Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Monday, March 29, 2010

Who Pays the Piper

A regular theme here at Broken Turtle is that corporate funding for the arts comes with strings. That is not to say that craft and inspiration can’t break free and project a progressive vision from time to time, one that speaks with an honest heart about a shameful outrage against an American city. Such was the accomplishment of Ten Months: The Wilmington Voices Project, a three-person show portraying the memories and lasting legacy of the 1968 rebellion/riots in Wilmington, Delaware and the ten-month occupation by the National Guard following the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Conceived and Directed by Anne Marie Cammarato, the play will continue from March 31 through April 4 at the Delaware Theatre Company.

The work was not so much composed as harvested from memories and archives buried for forty years. The actors, Taïfa Harris, Erin Moon, and Ben Cherry, shift deftly among a host of characters: a white man who romanticizes Wilmington’s history from the Lenni Lenape to the DuPonts, a teenager rapping the words of Wilmington poet Devon Morrison, an aging African American man, wondering where his city went.

I do believe that such authenticity is a starting point for empowerment and change. But let me quote from a letter I published in today's News Journal to tell you what happened:
My enjoyment of Anne Marie Cammarato’s poignant exploration of painful memories in “10 Months: The Wilmington voices Project,” was dashed by the corporate propaganda inserted in the discussion following the show.
The Rodel Foundation-sponsored discourse led to a pitch for “Race to the Top,” which could rip up union contracts, fire principals and teachers wholesale at schools that serve the poor, and bribe cash-strapped school districts to surrender community control. The Rodel Foundatin, Eli Broad (ex-director of Notorious AIG) and their corporate partners have dominated education discussions in our state and marginalized less-powerful voices that might better advance community needs.
Diane Ravitch, assistant Secretary of Education for presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and formerly an advocate for such schemes, has now reversed herself in the face of their sobering results. Ravitch now concludes that high-stakes testing, “utopian” goals, “draconian” penalties, school closings, privatization and charter schools don’t work. She writes that “[t]he best predictor of low academic performance is poverty–not bad teachers.”
Today, it was announced that Delaware and Tennessee are two of the eventual 16 state winners of the “Race to the Top” competition and, along with it, $100 million in funds. Now, when government joins with communities to support their needs, that’s great. But when the government foists a corporate agenda on public education, that’s real tea party material.  It remains to be seen, much in the same manner as the recent Health Care package just signed by President Obama, if the “Race to the Top” will more benefit the community or the corporations. There has certainly been very little real debate locally, other than a column I wrote, “So-called school reform serves corporate ends,” back in April 2008, and some recent remarks in Delaware Liberal blog.

Back to the arts, many folks say we should avoid overt messages. It’s amazing how corporate sponsors don’t seem to feel that way.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


Earlier today I was watching CSPAN with my sister and my housemate. CSPAN were airing a countdown to the House Health Care Bill debate, showing the motley protest in front of the Capitol and taking calls.

One call especially caught my attention. The caller, who was opposed to the bill, declared: “Health care is a privilege, not a right.” He didn’t sound the least bit crazy. He was just stating what he felt was a natural born fact. In this world, the caller figured, some had and some didn’t. He didn’t happen to have health care at the moment, but he didn’t trust the government to do it right. If he got sick and died, he figured that was the way it was supposed to be. It was what he deserved.

“Poor deluded man,” my sister said. “Society’s really brainwashed him.”

“Did he really say health care is a privilege?” my housemate asked in disbelief. “Did he actually say that?”

“Why are Americans such idiots?” I lamented.

The caller was an easy guy to laugh at, but on the way home, I thought about it.

I have my own health care horror story of sorts. It’s quite a tale of woe, but I’ll give you the short version here. Almost exactly three years ago, I tried to push my car out of a snow drift. Afterwards, I felt a pain above my right knee. After the pain persisted for more than a week, I had the leg x-rayed. The doctor said I hadn’t broken anything and gave me some naproxen, saying whatever it was should clear up in a week.

It didn’t. Gradually, my body fell apart until it got to the point I could only get around with a walker. (Actually I probably should have used a wheelchair, but I stubbornly refused. Pride, you see.) I was in mind-numbing pain. But somehow I always managed to get my butt out of bed and go to work even as my legs grew as twisted as the roots of an old oak tree.

