For twenty-four years in a side yard in bucolic Ashfield, MA, my friend Jan Freeman has held a sacred ritual on the 4th of July outside her home, which also serves as the headquarters for Paris Press, a homegrown publishing mecca she founded for the sole purpose of putting and keeping Muriel Rukeyser’s 1949 manifesta, The Life of Poetry, back in print. People gather in the early morning before the heat of the 4th gets too brutal in New England, break bagels together, and circle up for a reading of Walt Whitman’s epic poem “Song of Myself” first published in 1855 as the signature poem in his now canonical collection Leaves of Grass.
Jan always begins by having the group introduce themselves and their various affiliations with the world. It is an intergenerational gathering of people from all walks of life in space and time. I usually travel there after a transcontinental flight from Olympia to meet up with my mother in Connecticut, and together we make the two-hour drive north in the early morning for a full day of poetic inspiration.
Generations of poets and friends in different configurations over the years add to the dimension that Whitman’s poem itself displays. I meet up with other friends and mentors I’ve had the good fortune to accumulate like charms on a bracelet over the years. Liz Ahl, one of my dear friends and now collaborator, from my MFA program in Boston and my PhD in Nebraska; Robin Becker, whose work inspired me to write openly as a lesbian; Kate Flaherty, another sacred friend originally from New Hampshire and currently residing there, but whom I met in Nebraska; Jeff Oaks, a dear poet friend from Pittsburgh.
Because Jan has held true to this ritual for twenty-four years, the group also has grappled with the changes in configuration of voices due to the untimely deaths of a number of regulars, transforming the ritual from a tribute to Whitman’s vision for a democratic coming together of all people to a sacred memorial. We invoke the spirits of those we’ve found and lost on our travels, and we make new friends to look forward to seeing annually. In the circle are current, future, and ex-lovers, parents and children, teachers and mentors, community leaders, and friends.
This collective endeavor of voices alternating passages in a lyrical round takes about two hours to complete. Jan reminds us of the sacred nature of poetry. She encourages us to pay attention to our collective and individual alchemy born from whatever passages we are called to read when we play this game of poetic musical chairs.
I began writing this essay before Orlando, before the pulse of a machine gun that should be in no one hands, cut the legs and life out from under forty-nine too young people, many Puerto Rican, Latinx, and most likely members of the LGBTQ tribes, and injured irrevocably scores more.
The early morning of June 12 rang out in terror the likes of what we have seen on our various screens from 9/11, the plane tearing through the towers in the commuter light over Manhattan. But September 11 and June 12 were not, unfortunately, our humanity’s worst hours. They join an all-too-long chain of atrocities against the human spirit. Our country was founded on this type of bloodshed on the plains, in the mountains, and the deserts of this continent with the erasure of its native people. The rise of capitalism was built on the backs of lives stolen from the shores of Africa. Our civil liberties were silenced under the gun fire at Kent State, the bullets that took Malcolm X, JFK, and Martin Luther King, Jr., the struggle for labor rights in Centraila with the Wobblies. In 1925, in Greenwood, Oklahoma, supremacists burned down one of the most affluent of our African-American communities in our nation’s history. Ropes around necks have been too strong for the innocent to resist. The death penalty takes without reciprocating justice. Leonard Peltier remains in a prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, for not shooting an FBI agent on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1973.
“Song of Myself” is a clarion call for equity in a country that strives blindly for something it names democracy in the pursuit of happiness, but rarely embodies. Whitman begins the poem with three lines that have come to identify his vision and voice: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself./And what I assume you shall assume,/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” His “you” powers the poem with a litany of peoples and occupations and experiences that span the terrains of America as well as the intentions of the soul. His litany travels through day and night, work and play, love and sorrows. He speaks of love between men and women as well as between men.
