Welcome to San Francisco Peace and Hope, a literary journal devoted to poetry and visual art.
Issue 3 features Kit Kennedy's interview with celebrated artist Jeannie Motherwell.
ONE TWO-STEP FOREWORD—and a CODA
By Al Young, California poet laureate emeritus
We don't need to escalate.
You see, war is not the answer,
For only love can conquer hate.
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today.
Picket lines and picket signs
Don't punish me with brutality.
Talk to me
So you can see
O what's going on,
What's going on …
-- Marvin Gaye
What’s Going On,
(Motown Records 1971)
Lyric © 1971 Al Cleveland, Marvin Gaye, Renaldo Benson
Way back in June of 2010, NPR, which no longer stands for National Public Radio, reported: “Nearly as many American troops at home and abroad have committed suicide this year as have been killed in combat in Afghanistan.” Alarmed at the growing rate of soldiers taking their own lives, the Army has begun investigating its mental health and suicide prevention programs.” Now Dr. Margaret C. Harrell and Nancy Berglass tell us in their Center for a New American Security report: “America is losing its battle against suicide by veterans and service members.” Every 80 minutes an active or returning U.S. Iraq-Afghanistan war vet attempts suicide. Baffled, the military hides this tragedy, just as our hush-moneyed officials try to hide or suppress every inconvenient truth, discovery, disclosure, or fact that gets in the way of profit.
“If it weren’t for the life I’ve led,” the much neglected, one-arm 20th century poet-novelist-essayist-prankster Blaise Cendrars confides, “I would have committed suicide.”
To lake a life or lead a life? The question haunts me still. Personally, I can’t one day talk about God, spirituality, freedom, democracy or brotherhood or sisterhood, then brag about “taking out so-and-so” tomorrow. Our country does this proudly. At a time when incivility, rudeness, brutal cruelty, sadism, thanklessness, insult and injury, humiliation, pain, ugliness and darkness go virtually worshipped, I moan for peace and hope with the same fervor that born-again soul balladeer Al Green invokes us to “Moan for love.”
Reborn yet again, Elizabeth Hack’s inspiring website – San Francisco Peace and Hope -- takes its cue from the way we breathe. Inhale, exhale; one breath, one death – the two go together like sleeping and waking, or time and eternity. What dissolves? What lasts? “There is no ahead,” the ancient poet Rumi whispered, reminding us that the only time we have is now. As stubbornly as we rewind or fast-forward to access a remembered past or an imagined future, we experience nothing ongoing until we hit play, which always brings us home to the moment unfolding. Deathless truths, a.k.a. eternal verities – forever arousing, ever virginal – get transmitted and recycled by way of poetry, storytelling, painting, sculpture, music, drama and dance. With this first breath, everything begins. For an instantaneous down-to-earth take on peace and hope, ask any baker of sourdough bread about starters. As we may label every episode in life chapter one, so every post to this elegant, survival-loving site will always seem the first.
“We are all looking at the same screens,” an Iraqi-born taxi driver told me one San Francisco morning. He was delivering me to Grace Cathedral, where I would be the guest of The Very Reverend Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral, who hosts The Forum, a Sunday morning on-stage discussion.
“And now we're sending drones to bomb Pakistan and Afghanistan," I said. "It’s as if we’ve grown too lazy to go do the bombing ourselves. Let’s make a $3 million dollar aircraft that does the same thing.”
Having long observed that many of the chats I have with cab drivers end up in stories, articles or poems, I recognized at once the power of this graying gentleman’s words.
“I don’t know how governments think they can go on deceiving us," he said. "We are all looking at the same screens.”
He paid attention and knew a lot. In the backseat I was thinking: What must it be like to come all the way from Baghdad, Iraq to San Francisco, a city fabled columnist Herb Caen dubbed Baghdad by the Bay? And now, well into your fifties, you’re hauling around people who don’t speak your language. Not only that, but their soldiers – enlisted and mercenary -- they can’t speak your language, either. You’re not only talking; you’re making sense, beautiful sense, in a language you’re still learning. The hard way.
Under an unbearably blue sky, cinematic clouds, boats and yachts played over the Bay. Forever uncool, I couldn’t help shooting off my mouth about the dark backwardness of U.S. foreign policy. For fully three decades I’ve represented my country abroad as a writer and cultural ambassador, so I felt it my duty to express my opinions and views, which have always strayed from official stories, official takes.
