When I was in Boston for National Poetry Slam this past August, a fellow poet recounted a tale like many I had heard before.
“We were at the picnic,” he said. “And an empty bag of chips was rolling through the grass. All of the poets yelled ‘Bag. Bag! BAG! No one moved to get the bag.” This was followed by hysterical laughter.
The humor lies in the fact that poets, like many artists, possess the talent to bring awareness to an issue, but not necessarily act on it. When seeing the “100 Thousand Poets for Change” event notification pop up on my Facebook feed, I was struck with the same notion, but interested to see it play out in a much larger arena.
[Read more about the event from organizer Viktoria Valenzuela here: "One Poet for 100 Thousand Poets for Change in San Antonio."]
Poets are no strangers to gathering in large groups and discussing issues plaguing our society, but the question is whether these mobs of creative energy bring about any real change. Also, are there even enough politically active poets in San Antonio to garner the support needed to fill the necessary amount of chairs to appear that we were impacting something? I was excited to find out.
San Antonio participated in the worldwide event for the third time this year, and had a lineup that would make local art supporters swoon. Housed at Gemini Ink, stand outs of the day for me included readings from Carmen Tafolla, Eduardo C. Garza of the Jazz Poets, Roberto E. Vargas, Sheila Black and Anastacio Palomo.
Vargas’ satiric and politically charged pieces were both poignant and humorous. One work, for example, featured the catch phrase, “blame it on the Mayans.”
Black’s poem pertaining to consumerism was particularly thought-provoking, too. In her poem, she addresses the question of how to forget what you love to have while sitting at an empty table.
Other topics touched on by the day's poets included everything from economic justice, sexual abuse, the war on drugs and the civil war in Syria. By far, the most moving moments of the late afternoon/evening, however, were from the brothers Valenzuela of Colorado Springs. The brothers are two highly decorated veterans who are at risk for deportation by The U.S. Department of Homeland Security. A portion of the upcoming documentary, "American Exile," by John Valadez was shown at the event and was met with utter disbelief by the audience. (Visit www.americanexile.com for more.)
The film, to be completed next year, follows various military veterans, including the Valenzuela brothers who have served and fought for this country and are now in danger of being forced from it. After the presentation, the brothers themselves, wearing their uniforms, shared their story with more than 30 sets of attentive ears in a packed room.
Manuel Valenzuela recounted what he describes as “the American Nightmare.” Born to a mother who was born in the U.S., and then having legally immigrated to Lubbock, the brothers are prime examples of a system that is failing. Too many individuals are falling through the cracks, and the gap only seems to be widening.
“It’s hell to live without a country,” Manuel said.
The brothers are still fighting the government for official recognition of citizenship, but may be deported at any moment at the discretion of federal immigration authorities.
More poetry and musical acts followed, but as I emerged from the “100 Thousand Poets for Change,” I couldn’t help but feel heavier. There is an undeniable burden that accompanies knowledge, and with that comes a need for an outlet. Without any sense of release, individuals often fold under the pressure. I felt as though I were starting to crumple.
During her reading, Inaugural San Antonio Poet Laureate Carmen Tafolla eloquently stated, “[These words] are how we keep our history. They are how we keep our soul.”
Art is invaluable to the soul of a community, but it also is vital to give people a voice and outlet. As Sheila Black noted, “The voice can sing again what the body cannot perform.”
Poetry, in particular, is about stories. It is about sharing experiences and emotions, educating and informing people about concepts they wouldn’t necessarily come across or paid attention to without guidance.
“100 Thousand Poets for Change” and other such events are important because they raise awareness and inspire change. The flaw, though, is the lack of a clear answer in terms of what to do next.
For next year’s event, a focused theme would be appreciated. Perhaps then, all poets and musicians could perform based on that topic, and it would give the audience more cohesive, digestible material.
I also would like to see workshops leading up to the event that motivate individuals to brainstorm on the issues affecting our lives. This event has much potential, but again needs support to thrive.
Melanie Robinson graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English with a Concentration in Professional Writing and a minor in Anthropology from the University of Texas at San Antonio in December 2011. Her current Marketing position at the local nonprofit organization ARTS San Antonio has afforded her the opportunity to further explore her love of the arts. She now spends her nights among local musicians, artists and poets – finding beauty in self-expression. You can contact Melanie through her Facebook.