiness when your life’s austere.

Let me walk with you and grow seeds of care
to wake in your footsteps, to learn to know    
unrest for real, how to always beware.

Unrestrained wickedness jerks me alert—
your fragile bones are exposed to real blows.
I thought to forget, but you lived to hurt.

Whiteness supreme is mine to dismantle,
powers to share, achievements to channel.
What cannot be shared might just be annulled.

I'll stop my walking, will myself awake—
I want the diverse life your presence makes.
If you have no freedom, mine’s a mistake.

Susan: I had just attended a weekend workshop called “Whites Addressing Racism,” so I was fired up about my own privilege as a white person and ways I was racist despite myself, because white supremacy is encoded into our political economy and all of our social institutions.  I've dealt with this my entire life, so this was just another timely effort to pick up some tools of change.   Timely because of Ferguson and Baltimore police violence that has killed Black men.  

Sherry: Timely, yes, given the growing instances of police brutality and oppression we see far too often on the news. The last line of this poem goes to the heart of the matter: “If you have no freedom, mine’s a mistake.”

Susan: You're such a good reader, Sherry!  Whiteness is hard to own up to and discuss. This is my best effort so far.  I hope it shows my longing for a matter of fact equality that doesn’t have to be earned and fought for over and over again. It is white privilege to live as if a sleep walker—as if we could be exempt from what is a daily reality for people of color.  Time to wake up.

Sherry: Long past time, my friend. On your sister blog, Susan,Continued there is some very meaty reading, especially around your activism and the movements you took part in. I was especially inspired by your work with Feminists United to Save the Earth, and The Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice. You really lived your truth, back in the Day, as a feminist/ social justice advocate/anti-nuke protester. You definitely have walked your talk this lifetime, and I applaud you. As your health begins to impact your level of participation, does writing poems about these issues help you to feel still active and connected to the movements?




As a high school teacher  

Susan: My poetry and my blog are outlets to be sure, but as you can see, they provide a history rather than a present activism.  Some of this history will be in a novel I’m writing that is taking too many years to complete, but these writings are parts of me that are just sitting and waiting right now.  Do you think that writings like poems and stories are effective as actions?  

Sherry: I have to believe, when our hearts feel so strongly and we share from our deepest selves, that somehow other hearts are touched by our poems. If some small awareness grows, if some recognition that “hey, I feel that way, too!” is taken away, if someone says, “I didn’t know that, but now I care about it too,” then our poems have done some small bit to help. I always feel, if other beings can suffer their situations, I can, at the very least, bear witness, shine some light on the issue(s). Maybe what we share will inspire younger, healthier bodies to take up where we left off. We can but hope.

Susan: I believe in bearing witness.  I believe in young people, too.  They have a lot at stake in their own future and are standing up.  It’s pretty exciting to see.  I think I have a few poems about that, too.  For me, poetry—like the best theatre and music and visual art—can make the invisible visible.  As you say, that could be an “aha! experience” for the reader.  Creating poetry does that for me as writer, too.  Sometimes it deepens spiritual experience and commitment, or offers a profound relief of emotion and even a kind of aloneness.  

When injustice aches, at first the expression is raw and sermon-like or it is raving anger or despair, but the process of writing allows me—poets—you, too—to refine feeling and revise use of words and images, so that someone else may be moved. 




In the classroom


Sherry: Oh, well said, my friend. I found some fantastic poems in Susan, Continued:  John Woolman’s Testimony:Walk the Walk,” “The Answer,” “You Are Not Alone” and “Birthday Carol.”  I highly recommend that anyone interested  check them out. When you look back at your body of work, are there one or two poems about these issues you are especially pleased with, that you would like to share with us here? And tell us about why they mean so much to you?

Susan: I like “The Answer,” which is a few years old now.  It expresses the fantasy that it could be easy to give up violence.  Why isn’t it easy? Songs and movies and public performers have been addressing it for years!  It was outlawed by the peaceful indigenous tribes of the eastern USA long before Europeans arrived.  And it appears to be pure evil in recent adolescent literature and movies like The Hunger Games.  What are we waiting for?


When Bob Dylan sang “the answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind”
He did not mean that it had blown away or become elusive
He meant it was really in the wind, and would land sometime
So we had to be fast and pick it up, or it would be gone again.
And when Perry Como sang “Catch a falling star, and put it in your pocket,”
He did not mean to pretend.  He meant grab a star
while it was streaming past, and hold it tight and push it far far far
down into the pocket in your jeans.  On rainy and windy days,
take it out again and the starlight will cheer you.  You’ve got to be fast. 

Falling stars exist and answers are flying around everywhere
I’ve seen some: Like, how do you stop a war?  Don’t go.
How do you get rid of weapons?  Take them and bury them
under the Algonquin pine of peace with the eagle on top.
Plant poles of positivity for doves of every color to sit and sleep.
Walk until you see the answers in the stars, and then you rest, too.
The stars are in your pockets and the answers are in the stars.
You have eyes to see, and see not.
You have ears to hear, so listen.
This is not a hunger game.
It is a wakeup call. 


