Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Monday, October 17, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: the Space in the Spandrels

We hear quite a bit about the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon in terms of a space: “opening a space for a conversation about the economy,” for example.

Everyone who has been trying to raise the alarm in the space of rational argument about the wholesale transfer of wealth and power upward in America for the last thirty years has failed to be heard. And now some hippies show up in a park beating on drums and everyone is talking about economic justice. How did they do that?

Many are puzzled about this term space. Spacey is how some have stereotyped the partisans of this movement. Maybe a way to understand this space is in terms of a spandrel.

A spandrel is an architectural term. An architect constructs a building with a combination of straight lines and curves, which don’t really mix that well, so he or she ends up with leftover space. What spans the space between, say, the curve of an arch and the square that boxes it in is a spandrel. It wasn’t exactly planned; it’s just an unavoidable feature of the structure. (Spandrels also exist in evolutionary biology: features that arise as side effects of adaptive processes and are accidentally useful in sustaining life, a thought that may pertain to my theme).*

photo by Einar Einarsson Kvaran aka Carptrash 19:35, 23 October 2006 (UTC) These spandrel figures representing Astronomy (left) and Sculpture (right) were created by Bela Pratt for the Library of Congress Building around 1896.
Society, too, has a structure. It is constructed not of pillars, lintels, and arches but of culture, politics, the economy, and just about anything that relates people to one another. Some voices among the Occupiers suggest that those of us who have challenged the elite in the past are even part of this structure.

And that makes us defensive. After all, we’ve organized, struggled, and even thrown our bodies under the machine. We got the tread marks to prove it. But maybe it’s true that we are part of the structure, at least in the sense that society bears the marks of treading over us, too.

The structure we live in has been imprinted with adaptations that thwart whatever we do to oppose it, be it educating, organizing, writing poetry, or, for that matter, waging armed insurrection. A well-cited example is how the “commons,” those spaces where citizens could pass out flyers, rally, or put up a picket line, have shrunk as shopping malls have privatized the spaces between shops. But it is not merely the physical space that is disappearing. Just ten years ago tens of millions of folks rallied in the commons against the impending invasion of Iraq to no avail. All the political structures that might previously have been compelled to respond to protests on this scale had adapted, with the obvious help of corporate treasure, so they felt no need to respond. It was as if the space where those multitudes marched had been rendered space no more.

Somehow these Occupiers have found the spandrels.

This is important to me as a poet, because I have been thinking for some time that arguing has not been able break the spell that fear and powerlessness has on our society. I have been thinking that only poetry could counter this spell, working in the space of the heart rather than the brain. I may have found this space in the spandrels.

What happens in these spandrels?

Well, for one thing, people give testimony about what the economic collapse has meant to them and their families. It’s about a middle class Puerto Rican family living the American Dream, father a physician, daughters with degrees and 100,000-dollar debts, losing the home they had lived in for forty years when pop is fired. It’s about a single mother of two offered a four-dollar-per hour job. About an autoworker with twelve-years seniority whose plant has just been raised to the ground. Black, brown, white, and up to now, unheard. You can see some of this testimony in Dana Garrett’s video of the October 15 Occupy Delaware rally in Rodney Square.

For another thing, there is a democratic process with no leaders. Rallies are called General Assemblies. You’re lucky if there is a PA system. Sometimes they use a “human megaphone,” whereby a speaker utters information or speeches in three- to five-word segments that are then repeated by the crowd nearby. Totally ad hoc conveners follow a simple process of proposals, clarifications, concerns, amendments, straw polls, and votes. We old radicals, trade unionists, and peaceniks stand aside as this newer world’s in birth.

It has a kind of poetry of its own, scribbled in the spandrels of the system. There is a kind of faith that ninety-nine percent of the people really can and do count.

So what is the role of the poet in this? Occupy Delaware has an Arts, Culture & Education Committee. In its Face Book discussion group the committee mentions education about the banking crisis and injustices by corporations and the use of art to engage supporters and to educate people about Occupy Delaware.

Now, programmatic poetry is problematic to poets of the highly crafted poem, poetry composed and read in contemplation, poetry like that of Dylan Thomas, which I love. Perhaps the distinction between programmatic and contemplative poetry is the same as that posed by the late revolutionary poet, Tom McGrath regarding Tactical and Strategic Poetry. Tactical Poetry is tied to “some immediate thing” like a “strike.” Strategic poetry, on the other hand, is “a poetry in which the writer trusts himself enough to write about whatever comes along, with the assumption that what he is doing will be, in the long run, useful, consciousness raising or enriching.” To me, that means writers of tactical poems will be writing under a deadline, bringing whatever poetic gifts they have to the immediate task, trusting that an accessible message gains profundity in its timeliness, and, as McGrath warns, facing the fact that eventually “the events they were about have moved out from under them.” Sic transit gloria.

My own attempt at a tactical poem, “Global Solidarity” can be read here or heard at about 5:26 in Dana Garrett’s video, above. Almost immediately after is a stirring poem called “Freedom Fighter,” by Red Lip Poetry Salon’s Amy Eyre.

In the architecture of manipulation, exploitation, and violence, there are spandrels, the left over spaces. There find the poet’s workshop and stage.

*See David M Buss et al., “Adaptations, Exaptations, and Spandrels,” American Psychologist 53:5, 1998, pp. 533-48, cited in Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times, p. 227.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Man Who Was an Early Mentor for Clifford Brown

My friend Ken Anderson has been on me for some time about Sam Wooding, who for a time taught band at Wilmington's Howard High School in the 1940s. Before desegregation began its long process of integrating Wilmington's public schools, Howard High School was the all Black high school in northern New Castle county. Howard High School produced a number of well known and talented musicians, the major figures being Clifford Brown, Lem Winchester and Gerald Price. Clifford Brown had gone to Howard High School in the 1940s and he and my friend, Ken Anderson, were in the Howard High School band together and Sam Wooding was their band teacher. Ken was given the tuba to play and strongly suggests that Wooding may have given Clifford Brown the trumpet. However, Brownie had already adopted the trumpet on his own after giving the trombone a whirl, and probably picked up his first chops under Wooding's tutelage. So who was Sam Wooding?

Sam Wooding was born in Philadelphia on June 17, 1895. In the 1920s he formed a jazz band, performed some vaudeville gigs as well as a few venues in Harlem, notably at Small's Paradise. Soon he realized he could make more money for himself and his band, The Chocolate Dandies, by touring Europe during the 1920s. Among the early jazz greats in The Chocolate Dandies were Doc Cheatham, Tommy Ladnier and Gene Sedric. He recorded some sides for Parlophone and Pathé, and performed in clubs throughout Europe. One song he recorded, "J'ai Deux Amours," was heard by Josephine Baker, who made it one of her signature songs. There is also strong conjecture that the German composer Kurt Weill was influenced by Sam Wooding. The music Weill composed for The Three Penny Opera and other collaborations with Bertolt Brecht contains musical forms reminiscent to those heard from Wooding's arrangements.

In 1927, Wooding and The Chocolate Dandies toured South America and had some momentous gigs in Buenos Aires. One could contend that their influence there had some affect upon Argentina's tango musicians because tango music later merged with big band music, particularly during the Peronist era. Wooding's Chocolate Dandies returned to Europe for a spell in the late 1920s into the early 1930s, but the rise of Nazism eventually drove them out of Europe. The band eventually disbanded after returning to the United States in 1932, but not after reforming for a few years during which Sidney Bechet was a member.

Sam Wooding returned to school after leaving the music industry. He earned a Master's Degree from the University of Pennsylvania, which eventually brought him to a teaching position at Howard High School in Wilmington sometime after 1942 by best estimation. He evidently remained at Howard through at least the late 1940s, leaving his mark upon some later notable musicians like Clifford Brown, which is where we began.

Sam Wooding moved in and out of the music industry afterwards until he died on August 1, 1985.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Levine gets the Butt of Sack

Philip Levine, dubbed a “proletariat poet,” is the new Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress. There is perhaps a subtle political message in his appointment. Perhaps it means that someone, at least, is thinking about the equity in sweat that creates all wealth rather than the equity in credit default swaps that destroys it.

Early laureates Allen Tate (1943) and Robert Penn Warren (1944) both espoused the conservative Western canon and promoted the apolitical New Criticism. Louise Bogan (1945), poetry critic for The New Yorker, broke the gender barrier, but gently. Robert Hayden (1976) broke the color barrier, also gently.

Some appointments have supported free thought, at least in foreign despotisms. Joseph Brodsky, for example, had been expelled from the Soviet Union for alleged “social parasitism” in 1972. He emigrated to the U.S., won the 1987 Nobel Prize, and was appointed in 1991.

Levine’s elevation comes a little late for him; he’s 82. His experience in the Detroit factories goes back to the late ‘30s and Word War II period, and his descriptions of factory life sometimes seem in period-appropriate sepia tones. A while back, I picked up his What Work Is (1991) on a remaindered table for four bucks. Presumably, sales have picked up since the new honor.  

Still, there is an intergenerational bond that makes Levine’s poetry resonate. When I began working at Chrysler, which employed me for three decades, I met folks who had been around for the great sit-down strikes of ’37, three decades before. And check out the overhead chain conveyer in Diego Rivera’s 1933 “Detroit Industry.” You’ll see the same design in today’s auto plants. Plus ça change. More importantly, Levine has a sense of what motivates workers beyond the money. No matter how lousy the job, work gives folks a sense of being.

Take his “Fear and Fame,” the opening poem in said What Work Is. It’s about a man who mixes a metal plating—or “pickling”—solution. We see him suiting up in protective gear, remembering the pedigree of the secret recipe he learned from the former pickling master (now “off to the bars on Vernor Highway/to drink himself to death”), descending into a pit where he mixed hydrochloric acid and other noxious potions, climbing out, undressing, observing his work mates at their jobs, and then suiting up again

. . . for the second time that night, stiffened
by the knowledge that to descend and rise up
from the other world merely once in eight hours is half
what it takes to be known among women and men.

The poem puts labor back into its human dimension, rescues it from what Marx called the “fetishism of commodities” behind which human relationships and creative sweat hide when goods are exchanged.

As a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, Levine was an early product of what has been called “The Program Era” (See Mark McGurl's book of that name, reflected on by my colleague Steven Leech in “Casualties from the Fast Track”). This era is characterized by MFA programs and writers retreats, generally under the sway, critics claim, of mainstream publishers and academia. Many, if not most of the U. S. Poet Laureates reflect this establishmentarian bias. All the same, some, like Levine’s Iowa Workshop mentor Robert Lowell, were great.

Anyway, I can relate to Levine. For one, I took poetry writing under his classmate, the late W.D. Snodgrass, at the University of Delaware. Even better, Robert Lowell judged an Academy of American Poets Prize I won at UD in 1963. But it’s more than the indirect personal connections; it’s his ambivalence. Elizabeth Lund, in her August 11 article in the Christian Science monitor, quotes Levine reflecting on the relationship between his factory work and his career:

It took me a long time to be able to write about it without snarling or snapping. I had to temper the violence I felt toward those who maimed and cheated me with a tenderness toward those who had touched and blessed me.

Sometimes I feel like I should have waited until time tempered me before I wrote Autoplant: a Poetic Monologue, since I felt more “maimed and cheated” then, while now that Chrysler is shut down, I feel more “touched and blessed.” But, as I said in the in-text fiction disclaimer, “if the shoe fits, it’s your own damn fault.

Still, Levine’s latest honor is an opportunity to build momentum for transformative working class poetry. Hey, everybody, I’m an autoworker poet, look over here! Oh, well.

Next April, I’m hoping to bring poet Jim Daniels to Delaware. Raised in an autoworker family in Warren, Michigan, Daniels worked a short time in the auto plants and now has taught several decades at Carnegie Mellon.  He has never stopped writing about the social, spiritual, political, and economic lives of workers, including, most recently, professors. See his Having a Little Talk with Capital P Poetry.

A few years back, I saw Philip Levine at the University of Delaware. In the copy of Selected Poems I bought, he wrote, “for Phillip from Philip, with hope for our poems.”

Well, congrats, Philip, with hope for more working class poets.

Note: a “butt of sack” (cask of sherry) was the traditional pay for the British Poet Laureate.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

More on the Search for Delaware artist William D. White

In February I posted a short article about the former Delaware artist William D. White. Since then there has been some movement in the effort by Delaware artist Nancy Carol Willis and myself to revive the life and work of this important yet largely little known artist. Two significant events have been the publication of an article in the latest issue of The Broadkill Review, published in Milton, Delaware, about the life and career of William D. White, which includes a wide selection of his art work. The article was published with the aim of finding more of White's work as well as to disseminate information about him. In order to supplement the information and display of White's art in The Broadkill Review, Nancy Carol Willis has designed a new website containing not only all the information in that article but additional materials including some that has since surfaced. The website is:
The accompanying photo is the only known photograph of William D. White. In it he is standing in front of the mural he had painted while a member of Delaware's Federal Artists' Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The photograph was published in 1936 in the Wilmington Sunday Star. The mural survives. It was originally painted for the U.S. Post Office in Dover, Delaware. The building now belongs to the Wesley United Methodist Church in Dover and can be viewed by the public, though folks at the the church should be consulted to be sure the building is not being used at the time of your visit. Other original examples of White's art can be found at Buena Vista Conference Center in New Castle County. Another of White's painting can be viewed at the Willard Hall Building on the campus of the University of Delaware.
The website that Nancy Carol Willis designed makes it easy for any one to post comments. It is our hope that comments might include information about where more of White's artwork can be found, with the further hope that one day we might be able to stage a larger public retrospective of this important Delaware artist's work.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Attack on Civil Society: How Poets Respond

