NaPoWriMo #13: Building Diverse Communities

Exactly one week ago, I was getting ready to deliver my first ever panel presentation for AWP. Lemme tell ya, it was nerve wrackin’. I just spent the last few days listening and learning from a variety of writers sharing some expert advice is a variety of topics including: Poetry in the Age of Obama, Teaching Bilingual Workshops, Identity & Aesthetics in Multi-Cultural Poetry and the Building of the Republic of Poetry, to name just a few. The common denominator: all the presenters were authors with full-length poetry collections. I’m not tryin’ to knock mahself down, just acknowledging that AWP is not all about the institution (read: graduate level writing programs) that there is room for a variety of voices.

Is that room easy to make? No. Is it easy to just walk into this room and claim your space? No. Is that room a given for all writers who are doing work in spaces outside the institution? Hell no.  Can you be easily dismissed if you don’t bring your A game?  Of course.

That pressure to deliver my very best and show that a writer without a full-length collection who is not presently associated with a graduate level writing program can contribute and broaden the AWP conversation had me stressed out a bit but I knew that sooner or later, someone would say something dismissive about writers in community and  that would set off my presentation.  Sure enough, that’s pretty much how it went down.

The key moment happened at the very excellent Republic of Poetry panel.  In a packed room, after Martín Espada, Tara Betts and David Mura gave dynamic presentations demonstrating the power and possibility of modern poetics to shape our present society into a more just union through community, a man asks, “But what can we do to generate interest in the creation of poetry in other communities? There is so much disinterest in poetry in outside communities.”

Oh, no, he, didn’t.

I already had an outline for a presentation written the night before but that comment was the fuel I needed to make my notes and thoughts into a piece of writing I can really be proud of.

So is it a poem? No, it doesn’t have any metaphor or concerns for music or language. And, yes, since it wouldn’t be possible without poetry in my life and I was able to transfer nine years of recitation experience into one of the best performances I’ve ever had in front of a mic.

Also, I was not the only person who rocked it at this panel. All my co-panelists (Barbara Jane Reyes, Jan Beatty, Tim Kahl and Susan Kelly-DeWitt) were equally passionate about their belief that poetry is not a single-faced monolith; poetry is its own vibrant, magnificent, myriad creature of many names. And many thanks to Camille Norton for bringing us all together.

Thank you to everyone on this panel especially Camille for bringing us all together.

Building Diverse Communities

I’ll be speaking today about leading independent poetry centers and set it off with a quote from Walt Whitman: “This is the city and I am one of the citizens, whatever interests the rest interests me”

Right now, I am in the city of AWP and the interest is poetry but I do not live in the city of AWP on a regular basis so know I must share this interest in my regular city, which is outside the AWP/MFA path.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not a tirade about the pros and cons of MFA, I’m talking about writers for whom MFA is not even an options–writers like myself who only attended a semester of college and then went out into the workforce; writers who come to poetry in high school or even grade school; writers in prisons; writers who have all the credentials to attend graduate school but achieved those credentials in other countries; writers who have already completed, or are in the middle, of their post graduate studies in law, medicine, education and don’t have the desire to return to school. There may more scenarios but these are some I know about firsthand. These aren’t hypothetical situations, these are real stories of people who would love to become better writers but have to do it through another path than the MFA.

My own path to poetry was through a variety of roads and intersections: open mics, slams, community sponsored workshops, local arts workshops and just kicking it with friends over brunch, either talking about our work or the poets who we recently encountered (both in print and in person).

The last combination I just mentioned may have been the magic bullet for me, a writer with no connection to an MFA program. The exposure to a variety of voices was key and any writer who has access to a local venue that can bring in an eclectic mix of voices will benefit immensely and most likely develop into a poet with a unique voice. I say this knowing I’ve been lucky to live in two of the U.S.’s strongest poetry hubs, New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area. Places where there is so much live poetry happening I’ve had to make hard choices on different nights and choose to attend one poetry event over another. Even the act of making those choices forced me to make clear aesthetic choices and develop poetic priorities early in my writing life.

I say to any one in this audience who seems to see the same faces come through to the same readings with the same poems: reach out to the community around you and invite in poets from as many different backgrounds as possible, variety in programming will lead to variety in your own poetic community. Go radical, have one poet with a strong background in printed work come in one week and then have a poet who primarily works in performance come in the next; even better, have them read together, you’d be surprised how often the line between page and stage begins to blur.

Do not be afraid to be a curator, mentor, trusted listener and honest reader. Embrace those titles and live up to what they really mean: be a leader for your community. Not a gatekeeper, or single leader of the pack, true leadership in diverse community is shared. I think of Seth Godin’s excellent book, Tribes, and how he challenges his readers to find a road and stick to it, how this commitment will bring others onto our same path, how to share your victories with your own group, and take personal responsibilities for any failures.

This week at AWP, I heard someone ask: “But what can we do to generate interest in the creation of poetry in other communities? There is so much disinterest in poetry.”

I don’t think there is disinterest in community poetry. I think the disinterest is in taking leadership to create that new poetry. There are so many potential writers out there who are looking for that leadership, looking for the chance for something different, looking for a chance to share their stories. Give them that chance. Find the opportunity to agitate by bringing in the diversity all true writers seek, because if you don’t then those writers will not disappear quietly–they will gravitate to those communities models of the past or their current incarnations. I see Hip-Hop, Macondo, Cave Canem, Kearny Street Workshop, Kundiman, the Basement Writers, the Asian American Writers Workshop, Intersection for the Arts, Acentos, louderARTS, the Nuyorican Poets Café, the Bowery Poetry Club, Bronx Writers’ Center, Tia Chucha, The Affrilachian Poets, Prison University Project, Poetry for the People, the National Poetry Slam, Youth Speaks, Urban Word, Girls Write, La Casita, Flor y Canto, VONA, Spanic Attack, Amiri Baraka’s basement, California Poets in the School, PAWA* and AWP.

Yes, you AWP writers, you have the privilege of writing, the privilege of time and travel, the privilege of knowledge, and now you have the opportunity to share it and fulfill your obligation as poet citizens.

For those of you who think sharing this knowledge outside this convention or the conventions of your institutions, is just a dream. Or that the dream to create new institutions is to daunting; I leave you with the words of famed Nuyorican poet, el Revernedo Pedro Pietri: “Do not dream, if you want your dreams to come true.”

Thank you.

* For the sake of time, I listed only a few community programs. I know many more exist and to those organizations I did not to get mention, my for-real apologies. If you are connected with a program I did not list or would like to alert me about one: Please leave some information about your community program in the comments section.

Author: Oscar Bermeo

Born in Ecuador and raised in the Bronx, Oscar Bermeo is the author of the chapbooks Anywhere Avenue, Palimpsest, Heaven Below, and To the Break of Dawn. He lives and works in Oakland, CA.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *