Does Florida Have A Poet Laureate?

Happily, surprisingly, yes!  As of June 15, after a gap of three years, Peter Meinke, 82, was appointed to the position.  As it happens, I am familiar with Meinke’s work via his second volume of poems, Trying to Surprise God, gifted to me by one of his students at Eckerd College, a sister writer and friend.  Who knew then I would come to live in the home state of this poet, whose Lines from Key West, inspired both curiosity and a sense of foreboding? I’ve been feeling as optimistic about the state of poetry in this country as I do about the State of Florida, which is to say not very. But this news is somewhat encouraging on both counts, if only because Meinke’s four year term also coincides with a critical window of opportunity for Florida to get its act together about sea level rise and the rising demand for solar energy. There is, as the title of one new collection of climate-related poetry puts it, So Little Time: Words and Images For a World in Climate Crisis.  

Poets were once the rock stars of their generation, able to speak truth to power through their art. They got it, and did not fear to take a stand. Here’s T.S. Eliot, writing in 1939:  “For a long enough time we have believed in nothing but the values arising in a mechanized, commercialized, urbanized way of life. It would be well for us to face the permanent conditions upon which God allows us to live upon this planet.”

The good news: poetry is persistent enough, even in our social media, texting-crazed, wired culture — perhaps even because of it —  for questions about its demise to crop up every so often.  The latest iteration comes in a CNN report on the appointment of Juan Felipe Herrera as the next poet laureate of the United States.  Notwithstanding The Writers Almanac, and popularity of poets like Billy Collins (a former U.S. laureate) and Mary Oliver, it is clear that the number of people who read poetry is shrinking to cult status. And yet, undeniably, as the surge of interest in poetry after 9/11 indicates:

In times of national crisis, when ordinary language fails us, we still turn to poetry to express the inexpressible.  Brandon Griggs, CNN

I believe poetry can — and must — show up whenever and wherever it can make the strongest impact, where it takes us by surprise, shakes us out of our lethargy, and makes us care about what truly matters. And for that, we need more than the printed page; we need spoken word poetry, delivered at open mics, popup events, or even through campaigns such as the voicemail poetry created by poet and professor, Major Jackson, for his students at the University of Vermont.  It goes like this: you call a friend and, without any explanation, recite a poem on their voicemail. If they answer, you tell them to hang up and let your next call go to voicemail.

spoken word micThe other reason I see a future for spoken word poetry is Eve Ensler. With her launch of The Vagina Monologues in a tiny theater on the Westside of New York City, Ensler demonstrated the power of spoken word to touch people deeply. She not only shook up gender politics, she also launched an ongoing international campaign to call attention to violence against women and girls. Performing her material and the formation of a troupe that grew from that experience (Women Aloud) has me asking some new questions. What if a campaign based on spoken word poetry (or monologues) could do for climate justice activism what Ensler did for the women’s movement? And if so, what better place than Florida, climate ground zero, to test it out? When you think about it, critiques of the status quo and prophetic warning are by no means a new role for poetry through the ages. Think Shelley’s Ozymandias. I especially love Wendell Berry’s savage wit and quiet anger in Questionnaire and Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front from which one of my favorite quotes: Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.

Beside So Little Time, this year, the UK’s Guardian launched a series of 20 original poems on climate curated by British poet laureate, Carol Duffy, because (as she wrote): If information was all we needed, we’d have solved climate change by now. The scientific position has been clear for decades. Researchers have been waving a big red flag that has been impossible for our politicians to miss.”  Her goal for the collection: “… to reach parts of the Guardian readers’ hearts and minds that the reporting, investigations, videos, podcasts and the rest had failed to reach.”  

Poets grieve, rage, and pull no punches.  An example:

Extinction

We closed the borders, folks, we nailed it.
No trees, no plants, no immigrants.
No foreign nurses, no Doctors; we smashed it.
We took control of our affairs. No fresh air.
No birds, no bees, no HIV, no Poles, no pollen
No pandas, no polar bears, no ice, no dice.
No rainforests, no foraging, no France.
No frogs, no golden toads, no Harlequins.
No Greens, no Brussels, no vegetarians, no lesbians.
No carbon curbed emissions, no Co2 questions.
No lions, no tigers, no bears. No BBC picked audience.
No loony lefties, please. No politically correct classes.
No classes. No Guardian readers. No readers.
No emus, no EUs, no Eco warriors, no Euros,
No rhinos, no zebras, no burnt bras, no elephants.
We shut it down! No immigrants, no immigrants.
No sniveling-recycling-global-warming nutters.
Little man, little woman, the world is a dangerous place.
Now, pour me a pint, dear. Get out of my fracking face.

~ Jackie Kay

More to think about:

The Dark Mountain project, a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself. We produce and seek out writing, art and culture rooted in place, time and nature.