Reprinted in slightly revised form from The Broadkill Review, Vol. 5 No. 2

Civil society is bizarrely heterogeneous, comprising everything from the Pagans Motorcycle Club to the now defunct non-profit ACORN to unions to poets. Nevertheless, it is the chorus of Liberty and Democracy and it is under attack, one voice at a time. Permit me to summarize a couple of the more recent examples, provide a little philosophical entertainment, and humbly suggest a role for poets.

The first is the November 2006 killing of Iraq War vet and Pagan member Derek Hale by Wilmington, Delaware Police.  Investigating alleged drug dealing by the Pagans, a swat-type team of cops arrived at the home of a Pagan friend of Derek’s and found him sitting on the steps. Derek, for whom police had no arrest warrant, rose. Before he could comply with orders to take both hands out of his pockets, he was tased repeatedly. Then, as he lay on his side paralyzed and vomiting, and as a mother and her two children also on the steps looked on in horror, a policeman fired three fatal  .40-caliber rounds into his chest. According to Attorney General Beau Biden’s report exonerating police, Derek was shot as he "continued to keep a hand in his pocket as if holding a weapon and was turning in a threatening manner toward an officer armed with an empty Taser."

Let’s not forget that folks have a right freely to associate with the Pagans, in spite of how they may offend middle-class sensibilities. I worked side-by-side with several Pagans at Chrysler and even considered a few my friends because they did their jobs, shared our collective burdens, and could be relied on for the union cause. I described the spiritual travails of an imaginary biker in my Autoplant: a Poetic Monologue, and I did not stint in describing the less savory activities of some bikers.

The second event was the destruction of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the nation-wide non-profit that specialized in empowering the poor through such activities as credit advocacy and voter registration. Readers may remember how several Federal Prosecutors were fired because they resisted Bush administration pressure to concoct bogus charges of voting fraud against the group.

However, it is easer to destroy a reputation than to prove an accusation. Thus, in 2009, a group of right wing operatives with hidden cameras began trolling ACORN offices to see if they could trick ACORN workers into seeming to wink at illegal activities. Highly edited videos of these visits were widely disseminated on-line and on Fox News, and in short order foundation funding dried up, and Congress—Democrats and Republicans cravenly alike—stripped ACORN of federal contracts. Subsequent investigations by several state’s attorneys and the federal GAO found no wrongdoing by ACORN regarding the insinuations of the video. A Federal court voided the stripping of ACORN’s funding as an unconstitutional “bill of attainder.” But all that was too late. By November of 2010, ACORN was bankrupt and dead.

Also too late for Derek Hale, in December of 2010, Wilmington settled a wrongful-death lawsuit with Derek’s widow for $875,000. While Wilmington Police did not admit culpability, the deal certainly made their case look bad, as Wilmington News Journal editorialist Ron Williams demonstrated witheringly in recent columns.

Ironically, joining the ACLU in Derek’s widow’s case was Thomas Neuberger, leader of the Rutherford Institute, a Christian right-leaning civil liberties organization. Additionally, one of the most eloquent advocates in Derek Hale’s case is William Norman Grigg, who blogs at, a Ron Paul-type libertarian web site. Grigg ties the killing of Derek Hale to what he refers to as the “unitary, militarized, Homeland Security apparatus,” a component in the right-wing narrative that sees a slippery slope toward federal encroachments on state’s rights and the eventual deployment of UN forces in the USA.

It is well known how the corporate elite funds the right. Paradoxically, not only did the right defend the proletarian Derek Hale, but its very emblem is Joe the Plumber, leading a working-class charge against immigrants, gays, unions, affirmative action, taxes, Muslims, Big Government, and the latté-sipping elite who evince moral superiority to the proles but know nothing of their burdens.