Before Senator Jesse Helms personally shut down it down in 1999, the old USIA (United States Information Agency) knew this about me. The U.S. Department of State knows, too. Still, each of these government agencies dispatched me to such places as the former Yugoslavia, Italy, India, Bangladesh, Jordan, Egypt, the Palestinian West Bank, Israel, Kuwait, Bahrain. I speak the truth as I see and experience it.
“I’m speaking to you as a citizen and artist,” I had to state this flatly to a disquieted audience that was quickly turning hostile one morning following a talk I’d given at Jordan University for Women in Amman.
We had arrived at the Q & A portion of the presentation.
“Isn’t the major problem in the world today the United States?” One veiled young woman shouted. From the podium I could see her angry eyes rolling around above her black veil.
“Even though they know I have differences with American foreign policy, my government sends me out anyway. Doesn’t this say something hopeful about the United States?”
Two of the young women present in the audience that morning were daughters of General Sani Abacha, then Nigeria's president. It was 1997. Two years previously, in 1995, the Nigerian environmental activist, writer and TV producer Ken Saro-Wiwa, who protested the brutal policies of Shell in its reckless extraction of crude oil in Ogoniland, his Niger Delta homeland, had been hanged by an Abacha-appointed tribunal. By June of 1998, one year following my visit to Jordan, Sani Abacha would himself die under a cloud.
Six degrees of separation? How about zero?
Climbing out of my cozy taxi, I recalled yet again how hooked up we are to one another. Under the Bush-Cheney régime, the State Department packed me off to the Persian Gulf in 2001, specifically to Kuwait then Bahrain. When calendared me for Haiti in 2004, I turned them down. I’d gotten wind of yet another foul deed afloat in that tragic, long-suffering region. The State Department’s Michael Bandler dispatched me to Southern Italy instead. This was the same year that Washington and Paris pulled off the shameless kidnapping of Jean-Bertrande Aristide, the country's democratically elected president. In broad daylight. My heart still beats for Haiti.
Whenever the idea of peace and hope begins to look laughable, I shine all the warmth I know down into whatever thick, hard fog happens to be blocking the light.
Long ago, in 1939, the year I eased back into the cosmic drama, the self-invented writer William Saroyan published Peace, It's Wonderful, a quirky, likeable collection of short stories oozing with populist optimism and hope. To this day the title alone, an exhilarating shout, rings true. What can be more wonderful than peace? The U.S. didn’t enter the war officially until December 7, 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. But by 1939 Europe was shattered with hatred and war. It would take me three years to learn to read. Nevertheless I like to imagine the effect on readers of a book like Peace, It’s Wonderful at that hour. In that same year, Saroyan published another book, My Heart’s in the Highlands. It was in those pages that he declared: “The whole world and everything in it is everybody's business."
A lifetime later, Mother Teresa said the same thing, only with a slight twist of viewpointt: "If we have no peace, it's because we have forgotten that we belong to each other." Christened Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiuin, an ethnic Albanian born in the former Yugoslavia, Mother Teresa was a Catholic whose life-mission (in Sanskrit sádhana her reason for being here) links the feisty, selfless nun indelibly to Calcutta. Mother Teresa, a naturalized citizen of India, seems every bit as self-invented as the California-born Saroyan, half of whose ashes rest in Armenia, his ancestral homeland.
If in 1939 you didn't see the world situation as altogether hopeless, just weren't paying attention. Russia was fast at war with Finland; Hitler's Nazi's were invading Poland; the U.S. was issuing food stamps for the first time; Chile lost 30,000 to an earthquake; Generalíssimo Francisco Franco and Italy's Benuto Mussolini, devout fascists, got together and take Spain, to which the UK and France gave official recognition; the US Supreme Court outlawed sit-down strikes; a fasting Gandhi began his protest to drive the British from India; Britain made Faisal II King of Iraq; Italy runs King Zog out of Albania; the Daughters of the American Revolution (one of whose historian members was Miss Jean Coltrane, a descendent of the wealthy North Carolina slave-holding family) blocked singer Marian Anderson from performing her at Washington DC's Constitution Hall, forcing her to sing to 75,000 at the Lincoln Memorial; Billie Holiday recorded "Strange Fruit," penned by teacher-poet Abel Meeropol, a song that put her on J. Edgar Hoover's FBI surveillance list for the rest of her life; John Steinbeck came out with Grapes of Wrath, his novel about Oklahoma's "dustbowl refugees" turned away at gunpoint when they tried to emigrate to California; four days after I was born, Florida turned away the St. Louis, a boatload of Jewish refugees from Europe, who -- backed up by the American Jewish Congress --were systematically rejected for entry into the U.S; World War Two was literally getting off the ground.
The picture for hope and peace has always looked bleak. Still, it warms and stirs me to read about India's King Ashoka, a fierce general who became a vegan,took up non-violence and Buddhism, and for close to 40 years without going to war. From 269 to 232 BC, when he died at age 72, Ashoka, intimate with the obscene ravages of war, ruled a vast Indian subcontinent that included present-day Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Iran.
A poet who majored in Spanish at the University of Michigan and UC Berkeley, I continue to marvel at the way the transitive verb esperar behaves in that melodic language. To hope, to hope for, to await, to wait for, to expect is how speakers of Spanish hear and understand the word. Espero que sí means I hope so. Sometimes the mischievous poet in me likes to break this out another way: Espero que sí / I expect yes. For centuries poets and lyricists in Spanish almost always tease readers with the verb's ambiguity. When you say or write the noun esperanza, however, you're either talking about hope or expectation.
Before I learned to break my days and nights into moments and sub-moments, I was a goner. However cautiously, I bought into one official take on reality after another. Coming of age in the McCarthy era, I learned not to trust official stories of any kind, not even my own. The résumé I write in the hope of getting one position won't be the same one I write to land another. Not only do all governments and official institutions lie; we lie unchecked to each another and habitually to ourselves. Lie? Well, let's say we leave out stuff, we make things up. Moreover, once it becomes clear that we do indeed belong to one another, that in fact we are one another's business, then who's fooling whom? I got the picture. Because history is so continuously up for grabs, all of it inevitably gets revised, mangled or scrapped altogether.
Underneath the poetry, underneath the prose, underneath the songs we sing, the ways we live or don't live, a seed-theme sprouts. Its bud-blossom-flower tells us everything. We always are, we always have, we always will be linked. Not just to one another but to every moving moment.
While so-called social networks (Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Linked, YouTube) monetize our relationships, they may also provide a big glimpse into human connectedness; the countless ways we touch, perceive and need one another in the right-here-right-now. In solitude I set down these thoughts, and yet they don't take on meaning until someone reads or hears or pictures or feels the words.
When I play music from an MP3 or a compact disk or vinyl source, I've taught myself to remember that the musician-performers on the recording (and the composers, arrangers, technicians) are themselves an extension of my infinite social family. Every bite, every swallow that lets me remember we’re largely water – former fish, really. A peaceful, hope-sure comfort. The seas, the rivers, lakes, the streams and ponds, the waterfalls, the rain and fog that feed, connect and resurrect us –
Breathe out, breathe in and out and feel for yourself how, like Earth, you’ve been around more than a little bit of forever, long enough to understand or at least harbor some ideas about simultaneity and omnipresence. To reject the big lie that cries we must war against or hate ourselves leaves room to reclaim and make room for the grand truth: We are all looking at and performing for one another on the same screen.
From all the evidence we have, poetry doesn’t begin as a medium for personal or subjective expression. Poetry is rooted in communion. Rooted, therefore radical (from Latin radic or radix, the Latin word for root). It has taken a long time for the global narco-marketplace to get us to buy the belief that each of us exists individually, vacuum-packed
Remembering, celebrating, protecting, exorcising, blessing, worshiping, transforming, invoking, controlling, praising, condemning, playing, praying, mythmaking, storytelling, honoring, condemning, entertaining, and prophesying -- poetry covers it all. in all of our ancestral cultures, poetry, song and dance stay inextricably linked. Iambic pentameter, a line of five heartbeats, curiously, animates most blues lyrics in English. Listen and tap your foot to B.B. King: “The thrill is gone, / The thrill is gone away … “
So we talk about metrical feet, when a poem’s line doesn’t come to a full stop, but flows over into a new line, we call this enjambment. Jambe of course is still the French word for leg. Enjambment could mean leg-over-leg. How cozy. But, then, I’m old enough to remember how we actually used to dance with each other, rather than at each other, the same way we used to reach and touch each other.
Poetry and the other arts can save our planet; they can also rescue us from the fear-polluted atmosphere now killing the world just as surely as carbon emissions and feckless profiteering now strangle living ecosystems; killing the life-force we share, us by rising frog-boil degrees.
Jump. Bust a move. Throw down. Hope, like peace, needs action to back it. Hope not only springs eternal; hope summers, hope winters, hope pictures, hope acts out, hope listens, hope dances, hope sings.
©2013 Al Young