We have selected this introduction by Murray Silverstein of Sixteen Rivers Press to a reading at Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore in Berkeley as an update on a previous article we have carried about this important anthology. In the next issue, in May 2019, we will carry a selection of poems from the anthology, chosen by poet Helen Wickes who has been a part of the project since its start.
Thanks Marion, and thanks to everyone for coming tonight…to help us celebrate our new resistance anthology. It’s been a long haul: the book was conceived in the days after the disaster of the 2016 election, and full shipment from the printer just arrived yesterday. (And Manafort flipped today! Who says, poetry makes nothing happen?) So this is our maiden voyage with the book, and I’d like to take a moment to offer thanks to the folks who helped create it, some of whom are here. And then to say a few words of introduction about the book itself.
First of all, special thanks to this wonderful store, to Mrs. Dalloway’s, and the staff. Our first anthology, The Place That Inhabits Us: Poems of the SF Bay Watershed, also launched here, and became, I believe, the store’s “poetry best seller” over the course of several years. No small factor in keeping the press alive, as we now enter our 20th year. The store has hosted, as well, many readings for the press over the last ten years. Thank you, Mrs. Dalloway’s. We’re deeply grateful.
Thanks also to Ken Haas, who could not be here tonight, but who helped us to conceive of the book and provided vision and foundation support for the work all along the way. Without Ken’s contribution the book simply would not exist.
And to the press itself…and the committee that worked with me on this, our editorial team: Jeanne Wagner, Helen Wickes, Jerry Fleming, Lynne Knight, and Carolyn Miller, copy editor, and, along with Josef Beery, designer of the book, a design created, by the way as companion to of our first anthology, designed by Dave Bullen. And thanks, finally, to Steve Gilmartin, our killer proof-reader. (Who noticed four lines missing from a John Milton poem! For which I owe him four beers. )
America, We Call Your Name. The title comes from my mis-hearing, mis-remembering actually, (and compressing one morning in my sleepy brain) the title of the Dean Rader poem in the book, the more complex, “America, I Do Not Call Your Name Without Hope.” After thrashing around for a title for weeks last spring, I woke one morning and thought, “Let’s just use Dean’s poem as our title poem.” And realized a few days later (talking to Judy Halebsky, an Oakland poet with work in the book) that I had altered Dean’s title; and that my poor remembering was, in effect, a way of being in conversation with Dean’s poem…a poem which is itself a revisiting, and recasting of Pablo Neruda’s poem written in Spanish, in the 1950s to an America, a Latin America, in crisis; a poem which a whole flock of American poets, inlcuding robert Bly, translated into English during the nightmare years of our war on Viet Nam. The citizen-poet, addressing America; the poem, with its free-wheeling lyrical force, speaking its egalitarian, made-in-the-street truth directly to the State, and to his or her fellow-citizens. The kind of poem that Neruda himself had found in Whitman, between the lines so to speak of Leaves of Grass, a poem which he himself had translated large chunks of into Spanish; Whitman, who’d plucked it out of the air around him, the United States in the 1850s, a country, our country, then on eve of what became a terrible civil war.
And here we are, 170 years later, still at it.
America, We Call Your Name…on the eve of what, this time around? Not clear. There is dread (you think Trump is bad? “What rough beast,” says Yeats, “its hour come round at last / Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”) and there is hope (“Make a law,” writes Larry Levis, “so that the spine remembers wings”).
One hundred twenty poems . . . speaking to our country, at this precarious moment, talking back and forth, revealing, expanding, building on and in and off each other….I think it was Anna Ahkmatova, the great Russian poet, who said somewhere that poetry is “one great conversation.”
And this is true, I think, because, at it’s core, poetry presumes there is a need to talk; let’s talk about it. What it is, is a always matter to be determined. But the fundamental action of a poem is to say, to break the silence, and speak; to say, in response to the world, “Let’s talk.” I think of Joan Rivers, the great comedian, who, interspersed throughout her act, would always say, “Can we talk?” implying that something intimate, words previously unspoken, were about to be disclosed.
