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This morning, I took part in Poetry Sunday, a Unitarian Universalist summer service that is a tradition. The theme was social justice. In my talk, I reflected on the nature of poetry in creating empathy and talked about Carolyn Forché’s memoir, What You Have Heard is True about her time in El Salvador. I also talk Carolyn’s influence on me as a teacher and my migration from poetry to prose.

The YouTube video of my talk  is below. The complete text of my talk is below that.  The service took place at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration on Stenton Ave. in Philadelphia.

“Poetry makes nothing happen”

This oft quoted line is from W.H. Auden’s poem “In Memory of W.B. Yeats.” In our culture nothing is a negative word – but I posit that nothing is a good thing. It gives us a chance to pause, to reflect, to think for ourselves and to see what is in front of us.

I have observed that poetry creates empathy. It slows down time so that we can observe a detail and then feel a feeling. And since empathy starts with the self, it may be that almost all poetry is social justice poetry.

Recently, I have noticed that I am sighing and feeling depressed whenever I see a headline. There are lots of reasons to feel depressed – especially in the news. But as someone who actively combats depression by doing Buddhist chanting every day and practicing yoga, the feeling was strong enough for me to recognize it.  At the time that I was feeling this way, I was reading Carolyn Forché’s memoir of witness and resistance titled after a line in one of her most well-known poems written about her time in El Salvador in the late 1970s,What You Have Heard Is True. Carolyn, who was in El Salvador in the time that was building up to a civil war, is an internationally known poet and professor.

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It was during the reading of this memoir and possibly because of it, when I decided that depression was a luxury I couldn’t afford.  I am, after all, a writer.  And words matter. I first met Carolyn at a week-long poetry workshop at Omega Institute that I took with my friend Anne Arfaa (who is playing the piano today. Thank you, Anne.) I was twenty-nine — the same age as Gertrude Stein when she first started taking herself seriously as a writer.

There is a lot that I have forgotten about that workshop, since it was a long time ago. But what stayed with me was my daily discipline of writing and a line of poetry from a poet I had never heard about before but came to love: Mary Oliver. I didn’t know who Carolyn Forché was before the workshop, but my partner – Barbara – told me that she was an important poet and that I would love her work.  Barbara is usually right. This time she was very right.

The lines of my poetry became longer – and began to include dialogue – so I migrated from poetry to prose.  I didn’t think about it then, but the discipline and the lyricism I had learned in that poetry workshop was with me when I wrote my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (published by Bella Books in 2012) and my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (published by Adelaide Books in 2018).

I remember Carolyn staring at me during the workshop when she talked about the importance of a daily writing practice. I may have imagined it, but in this moment of doing nothing – no words were spoken – it’s quite possible that I picked up the mantle of responsibility.  I was one of the students who would write daily.  And long before I was a Unitarian Universalist, I considered my daily writing practice to be a spiritual practice.

Carolyn Forché’s memoir brought this all back to me. What You Have Heard is True is particularly significant in light of the tragic mishandling of the crisis of immigration and asylum seekers we are witnessing at our borders. The memoir is a reminder that the poverty and violence people are fleeing in the South and Central Americas was created in part by the U.S. government. Our tax dollars helped the government support brutal corruption in the name of suppressing what the U.S. government called “communism.” What this really did was to keep the masses of people impoverished.

The information wasn’t new to me. In the old days there was lots of overlap between progressive communities. Still, I found the information to be as gripping as it was appalling.  I couldn’t put the book down.

Forché extensively quotes Leonel Gomez Vides, the man who brought her to El Salvador.  I will leave you with his words to ponder.

“You want to know what is revolutionary …? To tell the truth. That is what you will do when you return to your country. From the beginning this has been your journey, your coming to consciousness.”

Namaste

To learn more about my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (published by Adelaide Books New York/Lisbon), click here.

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In recognition of President Obama’s historic announcement on immigration reform, I’m reposting this piece that first appeared in The Huffington Post.

 

Like many LGBT Americans, I was profoundly moved by President Obama’s recognition of gays and lesbians in his inaugural speech. Even my straight-talking retired postal worker partner who usually has something to say about everything (when it comes to gay rights, her usual comment is “it’s about time”) sat quietly in front of the television taking it all in. It is about time and it is still amazing.

There were quite a few historic firsts at the inaugural ceremony, but the highlight for me was the inaugural poem by Richard Blanco, the first Hispanic and the first openly gay poet to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration. For me a poem is a slowing down of time, an opening, and a good poem always presents a teaching moment, that is once in a while life-altering, and leaves you experiencing the world differently.

There were two such moments within Blanco’s poem, “One Today,” and with the help of thecamera panning the immediate crowd, we can see the immediacy of those moments on the listeners. The first was when, Blanco recited the words “…. on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives– to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did for twenty years, so I could write this poem.”

The camera panned to Michelle Obama who looked up from her poetic reverie and opened her eyes when Blanco mentioned his mother. The look in her eyes was solemn, one that appeared to be based in compassion and identification.

The second teaching moment occurred closer to the end of the poem when Blanco was reading the words, “Hear: the doors we open for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom, buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días in the language my mother taught me…” And then the camera panned to Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor. Shortly after the phrase “buenos dias,” he twitched. In all fairness, Cantor may have been twitching all day — it was cold and he couldn’t simply sit in his warm home and turn off the television like so many other Republicans undoubtedly did. And it could have been worse. If Blanco had read a poem with explicitly gay content, Rep. Cantor might have done more than twitch.

I had been wondering, how Cantor and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) could stand there and listen to Blanco’s poem and not be moved by it. I was profoundly moved. I was the first in my family to go to college and I was close to my mother. When I began to write my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books 2012), I was primarily a poet. And even though I haven’t written poetry in years, I still have poetic sensibilities.

I wrote Tea Leaves to make some sense of losing my mother to cancer and being, along with my father, one of her primary caretakers. I also explore my working class background in this book, in particular writing about grandmother’s life who was a spinner in a textile mill in Philadelphia.

It is because of my class consciousness that Blanco’s poem resonated so strongly with me. Many immigrants have taken jobs that others would not do and whether it was picking fruit, packing meat, bagging groceries, or taking care of other people’s children they provide the services that this country could not do without. Then if they are “illegal,” they are deported or at least must always live in fear of deportation. Don’t we owe it to them to provide them with citizenship?

This week, both parties plan to introduce overhauled immigration legislation and they have the opportunity to do the right thing. Cantor, predictably, is solidly against immigration reform. His record speaks for itself. In 2007, he voted to declare English as the official language of the United States. In 2006, he voted yes on building a fence along the Mexican border.

More recently, Cantor was consistent in his conservative views in voting against enforcing anti-gay hate crimes in 2009, and in 2012 stated that taxpayer money should never be used to “kill innocent life” and in 2011 he voted in favor of banning federal health coverage that includes abortion.

There has been much talk about how Republicans lost the Hispanic and female vote in the Presidential election — and how they have to appeal to these groups of voters if they want to have a future as a viable party. While I have found these discussions interesting, I am not personally invested in the Republicans improving their lot.

But I do think that Republicans should do the right thing on immigration reform.

And if they do, then maybe some credit can be given Richard Blanco’s poetic moment.

In short, we are more alike than different. And if you doubt that, remember Blanco’s one word sentence,

Breathe.

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