Moving the world: A celebration of writing and community

Parc de la Tête d'Or, Lyon, Sergio Canobbio

Last Wednesday, I was fortunate to attend a significant literary event, called Moving the World: A Celebration of Writing and Community.

Over a three-hour period, I heard essays, letters, poems, and collaborative writing, but also saw drawings and paintings. I got to meet with the artists and to ask them questions about their work. The intellectual and artistic quality as well as the variety of the works were outstanding. The program was beautifully organized by Patrick Berry and Cory Holding.

An event such as this one is not uncommon; what made this one special was that it was held in the chapel of the Danville Correctional Center, and the artists were all inmates. They showed off the work they’ve done through courses offered by the Education Justice Project (EJP), led by Rebecca Ginsburg. EJP is a response to the abundant evidence showing that

College-in-prison programs reduce arrest, conviction, and reincarceration rates among released prisoners. Evidence has also linked the presence of college-in-prison programs to fewer disciplinary incidents within prison, finding that such programs produce safer environments for prisoners and staff alike. College-prison programs also have benefits for inmates’ families and, hence, their communities.

Captured Potential, Larry Brent

The EJP is an outstanding effort to help young men who want to become better family and community members. If you had experienced Moving the World, you’d at least have seen inmate-students focusing their energies on reading and writing, on reflecting about their lives, families, and communities, and perhaps most significantly, engaged in how they can make positive contributions to the world both inside and outside the prison.

As I said, the quality of the writing and the oral performances was superb. I was impressed with nearly all of the works. One, entitled “Progressive tears: A prisoner’s retrospective cry for Dewey’s help,” asked the philosopher John Dewey whether his progressive vision was still relevant today. Do we as a people still believe in equality and justice? Do we still see education as a means for building a better society? One may wonder, since the use of Pell Grants for prisoners was eliminated in 1994, and most prison college programs have closed.

Another essay asserts “We all want the same things.” It shows that both prisoners and ordinary people on the outside want prisoners to turn from crime to productive citizenship. Other works included letters to family members, poems, reflections on life. The painting, “Captured potential,” and its accompanying text, express well both the tragedy of prison and the possibilities. I doubt whether anyone made it through the event with dry eyes.

You can see some of the writing itself in the National Gallery of Writing.

An event like Moving the World makes the drudgery and nonsense of many other parts of life much more bearable. I not only enjoyed it in the sense of savoring, rather than counting, the moments, I was also impressed by the obvious thoughtfulness, organization, and high standards that went into it. I now understand why one instructor said that her participation has raised the standards back at the university.


For the sake of a single verse

I’ve always liked the passage below by Rainer Maria Rilke, and especially the book by Ben Shahn whose lithographs illustrate each line starting with “For the sake of a single verse.”

Rilke wrote this when he was 28. Shahn discovered it when he was about that age, saying, “I wouldn’t have attempted to do it if I hadn’t had myself every one of the experiences [Rilke] described.” I remember the cellist Yo Yo Ma expressing a similar idea once. Already acknowledged as a master, he said he wouldn’t be really good at a young age and needed to live in order to play.

I first encountered Shahn’s book when I was also in my late 20’s. That was a time when I began to feel that I was completed–finished with schooling, past the age for the military draft, onto a job in industry after three years teaching at Rutgers, married and already divorced. Then it hit me: I barely knew how to live, much less to turn experiences to memories to “blood within.”

The passage spoke to me then of that sense of personal ending/beginning. But I also see it now as a lesson in humility for whatever we do. Our efforts to produce that single verse often focus on the rhyme and meter, when we ought to think more about engaging more fully in the life that that verse represents.

Audio version

200px-RilkeI think I ought to begin to do some work, now that I am learning to see. I am twenty-eight years old, and almost nothing has been done. To recapitulate I have written a study on Carpaccio which is bad, a drama entitled ‘Marriage,’ which sets out to demonstrate something false by equivocal means, and some verses. Ah! but verses amount to so little when one writes them young. One ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness a whole life long and a long life, if possible, and then, quite at the end, one night perhaps be able to write ten lines that were good. For verses are not, as people imagine, simply feelings (those one has early enough)–they are experiences.

shahn_loveFor the sake of a single verse, one must see many cities, men, and things. One must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the little flowers open in the morning. One must be able to think back to roads in unknown regions, to unexpected meetings and to partings one had long seen coming; to days of childhood that are still unexplained, to parents whom one had to hurt when they brought one some joy and did not grasp it (it was a joy for someone else); to childhood illnesses that so strangely begin with such a number of profound and grave transformations, to days in rooms withdrawn and quiet and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along on high and flew with all the stars—and it is not yet enough if one may think of all this. One must have memories of many nights of love, none of which was like the others, of the screams of women in labor, and of light, white, sleeping women in childbed, closing again. But one must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the fitful noises. And still it is not enough to have memories. One must be able to forget them when they are many, and one must have the great patience to wait until they come again.

ShahnFor it is not yet the memories themselves. Not till they have turned to blood within us, to glance, and gesture, nameless, and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves—not till then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a verse arises in their midst and goes forth from them.

– Rainer Maria Rilke, Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge), 1910

Blue sea, wilt thou welcome me?

Emily Dickinson’s “My River” tells the comforting tale of the river running to the gracious sea:

My river runs to thee.
Blue sea, wilt thou welcome me?
My river awaits reply.
Oh! sea, look graciously.

I’ll fetch thee brooks
from spotted nooks.
Say, sea, Take me!