Sherry: WOW! THIS poem should be sung all over this land. It is fantastic!

Susan: Thanks.  I don’t think Bob Dylan or Perry Como (RIP) would mind being used in this poem.  “You Are Not Alone” is about the same thing from a more feminist angle.  My birthday poem, “Birthday Carol,” addresses poverty and privilege.  But these are also poems, so I hope they do this in ways that are artistically engaging rather than in lecture or sermon voices.  I have one about sustainability that is in my new book re-Mothering:


Look into my nooks
to see the heart and sapwood
of childhood, rings where sun
and water fed me.
You inherit this pith.

Whisper wishes into my
leaf buds and blossoms;
lay your cheek against my bark.
I will teach you to
laugh and join nature’s gala.

When I exist in
museums only, will you sing
with winds and dance with rain?
Will you still find cloud
steps rooted in good earth?

Susan: Does this poem lecture, or does it have the potential to make a person smile and feel related to trees?

Sherry:  Far from lecturing, it goes to the very “pith” of this tree-lover – and, I am sure, our readers – singing our interconnection, with trees, with each other, with all of life.

Susan: Yes!  Agreed!  And if poetry produces change, it will be through experiences it gives readers, not through being explicitly political.  There’s an alchemy to it that poets know, whether they express it or not.  Your poems are also political, in their consistent emphasis on our connection with an aching nature.  But your readers are drawn into nature, not political analysis.  And they are very activist poems! I’d like to chat with you about that some time.

Sherry: That sounds like another of these very enjoyable chats, sometime in the months ahead. I am happy to think my poems are activist. Thank youLet's chat for a minute about your beautiful new book, re-Mothering, that just came out. Tell us about it, won't you, Susan?




Susan: You'll find the focus less political than the poems we are discussing today. The focus is on nurture when a child, when remembering childhood, when ill, when in nature, etc. There's a lot of love in it, though not romantic love. It's the first book I published myself and it's a short one--only 70 poems. I'm waiting for the first batch of books to come from Lulu.com, and I'll have some extras free for reviewers. Readers should let me know if they enjoy writing reviews so I can mail out a free copy! it will be carried as a print paperback at big and small bookstores online and is also available as an eBook at Lulu, Kindle, Nook and iTunes.

Sherry: It is a beauty! You did such a wonderful job!  I wish you much success with it. We should also mention your other book, Taking A Walk With God, a wonderful mix of your poetry and gorgeous art work by your friend, Jennifer Elam. Kids, Susan has arranged that this link will take you to it, so you can look at it on-line. Susan, would you like to tell us a bit about this book?





Susan: It's theme is mysticism.  I LOVE this book, but Jen and I haven't found the right publisher for it yet.   That's why I'm inviting people to look at it at Shutterfly where we have it in its current form.  It still gives me chills to read my poems with Jen's paintings. Wow! Working with Jennifer Elam gave me the confidence I needed to put re-Mothering  together!

Sherry: Wonderful! And now, as we move towards the end of our chat, I would love to take a look at your poem “Golden Rules are Colorful.” 


Color blindness is convenient theory
but not possible in reality.

Loving neighbors as much as loving self
makes sense only if we do love ourselves.

Seeing that of God in everyone is
possible only when we see color.

Willingness not to be blind is crucial
to how each of us learns to love and loves.

"Enough! Stop! You are choking me!"
Color.  Blindness.  Neighbors.  God.  Love.

Instead, hold my hand and help me to see;
instead, let me encounter full moments.

Let me touch faces and intensities
of individuals without your fears.

Let me see love glow even in shadow;
show me how love illuminates blindness.

Love is not blind, but delights in color—
love rainbows and greys and rainbows again.

Susan: Hahaha!  Is that a poem?  I had the idea to stop a sermon in the middle, to be two voices—one mind and one heart.  In fact, it’s about the difference between lecture and experience that we were just talking about!

Sherry: I adore the poem!  And in the online  comments, I think perhaps we have our answer as to whether or not our poems do any good…….they touch hearts, they share vision and humor and communal and personal angst, they support, encourage, motivate and, hopefully, inspire. 

Susan: Amen to that.  I love reading my readers’ poems too.

Sherry: Me, too. I think your poem “Breathe Peace”  is balm to the soul; it breathes peace through the hearts and minds of its readers.  Thank you for it. It is a gift.

Susan: That poem came to me in a prayerful moment.  It’s not a political poem, per-se, but a poem of forgiveness and healing.  And I address the words to myself, to calm my anguish at not being out there in “the fight.”  I try to believe with poet John Milton that "They also serve who only stand and wait."   Who knows what might be useful?  Poems?  Songs? Cartoons? Prayers?  In the first third of my life, I believed that activism and faith were antithetical, but I have come to see how they keep each other healthy and truthful. 

As you said earlier, it is younger people—but not all younger—who are out there in protests now.  I don't want them to burn out.  I want to be spiritual support and part of the cheering section.    Though I don’t mention racism in the following poem, it was inspired by the “Black Lives Matter” protests in Baltimore, Maryland last April, after the police killing of Freddie Gray.  I hope this movement grows until it makes equality real.


It’s not a matter of cleaning glasses
for a sharper and brighter image.  We
can see the sacred with eyes closed and
senses asleep if our spirits receive.

Some call this “listening” but I don't know
how to name it.  Maybe clarifying
water. Submerging and then merging. Yes.
Opening all means of perception, yes.

Cleaning channels of reception, empath-
izing rather than judging, oh! These words
are wrong—tumbling, complex—not freer and
easier as I have breathed when merged in God.  

When seeing is right.  No longer a struggle
against truth.  Sacred holds everyone.


Sherry: I love “Sacred holds everyone.” Perfection.  “Seeing Equality” is the poem that first made me think of asking you for this chat. I would love to close with your wonderful poem, “Coming Home.”


Let me tell you about homecoming at
the College of War in Future Peace:

Bands play “This Little Heart of Mine” as two
or more teams each solve a jigsaw puzzle
with pieces mixed together, divided
equally and placed on separate tables—

Crowds witness strategy and cooper-
ation, since no one wins unless all win.

Let me tell you about the homecoming
queens, always the newest and the oldest
members of society, always next
year’s organizers, surrounded by love.

Crowds witness as we build teams from weedy
wallflowers, each one precious and needed.

Let me tell you about the home we build
in our hearts for those who commune with us
and dare envision futures so free of
competition that we root in nature.

Our last incarnations are as saplings
together holding on to our planet.

Sherry: This is a breathtaking poem, my friend, and leaves us with such a hopeful image: all of us as saplings, holding onto our planet, like arms around the globe. Thank you so much for this chat, and for inspiring us through your poems, and the way you live your life, in such faith, such firm belief.

Susan: Thank you, Sherry.  I really enjoyed having this forum to chat about social justice.  There is always more to say and do.  I wonder if any of our readers has experienced a link between poetry and social change?

Sherry: It would be GREAT if everyone would continue this conversation in the comments. Please do. Thank you, Susan, for this chat. It recharges my batteries for using poetry as a vehicle for encouraging social change.

Well, kids? What are your thoughts on this conversation?  Do our poems do any good in raising awareness? Inspiring? Sending people away with some new thoughts? Feel free to jump in. I do enjoy these chats. I think they are my favorite feature these days. Do come back and see who we talk to next. Who knows? It might be you!


Sunday, June 28, 2015

Poetry Pantry #258

Photos of Boracay Islands, Philippines 
by Totomai








Good day, Poets!

Hope each one of you is enjoying a good weekend.  Today we can enjoy a second set of photos by Totomai.  Once again he shares pictures of Boracay Island, Philippines.  This is one of the most popular beaches in Southeast Asia.  


Totomai says,  "I want to share these photos I took in 2007, before I got my DSLR camera. I was using my Casio Exilim point and shoot camera then. There was a point that I was enjoying the post-processing style called 'orton.'  It's making the photos dream like. Some of the photos attached here are post-processed with orton."

Tomorrow Sherry Blue Sky has a real treat for us.  She is sharing a chat with Susan Chast on a subject that is close to Susan's heart.  It is a dynamic interview.  Please check back.

And for Wednesday, be thinking about Susan's theme of 'freedom' for the  Midweek Motif.

If you haven't read the poem "Parting" by Tanith Lee that Rosemary shared for her "The Living Dead" series, today is a good time to check back!  And next Friday, of course, stop back for a new  feature.  Will it be "The Living Dead" or "I Wish I'd Written This"?

With no further delay, hope that you will enjoy the Pantry today.  Leave a short comment when you post; and be sure to visit the links of others.  I will look forward to reading what you share.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Living Dead

Honouring our poetic ancestors

Parting
Tanith Lee

Cool, your hair drifts like water,
As you move in this ancient sunrise dance
Which began with the first girl at the first well,
Her arms and yours like the necks of swans,
Twining the red pitcher.
This is how I shall remember you all my life.
This clear crystal daybreak thing,
After the night's sharing, the lamp, the dark,
The shelter of love.
So, in the wine-press of battle,
Trampled into a strong drink for death,
So in the marshes, and the bitter places,
In the rusty tents,
Hungry and thirsty, far from all wells,
And afraid,
So in pain and loss, so in dying, if some god wills it,
I will remember you, and your floating hair,
Turning and smiling, you, lifting the red pitcher from the well,
Like a dream not vanished with sleeping.

You must not weep now
That the charm of ivory you are pressing into my palm
Is too little.
It was so simple for you to give me something beautiful
To carry forward to the world's end.
It was so simple for you to give me something beautiful.

From Unsilent Night. Cambridge MA, The NESFA Press, © 1981

Yes, another poem by Tanith Lee, whom I featured only a month ago — because she is gone now, and because her poems are so hard to find. There is no volume of her 'collected' poems; there are none at PoemHunter or other such sites. There is only the slender book this poem came from, which I was able to get second-hand from Amazon, with the help of a friend in America, and which contains ten poems and two long stories.

If you missed the previous post, with details of her career, it is here.