THE WORK OF PEACE
Taking Poetry to the Streets of Washington, DC : January 27, 2007
by Melissa Tuckey, Events Coordinator, DC Poets Against the War
"It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ Yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ Of what is found there." William Carlos Williams
Here in DC we do not have the opportunity to ignore the news—we live in the heart of it, physically, psychically, emotionally. We are reminded daily of the war's misplaced priorities, living in the city with the highest adult illiteracy rate and the highest HIV infection rate in the nation, where homeless veterans sleep on heating grates and helicopters bring the wounded home to the now infamous Walter Reed Hospital. Our city is a maze of concrete barricades, K Street lobbyists, and crack dealers. All of this and our city of 550,000 still does not have a voting member of Congress.
DC Poets Against the War was founded in 2003 by Sarah Browning and others as a way to bring poets of conscience together in dark times to share our poetry, outrage, and vision for a just peace. The organization has built a sense of community among poets, enabling us to share resources and lift each other up as we find the courage to believe that poetry (and art) matters. It has connected us with activists in the social justice movement and given us the opportunity to reach new audiences, who, like us, are looking for words to sustain them. For those of us living in this city, there is no doubt that poetry is alive and well and that it is in fact a necessity.
Lately, we've found ourselves with a dual role, that of building community in our own neighborhoods—as well as building community with the activists and poets who come to our town. Though the news may not adequately report it, the climate in DC is changing, and I don't just mean the fact that we had 80 degree days in January this year. I mean that the number of protests is increasing and, as a result, those of us who live here find ourselves in the epicenter of a growing anti-war movement. The wave hasn't fully hit yet, but we can feel it rising.
January 27, 2007 was a monumental day in that regard. The response we received when we posted our announcement on the Poets Against War website calling poets from around the country to join our poets' contingent in the United for Peace and Justice march was phenomenal. I certainly didn't expect it when I offered to organize a protest—we received 200-300 emails from poets around the world, sending us messages of solidarity, poems, and poetry quotes for our signs. I spent a solid week leading up to the protest answering emails and living in a sort of anti-war poetry daze.
We received poetry and email from poets in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Australia, Japan, Canada, Ireland, and from throughout the US. The level of international solidarity was stunning. Clearly when we drag ourselves out the door to go to another anti-war protest, we represent not only ourselves, but the hopes and concerns of people around the world. I was deeply moved by all the words sent our way.
Farideh Hasanzadeh-Mostafavi, an Iranian poet, sent a poem of her own that confronts the realities of war, “at nightfall/I leave the frightened moon in the sky/ to shelter under the ground./ I am neither women nor a poet anymore.” When I asked Farideh to tell me more about herself, she sent me the poem “I, I who have nothing,” an elegy for her baby lost in war, and said, “What more can I tell you about myself than this?”
Muhammad Shanazar, a poet and scholar who teaches American literature in Pakistan, writes, “O! Heedless Generals of the parading troops/….I shall keep crying aloud, at the top of my voice/ Though my tongue is plucked out of the roots.”
And from Iraq, Khawla Alkareem, of Tikrit University-College of Arts Iraq, sent a poem, “Scarlet Dawn,” in which he calls upon the heavens for the rain to bless the people of Iraq and wash away their sorrow: “Rain rain rain/ From the fainted eyes of Iraqi peoples, orphans, and widows/ Rain rain rain.”
I also heard from many poets in the US, some who were on their way to DC to join us in the march, others who were unable to make it but wanted to share their favorite verse, and still yet more looking to meet up with poets in their cities – in Chicago, in California – to be a part of a poets' contingent. We heard from one teacher who planned to enlist students in hanging our poetry signs throughout their school.
I was especially moved by an email from G. I. Oswald, a Vietnam Veteran who goes by “Oz,” who wrote from Spokane, WA to say he couldn't make it to the protest because he's been battling cancer for the last year, cancer he feels is likely related to his exposure to Agent Orange during the war. He sent me his poem, “Double Agents,” about the traitors in the White House and the chemicals they dropped on Vietnam. He asked that I take it to the Vietnam Memorial for him, a trip he hasn't been able to make yet himself.
On the day of the protest about 70 poets met up at Busboys and Poets, a restaurant-bookstore-performance space that's become the locus of progressive activity in DC. People came from Maine, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and elsewhere to march as a poets' contingent, carrying signs with poetry contributed by poets from around the world. Many of us were lucky enough to wear placards created by artist Katherine Gilbert-Espada, Martín Espada's wife, with photographs of poets and their quotes. Martín, Katherine, and their son Klemente passed out smaller versions of these signs to onlookers as poetry handbills. Though we were a modest crowd among the 100,000 demonstrators, our signs were popular among passersby and many stopped to take pictures and say thanks.
We were delighted to have among us a group of high school students and their teachers from Archbishop Carroll High School. They, too, brought poetry signs and then later joined us at our reading.
After a day of protest, we gathered at Busboys and Poets for a reading featuring Martín Espada, Susan Tichy, Esther Iverem, Sarah Browning, Dwayne Reginald Betts, and guest poets from throughout the country—too numerous to name. The Langston Room at Busboys was standing room only, and the readings were passionate, beginning with Espada's eloquent call to imagination—“Imagine the Angels of Bread” which contains the words:
This is the year that those
who swim the border's undertow
and shiver in boxcars
are greeted with trumpets and drums
at the first railroad crossing
on the other side; …
So may every humiliated mouth,
teeth like desecrated headstones,
fill with the angels of bread.
Read more about the march, see photos, and watch a short video at the DC Poets Against the War website at www.dcpaw.org Read all the lines of poetry the poets carried through the streets of Washington here: www.dcpaw.org/SignQuotes.html . Feel free to use these poetry peace signs in creative ways in your own community.
I, I WHO HAVE NOTHING
By: Farideh Hassanzadeh-Mostafavi
Tonight, without you
this room is like that room
in that hospital
where on the bed
there was a white sheet
like a cloud, broad;
under it, my small bird
with wounded wings
whom nurses mistook
for the corpse of a small boy,
gone with the bombs.
This is why
they took him to the mortuary
and I didn't see him again.
Do you remember that old song:
I, I who have no one
I, I who have nothing?
when I found you,
you, who were a stray dreamer
among the tic tack followers;
when I found you
you, who were the act of verse
among the actors of phrases;
I sang my song:
I, I who have my shadow,
I, I who have my shadow-mate
But tonight, without you
I have nothing but my memories
of my little bird
who exchanged his mother with the bombs
of love, who exchanged his nest with the wind…