But as a recent article in The Economist (Sin aqua non, April 11-17, 2009, pp. 59-61) points out, many rivers no longer reach those welcoming waters:indus

An alarming number of the world’s great rivers no longer reach the sea. They include the Indus [at right], Rio Grande, Colorado, Murray-Darling and Yellow rivers. These are the arteries of the world’s main grain-growing areas.

Along with the rivers being depleted, the Aral Sea drying up. 

Fish stocks in lakes and rivers have fallen roughly 30% since 1970. This is a bigger population fall than that suffered by animals in jungles, temperate forests, savannahs and any other large ecosystem. [Moreover,] half the world’s wetlands…were drained, damaged or destroyed in the 20th century, mainly because, as the volume of fresh water in rivers falls, salt water invades the delta, changing the balance between fresh and salt water.

Of course, the seas won’t disappear. In fact they’re actually rising due to the melting of the Greenland and polar ice caps. Thus, the world will survive, but it may not be one with blue seas and “brooks from spotted nooks.” People may survive, too, but in what kind of world? What will our poetry become when we’ve destroyed the brooks, the rivers, the forests, the fish and other animals,  the plants, and the beauty of the planet?

Fondation Connaissance et Liberté (FOKAL)

accueil_biblio1 I was very fortunate to hear Elizabeth Pierre-Louis speak yesterday.

Elizabeth was on campus to accept the 2008 Young Humanitarian Award. As Director of the Library Program at Fondasyon Konesans Ak Libète (FOKAL) in Haiti, she helped to set up 45 community libraries across the country. She coordinates the training and management of these libraries, which are improving the quality of live for the people there. Elizabeth described a wide variety of programs of FOKAL, including projects on supplying running water, developing basic literacy, supporting the visual arts, dance and music, debate, and economic education.

Throughout these many programs, there is an emphasis on participatory democracy, including organization and responsibility of citizens, leadership, financial and technical management, resolving conflicts, and collective decision making. Elizabeth’s work is just part of an amazing organization helping people work together toward common purposes.

The photo, of the Monique Calixte Library in FOKAL’s Cultural Center, and this text below are from the FOKAL site.

The Fondation Connaissance et Liberté / Fondasyon Konesans Ak Libète (FOKAL) Cultural Center, built in 2003 in the center of Port-au-Prince thanks to funding from the Open Society Institute (OSI) and support from George Soros, is designed for meetings, training, reading, debates, recreation and discovery.

The center is comprised of a public library, with a membership of over 5,000 where children and youths from the poor neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince have access to reading materials in optimal conditions, a small auditorium, a café-terrasse and a cybercafé. The UNESCO auditorium is a hall designed for conferences, debates, meetings, audio-visual presentations, films, concerts and theatre. The center also includes a large atrium where one can discover the works of both Haitian and foreign painters, writers, and sculptors; and a sound and video production studio, a training hall and gardens…

FOKAL’s cultural center offers a place, eminently rare in Haiti, where peasants, women, children and youths from poor neighborhoods have a chance to interact with each other and with representatives of all sectors of society on subjects which concern education, the environment, culture, and democracy…

Today, the me nobody knows

me_nobody1I came across the poem, “Today,” in the me nobody knows: children’s voices from the ghetto, by Stephen M. Joseph (Avon, 1969). There are many beautiful, and some heartbreaking, stories and poems in the book, which is an anthology of writings by children in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Harlem, Jamaica, and the lower west and east sides of Manhattan. The year after the book was published, a musical based it, The Me Nobody Knows, premiered in New York.

Joseph, a teacher, invited the children to write, offering three choices: to write using their names, in which case he was willing to meet at lunch or outside of school to talk with them about it; omit their names, but still hand in the writing; or write, but neither sign the paper nor hand it in. But he never forced them to write at all.

The pieces in the book give one picture of life in the inner city, or for that matter, many children everywhere. They invite the question: Are we doing any better for children today, 40 years later?

This poem struck me for its rhythm and the ways that things seem not totally to fit, but do fit all the same.

Cynthia L, Age 15

Today is my day,
Today should be your day,
If it’s your day and my day
It’s everybody’s day.
In your way is my day
Because you made a day that comes all the way.
And two days of a way equal today.
That will never fade away.
In our own way let’s find ways
To make great exciting things happen.
In your ways, make my days,
You made a day that comes all the way,
And two days that are made up of your ways,
Those kind of days will never fade away.

TagCrowd, make a tag cloud from any text or website

TagCrowd, created by Daniel Steinbock at Stanford University, is a clever new web application for visualizing word frequencies by creating a tag cloud (or text cloud). It’s fun to play with and has a number of interesting possible uses.

I made the one on the right from a selection of Emily Dickinson poems. One thing that stands out is her use of the word “stop,” as in:

Not In Vain
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

Tag clouds provide a visualization for navigation on Web 2.0 sites with user-generated metadata (tags) as on this blog. TagCrowd enables this for any text file, by automatically generating tags. You could give it the file name for a secret document you’ve just found, tell it the url for your favorite news website, or paste in the text from the novel you’re writing.

The application can be used in various ways (list from the TagCrowd site):

See the tag cloud for my own cv on the left above. What strikes me there is how I need words of four and five syllables, when Emily Dickinson could say so much in words of one syllable! Stop.

Religion of Grass

I would be converted to a religion of grass.
Sleep the winter away and rise headlong each spring.
Sink deep roots.
Conserve water.
Respect and nourish your neighbors and never let trees gain the upper hand.
Such are the tenets and dogmas.
As for the practice — Grow lush in order to be devoured or caressed, stiffen in sweet elegance, invent startling seeds — these also make sense.
Bow beneath the arm of fire.
Connect underground.
Be lovely and do no harm.

by Louise Erdich