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“I was sitting in the woods by my house one day in 2011, totally despairing,” poet Michael Rothenberg told me. “The BP oil spill, Fukushima, war, poverty. I was watching an endless decline and there didn’t seem to be any response. Where are the artists? I thought to myself: ‘There ought to be one hundred thousand poets for change.’ So I put up an event page on Facebook and asked if people would want to stage events in support of economic, political, and social change. I honestly didn’t expect any response. Yet in one week there were twenty events scheduled in ten countries. 100,000 Poets for Change was born. On the last Saturday of September 2011, we had our first coordinated international event with 700 events in 95 countries.”
Now happening annually, in 2012 One Hundred Thousand Poets for Change expanded to 900 events in 115 countries under the banner of “peace and sustainability.” The artistic participation grew beyond poets to include musicians, dancers, photographers, skaters, film makers, mimes, DJs, painters, and more. They got the message out with concerts, readings, lectures, workshops, radio shows, flash mobs, and theater.
There were daylong poetry festivals in California, Guatemala, India, Argentina, and Italy. In New Orleans, fifteen bands performed. The Wordstock Festival in De Leon Springs, Florida included poetry, music, and an art exhibition focusing on images of war and peace. In Greece, there were five days of poetry and music events and a photography exhibition looking at the emergence of homelessness there. In Jamaica, there was a week-long Street Dub Vibe series of events called “Tell the Children the Truth.” There were dozens of events in Mexico and even poetry and peace gatherings in Kabul and Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
All of this grew out of the vision (and laptops) of just two people, Rothenberg and his partner, poet/photographer Terri Carrion. Yet in truth all their hard work only opened the door for what was already there. The success of 100,000 Poets for Change is not only in its impressive numbers but also in the way it thrusts us up against festering problems in the relationship between culture and politics.
In America it’s generally acknowledged that culture has a place yet it’s generally regarded as a condiment, a minor ingredient in the stew. It’s the Singer at the Rally Syndrome. Almost every rally has a singer, but only one. And that one singer serves as a token representation of all the cultural activity rally goers are part of, not to mention the communities they come from.
Yet if you knock on almost any door and make people comfortable, they will begin to trust you and let you in on little secrets. Poems they’ve written. Drawings they’ve done. Songs they’ve recorded. Films they’ve made on their cell phones. Reach into the small towns, the churches, the car clubs, the fields and the factories, the jails, the card games, the high schools, the fast food joints, and you’ll be blown away by the hurricane of self-expression you will find. There are tens of millions of artists in America and exponentially more worldwide.
We need them all. The one per cent who dominate the world have vast political, financial, and military power. To overcome their destructiveness, we need a truly massive number of people. To get them we need to make culture an integral part of every movement for change. Words and images and sounds dripping from everything. Fundamentally, the battle humanity faces isn’t a physical one but a war of ideas and ideals, a clash of morals and mission. The winning of hearts and minds is the specific skill set of the artist and another world is possible only when legions of them are mobilized and linked into one organic diversity.
To make that happen, artists can’t be relegated to the role of mere supporters or, even worse, last resort ATMs to be fought over by competing causes. Artists are not separate. Artists have the same problems as everyone else. Unemployment. Foreclosure. Student loans. Lack of health care. Police brutality. They are different only in that they seldom become organizational leaders because they are too busy doing their art. That’s what makes them important, not what makes them marginal.
But what can the movement do for the artists? I often ask my musician friends: Would you rather play yet another show in a nightclub for just your girlfriend or your buddies or would you rather play for a community organization that will give you its rapt attention? The movement can give artists a priceless gift: respect for what they do.
Respected or not, artists are forced into competition with each other. Competition for gigs. For grants. For attention. Does this mean they are bad, selfish people? Not at all. We live in a society which values only the bottom line and could care less about the need for self-expression. Competition grows from the fact that the resources and audiences artists need are deliberately withheld from them. The first step in rising above these limitations is to openly acknowledge that artistic competition exists instead of pretending that it doesn’t. Paradoxically, that reality check can open the door to artistic collaboration and cooperation.
It’s true that art asks, art demands, that people face up to the destruction going on around them. But there must also be an antidote to the poison, a yes to the no. A vision of a radically different world of peace and sustainability, a world beyond money and above privilege. Otherwise audiences will eventually tune out because the message is too painful.
It’s a long-standing joke that “organizing artists is like herding cats.” The success of 100,000 Poets For Change makes such cynicism indeed laughable. Artists organize to create their work, to rehearse it, to present it, to record or to film it. They organize to get the resources they need to create. They are not some hopeless mass of well-meaning losers.
That was made clear on the first weekend of April in Santa Rosa, California where an “interim” 100,000 Poets for Change event was held at the Arlene Francis Center, a festival demanded by the locals because they didn’t want to wait for the third annual international festival in September. It was a panorama of poetry, paint, sound, and movement that built in numbers and intensity as the weekend wore on. It also accelerated the coming together of Santa Rosa’s Anglo and Latino communities. Malinalli Lopez, board member at local bilingual radio station KBBF-FM, says that “100,000 Poets For Change represents a much needed voice that breaks down barriers among those of diverse ages, cultures, languages, and artistic communities.”
One Hundred Thousand Poets for Change has gotten its flag above the international horizon but it is unique only in its geographic scope. It rests upon and is connected in spirit to countless similar efforts everywhere. The challenge that confronts them all is how to weave their gifts into the fabric of equally rapidly growing movements for peace and sustainability.
For more information about 100,000 Poets and Musicians and Artists for Change, check out 100TPC.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.