Poetry, Plays + Posters Three days of poets praying aloud for peace started last week on Monday with Robert Bly, tall at his pulpit, his head tilted back, his spirited lesson halted for a moment to allow a blind Palestinian man to tell a story.
IUPUI professor Karen Kovacik reads her poem during Wednesday night"s protest reading at the Indianapolis Art Center. Kovacik feels that poets have the right tools to lead with a voice for peace.
The man had stood for a while with his hand quietly raised, waiting to be noticed, waiting to share this fable: A criminal was to be hanged for his crimes. But he turned out to be too tall for the gallows. Each time they strung him up, the man"s feet would reach the ground, saving his life. So the would-be executioners asked a local judge what to do. "Find a shorter man," the judge said. "That is what George Bush is doing," the blind Palestinian man told Bly and the huge crowd at his Butler University reading last week. "Osama bin Laden is too tall, so Bush has found a shorter man." Vital voices Later that night, Nicholas Adamski, a Butler student with curly brown hair falling over his eyes, sat next to white-haired Bly on a couch, sharing his personal concerns about the impending war at the post-reading party. Adamski"s oldest brother, Michael, is a Marine stationed on Iraq"s southern border. The Adamskis are from Toledo, Ohio. While he said his brother, bored like the rest of the troops, is ready for something, anything, to happen, Adamski wants the next move to be an early, safe trip back home. He hopes political demonstrations, like the one he attended recently in Washington, D.C., and the one he joined Saturday in Indianapolis will send a message to our nation"s leaders. He also hopes that poets, like the ones he joined at the Indianapolis Art Center two days later, will help steer America on a new course. "These voices are vital," Adamski said. "Poets need to get louder in times like these when everybody is shouting." American empire At his public reading, Bly - a World War II vet and outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War - said mass media, television and general complacency are allowing Bush to move forward with his destructive plans. "Television comes in and robs your house every day," Bly said. "What is Bush doing? He wants to have his own reality show. He wants to show it to everybody." After reading a series of anti-war poems, Bly asked for a dialogue with the audience. The Palestinian man shared his story. Then, someone said people aren"t reacting like they did during Vietnam because they"re still affected by the events of Sept. 11. "We"ve been treating the Muslims this way for a long time. If you didn"t think this was going to come back on us, you"re crazy," Bly said. "Bush should have said, "We had this coming to us for a long time." That would have calmed things down. Instead, he took it as an opportunity to shove this war through." And war, apparently, is something Bush doesn"t know enough about. "There"s a sense of something ominous about to happen. The Europeans feel it. They know it from before," Bly said. "The problem is that Bush hasn"t been through a war." The afternoon after the party, Bly was talking equally about the mechanics of poetry and the American military machine in a question-and-answer session on Butler"s campus. He explained that the Spanish poets felt that when their nation was an empire, honest words were rare gems. "Only when the empire ended could they say one or two honest words," Bly said. "America is an empire now. And empires are always telling lies. "The question for us now is "How can we still say one or two honest words?"" Patriotic protest The nation"s first lady, Laura Bush, tried to squelch the words she worried poets would share in a White House symposium on Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson, canceling the Feb. 12 event and sparking a firestorm of controversy. Her philosophy that politics and literature should remain separate led 6,000 poets to submit anti-war poems to www.poetsagainstthewar.org and prompted groups across the country to stage live pro-peace readings. Here, last Wednesday, 150 people crowded the cozy, fire-lit library at the Indianapolis Art Center to "Honor the Right to Protest as a Patriotic and Historical Tradition" as the event"s flyer stated. Fran Quinn, a Butler professor who helped organize the reading, borrowed the title from another that happened in Vermont that same night. "The name was so clunky, and so accurate," Quinn said. "I loved it." After talking with his Butler colleague, Norm Minnick, about Indiana needing to join the others staging protest readings across the country, Quinn sent out a call to teachers he knew at nearby colleges. Thirty people wanted to read by the next day. "At first, I thought it would be Norm and I reading to each other in a broom closet," Quinn said. "I had no idea this would happen. People were coming out of the woodwork. That"s how thirsty they were, how desperate. They didn"t have an outlet and they wanted one. They wanted to feel some solidarity, that they were not alone." By the time the reading rolled around on Wednesday night, 80 people had signed up to read. With a little under three hours to work with, only 50 writers stepped to the podium upon Quinn"s call and offered their pieces on peace. They stood in front of a blue peace flag held in place by red candles. The audience, sitting quietly in padded chairs, clapped politely for each writer after Quinn called out the name, applauding again