About a month ago I was fortunate to attend a poetry reading by Martin Espada at the Writers’ Center in Bethesda, MD. My friend J. who has a child in intensive care for about several months now, bought the tickets ahead and made dinner arrangements.
I can’t remember when Espada’s poetry first came to my attention. It must have been when an editor who published one of my poems, went to Chile, the home of the great, late Pablo Neruda. Espada went along.
J. and I and her other friend, though all over 60, were like Gilbert and Sullivan’s Three Little Maids from School. I asked to sit plunk in the middle of the second row. Two male poets were in front. I was sure the one on the left was Espada. The others thought he must be on the right. I was right, though Espada and his friend must have overhead everything we said, which was pretty amusing.
Espada read his poem Alabanza, or Praise, in honor of the service people in the Twin Towers who died in 9/11.
He’s aged some since the video was taken. His hair is white, but he still “sings” his poetry. His body language is a constant rolling motion of his entire body.
Sarah Browning of Split this Rock, which helps poets and other artists work for social change, invited me to read in front of the Burma embassy. I said yes.
Martin signed his book The Republic of Poetry for me – “Welcome to the Republic of Poetry.”
As I have been a citizen of this Republic since the mid-90s, I was pleased.
Split this Rock organized the readings on September 24, in front of the Yemen, Burmese (the junta calls the country it lords over “Myanmar”), Turkemenistan and Bahrain embassies. The day before, the dictator of Yemen had just returned home, presumably to take over power again. In Burma, in the north, four days of intensive fighting between the junta and the Kachin ethnic group was reported.
This was an offshoot of the so-called Border Guard Force issue, in the run up to the so-called 2010 “election” in Burma, where the ethnic groups were asked to lay down arms and join the central government’s army. Some, such as the Karen, have been in continuous armed struggle against the center since a year before Burma’s independence from Great Britain in 1948. As revealed in WikiLeaks, the US Embassy in Rangoon saw that the groups would refuse the “offer”.
On an overcast Saturday, a Lebanese-born poet read the Yemen poems. One poem about a woman standing in a prison courtyard could have happened anywhere. I took my poems in a plastic bag and read four, including War on Roaches.
Several interviewers, including from VOA, asked me similar questions.
If you are from Burma, why are you at the Yemen embassy?
What difference will one poem make?
I replied that even if it is just one poem, just one truth, it is one life-sustaining rain drop. All rain falls in droplets. It does not matter where these atrocities take place, the human experience is universal. To the more than 2000 political prisoners I sent regards to be strong and to value their humanity.
We are not to be shattered because one authoritarian oppresses us.