Like any conference worth the time it takes to be there and participate in, Split This Rock Poetry Festival had more activities scheduled for each time period than one could attend. The Dresser made her selections based on what she will call "otherness." Although otherness is not easily defined, the Dresser will say that her choice of otherness relates to what is not typically a standard track for a poetry conference that usually would concentrate on activities for the mind and intellect. For the three workshop periods of March 21, the Dresser chose "Yogic Path to Poetry and Conscious Action," "Crip Poetry: A Culture of Disability, Justice and Art," and "Outcry for Justice--The Lessons of Sacco and Vanzetti for the 21st Century." Each of these sessions involved the body, including exercise, so called physical fitness, and acting.
YOGA AND POETRY
Poets belong to the fringe--American poets are outsiders looking in, both in at themselves and in on a culture that does not value their writerly talents. In "Yogic Path to Poetry and Conscious Action," Jeff Davis asked, "What are poets for in a destitute time and what does yoga have to do with this?"
Since 1972, the Dresser has been practicing either Hatha or Anusara Yoga and has discovered through this workshop that yoga has always been her frame for writing poetry. Jeff Davis made her see the intersections between yoga and poetry, something she was not consciously aware of. Here are some of the ideas and comments made by the three yogi poets.
From Jeff Davis,
--Poetry and yoga are the practice of the art of living, which involves the intention to live consciously.
--Yoga is a mode of activism. The Dresser may be extrapolating a bit large but she believes that Davis is also applying this to poetry. Certainly Poets Against the War as a collective is encouraging activist or politically charged poetry.
--Yoga is about expansion and Davis said without getting around to explaining this that yoga alters consciousness. The Dresser assumes that Davis was speaking about awareness and what yogis typically call mindfulness. If a poet works deeply in understanding the mysteries that surround us all, then poetry expands the poet's understanding of the world and probably becomes more aware.
--Change arises from intention and not coercion. Here the Dresser understands one must choose to change and this is related to how we approach living. For the Dresser, living mindfully involves the pursuit of poetry, which constantly explores change and adjustments.
From Kazim Ali
--We are disconnected from our bodies.
--We need to find peace in the body.
From Susan Brennan
--Having a body is difficult and heartbreaking.
--Life is constantly putting us in one difficult position after another.
--Are we willing to fight for imagination?
--In the life of a poet, I liked to be alone but in a yoga community I learned to share the experience of searching for higher truths with others. This experience is called satsang. Split This Rock is a satsang. If you create satsang, you create a living organism.
--Poetry is the honey of divinity.
After the Dresser became a bonafide mother (as opposed to the third parent in her natal family because she was the oldest of six children), she developed the belief that things must have a place in one's household such that she could walk around her house with her eyes closed and find anything she needs. Perhaps deep down, the Dresser believes one day she will not be able to see.
Disability culture is coming into its own. Kathi Wolfe
said people who have disabilities need to "claim our space where our voices have not been heard. We need to stare back at those who stare at us." Wolfe also said it was time to neutralize epithets against those with disabilities, such that lesbians and gays now use the word queer and Wolfe uses the word crip. However, Wolfe also said that it was time to raise awareness about insensitive use of metaphors bandied about by writers who have no disabilities. For example, she, as a person with low vision, was tired of hearing about her "world of darkness."
Stephen Kuusisto, who learned braille at the age of 39 because his mother refused to acknowledge his blindness, said he does not believe in disability poetry.
He tells his students, "dare to be angry and put that anger on the page." What Kuusisto is angry about involves politicians appropriating stories of disability for their own political ends. For example, recently president Bush spoke about the soldier William Gibson who despite having his leg blown off in Iraq, asked to go back to the front and continue his career. Simplistically Bush stated that with people like that, the enemy can never win. In a post to Planet of the Blind (It's Not as Dark as You Think), Kuusisto said "If disability can be used as a heroic metaphor for overcoming or fighting the odds, does it follow that "not talking" about the majority of disability experiences faced by our soldiers means their stories are insufficiently symbolic?"
The Dresser adds here that Kuusisto was wearing a baseball cap inscribed with something like "Join the Navy--Accelerate Your Life." Whoa! Who wants to speed up life in such an environment? What raced through the Dresser's mind was burn, baby, burn. It's the kind of nightmare that creates disabilities that the Dresser fears having been hospitalized at the age of eight on a ward where a girl around the same age was recovering from severe severe burns. Kuusisto commented that if you are poor and trapped by your circumstances, maybe this ccelerate Your Life credo would appeal to you, but he thinks that people who come from money prefer something like, "Dude, slow down."
Kuusisto said people with disabilities are similarly disdained by people who also mistreat the elderly and the poor. One of the audience members in this workshop pointed out that if we live long enough, all of us will become disable in some way. Then a flood of comments erupted in this satsang. "The problem is most people do not want to confront their vulnerabilities or mortality." "It's scary to think of weakness." "And in America, there is the lie of plastic surgery."
Chris Bell pointed out that while people with disabilities might have enemies some of these enemies might be internal.
Just in case anyone gets the impression that there was no humor or moments of divine levity, the Dresser will remind everyone that Kathi Wolfe is a lithe stand up quipper who talked in this session about "making poetic sausage out the meat loaf" -- one time she was told the only way she as a blind person could have a job was if she could make meat loaf. She declined the job and what poet wouldn't?
SACCO AND VANZETTI LESSONS: OUTCRY FOR JUSTICE NOW
and her collaborators are constantly recreating Outcry for Justice: Poetry in the Struggle for Freedom of Sacco and Vanzetti, performance theater that uses poetry, music, and commentary about immigrant rights, war, labor history and the death penalty related to the history of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian immigrant anarchists and labor leaders who were executed by the State of Massachusetts in 1927 after having a trial corrupted by prejudice, prosecutorial misconduct, omission of evidence and blatant disregard for the rights of defendants. What Panzarella does each time the group is invited to perform is research local history looking for resource material such as: newspapers from the 1920s, local union records, archives from Italian historical societies and interviews with people whose family members had a connection with the case.
The first time the work was performed was 2002 and that was to bring attention to the 75th anniversary of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. However, what happened to these two men informs today's issues related to rights to a fair trial, freedom of speech and of assembly, anti-immigrant hysteria, and the death penalty. It is this attention to today's issues that the Split This Rock session "Outcry for Justice--The Lessons of Sacco and Vanzetti for the 21st Century" pertains. Therefore the principal collaborators: Paula Panzarella, Sylvia Forges-Ryan, Marlene Buchanan, and Frank Panzarella invited Rock participants to come up on the stage in the Langston Room at Busboys and Poets to help them read a 20-minute excerpt of the two-hour play.
What the group was teaching was how to be a social activist through live theater. Sylvia Forges-Ryan said that she approached the group with a poem she had written and had never intended to become part of the performing troupe.
What the group does by involving the community both with local information and interviews reminds the Dresser of what the Squonk Opera company has been doing with Your Town: The Opera. The main difference is that Squonk concentrates on entertainment, while Panzarella's company, which does not seem to have a formal name, is about social activism.
Ordinarily when the Dresser has such a wide palette of colorful and energetic experiences, she would say it was quite heady. However, these three sessions were not about the head or what's inside the head, which is where the poet usually lives. Split This Rock for these three sessions gave the old heave ho to the tyranny of the head!
OK, Head, Split This Rock thinks you have to clear your slate and learn to collaborate. Time for a little run down Sterling Brown's Southern Road, "Swing dat hammer--hunh! /Steady, bo.'"