It eventually took four surgeries over one year and six days to rebuild me. I avoided the surgeon’s knife for as long as I could. Part of the reason was because I’d never had surgery before and hadn’t spent much time in a hospital since the day I’d been born. But the main reason was because I was scared to take the time off of work and admit I was that broken.
Because once I admitted that, I was vulnerable and I knew it.

I’m better now, though not perfect. I walk with a cane and a rolling limp, but at least I’m not in pain. But my sickness cost me my job — and in a little over a month — my health insurance.

And even though I don’t want to admit it, there’s a part of me that believes, just like that CSPAN caller would, that somehow this is all my fault. It wasn’t just my body that failed; it was me. And my personal failure was a drag on everyone else’s premiums and so it was right I was kicked to the curb. Sickness is expensive, y’know, even evil, stifling sacred profits. I was the bad guy.

It’s hard to live in a country all your life and not be brainwashed — at least a little. Yes, I can be an American Idiot, too.


Right now Congress is debating the Health Care Bill. They’ve been at it for at least 90 minutes. (Or they could be done. I don’t know. It was too nerve-wracking to watch in real time. I’ll check the post-mortems in morning.) Hopefully, they will do the right thing and pass the bill. It’s far from perfect, but at least it’s in the right direction.

Someday in this country healthcare will no longer be a privilege; it will be a right that seems just as natural born as the status quo does today. And someday a serious illness will no longer make you feel like you are somehow less of a human being — and that you should be thankful for whatever little you get.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Giving It Up for the Future

The late two-time Delaware Poet Laureate David Hudson died a bitter man back in 2003. There were many reasons for his bitterness, some legitimate and some fallacious. Fallacious or not, one of those sources of his bitterness stemmed from the notion that poetry could have a role in effecting our social and cultural environment. The fact that he stopped actively being a poet in his later years and turned to political activity was an indication of his frustrations. Politics has a better chance of affecting change than poetry. So much so had Hudson turned his back on poetry that nearly a quarter century after giving up on poetry, many were surprised that he had ever publicly made a name for himself as a poet. Of the few who had remembered he’d been Poet Laureate, there were those who absolutely hated David Hudson to the extent of publicly voicing glad tidings at his death. In the end the bitterness got spread around and the result on our social and cultural environment was to receive bitterness’ small dose of poison.

Like Hudson, I’ve given up writing poetry for many of the same kinds of reasons in favor of prose, which judging from the near total lack of sales of my literary art contributes to my own bitterness. My point here is that I’m really not bellyaching over my own failure as a literary artist. I’m just not writing fiction any longer for those who don’t appreciate my effort. I’m still writing fiction, however, and I’m writing it for the future, when probably none of us will be around anymore. It is the future, after I’m long gone, that my work may –– MAY –– find the kind of success for which I intended it today. Its relevancy may  –– MAY –– be revealed in hindsight, but if it isn’t then my life’s work is just as dead as I will be, but its carcass will still collect dust on the library shelf until it also turns to dust.

Douglas Morea was quite correct in equating art and religion. The same sensitive nerve in us that’s touched by art, I suspect, is the same nerve that compels us to at least acknowledge our spiritual capacities. Another dimension of this nexus between, especially, poetry as a form of art and religious experience is its potential for prophecy; and by this I mean the capacity to reveal the visions of the world we see around us into some form of the truth about things and events so that more of us can perceive and understand our environment. If we dare to take our poetry and fiction to the people, then we’ve committed a social act. In spite of our individual conceits and fragile egos, when we write poetry for social consumption we’re doing more than just farting in the bathtub to enjoy the rich bouquet that bubbles to the surface from having digested some essence of the world we experience around us.