No telling how much the involvement of Beau Biden, son of U.S. Vice-President Joe, had to do with tempering the voices of outrage over Derek Hale’s death. When Joe was a senator, he was able to sell Delaware on his proto-Patriot Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 and his Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, which latter was to make the world safe from bad loans.

Now for that philosophical entertainment: Slavoj Žižek, the leftist Slovenian Philosopher, has some words on the European anti-immigrant movement that might shed light on the paradox cited above. Says Žižek,
[I]t’s absolutely crucial how this anti-immigrant explosion is linked to the withdrawal of leftist politics, especially in the matters of economy and so on. It is as if the left, being obsessed by the idea that we shouldn’t appear as reactionary in the economic sense, that is to say that “No, no, no, we are not the old trade union representatives of the working class, we are for postmodern digital capitalism” and so on. They don’t want to touch the working class or so-called lower ordinary people. And here right-wingers enter. Do you know, the horrible paradox is that, apart from some small leftist fringe parties, the only serious political force in Europe today which still is ready to appeal to the ordinary working people are the right-wing anti-immigrants? So you see, we, the leftists, we have no right, absolutely no right, to take this arrogant view of offended tolerant people who are horrored—no, we should ask the question, how we enabled what is going on. “Slavoj Zizek: Far Right and Anti-Immigrant Politicians on the Rise in Europe, Part II." Democracy Now with Amy Goodman. 18 October 2010. <>.
What happened to ACORN demonstrates a great deal about “how we enabled what is going on.” ACORN had attempted to be a transmission line between the power of corporate foundations and government to the people at the base. When that line was snapped, instead of uniting to defend ACORN, terrified liberal politicians and civil society thought only of securing their own teat on the increasingly stingy corporate-government sow. Repeatedly, when reactionaries have led the charge, liberals have led the retreat.

So now, in various ways, the onslaught against democracy, economic justice, and civil society continues. Shirley Sherrod, Planned Parenthood, NPR, and climate scientists have all been subjected to the same political warfare, a warfare that has escalated with the stripping of collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin and other states.

A soldier, Bradley Manning, who may or may not have had something to do with leaking a video to Wikileaks showing an American helicopter machine-gunning civilians in Iraq is treated like an Arab terrorism suspect. Arab terrorism suspects continue to be treated like non-persons at Guantanamo. American Muslims are vilified in McCarthyite hearings in Congress. The poison spreads and fear abounds.

So, what do we poets have to do with all this? Promote Solidarity.

We already do, of course. By our very nature, we are motivated by Solidarity, “the conviction of which” according to Joseph Conrad, “knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, [. . . ] the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men [and women] to each other, which binds together all humanity—the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.”

Beyond expressing that mutual resonance of human experience, poets are reluctant, justifiably, to prescribe solutions to social problems.  They also don’t like to take marching orders. But what’s wrong with suggesting that poets attune their antennae to the onslaught of repression creeping across civil society? To suggesting poets be more relevant to the nitty-gritty majority in our country, where ideas swirl in a messy, non-academic mix, where the social infrastructure is shredding, where prison is more likely than a diploma or a good job and where the repression that is overwhelming civil society is nothing new?

Tell you what I’ve been doing. I’ve been going to Solidarity with Wisconsin rallies armed with new-lyrics labor songs like “On Wisconsin” (Fight for workers’ rights).

When I was the featured poet for the April Second Saturday Poets, I put out a special invitation for other poets to join me reading works on the theme of Solidarity. I even wrote a bit of agitprop verse about it that some of you already saw.  It includes the lines,

Would you sing Solidarity in the Old Union Hall,
chicken dinners, picket lines, all for one and one for all?
Blood and sweat’s our gender, our race, of broken backs,
barricade of all nations, when capital attacks.
Pay your monthly dues and rise with the other guy.
Or would you, had you just one wish, if shared, lose one eye?

The rest of the poem was previously posted at the Broken Turtle Blog: Are You Stirred By Solidarity?

And on Friday, June 3, I’ll be sharing my verse in support of the 22nd annual Soweto Festival, sponsored by the Delaware Committee for Racial Justice & Harmony and Delaware Artists for Racial Unity. I’ll be performing around 6 p.m. at the Artist’s Reception at the Gallery at Grace, Grace United Methodist Church, 900 N. Washington St., Wilmington, DE 19801. The affaire is a project of Delaware Pacem in Terris. See

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Friday, April 8, 2011

Spoiler Alert

I’m kind of strange. I don’t care if you tell me the end of a movie, book or television show, even if it’s an ending with a twist. For me, it’s not the ending that’s important, but the story you travel to get there. After all, there are really only a finite number of plots. All genres have their standard story lines. What distinguishes a good story from a bad one is the journey, not just the ultimate destination.