when the words were over. Sometimes, someone would shout out in agreement. One man grew crabby as the night went on and complained loudly about people taking too long at the podium. Quinn had asked readers to limit themselves to a minute or two up there. Many people chose to read poems or stories they "wish they"d written" - from Denise Levertov to Ani DiFranco to Dwight Eisenhower to Mark Twain. Others shared their own poems about previous wars, especially Vietnam, or about the Sept. 11 attacks and the American aftermath. Others spoke directly against Bush and going to war with Iraq. Steve Roberts shared a poignant-yet-funny poem called "George Buys a Compass to Know Where He Stands." Elizabeth Krajeck created a satirical chart connecting the Homeland Security terror-alert color system with another for national shame. She said she had some glue sticks left over from Vietnam. Alice Friman read a poem about the Picasso painting "Guernica" - which depicts the horrors of war - covered up at the United Nations when Colin Powell spoke about Iraq"s alleged noncompliance with weapons inspectors. T.J. Reynolds performed his poem with a drum accompaniment. Mari Evans added a pointed statement after her poem: "We know the fate for our elections in this democracy ... We need President Carter to assist with the 2004 election before we lose it again." The readers came from college campuses and local poetry groups. Some heard of the reading by word of mouth. They varied in age from teens to senior citizens. They included everybody from white retirees to young African-American men, like the one named Damaged Goods who said, "I didn"t learn from Martin. I learned from Malcolm. And Malcolm told me "By any means necessary."" Karen Kovacik Karen Kovacik, a poet and English professor at IUPUI, read her Sept. 11 poem Wednesday night. While she still hasn"t written much about what"s going on in Iraq right now, she has plenty to say. She had hoped to take the crowd outside to burn George Bush"s State of the Union Address or last month"s copy of Good Housekeeping with Laura Bush on the front. Neither was able to happen as the reading progressed non-stop until its cutoff time. Still, she feels direct protest - either in words or through symbolic action - is crucial in a time of impending tragedy. "It"s the only thing we can do to reach the people in power and try to convince them to reconsider their positions," she said. "This kind of dissent is necessary." Writers are a perfect choice for channeling dissent. "Poets have always been the voices of opposition, the voices of conscience," Kovacik said. "Some of the most urgent images of the horrors of war have been given to us by our poets." Past war poems, she said, are just as important as the new ones. "Poetry can offer a historical analogy, so we know how poets responded to previous wars. It fortifies our historical imagination," she said. "That"s so crucial in a country lacking that connection with the past. Poetry can provide a much needed antidote." Kovacik is a lover of Polish poetry because writers there remember more than Americans have so far. "What draws me in is that they"re very good at treating the burdens of history with both lightness and gravity. It"s not unfashionable, in Polish, to talk about the soul." Regardless of their depth or occasional lack thereof, Kovacik feels American poets can lead their arts communities politically. Poetry certainly requires tools easier to pick up and wield than those used in other artforms. "Our medium is language," she said. "Poetry is not expensive. A bunch of writers can just come together and raise their voices without spending a lot of money." Mad manifesto With his friend Carl Rising-Moore holding an American flag with the dove of peace added on, Patrick O"Hara read Wendell Berry"s "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front." In the poem, Berry suggests shaking free of the shallowness and shortsightedness of those he sees dooming the world. "... Denounce the government and embrace the flag," O"Hara read. "Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands ... As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it. Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn"t go. Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection." O"Hara has been standing outside the Federal Building on Pennsylvania Street every Friday afternoon for months, holding up signs that say, "Peace is Patriotic" or "Inspect Thyself" or "No More Blood for Oil." He says the response is positive from people, more often then not. "We get more peace signs than partial peace signs," he said with a smile. O"Hara saw Wednesday"s reading as important because it brought together a diverse group of people who can go out and spread the word individually. "Poetry talks to the gut, it says things that can"t be said any other way because the heart is involved," O"Hara said. "Opening each other"s hearts is what this is all about." Excerpt from: "I begin by invoking Pablo Neruda invoking Walt Whitman after Neruda" Asking the old bards to confer with me I assume the duties of a poet armed with a voice and a pen that calls for a change of regime here at home Our so-called enemies are no more a threat to us than we are to the world and to ourselves. You cannot conceal Guernica no more than you can hide your thirst for war. The poets are rising up and we repeat: A warlike state cannot create! And we shall reveal who the real tyrant is - the unelected official waging war for profit from the White House. -Norm Minnick