America, can we talk…about this ghastly presidency? (“We’re mashing up the believable and the inconceivable” writes Tom Centolella, in his “Ballad of the Indivisible”); what it has revealed about our country? (We’re “mourning what we thought we were,” writes Frank Bidart). Can we talk, America, about resisting the creep of the authoritarian “new normal” where a free press is now “the enemy”? (“Your job,” says Tony Hoagland in “Gorgon,” “is not to be turned into stone.”) How to be resilient in the face of such times, can we talk about that, America? “Come,” says Lucille Clifton, “celebrate / with me that every day / something has tried to kill me / and has failed.” Listen to Robert Hayden telling the spirit of Frederick Douglas he will be remembered “with the lives…fleshing his dream,” if you want to know about resilience. Listen to Forrest Hamer listening (in his “Repetition Compulsion”), listening, breaking it all down.
And as a form of open conversation, poetry contains the hope of being, in some fashion, one of the talking cures; an ongoing, ever-adapting, “talking cure.” Its inherent hope: that language can show a way through; that the poem itself is a demonstration of a tranquil space, the space in which trauma can be recollected, discussed, given form…and here I’m in conversation with Wordsworth who, right after visiting and being profoundly moved by revolutionary France, famously defined the poem as “intense emotion recollected in tranquility.” The poem itself as the free and open space in which trauma can be talked about, where joys, in passing, can be shared—laughter and sorrow, this is the kind of hope that poetry will always muster.
To be such a space, in these times, and to point toward the possibility of such space ahead, in our broken country, this is our hope for this anthology.
We gathered the poems for the book in two ways. First, we conducted a nationally advertised open submission, in the spring of 2017, receiving over 2,000 poems in the mail from across the country; from high schools to nursing homes, from red and blue states. Second, we asked all the poet-mmebers of Sixteen Rivers (the press is a Northern California poetry collective) to nominate poems for the project—anything from any time that spoke to the present monent in the voice of poetry—and, in the heat of Trump’s first 100 days, another 300 hundred poems came forth. And from these two sources we constructed the conversations you’ll find here. Sifting through the poems during the turbulent, stomach-turning day-to-day torment of this administration, nine sections emerged: like wild town hall meetings of citizen poets—on guns, on violence, racism, sexism, inequality, ecocide, despair, it’s all hear, along with hope, possibility, change, the vision of an open, more tranquil space, ahead.
In anthologies, some of the most powerful conversations occur on facing pages, as the poems speak to each other other across the gutter of the book. So for example, you’ll find high school student Grace McNally, powerfully imagining Antigone marching on Washington, across the page from John Milton, drawing on Ovid to explain the kind of cruelty and stupidity he faced, in the “resistance” of his day. You’ll find Shakespeare, in a scene from The Tempset, portraying a bitter moment at the dawn of the slave trade right across the page from Robin Coste Lewis, the brilliant, Compton-born Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, “responding” with an excerpt from her remarkable Voyage of the Sable Venus. Evie Shockley writes “Ode to My Blackness,” and Sharon Olds responds, quite literally in this case, with “Ode to My Whiteness.” You’ll hear Dante describing the fate of the refugee, leaving behind “all he most dearly loved,” across the page from Emma Lazarus, whose sonnet of consolation, written in 1883, still remains, despite the efforts of the hideous Stephen Miller, engraved at the base of Lady Liberty.
Overall the book goes from Adrienne Rich, writing, ominously, during the first Bush presidency, “Our country moving closer to its own truth and dread”, to Jane Hirshfield, on inauguration day, 2017, proclaiming, in witness, “Let them not say: we did not see it. / We saw.”
Our readers tonight are three poets with poems in the book: Susan Cohen, Janet Jennings, Julia Levine—along with poet Carolyn Miller, who was a part of our editorial team. I’ve asked each to read a couple of poems from the book, including, for Susan, Janet and Julia, their own. Except to call out their names, I’m going to dispense with the usual indivudal introductions—their bios in the back: Wwhat we’re after tonight, is to give you a taste of the choral effect of the book.
I’ll start with the opening poem. Adrienne Rich, “What Kind of Times are These.”
“There’s a place between two stands of trees…”
Please read this previous article by Helen Wickes published in TDM about this important project.