In some cases, though, knowing the ending can put us at a singular disadvantage. Lately, I’ve been thinking the problem with history — especially in regards to progressive activism — is that we know the ending. We hear stories about the Founding Fathers, the abolitionists, the suffragettes, the early union organizers, the Freedom Riders, etc and because we know they were victorious in the end, we assume those victories were inevitable. We think because we know the ending, our forebears somehow knew it too, and it was this secret knowledge that gave them the strength and courage to wage the battles they did. Unlike us, they could actually see that light at the end of the tunnel; they didn’t have to fumble around in the dark.

When the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, we know this act (along with a brutal war) helped found a nation, but at the time, they had no idea. For all they knew, they were signing their own death warrants. They hoped it would lead to something better, and they had the courage of their convictions, but there was no way they could be sure everything would work out in the end. In fact, they had every reason to believe it wouldn’t. I imagine it felt a little like jumping off a cliff.

Likewise, when abolitionists hid runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad, they risked their lives, reputations, and property to commit what was then a serious crime. They felt compelled to do the right thing, but they had no guarantees doing so would dismantle America’s peculiar institution. Slavery was pretty entrenched in this country. The Southern elites had a good racket going. They were rich and growing richer. Insane profits with a payroll percentage of way less than the “optimal” 20%. No way were a few rogue operators going to persuade them to stop.

It is tempting to be lulled into reading the history of this country as a frustratingly slow — though ultimately heroic — march towards a yet unattained but inevitable state of perfection. We believe perpetual progress is our birthright and that we are ordained by the universe to keep getting bigger and better. But the activists who came before us knew no such thing. You have to be willing to risk it all to do what is right and good even when the odds are stacked against you, even when you are almost certain to fail. Because many times you will fail, and the those few victories you do win will be tenuous. You have to keep fighting every day.

This country has gone dark and our enemies seem untouchable — but it’s been that way many times before. One annoying thing about history is that it keeps repeating itself. If you really think about it, are BP, Bank of America, the Koch brothers, and Fox News any more intimidating than the ruling monarch of a superpower, the antebellum Southern aristocracy, or the robber barons of the First Gilded Age? Activism has always been difficult and often futile. So many good works get thrown down a black hole. Why did Bernie Sanders make that speech? Why did those veterans chain themselves to the White House fence during a snowstorm? Why did all those people camp out in Madison? What good did it do?

There’s a character in my novel-in-progress, The Plague Child, named Father Anthony, who is an activist priest. The novel is set in an America of the future, and frankly, that future isn’t too rosy. The country is broke and barely holding together. There are huge uninhabitable Dead Zones. A few corporations control everything and sometimes declare war (yes, actual war with guns and everything) on each other. Violence, sickness and poverty are commonplace and most people are too busy with merely surviving to mount any sort of coherent resistance. Still: Father Anthony wages a battle for change he is almost certain to lose. But he’s no Don Quixote. He sees the world for what it is, and continues with his work. Another character says of him: “He sees everything so clearly, so starkly; he stares down the darkness and does not flinch. And yet: he persists in doing good.”

That is precisely the sort of courage we must have. We owe ourselves and those who came before us nothing less. Victory is far from certain and there is no guarantee of a happy ending. No matter what we do, there’s bound to be some rough sailing ahead. But if we give up and do nothing, we’ll deserve the ending we get.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Preface to 2nd Edition Autoplant