Poetry Outloud — an annual contest for the spoken word that offers school-age performers cash prizes include $20,000 toward a college scholarship.

Consider supporting the poetry/climate effort by your purchase of So Little Time: Words and Images for a World in Climate Crisis, by Greg Delanty and other poets and photographers.  (Green Writers Press, Brattleboro, Vermont).  I am not affiliated with the authors or publisher.

The Gift Economy*

The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

~ Sweet Darkness, David Whyte

For those who make their livelihood in the financial markets or follow their own investments closely, this week will require seat belts, low and tight across your laps.  If you believe things are going to return to ‘normal’ for the dominant energy sector any time soon, read this from the Post Carbon Institute. It certainly calls into question whether Shell’s proposed Arctic drilling is anything but pure political theater. Although we divested from fossil fuels a while back, I have vowed not to look at our portfolio until the end of the day, but maybe end of the week is even better. I am not a fan of volatility in money matters or in human behavior (perhaps that’s redundant).

So, I’m turning my attention to what I can do When Things Fall Apart, to cite a favorite book from a favorite author.  I’m reading more poetry and attempting to write it better because, well, if not now, when?  I’m also making plans to put up a crock of sauerkraut in the hour formerly known as Sunday service because at least it will leave me with something that nourishes me for a few days.  I’m beginning to explore life in the gift economy*, the realm that exists apart from getting and spending, (although I will have to acquire about 5 lbs. of cabbage and some Kosher salt for my project) and I invite you to join me there.

Let me begin with a riff on these lines lifted from David Whyte’s poem for a few bars, and feel free to hum along (here is the complete poem from Whyte’s collection, The House of Belonging, ©1996 Many Rivers Press, and long a favorite of mine). First, I’m more than a little tickled that Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat. Pray. Love) chose this quote for her poem of the day. While I would argue against a purpose for something as impractical as a poem, David Whyte is well-known for his work with corporations and organizations to help employees break old habits of mind and ‘come alive’ on the job. Having done time myself in some stagnant workplaces, I cannot help but wonder how many people rose up from one of Whyte’s workshops and kept right on walking.

This poem, and others of his most loved verse, are an invitation, an enticement, to be more alive, moment to moment, to simply be. I read these lines as a call to free ourselves from all the boxes we put ourselves into, often unwittingly: our roles, relationships, titles, possessions, self-delusions, anything that makes us dead to the world ‘to which we belong.’ For this kind of breakthrough, Whyte suggests, we need our own ‘sweet darkness’ of meditation or reflection, so we may learn who we are, where we belong, and with whom. Discovering whatever brings us alive is the great uncompensated work of a lifetime. My short list: my long, ever-surprising marriage; poetry, especially read aloud; music, especially making it, however inexpertly; real conversations with friends and strangers; walking with no particular destination; slow food; slower everything. What’s on yours?

Of course, poetry is part of the gift economy, in the sense that it is available and of benefit to all. With very few exceptions, no one lives on poetry alone, or the making of art of any kind, for that matter. The U.S. Poet Laureate gets a stipend of $35,000, plus $5,000 travel expenses, paid by a private grant. And yet, “It is difficult,” said William Carlos Williams, “to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.”

The library system is another such enduring gift (thank you, Andrew Carnegie). It’s anyone’s guess how many lives have been changed, lifted-up, by the simple act of reading. Some libraries have added tools and equipment.  Speaking of free access, you should be able to download an e-book version of Pema Chodron’s best-seller by clicking on When Things Fall Apart. You might consider this giveaway a smart marketing move to sell more of her books generally,  But I consider it another example of the gift economy, made possible by the Internet. In fact, one could argue that the entire Internet fits the description of gift, albeit one needs tools and access.  In one of my favorite visions of a future worth having, small farmers in the developing world generate local energy via solar panels and use technology like affordable cell phones and/or rollup computers to download necessary information, while their children logon to (free) Khan Academy.

freecycle-300x141Other gifts: the National Parks System, including the incomparable Florida Everglades, when last I checked. Public beaches, mandated by law. Public spaces, as long as you’re not breaking a local ordinance on size of group or activity.  Let’s also include, Free-cycling. Blogs, from the mighty HuffPo to this one (although you must tolerate some ads — sorry.) My favorite: foraged foods — berries, mushrooms, wild greens.  Then, the obvious freebies: trees, wild pollinators, along with clean air, water, soil, and sun, rain, wind — anything we consider held in common, available to be used and enjoyed by all. In other words, all that brings — and keeps us alive. For these gifts, may we be sufficiently grateful to pass them forward.

_______

*I am using ‘gift economy’ is a broader sense than this definition, and more akin to that suggested by Charles Eisenstein’s book: Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition.