Welcome to San Francisco Peace and Hope,
a literary journal devoted to poetry and visual art.
Volume 4 features Kit Kennedy's 2014 conversation with celebrated artist Jeannie Motherwell.
A TWO-STEP FOREWORD—with CADENZA and CODA
By Al Young, California's former poet laureate
“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.” Way back in June of 2010, NPR, which no longer stands for National Public Radio, reported this. “Now,” the NPR report continues, “Drs. 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.’” In other words, 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-armed 20th century poet-novelist-essayist and prankster Blaise Cendrars confides, “I would have committed suicide.”
To take 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 tomorrow about taking somebody out. Our country does this proudly. Brazenly. Hurtfully. At a time when incivility, rudeness, brutal cruelty, sadism, thanklessness, insult, 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,” when he sings “The Power of Love,” his mojo hit.
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 whispers, reminding us how 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 Iraq-born taxi driver told me one San Francisco postcard morning. He was delivering me to Grace Cathedral, where I would be the guest of The Very Reverend Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral, host of The Forum, a live Sunday morning on-stage discussion.
“And now we're sending drones to bomb Pakistan and Afghanistan," I told my cabbie. "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 gray 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 its fabled columnist Herb Caen dubbed Baghdad by the Bay? And now, well into his fifties, he’s hauling around people who not only don’t speak his language but aren’t even interested in learning it. Not only that, but their soldiers – enlistees and mercenaries -- they can’t speak your language, either. The cabbie is not only talking; he’s making sense, beautiful sense, and in a language that I, a presumed native speaker, am still learning.
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. I feel it my duty to express my opinions and views, which have always strayed from official stories, official takes.
Before Senator Jesse Helms personally shut it down in 1999, the old USIA (United States Information Agency) knew this about me, that I dissent. 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 spoke the truth as I’d seen and experienced it.
“I’m speaking to you as a citizen and artist.” I stated this flatly to a disquieted audience that was quickly turning hostile one morning during a talk I was giving at the Jordanian University for Women in Amman. We had reached the program’s Q & A portion.
Suddenly one veiled young woman shouted to me: “Isn’t the major problem in the world today the United States?” 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 young women in the audience that morning were daughters of General Sani Abacha, who was 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 himself would die under a cloud.
Six degrees of separation? So goes early 20th century Hungarian poet-playwright writer Frigyes Karinthy’s proposition that we’re each just six steps away from anyone else. Another playwright, the New York-born John Guare later popularized it in a play that became a movie. I say: How about zero degrees of separation? Climbing out of my cozy taxi, I pondered how hooked to one another we’ll remain.
Under the Bush-Cheney régime, the State Department packed me off to the Persian Gulf in 2001, specifically to Kuwait then Bahrain. When they 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 their shameless kidnapping of Jean-Bertrande Aristide, the country's democratically elected president. In broad daylight. My heart still beats for tragic 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 that seems 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 that ooze 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. By 1939, the year I was born, Europe was shattered with hatred and war. Three years later, I learned to read. Now 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 twist: "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 (the Sanskrit word is sádhana) 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, you just weren't paying attention. Russia was fast at war with Finland; Nazis were invading Poland. The U.S. was issuing food stamps for the first time. Chile lost 30,000 to an earthquake. Generalísimo Francisco Franco and Italy's Benuto Mussolini, devout fascists, got together and took 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 ran King Zog out of Albania. The Daughters of the American Revolution (one of whose historian members was Miss Jean Coltrane, a descendent of the powerful North Carolina former slave-holding family) blocked African American singer Marian Anderson from performing at Washington DC's Constitution Hall, forcing her to sing to an audience of 75,000 at the Lincoln Memorial. Billie Holiday recorded teacher-poet Abel Meerpol’s "Strange Fruit," 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 – June 4, four days after I was born. In a decision backed by the American Jewish Congress, Florida turned away the St. Louis, a boatload of Jewish refugees from Europe, who were systematically rejected for entry into the U.S. as World War literally got 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 vegetarian, embraced Buddhism and non-violence and Buddhism, and who reigned 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.
As 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 – that is how speakers of Spanish hear and understand the word esperar.
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, though, express either 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 received 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. For example, the résumé I write to apply for one position won't be the same résumé I write in search of another. Not only do all governments and official institutions lie; we lie unchecked to each another and habitually to ourselves. Lie? Well, 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 altogether scrapped.
Underneath the poetry, underneath the prose, underneath the songs we sing, the ways we live or don't live, a seed sprouts. Its bud-blossom-flower tells us everything we need to understand: We’ve always been, we always are, we always will be linked – and not just to one another, but to every moving moment.
While so-called social networks (Facebook, MySpace, Linked-In, Instagram, Twitter) monetize our relationships, they may also provide a sweeping glimpse into human connectedness and the countless ways we touch, perceive and need one another in the comfort and danger of now. In solitude I set these thoughts down, and yet they don't take on meaning until someone reads, hears, pictures or feels the language.
When I play music from an MP3 or a compact disk or vinyl source, I 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 lets me remember we’re largely water. We’re also former fish. 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 bit of forever, long enough to understand or at least harbor some ideas about simultaneity and omnipresence. To reject the big lie, the one that says we must war against or hate ourselves, leaves room to reclaim and make room for the grand truth: We are all performing and looking at one another on the same omni-dimensional screen.
“He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist."
-- St. Francis of Assisi
All hands, all heads, all hearts aside, our base native zone is silence; our natural state is bliss. Yes, ecstasy, no less. If to crusty 21st century ears this sounds mushy or crazed, it's because we no longer listen to ourselves. Even our attention has been kidnapped and drained by corporate-based distractions. Literally, we gulp down the steady Kool-Aid menu of darkness and despair served up in self-styled democracies by rulers, who don’t serve their countries or citizens. “Life is tough,” they tell us. Only a precious few deserve its hard-won rewards.
And yet we do pay the taxes that float the wars, invasions, attacks and occupations and global surveillance operations. We buy corporate goods and services. And they, officials we’ve elected -- too stupid and stingy to give the drummer some -- trash, displace and ignore us. No drummer, no beat. No drummer, no heartbeat. Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Business reports that the recent war adventures the U.S. has waged in Iraq and Afghanistan have racked up a cost of $6 trillion. Six trillion dollars! This shakes out to a cool $75,000 for every household in “the world’s greatest democracy,” where bridges and roadways routinely collapse; where people, children especially, go hungry; where schools are closing; where working families are lucky if they have a car or van to sleep in; where shattered, returning veterans of war camp out on city sidewalks at night; where heroin and methamphetamine addiction enslave a largely white suburbia; where almost a quarter of the planet’s prisoners -- most of them black or brown or poor white, most of them for drug-related brood on ice in American jails. The $6 trillion alone, squandered on weaponry and war, could rebuild our infrastructure, could house, feed, doctor on and educate the people who make this whole show work.
Whenever I’m feeling my best, feeling good, James Brown good, my spontaneous elation, I’ve noticed, owes nothing to circumstance, situation or conditions. Like a baby who looks straight at you across a crowded aisle, then breaks into the goofiest of grins, waving her hands and bobbing her head, I laugh. Peace and hope? Concepts, really. Bring me back home to the present moment: that space between heartbeats, where anything and everything starts, where all and everything counts.
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; hermetically, vacuum-packed sealed.
Remembering, celebrating, protecting, exorcising, blessing, worshipping, 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 intimate! 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 as surely as carbon emissions and feckless profiteering strangle living ecosystems. By gradually rising frog-boil degrees, greed is smothering the life-force we share.
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.
©2014 Al Young