            On December 19, 2008, the last production shift at Newark, Delaware’s Chrysler Assembly Plant, scene of my 1992 Autoplant: a Poetic Monologue, filed out, leaving behind their last Christmas cards, half-full coffee cups, production charts, cotton gloves, and dreams of sharing the American Dream.
            The world where the imaginary Big Man, Gravy, Billy Goat, Warthog, and a fictional version of myself had worked, sweated, and turned from mutual torment to solidarity was gone.
            Folks who have read or seen Autoplant may take it in different ways. Some may find it to be a cautionary tale about how some workers and students, deluded by 60’s revolutionary fantasies, disrupted industry and academia. Others may see it as some sort of a romance, a quest, complete with mythic characters, a dark night of the soul, and ultimate redemption. Still others may see an inspirational lesson in how ordinary folks, with all their fears and limitations, can apply the lessons of solidarity to improve their lives.  However you see it, the issues that led to their actions (or delusions) are repeating themselves today in new forms. Thus, and since the old edition is sold-out, it seems appropriate to produce this second edition. Fair warning to the squeamish: you’ll find adult situations and crude shop-talk here, but as I say in the monologue, “if the shoe fits, it’s your own damn fault.”
            Back when I wrote Autoplant, my concern was with how exploited labor produces spiritual alienation. Alienation—as in “inalienable rights”—means to make foreign or separate. Long story short: assembly lines separate us into little parts of production and only use little parts of our abilities, so we are alienated from our whole selves, spiritually carved up. And then the bosses  separate us from the value of the product by taking out some to buy supplies and machines, which they control, keeping a chunk in profits*, and returning a portion to us in wages and benefits, about 8% of the price of the vehicle for autoworkers. Alienation is what gave me the nightmares of dismemberment that I recount in Autoplant.
            Now, with deindustrialization, NAFTA, the Great Recession, and the firing of millions of us, we are even separated from the machines that were built with our labor. As the UAW anthem, “Solidarity Forever,” written in 1915 by Ralph Chaplin, describes it:
It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade;
Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid;
Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made;
            These days, instead of dreaming fretfully of infants chewed up in the jaws of a machine, I dream about Newark Assembly as a place of belonging, of harvest sharing, of that  “solidarity forever” expressed in the last line of that verse above:
But the union makes us strong!
            Ironically, my present employer, the University of Delaware, which played so prominently in Autoplant as the dream “gymnasium” from which I wandered to the nightmare of assembly line dismemberment, has purchased the Chrysler site. UD intends to use it as a new hub for high-tech research, business, and academics. New jobs are unlikely to be blue collar or even local, however, as tenants of such industrial parks tend to import their employees in-house and in any case will only be hiring those with technical and advanced degrees. Alternative purchasers, industrialists who might have re-hired Chrysler workers, were discouraged from bidding on the site.
            You see, UD is a bit of a hermaphrodite enterprise: both public and private, depending on which gender suits it on any given occasion. For example, according to the News Journal (24 Oct 2009), “[i]n a footnote in the bankruptcy court filing, attorneys for Chrysler noted that other potential purchasers may have been reluctant to ‘take the risk’ of buying the property because UD had the possibility of gaining the land, under state law, through eminent domain and has publicly indicated a willingness to use such rights [of a public enterprise] to secure the property.’” Not only that, but UD is giving most demolition and re-construction contracts to out-of-state and non-union firms. UD argues that their Board requires that they take the low bid, typical of any private enterprise. Prevailing wage laws that would induce them to hire local union firms are only for public institutions.
            The greater significance of UD’s shrewdness in nailing this deal is how replacing blue-collar with lab coat jobs is seen as part of the inevitable evolution of the global economy. Those jobs are gone forever, it’s time to get over it, start your own business, or retrain after some twenty or twenty-five years out of high school. You can do it all on your own lonesome. After all, ain’t individual responsibility the American Way? Now, many Chrysler workers are making it, but some just barely, and some have become economic evolution’s collateral damage. Personally, I’m doing OK. I retired in 2001 after thirty-one years, and now I’m “teaching more than a minutes worth of Shakespeare” at UD.
            Time was when folks would admire us in our UAW-emblazoned jackets as men and women who worked hard, had fought the boss shoulder to shoulder, and had won a fair share of the wealth we created. We might not be genteel and sophisticated, but our solidarity was an inspiration to any regular working Jane or Joe who believed she or he could fight for a better deal.
            Somewhere along the way, about the same time industrialists were shipping jobs overseas and investors began gambling on credit default swaps, solidarity became the big enemy.  According to current fashion, if you combine your strength in unions to make the boss pay you a fair wage, then you are a thief and a socialist. We’re led to believe that any guy big biz pays more is merely taking from the guy big biz pays less. We’re led to believe workers should let the infallible market set their pay in the same mysterious way that hedge managers and oil barons do. And don’t blame the banksters for the economic melt down. Instead, blame Arabs, blacks, gays, feminazis, immigrants, ACORN, taxes, and unions, such as those representing government workers.
            The month that I write this, March of 2011, the nation and the world is seeing what solidarity can do. In Egypt, men, women, middle class, poor, young, old, Muslim, Coptic Christian, socialist, and traditionalists combined to topple a dictator. In Wisconsin, teachers, sewer workers, pencil pushers, students, firemen, and cops are confronting an oil baron’s flunky, the Governor of the state, who has attempted to strip them of fundamental human rights.
            Now, Autoplant is not a Bible for revolution; it has more to do with redemption. And while I wanted to let Americans know what hard work means, Autoplant was largely motivated by a desire to make sense of what I experienced at Chrysler, to laugh about it a little, to apply some of what I know about poetry, and to reclaim parts of myself I felt I was losing by working there. With this second edition, I am hoping that I, along with my UAW Chrysler sisters and brothers, can reclaim some of what we have lost since Newark Assembly was shut down.
            Sparking a new revolutionary spirit wouldn’t be so bad, though.