As a nurse in the American Civil War, he tended to the wounded on the battlefield and spoke of his love of those men, in words and flesh. He documented all he dared to live. Each dance, each open shirt collar bearing skin that he longed to touch with his lips, each kiss—all of it, and much, much more inhabits the 1,346 lines of his epic poetic quest. And when Whitman finally arrived at his final publication of the collection, this draft concludes with a nod to his own death, “[t]he last scud of day holds back for me, . . . I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
Whitman’s is an ecstatic leap of faith into the unknown, into the abyss of the future, into the realms of what he could not know and could not name. His lines embody all possibilities with little context of what would come after. If living today, Whitman would understand Orlando as an sanctuary for earthly pleasures and revel in them then turn his witness to revile the dreams shattered by an unfathomable rupture against humanity.
Whitman published nine editions of Leaves of Grass during the course of his remarkable life of letters. The final edition appeared in 1892 as revision was what he demanded of himself and of his country. Over a century later, in all of its glory, Whitman’s “Song of Myself” implores each of us to join in his quest to live and to love, as well as to grieve, with the full capacity of our different bodies in every city we now recognize as Orlando.
Sandra Yannone is a poet, educator, and antique dealer in Olympia. She is a Member of the Faculty and Director of the Writing Center at The Evergreen State College.
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Evergreen Faculty Commencement Address — Spring 2016
Good afternoon, I would like to begin by sharing a poem. While I am not the author of this poem, the poem resonates with me in a particular way, I offer it today as a lens for understanding the content of what I will say as I stand here before you today.
Speak the truth to the people
Talk sense to the people
Free them with reason
Free them with honesty
Free the people with love and courage and care for their being.
This poem, “I am a Black Woman,” was written in 1970 by African-American poet, Mari Evans. As I begin, I would like to pay tribute to Maxine Mims.
Dr. Mims, it is an honor to be part of a commencement ceremony in which you are the honored speaker. Your words, actions, and work represent the very essence of Mari Evans words. Thank you for being the torch bearer, for preparing the space which enables me to stand on this stage today. On a more personal note, I would also like to thank you for the gracious hospitality extended to me as a new faculty member and even more so as a Black female faculty member…so very far away from home. Thank you for your wisdom and the gift and story of the octopus. To my faculty colleagues, thank you for this opportunity. I hope that my words today reflect our collective work. And to the 2016 graduating class of Evergreen State College, congratulations.
This year we witnessed on this campus how various student groups stood on the shoulders of their elders to change the discourse and social practices concerning race, gender, class, and sexuality. Your activism represents the many ways in which people can align the power of their ideas in service to social justice. Thank you.
Today, I will talk about race. My intent in talking about race is twofold—first, I hope to disrupt/dislodge a prevailing mindset which tends to situate race discourse in such a what that positions racialized others as problematic. Secondly, I wish to put forth a paradigm shift for talking about race. One which replaces the prevailing discourse and offers possibilities for new learnings.
First, we must move beyond seeing race as an issue to be solved. For when we place race as an issue to be solved, it renders people of color as being problematic. We are not problems to be solved! It is not the racists or the bigots who do this…for we all know where they stand. But rather it is well-intentioned folks who often see race as an issue in need of solving, this I believe is problematic. My aim here is not to make folks feel bad or point an accusatory finger, but rather name what I see as occurring and what I believe is in need of change.
So, I propose that instead of seeing race as an issue in need of solving, what if we situate race as a question? When race is posed as a question it challenges us to name it, talk about it, and do something about it. This requires us to move beyond a liberal self-congratulatory and incremental approach to race…for let’s face it…such an approach is not enough for the systemic change that needs to occurs. When we accept the challenge of seeing race as a question—then perhaps we can begin to envision the personal responsibility and sacrifice required to make real change to the deeply embedded acts of oppression engrained in organizational structures, routines and everyday practices. Yes, even here at Evergreen State College.
When we pose race as a question we can collectively engage in a conversation that focuses on equity, with equity goals as the center of our collective work. We can begin to equalize the quality of learning opportunities and focus on student outcomes. We can then begin to see the humanity of the students in front of us and the folks that work alongside us each day. As Dr. DeGruy stated, “I see you”. Such a move enables us to truly see one another.
