After the party at Busboys and Poets, I went to the first featured reading, with Martin Espada, E. Ethelbert Miller, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Alix Olson. It was at Bell Multicultural High School, a new and still-shiny DC public school, with alarmingly militaristic (student?) artwork on the auditorium walls and airport style metal detectors and security at the entrances. I'm not sure metal detectors in schools are a good idea, actually. Since they create a psychological atmosphere of danger and threat, it strikes me as reasonable to wonder if they increase violence more than prevent it. It would be an easy quasi-experiment to conduct, if there are any urban school districts yet that have not installed them.
In any event, I got there absurdly early and spent some time talking to a woman who had attended DC schools herself. She was very impressed at how clean and bright this new school was. I felt more cynical about it: all such things are hopeful when they are new, but there was little I could see around me that suggested that this school was not only new but different. And while I am sure DC schools would benefit from an enormous dose of new (as my aunt says, throwing money at a problem actually does help, usually), genuine innovation is probably also required if they are to genuinely improve.
Wait, did you think you came here to read about poetry? (Not DC schools?)
Back to the matter at hand. Since I'd come so absurdly early, I took advantage and sat right up front, ending up next to Rosemary Winslow and Karren LaLonde Alenier. One of the great privileges of this festival was getting to meet so many terrific, unpretentious, passionate, talented people, and Karren was a perfect example of this for me. I didn't spend any long period of time talking to her, but she was the first person and the last person I spoke with over the weekend, and every time I encountered her I walked away with a new thought and a lighter heart. She was taking photos in a semi-official capacity, because she was blogging the festival in real time, so she kept apologizing for tripping over me, and we got to chatting and she introduced me to Rosemary. Rosemary asked me the obvious question right off, "Are you a poet?" which led to quite a discussion.
Having honed what poetic skills I have at PFFA, where calling yourself a poet is roundly discouraged as arrogant, I feel uncomfortable with the label. That said, I do write poetry, I have won a few prizes for my poetry and published a poem or two, and I have some sympathy with the idea if you write poetry, however awful, you are a poet. (What else are you?) But I had a not terrifically articulate brief argument with Rosemary about the use of the term. Later in the weekend, with more time to think, I decided I was an apprentice poet. After all, I didn't get to call myself a psychologist until six years of graduate study, one year of postdoctoral work, and objective proof of my competence in the form of exams that assessed my psychological and ethical knowledge, even though as a student I did good psychological work -- research, therapy, teaching -- of which I am proud. A similar bar for minimal competence as a poet does not trouble me. If I publish a book of poetry, ever, I plan to call myself a poet (that's my minimal standard to be a Licensed Poet, I'm deciding). Until then, I'm an apprentice.
The first reader, Martin Espada, was brilliant, and new to me. He began his reading by observing an empty chair that had been left on stage, and noting that perhaps this chair was for someone who needed to hear the truth but was not yet willing to hear it. "It's Dick Cheney's chair!" he announced triumphantly. Would that it was.
The poem of his I remember was a wonderful one memorializing the cooks in Windows on the World, the top-of-the-world-trade-center restaurant. One of the strongest themes of the weekend was one of engaging in joyful acts -- celebrating and art-making and entertaining and cooking and eating together -- in the face of evil and as a means toward peace. What Coleman Barks kept calling "improvisational festivity" we kept coming back to -- maybe because this is what good poets can do to change the world? Calm people, delight them, turn their minds away from images of metal detectors and soldiers and guards, and replace them with images of singing and dancing and falling in love? It sounds frivolous, but the imagination is sometimes the only way out in truly desperate times. And I don't mean that metaphorically. I am thinking of the story of the poet Robert Desnos reading palms in the line for the gas chambers. A good fortuneteller, he saw long life and good forture for every man, woman, and child whose hand he held. And faced with this leap of psychic imagination, the joy and hope spreading through the line of waiting prisoners, the camp guards were unable to send them to their slaughter. Their lives were saved. (The story is told in Susan Griffin's essay, "To Love the Marigold.") At any rate, Espada read one of the first poems in this theme, called Alabanza, and very lovely to hear in his thrilling growl.
E. Ethelbert Miller was next, and I was not much impressed with the work that he read, although I am impressed with his activism and citizenship.
I heard that Naomi Shihab Nye earned a standing ovation for her reading, which included the magnificient poem Wandering Around an Albuquerque Airport Terminal, which I can well imagine her reading in her maternal and husky voice. But unsure of my willingness to stay out the night, I had promised to meet DH at 9:30 at Busboys and Poets, so I missed her as well as Alix Olson, who read last.
I felt sad, and also scared, because by now it was night, and leaving early meant walking alone to the metro through a strange ghost town of brand-new-but-unoccupied buildings, taking the metro alone, and then walking through the U street neighborhood to Busboys and Poets at night, and I did not know what that would be like, not knowing the neighborhood well. But we were a one-phone family, so I had no way to change plans. And it turned out to be fine, and even kind of exhilarating: I get so little time purely alone. U street at night is a clubbing, exciting place, it turns out, alive with people and music. Not a bit scary. I did feel sorry to miss the rest of the reading, and the afterparty, but I knew already that I was in for a magnificient weekend.