Get ready for the next wonderful poetry anthology from Sixteen Rivers Press—America, I Call Your Name: Poems of Resistance and Resilience—to be published in the fall of 2018. As are so many people in the United States and elsewhere, the poets of this collective publishing company were horrified by the results of the last presidential election in the United States and remain so by the deepening crises around race, gender, immigration, and the environment that have followed in its wake. As writers, we decided to respond in the best way we know how, by harkening to what W. H. Auden wrote in his splendid poem, “September 1, 1939”: “All I have is a voice / To undo the folded lie.” So we invited poets—in Shelley’s words, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”—to articulate their voices of resistance and resilience in a new publication. In the understated language of poet Frank Bidart: “Every serious work of art about America has the same / theme: America // is a great Idea: the reality leaves something to be desired.”
Poetry matters deeply to us at Sixteen Rivers Press, as we know it does to the readers of The Dreaming Machine. Our hats are off to the editors of this English-language edition of the literature-and-culture journal La Macchina Sognante for inviting us to the table, to the party that is art, in the context of the changing world we wake to each morning. As writers and citizens, we cannot look away. Our work is charged by Jane Hirshfield’s haunting lines: “Let them not say: we did not see it. / We saw. // Let them not say: we did not hear it. / We heard.” We believe our task as poets is to respond to the current threat to our democracy. As the young Seamus Heaney wrote in “Digging,” envisioning the future work of his life as a poet, “Between my finger and my thumb /The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it.”
War and oppression have been hallowed subjects of poetry from the Sumerian myths to Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Odyssey, and Beowulf to the anti-war poetry of the sixties and seventies in the States. Today, conflict and inequality have forced huge numbers of people to flee to other countries, which has created a deepening hostility toward immigrants in those places and a need for their protection. Here’s how Emily Dickinson responded to an influx of exiles and immigrants in 1866: “These Strangers, in a foreign World, / Protection asked of me—/ Befriend them, lest Yourself in Heaven / Be found a Refugee—” The words of poet Irma Pineda (translated from the Italian by Donald Stang) directly address the tragedy of exile: “Pack your bags for good / leave the pain here / with me to look after / leave the yearning / so it doesn’t sicken you there.” And here are the lines of a heartbreaking anonymous poem, written at Poston, a Japanese internment camp in Arizona, during World War II: “We’re trapped like rats in a wired cage / To fret and fume with impotent rage; / Yonder whispers the lure of the night, / but that DAMNED FENCE assails our sight.” The repeated chorus of “THAT DAMNED FENCE” not only drives home the rage and sadness of people excluded from the American dream, but calls to mind Trump’s nightmare of a wall running the length of our border with Mexico.
If they ever think of poetry, those in power sometimes think of it as dangerous: Anna Akhmatova, during Stalin’s reign, whispered lines of her poem “Requiem” to her friends to memorize, then burned the paper scraps on which it had been written. In 1916, in the state of Georgia, two young black men were stopped as they fled the impoverishment and racism of the South, joining the flood of migrants to the north. They were arrested for carrying a poem that was deemed seditious, and they spent thirty days in jail. This poem, “Bound for the Promised Land,” was written by a Mr. Ward and was first published in the Chicago Defender. The issue sold out, and the publisher had to keep republishing the poem, which became a touchstone for migrants. As we say nowadays, the poem went viral.
The daily reality of racism and its legacy of shame and hurt is a vital thread through many of these poems. As Tyehimba Jess writes in “Jubilee Blues”: “Once burst loose from human bondage / do our songs still tow our pain like a mule? / Tell me, if we done burst loose from bondage, / do our songs still carry hurt like a mule?” Only two years ago in 2015, a young white domestic terrorist killed nine black worshipers in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Among the people killed that day was Tywanza Sanders, an aspiring poet. His young life was cut short before we were able to savor his words.
Who are we to undertake this task? Sixteen Rivers Press is an independent poetry press, founded in 1999. Since that time, we have published forty well-reviewed books. A shared-work collective, we publish Northern California poets, adding two or three new members each year to help with the work of maintaining the press. We are supported by selling our books at poetry readings and bookstores, by grants, and by subscribers and donors. America, I Call Your Name is funded by a generous grant from a private foundation.
The press is named for the sixteen rivers flowing from the Shasta Watershed into San Francisco Bay in Northern California, a place of cities and mountains, water and land, great wealth and abysmal poverty. Its human history includes decimated native cultures, Civil War and Dustbowl migrants, and immigrants fleeing war and persecution from around the world. Today, California is a rich cacophony of languages, cultures, and cuisines with a deplorable racial and economic divide fueled by Silicon Valley technology. In this anthology, we looked for a plenitude of voices evoking the range of styles, eras, cultures in our own state, and in the nation as a whole.
The senior editor of America, I Call Your Name is Murray Silverstein, who has published two fine books with Sixteen Rivers. As the senior editor of the press’s first anthology, The Place That Inhabits Us: Poems of the San Francisco Bay Watershed, he was the natural choice to head our new anthology committee of five press members, informally known as the Anthologistas.
