A New Zealand Poet in the U.S.A
by Ron Riddell.
I will begin this poetic travelogue/commentary with the handy catch-phrase, “Poetry in Motion,” which is also the name given to a special annual poetic series of events in the U.S., timed to coincide with the advent of National Poetry Month. This week I have had the honour of participating in the Los Angeles Poetry in Motion event, which featured a dozen leading poets from Los Angeles and other parts of California.
I have been on the road for just a few weeks, having left New Zealand on the 11th of April, bound for the 13th Austin International Poetry Festival, deep in the heart of Texas. Austin is in fact the state capital of Texas and is renown for its cultural life and burgeoning population, which has more than quadrupled in the last forty years. The current population stands at little less than a million, the new airport is more spacious and well-organised than LA International and everywhere the convoluted spirals of new freeway systems are sprouting up.
The pace of life in contemporary urban U.S.A. is extreme. This includes the poetic scene. Hurtling along interminable motorways from one event to another at the AIPF,( where there were some 200 poets participating), I began to get the speed wobbles. Fortunately, none of my wheels came off. At least none that I noticed, last time I checked.
In the U.S. nowadays, the national flag is omni-present. They wave at you from every freeway, street corner and from outside every second house. “United We Stand,” reads a common accompanying slogan.
“Slamming” and poetry-slam contests are also very popular. The best attended event at the AIPF, 2005 was the Slam Contest held on Saturday evening, 16th of April at the Ruta Maya Café, which also acted as the headquarters for the festival. The style which is favoured is the high-energy, testosterone-boosted Nyorican rap style. There was a sameness and lack of variation in tone which created an often aggressive, sex-obsessed monotony at this and similar-styled events. Two of the most balanced poet-performers in this area were Tim Gibbard from the U.K. and Jive Poetic from New York.
Leading the field of guest poets was the Texas-based, Naomi Shihab Nye, who is of Palestinian-U.S. parentage. She is a distinguished local writer and teacher who works in close association with poets such as the internationally-renown, Robert Bly. Her work had a range and resonance which was matched by a number of the international poets including: Agnes Meadows (England), Nii Parkes (Ghana), Carmen Tafolla (Mexico-U.S.), Zara Houshmand (Iran-U.S.) and the wonderful Segun Akinlolu (Nigeria-Canada).
It was a great honour to represent Aotearoa-New Zealand at The Austin International Poetry Festival and to share poetically with a fine selection of international poets and also, of course, the people of Austin. The Austin cultural community is friendly, open and welcoming of antipodeans. Some even know where New Zealand is. Isn’t that the place where The Lord of the Rings comes from? I nod my head. O.K. Yes, I say, that’s it: the land that Peter Jackson made!
On the opening night at The Ruta Maya Café, I gave a little speech. I told the assembly of the faithful that I believed in the several powers of poetry. Some looked surprised, others turned away. The coffee was good and the roasters were whirring. I did not get to finish my little homily on poesy. The rappers and slammers were waiting in the wings, honing up on their invectives. I continued to recite some articles of faith:
“Some people back home in New Zealand asked me why I was coming here. One reason that came readily to mind, was my wish to contribute in an act of solidarity, of common purpose and belief. Through this kind of linking of hands, I believe we can strengthen our common purposes; we can achieve a greater honouring of poets and poetry; of ourselves, as human beings of peace, goodwill, compassion and understanding.”
For some months prior to my arrival in Austin, I had been exchanging emails with AIPF Chairman, Dr. Byron Kocen. A rapport had already begun to develop between The Wellington International Festival and the AIPF. The level of synergy became clearer when I read the new 2005 Mission Statement for the AIPF. It reads as follows:
“Austin Poets International promotes literary excellence by connecting poets from Austin and around the around. We provide a dynamic, inclusive environment that celebrates a passion for language, cultural diversity and self-expression. Our organization unites writers with the broadest audience in a sharing of ideas that affirms our humanity.”
Dr. Kocen continues in his words of introduction to the festival programme: “This year with events swirling out of control in so many parts of our planet, it is more important to make our voices (those of the poets) even more eloquent. I hope this festival affords all of us the opportunity to renew friendships and affirm our humanity with open hearts.” Byron Kocen is a man of vision. He firmly believes that poetry can be used as a medium for peace and a means of healing. How are such ideals to be realized in the context of a poetry festival, in particular to an inclusive, open-to-all festival like the AIPF?
This is the sort of critical question that most contemporary international poetry festivals are preoccupied with – not in any obscure academic sense but in the nitty-gritty day to day processes with are involved in putting such large-scale projects together. One of the key issues implicit in this quest, is the locating of a vibrant, connected and intelligent audience. It is generally accepted that no poetry festival in the world can come close to the achievement of The Medellin International Poetry Festival, in this regard. Medellin sets a benchmark which other festivals can learn from.
However, it is important to remember that each international poetry festival in the world has something unique to offer. There is a sharing experience and out of that a learning from the way in which other people do things. If we have the openness, patience and humility to learn, then we have a good chance of progressing to the next step, which is the application of those lessons, the integration and adaption of them into our programmes and environments. Maybe, this is one area where principles of peace may be applied? Peaceful dialogue and respectful co-creation; instead of unpeaceful dialogue and disrespectful co-destruction.
The twin themes for The 3rd Wellington International Poetry Fesival, 3-7 November, 2005 (www.poetryfestival.org.nz) are Disarmament and Peaceful Dialogue. Most events are free and all are held in or nearby the beautiful New Zealand capital city of Wellington. I urge all those who are attending, especially the participating poets, to reflect on these themes; to meditate on the meaning of disarmament and peaceful dialogue. In those countries where wars still continue, many people lose their lives by expressing themselves verbally or in print. For many of us, especially in Western countries, this may be hard to comprehend. It is only by making an effort to understand, that we can begin to approach the healing processes and peaceful purposes which lie at the heart of poetic art and craft.
It was a special privilege for me to attend the 13th Austin International Poetry Festival in Austin, Texas. I learned a great deal, I made new friends, I crossed new thresholds and I shared a lot with other writers, musicians and festival workers. Congratulations and thanks to all those who contributed towards making the 2005 AIPF such a great success. My only query is this: why was President Bush not on hand to welcome the poets? Last year in Venezuela, for The Inaugural International Poetry Festival in Caracas, President Chavez not only welcomed each participating poet but put extra time aside to speak with all the international poets individually. Again, Latin America shows the lead, in the honouring of poets and poetry. Next year in Austin with Mr. And Mrs. Bush? Por qué no? Why not?
Los Angeles, U.S.A., 7 May, 2005–Wellington, N.Z., 23 June, 2005.