So what are next steps? I believe we must follow the actions of the student groups. We must have courage. We must have the courage to face our fears when it comes to naming, talking about, and action upon race. Yes, our fears are real, but to be courageous means that one has to face one’s fears…because courage can’t exist without fear. My biggest fear is in not acting, for the consequences are dire, especially in our current climate where racist rhetoric and acts abound. This is the moment to step into the roar of our fears.
So how do we get there? I have no answers, but I do have some thoughts.
We must lean upon the wisdom of our elders who have traveled the road we are traveling for their strength and guidance. We draw upon the energy of a new movement where activism looks and sound differently, but if we listen carefully, we can gain learn new strategies. And lastly as a collective body of faculty, staff, and administrators we must act as professional knowledge producers—empowered agents to create change. To borrow from Patricia Hill Collins…we must “act as intellectual activists and put the power of our ideas in service to social justice”(p).
Phyllis Esposito, Ph.D, is a faculty member in Evergreen’s Masters in Teaching program.
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Call from a tree
One of the reasons I supported Bernie Sanders’ bid to be president was the clarity with which he said we have to address climate change. In late June, a federal district judge in Wyoming, Judge Scott W. Skavdahl, overturned the Department of the Interior’s ban on fracking on public lands, ruling that the Interior Department doesn’t have the authority from Congress to issue regulation. The ruling will be appealed, but it’s a telling indicator of how far we have to go in terms of public policies to respond at all effectively to climate change. Sometimes it seems hopeless.
Vermont tree sit to protest pipeline
We get the phone message later that evening from our son/stepson who lives in Vermont. “Hi. This is Sam, and I’m calling to let you know that I’m up in a tree, I’m safe, I have food and dry clothing, and I probably won’t answer my phone. If you leave me a message, I’ll call you when I can.” We try calling. No answer, and no way to leave a message. He’s in a tree somewhere in Vermont, trying to stop the installation of a gas pipeline.
I check Facebook. Rising Tide Vermont has posted a series of items about this tree sit, and a photo.
Early Wednesday morning, Montpelier resident Sam Jessup climbed 60 feet into the treetops above an active pipeline construction site in Monkton. Sam has put his life on the line, as his platform is anchored to the hydraulic arm of a dynamite drill rig. Any tampering with the machine or the rope puts Sam in immediate danger.
Due to the nature of the blockade, extraction would be complicated and involved. Sam’s courageous action is preventing VGS’s hired destruction crews from blasting the hillside away and building the fracked gas pipeline.
Join Sam’s supporters for a march and rally on Thursday evening, June 9th, at 6:00 pm at 986 Rotax Rd in Monkton. (http://www.risingtidevermont.org)
Vermont was the first state in the U.S. to ban fracking. According to the Center for Media and Democracy, on April 12, 2012, the Vermont Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee “voted unanimously for a bill that would ban hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the state, as well as prohibit collection, storage, or treatment of fracking wastewater in the state.” The bill was reconciled—passed—by the Vermont House of Representatives on May 4, and was signed into law on May 17, 2012.
Even so, according to Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG), the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) reaffirmed its approval of the Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project on January 8, 2016—the construction of a pipeline that would bring gas produced through fracking from Alberta, Canada.
Enrique, my husband, teases me each time the sky turns gray and mist or even rain comes down–“must be the drought.” I usually chuckle, sometimes uneasily, because even when it rains, I worry that we won’t get enough.
Last summer’s heat seared my imagination—it’s as if the climate models I’ve read about got branded in my mind as the long, hot, dry days paraded one after the other and I wondered whether our well would run dry. I watched spruce needles turn brown and wondered how to water trees. I started watering blueberry bushes and rhododendrons that drooped, never thinking that the summer would get hotter. It did, and I found myself in turmoil because I’d already tried to rescue these plants—how could I let them dry out now? I thought about the story of the competition between the wind and sun about who is stronger. The wind blows and blows and although people get cold and wrap their coats and blanket more tightly around them, they still survived. The sun shone and people died from the dryness, the heat, the relentless sun.
Sunny days make me anxious for rain. Last year, we spent hours ringing the shrubs in our yard with a mixture of bark and compost, creating nutrient rich dikes to hold any water that came. Most of them survived—even thrived. This summer, we have another pile of mulch, but not the same urgency. It’s not been hot yet. I’m waiting.
Vermont State Troopers
Sam had been up in a white pine—tree-sitting—for six days when a Vermont State Trooper called our house. I wasn’t home. Enrique took the call. The troopers were looking for Sam’s sister Becky. Enrique took the trooper’s name, said that we supported what Sam was doing, and informed the trooper that we were monitoring the situation closely. When I heard about the call, I was relieved that I hadn’t been home. What if they had asked me whether I was worried about Sam? I’m not very good at thinking on my feet.
We knew that the troopers had been shining lights at night, and blaring sirens and honking. We knew Sam had been threatened.
We called the contact person at Rising Tide Vermont to let them know that the trooper had called and to ask how Sam was doing. Sam was fine, we heard, and the troopers had called in a negotiator. Because Sam was so high, they had no way to safely extract him. Because this was the third tree-sit this spring, they needed to get him down.
Part of the strategy behind these tree sits is that delays in the pipeline construction lead to cost increases. If the costs increase significantly, Vermont voters won’t want to pay. Delay works in favor of the climate change advocates.
A Vermont trooper called my 84-year old mom in Illinois. He told her they were worried about Sam, and wondered whether she was too. He told her they wanted to be sure Sam had dry clothes (it had been raining) and food. (He didn’t tell her that police had blocked earlier efforts by the Rising Tide support team to bring dry clothes and food to Sam.) She told him that she loved Sam very much. A second trooper called my mom, this time a woman. “Does Sam have any pets?” she asked my mom, who refused to answer.
Ultimately, the troopers blocked Sam’s cell phone so he had no way to connect with the people supporting him on the ground. Enrique called ATT, and the person there reported that Sam’s line must have been cut off.
Escalating responses to civil disobedience
According to Will Bennington, our contact with Rising Tide Vermont, the police are escalating their response to civil disobedience.
As we continue to effectively halt pipeline construction, we are seeing an escalation in tactics from the police in their response,” said Will Bennington, a spokesperson with the climate justice group Rising Tide Vermont. “AT&T has reported to us that Sam’s phone was disconnected from nearby cell towers, and state troopers confirmed that they had ‘other tricks up our sleeves’ to disrupt the action, including interfering with the cell phone.”
Chittenden County Sheriff’s deputies reportedly harassed Sam at night early on in the week, yelling threats to cut his ropes, banging on the tree and blasting sirens intermittently to keep him awake.
Jessup is currently being held at the Chittenden County Correctional Center in South Burlington, marking the first time someone has been sent to jail for participating in civil disobedience against the pipeline. (http://www.risingtidevermont.org/news)
I’m grateful that Sam sat in the tree in order to delay the pipeline construction. As I go about our yard, pulling invasive species and planting drought resistant, bird friendly native plants, I wonder whether I’ll know when it’s time to act, and I wonder whether I’ll know what to do.
Emily Lardner lives and works in Olympia, Washington.
Recently (June 6), one of the Downtown Strategy Meetings that the City Council and Mayor do, was disrupted by us. We wrote this up as a way to explain why we did this as well as expand the narrative outside of the article that The Olympian put out.
The city of Olympia has a plan to displace the most vulnerable people in downtown Olympia; the poor, elderly, homeless, and people of color. The city calls it development, but we’ve seen what their capitalistic development brings; from Seattle to Tacoma, NYC to Detroit, San Francisco to Oakland. We’ve seen waves of “development” and displacement sweep across the nation, and now it’s here. Isn’t it obvious, in the way that more of the cities budget goes towards an ever militarized police forces, who harass and brutalize the homeless, the visibly queer and gender-nonconforming, and people of color, specifically black people, rather than towards social services and programs to help the most vulnerable and disenfranchised. We’ve already been feeling the effects of gentrification, the construction of the chic yuppy condo monstrosity on Fourth Street as the most visible example. As the property values start to rise, so does rent; it won’t be long before the city is unlivable for us.
The city council and mayor have made very clear what their priorities are, with how they have described homeless people as “street dependent”, as if being homeless is an addiction and not due to a lack of access to resources that the city refuses to spend money on, or how they described homeless as a problem because it might deter private investors with no connection to Olympia from investing in downtown; it’s obvious they’re more interested in selling off the city than making it better for the people that live and work there.
With this in mind, the city has been having meetings and workshops on “downtown development”; we decided to shut it down. We’ve seen the effects of playing nice with developers and gentrifiers, just look at whats left of the cities that we named earlier. Without resistance to gentrification there’s nothing left but a sterile, culturally devoid yuppie wasteland. The vision of the city they have in mind is one where we, the undesirables, don’t exist. So we decided to confront displacement militantly, and to refuse to dialogue with the developers and politicians. They would rather us channel our anger about being displaced in to the right political channels, where we must be passive and polite so that we can be diffused and ignored.
They had their meeting in the Olympia Center. Eight of us with various items to make noise with casually rolled up into the building and made our way to the conference room, which was filled with around 60 or 70 people. We began banging on our our noise makers and blaring air-horns interrupting the Mayor as she addressed the group. We snaked round the room making our way towards the microphone and people began to get up and started trying to talk to us and blocking us and grabbing on us, but we kept going. Members of the city council and the mayor tried to talk to us as well, but we made it clear we had nothing to say to them.
They had left the microphone open as they came to try to talk to us, so one of us ran up to the microphone and began to shout in it; “DEVELOPMENT MEANS DISPLACEMENT! THE CITY OF OLYMPIA HAS MADE IT CLEAR THAT THEY DO NOT CARE ABOUT IT’S MOST VULNERABLE PEOPLES”, they promptly cut off the microphone. People continued to yell about displacement and how the city feigns at giving people choice in the development of Olympia, but is only letting us choose between prefabricated options that we have no say in.
A few minutes passed, the mayor got on the mic and said they were going to take a 15 minute break. During that time everybody was talking and many conversations were had between us and the audience; during that a member of the city council approached us to let us know they had called the police, though once the police came there they just stood off to the side as we had broken no law so they could not touch us. The mayor got back on the mic to announce to everyone that the meeting was adjourned; we had succeeded in shutting down the meeting.
We hung around talking to people for about 10 more minutes before we left; as we were walking an old white couple approached one our black comrades and tried to talk to them. The couple had been talking to our comrade in a very belittling and paternalistic way that was clearly racist seeing as the couple had talked to others differently and when our comrade checked them on that, the older man choked our comrade and slammed them against a wall; a short scuffle ensued which ended in one of our comrades restraining the man from behind so he couldn’t attack anyone else and another helping the comrade who was attacked away from the area. Both groups were detained for 20 minutes; there were no arrests.
The local news paper The Olympian, put out an article about the action and in it Keith Stahley is quoted as saying “They came in with no intention of participating.” They were 100% right; there is no participating in a process that is rigged from the start, we came in with no intention of dialogue because there is no dialogue with the forces of development and displacement; there is no dialogue with people who sit there with dead eyes and patronizing smirks when people come to their meetings to raise issue with racist police harassment and brutality, the problem of low wages, or the city spending extraordinary amounts of money on the police but skimping on social services.
At the end of the day, its about this; displacement isn’t coming, it’s already here and what starts downtown will quickly spread to the rest of Olympia.
If any changes are to come to downtown, or any neighborhood in Olympia for that matter, they should be decided on and implemented by the people for whom downtown is their home, not just the business owners and the land lords, and especially not private investors who have no connection to the neighborhood, but the renters, the workers, the homeless people who all call downtown their home.
Community control of our communities, not control by a city council who is more worried about private investors than the people who live in our community, who gives us the illusion of choice in these decisions by giving us prefabricated options, instead of letting us decide the options in the first place.
And let this be a notice to the city council; there will be resistance to your development that is more focused on profits than people, we will not go peacefully or quietly. We will evict you before you evict us.