*See “The Crisis at Chrysler 1979 at the beginning of chapter 3

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Are You Stirred by Solidarity?

Invitation to Read Poetry at Second Saturday
On the Theme of Solidarity
With Featured Poet Phillip Bannowsky

Poets, tell of Solidarity; what it is or what it’s not.
Is it the bell that laughs with every tongue, the storm that weeps with every drop?
The common hope for a brighter dawn,
or a contagious yawn?

Are you stirred by multitudes pulling tyrants down?
The hands, the shoes, the shouts, the risking all
for victory? Or do you check what scrapes your ass?
Would the fate of your 401(k), the price of your gas,
not to mention brown skins and head scarves more you appall
than all their hearts stopped in their mouths, their brains upon the ground?

When the earth tumbles to her knees
and shakes loose her seas
Do you open both your heart and wallet
Or just click the videos on Facebook “Like it.”

Do you upon the brink of personal release
like Bodhisattva pause recumbent
and with your finger in the grease
compassion choose for all the sentient?
Or do you cry, I’m all right, Jack, and snatch enlightenment?

Would you sing Solidarity in the Old Union Hall,
chicken dinners, picket lines, all for one and one for all?
Blood and sweat’s our gender, our race, of broken backs,
barricade of all nations, when capital attacks.
Pay your monthly dues and rise with the other guy.
Or would you, had you just one wish, if shared, lose one eye?

So poets, tell of Solidarity,
What it means, choose voluntarily:
If it’s the history of our species in every cell and myth,
Compassion, inspiration, or some kind comradeship.
Tell it for the ages, or tell it for the date,
April 9, at Shenanigans, 5 p.m. Don’t be late.

Second Saturday Poets, 2nd Saturday of every month at 5 p.m.
Shenanigans Irish Pub and Bar, 2nd and Market Sts., Wilmington, Delaware
Free Parking across Market

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Finding the Ghost of William D. White

She called him a ghost. A good term to use. What trauma, what injustice causes him to haunt us? His work remained, but it was hidden. Some of it was smashed.

Ghost is what happens to pariahs, after amnesia has run out of time and aliases are assigned to hide the evidence. A friend of mine, an artist, and I spent the day together as detectives hunting down the ghost of Delaware artist William D. White. My artist friend knew White when she was a girl. My father and White were friends from their days on the WPA.

The stories about William D. White are both spurious and legendary, anecdotal and difficult to trace. Yet, they persist. Stories of White railing against the extravagance of the local ruling class during the depths of the Great Depression, then turning around to buy up coats at the Goodwill, giving them away to Depression era homeless.

The mural that White painted for the Federal Artists Project (FAP) of the WPA was thought lost for years until recently rediscovered languishing in a building belonging to the Methodist Church in Dover. Much of White's works of art have been scattered in the effort to pay back corporate debt. A collection White painted about the mining industry has found a home in Arizona. Sometimes something spectacular by White comes along and just as rapidly disappears, haunting us. Sometimes one of his paintings pop up in plain sight and is misidentified and mishandled. They are that ghost calling out.

Between my artist friend and me, we've gathered a nice body of White's work. Finding information about White's life has proved daunting. People who knew him are gone. Yet our intent is to make an eventual public display of William D. White's art. He was arguably the best of the group of FAP artists, and an equal of Edward Loper who was also an early FAP artist.

Might it be said of William D. White on some future Antiques Road Show, that his work is rare. Because of professional differences with some of his peers and most agents of patronage, his work has become rare. The composition is tight. If more of White's work is found we'd be recognizing themes. Certainly he had an affinity with the poor working class and minorities. He liked painting children. His paintings today are most certainly worth more than White made when he was living.

If there's anyone out there with a bead on any of White's paintings, drawings or writings we'd like to hear from you. We also like to to hear any credible stories about William D. White as well.