Silverstein’s task of directing the many rivers that flow into this book has now taken him through seven drafts. After sending each new draft to his fellow Anthologistas, he patiently waded through our comments, such as “How could you dump my favorite poem!?” or “I hate that poem! How could you!” A retired architect, Silverstein’s sense of craft, structure, and pattern shines through this collection.
The organizing principle, the vision that shaped the book, was the notion of inviting our chosen poets to a large dinner party (even though most introverts don’t really like dinner parties). Each of the nine sections of the book contains twelve to fifteen poems. We think of these writers as being engaged in vibrant, challenging conversations, with the usual dinner-table range of respect, amazement, annoyance, laughter, and inspiration. As the host, Silverstein has arranged the seating to place the poets in a spirited dialogue with their tablemates, combining the many guests into one vibrant community.
This anthology engages with history as well as with current times, just as poets build on, refer to, and echo generations of poets preceding them. It includes a section of Virgil’s Aeneid, followed later by the Inferno of Dante, who summoned Virgil’s spirit, hundreds of years later, as his guide through the underworld. The last two lines of “The Tradition,” by Jericho Brown—“Where the world ends, everything cut down. / John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown.”—end with the names of black men killed by the police, and subtly echo the last lines of “Easter, 1916” by William Butler Yeats: “I write it out in a verse— / MacDonagh and MacBride / And Connolly and Pearse / Now and in time to be . . . ,” names of Irishmen killed in the Easter Rebellion. Sharon Olds’s “Ode to my Whiteness,” which follows this poem in the anthology, was written in response to Evie Shockley’s “ode to my blackness.” Dean Rader’s “ ‘America, I Do Not Call Your Name Without Hope’ ” is closely modeled after a poem with the same name by Pablo Neruda.
In crafting our call for submissions, we looked for well-crafted unpublished poems reflecting the enormous political and social challenges sweeping our country today. We welcomed work that stared hard at the evils of racism, sexism, environmental mayhem, and the unlearned lessons of history surrounding us. The word resilience was part of our call, to honor not just the daily struggle to survive, but the stamina, imagination, and ingenuity required to stay sane in the face of evil. We received close to two thousand poems. One that we quickly nabbed was “To the Women Marching, from a Mother at Home,” by Jennifer Fueston, writing about her infant son: “Remember us with you, we are the rearguard. / I am carrying him like a banner, feel him / cutting his teeth on my curdled milk. // I am sharpening him like an arrow.”
Each member of the anthology committee read every poem, commented on it, and voted on it, and we ending up choosing forty-six poems. Meanwhile, all of the press members were invited to submit previously published poems. We chose seventy-five poems from that group. Some of these beloved voices include Virgil, Dante, Walt Whitman, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Tranströmer, Neruda, Milosz, Szymborska, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Claudia Rankine, whose brilliant three-liner reads: “because white men can’t / police their imagination / black men are dying.”
The foreword is by Camille T. Dungy, who also has a poem in the book. The editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, she has written four collections of poetry: Smith Blue; Suck on the Marrow; What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison; and Trophic Cascade. Her book of essays, just published in 2017, is Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History. We are honored to have her introduce this anthology to the world.
We searched high and low for a title before Silverstein came up with America, I Call Your Name. At first, he was unsure of whether he’d dreamed or imagined it, or whether it came from one of the poems we had chosen, before realizing it was based on the fine Dean Rader poem in the book, “ ‘America, I Do Not Call Your Name Without Hope.’ ”
Our title captures the urgency of our task, with echoes of Ginsberg’s orations and Sunday-church calls and responses. These lines by Walt Whitman from Song of Myself express the spirit and vitality we hope readers will find in America, I Call Your Name: “I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise, / Regardless of others, ever regardful of others, / Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man, / Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse, and stuff’d with the stuff that is fine. . . .” As Whitman wrote of himself, we like to think that this anthology contains multitudes.
To learn more about this book and the press itself, go to our website, sixteenrivers.org. To be notified of the publication of America, I Call Your Name, add your name to our e-mail list or follow us on Facebook. We hope you will help spread the news of this book by buying it, telling your friends about it, and attending readings from it at a bookstore near you.
Helen Wickes is the author of four books of poetry: In Search of Landscape, Sixteen Rivers Press, 2007; Moon over Zabriskie and Dowser’s Apprentice, both from Glass Lyre Press, 2014; World as You Left It, Sixteen Rivers Press, 2015. She grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania, has lived in Oakland, California for many years, and used to work as a psychotherapist. The six poems in The Dream Machine are from her unpublished manuscript, “Transit of Mercury.” She is a member of Sixteen Rivers Press, which will publish the anthology America, I Call Your Name: Poems of Resistance and Resilience in fall of 2018.
Featured image: Photo of “Le città invisibili”, 2016, acrylic painting on canvas , 40×40, by Giacomo Cuttone, see pictame profile http://www.pictame.com/user/giacomocuttone/2727747733