Poetry can be an act of creative resistance. At least that’s the idea for the The Poetic Address to the Nation, on Saturday, March 11, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA). The event is the brainchild of a quirky network of artists and activists calling itself The U.S. Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC) -- decidedly not a government agency.
“The president gives a speech once a year,” says Adam Horowitz, who calls himself the Chief Instigator at the USDAC, “what a great time for all of us to come together, and make sense of the country, because Democracy is a conversation not a monologue.”
For the past three years, the group has gathered story circles in libraries, churches and schools across the country to coincide with the President’s State of The Union Address. (President Donald Trump’s joint address to Congress stands in this year.)
Horowitz says that the story circles were especially charged events this year, with many worrying that American democratic values were under attack by the Trump Administration. “We saw a need," he says, “for people to come together with allies and to know their voices can be amplified outside this circle.”
The Poetic Address (previously staged in Philadelphia and New York City), is the next step, a chance for writers to distill first-person stories from the circles -- about immigration, being a good neighbor, or race -- and turn them into poems that speak to the state of the nation. “To take all of those stories, and make sense of them,” Horowitz says, “we need that strange and sharp and precise language that’s possible in poetry to kind of distill the essence of it.
Horowitz and the organizers at YBCA have invited just over a dozen poets to the Saturday event, including Luis Rodriguez, the former Los Angeles poet laureate, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Michelle Lee, Marvin K. White, the youth group Young Gifted & Black and San Francisco’s Tongo Eisen-Martin.
“This is really our planet,” Eisen-Martin says. “And we do not have to go along with this kind of farcical organization of power we see right now. The only true power really lies with the people.”
Eisen-Martin, a tall bearded poet and an African-American who lives in a city with a fast-shrinking black population, shares a portion of the poem he plans to read at the Saturday event:
A politician raises his hand. And the crowd shows their teeth.
An oligarch raises his hand, little girls are not safe outside,
You are all high depressed, and comrades in function.
Fifteen minutes to closing, and the city’s survived another black rebellion, stay down.
Organizers hope to boost the voices of resistance to President Trump’s policies on immigration, the environment and health care. But Horowitz says the story circles met in both blue states and red states.
“We got notes from people saying, 'In my story circle I was able to have my first bipartisan dialogue,'" Horowitz says. "And hopefully it ripples out beyond that.”
The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts picked poet and screenwriter Chinaka Hodge to emcee the event. She says she doesn’t expect a lot of Trump supporters at YBCA on Saturday, but she said the livestream on Facebook could build some bridges.
“I’m hoping someone who’s not expecting to be moved,” she says, “who’s expecting to heckle, to troll our Facebook livestream, I hope they find some inspiration, and they see themselves reflected, and we’re telling their story as well, and we have a real dialogue.”
The Poetic Address to the Nation gets underway on Saturday, March 11, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. More details and info here.
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED