Friday, September 30, 2011

British Red Cross pumps me up to read at The Platforms

So tomorrow (Saturday, October 1) and the next Saturday (October 8), I'll be a performing poet at Laumeier Sculpture Park as part of its Poetry in Place: The Platforms project, organized by Dana Turkovic. The St. Louis poets Julie Dill, Christopher Parr, Stefene Russell, Buzz Spector and I will be reading poetry on platforms invented and constructed by local artists Axi:Ome (Sung Ho Kim and Heather Woofter), Douglis Beck, Sarrita Hunn, Noah Kirby, Daniel McGrath and B.J. Vogt.

I was very happy to be asked to participate, if for no othe reason than to make two trips to Laumeier in this beautiful Fall weather we're having. At the same time, I have plenty of doubts about myself as a "real poet"; I've always written poetry and even published a bit, without ever thinking of myself as a poet. But I was certainly willing to play one at Laumeier Sculpture Park!

Then this morning, the day before the first of the Platforms gigs, I woke to some remarkable good news for me as a poet, of all things. It came from, of all unlikely places for poetic confirmation, the British Red Cross.
It is our pleasure to inform you on behalf of the British Red Cross that your entry "Recipe for Hallelujah" has been highly commended by our judges. You are one of only twelve entrants to receive this commendation. We received more than 750 entries from all over the world but yours was marked out to be above and beyond the others. On behalf of the judges and organisers we would like to wholeheartedly congratulate and thank you. We hope to have the commended entries published in a Red Cross publication, and will keep you informed of progress.

This relates to a competition the British Red Cross organized around The International Day of the Disappeared. I read about the competition on Twitter, though I'm not sure I even would have remembered entering it or with what poem had I not received this good news. Here is the poem that their judges "highly commended":

Take Mississippi after
its native peoples have all been disappeared,
lynch the intelligent men
of color, form the women into a choir,
add the Bible, translated,
assassinated African idioms
disguised in murky backbeats
no white man in Mississippi could fathom
(let’s leave Elvis Presley out
of this …) and make it sweat its ass in the sun
until it ripens, or explodes.

It's not like I started chewing on a pencil when I heard about the competition until I spit this out. I did what I always do when entering a writing competition (as I do more and more nowadays, thanks to Twitter alerts) -- I looked for something I'd already written but not published that fits the theme.

This is a poem about the American South, a place better known for very public terrorist murders (lynchings) than for the stealth terrorism associated with the disappeared (abducting someone secretly and then trying to make sure no one ever sees them again). In my experience as a writer, reader and activist, this is the American South contrasted to anti-Communist Central America. But there are shared themes, so I made one small revision to the poem to bring it closer to "the disappeared" and sent it to London.

The poem is a holdover from my days on the road, when the Mississippi Hill Country was a beloved place to hide away with friends. I wrote a baggier version of the poem back then, in the 1990s, but never did anything with it; I was too far out there on the road, too busy hiding away with new friends in obscure place.

I revisited this, along with many of my older poems, earlier this year after hearing the poet Quincy Troupe read here in his hometown of St. Louis. Quincy introduced a poem by saying it was a 7/11, a poetic form he had invented where seven-syllable lines alternate with eleven-syllable lines. That sounded just right to me, just exactly as uneven and off-kilter as me. I literally ran home that night and started pulling out old poems and counting syllables on my fingers. In my 7/11s, I try to alternate seven-line stanzas with eleven-line stanzas, or at least to break stanzas at seven or eleven lines. This poem is one eleven-line stanza.

This 7/11 thing has really been working out for me, it's really been helping me to shape up underthought or unfinished poems. In fact, I will be reading only 7/11s at Laumeier tomorrow and the next Saturday. Hope to see you there!


Image from pag-kilos ng kultura.