In the context of our own local literary history, I often wonder about the effect our literary artists have had on the community in which we live and breathe today. Had Delaware poet and journalist Elizabeth M. Chandler in her short but productive career, and to a certain extent John Lofland, not written literary art in the early 19th century revealing the plight of those held in bondage, might Delaware, officially a “slave state,” have instead joined the Confederacy and not been the gateway to freedom we became for those escaping slavery along the Underground Railroad? Had not George Alfred Townsend written The Entailed Hat after the Civil War, revealing the role played by Patty Cannon, serial killer and kidnapper of Black people in order to make money selling them into slavery, would the Ku Klux Klan have become even a stronger force in Delaware than it had? Had the late 19th century humorist Max Adeler’s vivid depiction of a brutal public whipping in New Castle of an elderly Black woman in Out of the Hurly-Burly been more widely accepted, might there have been a chance that Delaware would not have become the “Jim Crow” state it became up to the early 1960s? Might we have been spared the ugly public lynching that occurred at Price’s Corner in 1903, or might lynchings in Delaware have become epidemic as they had in so many other of our United States? Had not the writings of Alice Dunbar-Nelson inspired many of our local Black citizens to believe in their capacity for excellence, would we have produced a Clifford Brown or Louis Redding? Had not local early 20th century novelists Henry Seidel Canby, Christopher Ward, and Charles Wertenbaker shown us in their novels Wilmington’s cultural barrenness, might not those who followed them, including future Poet Laureates David Hudson and Jeanette Slocomb Edwards, have striven to engender a more rich cultural environment for the city?

And what about us, those of us who have been writing literary art over the last forty years? How will we have improved our community, socially and culturally? How might we be remembered? Or as some suggest, should our literary contributions even deserve to be remembered? Whether we like it or not, we’ve already made our contribution to the future because we’ve been making a contribution to the present all these years. And the final question, if our literary contribution is forgotten, what kind of social and cultural landscape will remain for future generations? 

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Following Following What Money

As a poet of some accomplishment, I am poor and little known. Why? Personal history involving no public issue aside, I have simply failed to find an audience. That's show-biz for ya!

When it comes to public funding of the arts, I would love to be able to say I'm confused. But I'm not: instead I'm ambivalent. Would that I were confused, as then I'd be less responsible for my perplexity. Of course I want you to hand me money to write a poem! But, who pays the piper calls the tune. Then again, the tyranny of the marketplace didn't bother the Beatles or Gone with the Wind. But the government? Okay, we've got a good history on that in the USA in the 20th century, but will the luck hold? Oh sure, government for the people, but who are the people? If a writer cries out in the wilderness even over a loudspeaker, and still no one's listening, did he utter anything? And at public expense?

Hey, but why not think of art as religion? Instead of endowments maybe I should get a property tax break like the church, and say throw in franking priveleges too. After all, religion and art are sisters in spirituality. Which would-- oops!-- make government funding of the arts a violation of the separation of church and state? And I'd lose the right to endorse a candidate. Or if not, as a poor little-known poet I would have to compete with St. Patrick's Cathedral, claiming on my application form, "I declare my No. 2 pencil. I um, well... sorta write poems with it..."

Thank God We've Got a White President

In response to "Between Barack and a Hard Place," I voted for Barack Obama for President, and would do so again today. He is a credit to his race-- as a white man myself I'm proud he's one of us, and of course as a black guy he's damn good too.

Yes, Obama has his work cut out for him: he must find a way to be "white" in some essential cultural sense, despite his visual image, which cannot hide behind his leveled American-English accent. Nor can he grow a comely beard like ugly Lincoln, or find strong sons, like FDR, to lift him legless over the gulf of polio.

Is hatred a fixed stone, or a wiley beast? As any President, Obama will have his array of enemies, and for the standard legion of reasons. And what do enemies do? Anything available. If religion, race or gender is available, have at it! Thus there is more racism than there are racists, more sexism that sexists, more narrow-mindedness than narrow-minded people. Most hatred is convenience, and President Obama is convenient.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Make a Party Outa Lovin'?

Should we make a sport out of poetry? I smell morality issue in that question. Who was it-- Merle Somebody? -- forgive my ignorance-- singing an objection to making a "party out of lovin'?" Well, I do my best not to be any kind of snob, and so have no objection to any partying in the human race, provided all participants are self-possessed volunteers. The greatest sin an idealist can commit is to render the world down into his own image.

Let us grant for argument's sake that competitional poetry is a steaming crock. Well, what of it? There is no story till a shadow crosses the sunny valley. Even in an ivory tower the writer is a barn shoveler first and finally. No manure, no job. No job, no shoveler. Even Hercules was not above stable duty. I am talking high literature here, by the way.

And what of appealing to posterity? There is no way to know who among us will be among the select anointed a century hence. Even if all the computers do not crash, nor all the hard copies crumble from paper acid, to dream of literary immortality will still be to dream of having your head frozen in liquid nitrogen, on the chance the yet-unborn will have nothing better to do than revive you. I say lick your chops for supper instead, or for winning a slam.