Reading to strangers: part four of five

A while back, poet J.lynn Sheridan asked on her blog, Writing On The Sun, if poets did anything positive with our poetry in the past year. One of the things I did the past two years was participate in public poetry readings. Part four of five tells of some experiences that influenced me and the poetry I read and write.

By high school nearly all sharing was eclipsed by posing. This would change in my junior year after the student walk out. Before this was an art teacher Mr. Teibolt who encouraged us to share and one English teacher who said I should write more in a way that made me think I could write. I do not remember her name. I remember the high cheek bones of her face her smoky alto voice and thick raven hair. She was so wise tender and kind. Her presence is still with me quite clear. Her name is a blank. Maybe it didn’t fit her. We meet people like that whose name does not fit them. If I gave her a name it would be either Diana or Sofia.

The high school years before the big protest walk out were a time when most all of us had become mirrors of each other. We wished to be larger than what we saw in the mirror. All the while the child and the wild within was shrinking barely able to be heard. This was that way we were until the day we all walked out.
Students protesting the Vietnam War were shot by their own countrymen. We all saw it on the television evening news one night in May. The National Guard killed four in Ohio and two black students farther South. All shot for being who they were. The television pictures made us all know we could die so we all or most all of us got ready to die.
A few days later the word traveled in the hallways and soon we were all marching around the school. The principal had a bullhorn telling us we would be suspended. This we thought silly. We were beside ourselves by the killing and anyway what high school student suddenly alive with purpose and expression drawing strength from each other cared whether or not we  would be expelled from school. This was happening all over the country too. We were ready to take some risks even die now and being kept from school was no threat.
After school one of the janitors asked me what I was doing out there today. I said marching to stop the killing and bring my brother home from the war. He said something like you can’t fight city hall. I don’t want to fight them I only need convince them I said. He was a nice man who did not and could not understand what we were doing. He was a gentleman though and said well good luck to you then.
We learned a lot in those days. We learned about authority that day more than we learned during a whole lifetime at school. We learned the power of numbers and agreement too. We even found that some of the teachers were on our side. We came back the next day and I do not think one student was suspended. We grew that day and the days after and many of us went on to other protests later in Washington D.C.
I would tell more but this is the short version so I won’t tell about those times now.

Anyway our voices were now sometimes heard so some of us could begin to share all the things we never shared before about who we were and the world and its wars. This was another way of sharing. It might even be the most important kind of sharing at that time. It was clumsy and sometimes angry but it was sharing like we hadn’t before. It was about us not really all about us and that made it different than what we were doing prior to the shootings. It was in that tumultuous time we learned to live with uncertainty in the world and in our hearts. Yet this would take a long time for some of us to write about.

Poets were already writing about the movement to end the war and change policies supporting dictators around the world. Only much later would I discover Carolyn Forche’s poetry of witness.

College was a mixed bag. College classes were larger than high school. Vast lecture halls in enormous and new office buildings coupled with 10-story dormitories with buffet food made me feel sometimes like a steer in a cattle drive. We sharing among students and a few teachers but college was mostly the same as high school only more independent reading. I like reading on my own. New book and new ideas were everywhere. New music too. I identified with teachers who were slightly older than ourselves and the ones much older than ourselves really seem to care. We talked more than in high school about what was happening in the world not only in class but after in restaurants and bars and in their homes and apartments long into the night. This was the sharing in college.

Robert Bly Grand Valley State College 1975

Robert Bly Grand Valley State College 1975

We learn more about the Viet Nam War. The propellants of economics and politics driving the war. This was all very well but it wasn’t until I heard Robert Bly read poetry in Ann Arbor I begin to understand the war wasn’t only half a world away. Was not only in our street protests here and in Washington. The war was in our schools our institutions and even in ourselves.
He appeared in a colorful poncho and sombrero carrying books and papers. He paced the large room removing hat and cloak. He began by thanking everyone for attending then asked that all the recording devices be tuned off. There was a groan from the audience. No one wanted them turned off. This was at the height and power of television. This is wonderful you want everything recorded but some things can not be recorded. He eventually said I don’t want to become a small man in a little box. I remember when he said that a hush went over the audience. There was a sudden understanding. This was something amazing because the crowds in Ann Arbor were always verbal and hissing when they thought they were right about something and they always thought they were right about everything they thought. Everyone was for freedom and filming everything. This was what freedom meant to them. Today it is called transparency but transparency is another story entirely. When Bly said I don’t want to be a small man in a little box everyone understood. I never forgot that line. In that wonderful moment we understood technology was distortion because there is no heart or art in machines. We understood all that within that one line. It wan’t merely a sentence. This is an example of how powerful a line of poetry can be. I was hooked.

So all the cameras monitors went dark. This was a new kind of sharing. Close sharing. Communion without the church schedule. After some people said Bly was afraid that he didn’t want the CIA or FBI to know what he was saying. This was not that at all. In fact I am sure he would have loved to read his poetry to any government official. He read many Spanish and South American poems rich in living under the boots and guns of oppression. Bly and they would rather write and die then not write and live dead. I have been reading them all ever since. He read from his violent and beautiful poem The Teeth Mother Naked At Last. He danced around the audience while reading. He was never still. I never saw someone so animated while reading. He asked others to read poems. We heard their voices too. He encouraged us to hear our own voices when reading. That our own voices bring something to each poem. To each hearing. He was an unlimited spring of ideas.  He made us aware we all had voices and that it is the most beautiful thing to use. A poem is foremost a voice.

I think that night turned my heart forever toward poetry. I saw what great good power poems had. Amazing. Reading poetry is astonishing.


3 responses to “Reading to strangers: part four of five

  1. Love this line: ” A poem is foremost a voice.” Thanks for sharing your memories, Kris. I had a similar experience as yours. When I was in high school, I had an English teacher named Miss Lear. All I remember about that class was that we read lots of Vietnam War (and war in general) stories and poems. One of our assignments was to write a war poem. I was surprised to find one of mine on the final exam–every student had to write their impressions of it. I think that was the moment I permanently connected with poetry and knew it would become my voice.

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