John Trudell would have us focus our minds and hold fast to the Earth . The poet joined poets and poetry fans in Taos at Poetry Circus 2000 this past June to discuss what really matters: the future of this planet and the potential of humans, poets included, to impact that future.
A Santee Sioux, John Trudell was a 1970s founder/leader of the American Indian Movement. He is also now a movie star, (Thunderheart, SmokeSignals), recording artist, (Graffitti Man and his latest CD, Blue Indians), and a poet so respected that he was invited to read at the prestigious Taos Poetry Circus 2000 this past June.
As the Taos literary discussion turned sharply down the political road, Trudell walked point, declaring, "It is going to be a class war in America, no matter what they call it. The industrial ruling class is revealing itself through the World Trade Organization and is preparing to mine this planet. The vampires are handing their children over to vampires even worse than they are!"
Trudell's prophetic and apocalyptic free verse and fiery talk, laced with political outrage and sly humor, had held his audience rapt during his guest poetry slot on the Taos stage a night earlier. His calm manner gave credibility to his strong words.
Trudell is a survivor. Like Steve Earle and Dante, he has "been to Hell and back again", and people tend to listen to an articulate voice with such credentials. As AIM leader, Trudell saw many comrades killed and jailed, including still-imprisoned AIM martyr Leonard Peltier. The US Government's COINTELPRO operation to discredit, disrupt and destroy the Native resistance movement amounted to a very real "Indian war". Trudell's own FBI file is 17,000 pages long. Yet his byword has always been, "No Surrender!".
In 1979, John Trudell's wife, children and mother-in-law died in an arson fire. Suspicion persists that the deaths were linked to Trudell's prominent militancy and the Government's ruthless determination to crush AIM. Trudell is blunt in speaking about it, "They were murdered as an act of war."
This personal horror gave warrior John Trudell a new life as a writer. He recalls, " After what I had seen and where I'd been, I couldn't keep quiet. The politics had served its purpose, and I had a political identity then, but I saw that our expression has to come from our culture and our art." John Trudell began to write, in a manner as fearless and uncompromising as had been his political stance. While Native author/filmmaker Sherman Alexie praised Trudell from the Taos stage for "putting down the gun and picking up the pen", Trudell accepted the compliment with this qualification, "When I went to the writing, it was the most vengeful thing I could do. I won't say I started writing out of love. When I started out to write, I did not want to explode. Writing lines, poems, songs--that became my explosion."
Asked about the role of love in writing, Trudell says, "Love is the one thing that is hard to communicate. Nobody knows what it means. I think love is a word that should never be used by itself. Caring is the feeling and love is the emotion. I have not figured out how to communicate the distinction. Maybe that's the role of poetry."
There is never enough time Heaven is no place for fools. I run my fingers through your hair & feel the universe shut down. --Jerome Rothenberg, "There is Never Enough Time"
I am not the walrus I am the virus When I get finished with you You will curse the day you were born Your mother, your father Your god cannot help you I will follow you into the ground I will fight the bugs Over you You are mine You belong to me I am not the walrus I am the virus -- Ishmael Reed, "I Am Not the Walrus"
Poetry at its most determined can be heavy business, indeed, but the World Poetry Bout Association, which sponsors the week-long Circus, has discovered ways to leaven the grimness of that business so that the poets' varied messages get through. There are daylong open readings in the shade of Taos courtyards, intensive writing workshops, and an inspiring landscape to hike: mountains, high desert sunsets and the awe of the Rio Grande Gorge. Each evening features a poetry slam contest, a cross-cultural poetry encounter or a reading by some of the most renowned poets on the planet. (Allen Ginsberg, Wanda Coleman, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Jim Carrol, Victor Hernadez Cruz and Anne Waldman are just a few of the past readers.)
The Circus week culminates in the World Heavyweight Championship Poetry Bout, a gala and raucous affair held in a Taos hotel ballroom fitted out with a real boxing ring, including a ref, announcer and bells. Ten rounds of poetry, with a vying pair of poets tossing out both composed and improvised verse in very dramatic and often hilarious style for judgement by the audience and a "citizen panel" of judges.
A highlight of this year's Championship Bout was when challenger Bob Holman, (Nuyorican Poets Cafe hero and producer of the astounding video, United States of Poetry), leapt out of the ring and trotted through the audience, and out of the ballroom altogether while narrating his rambles in verse over a microphone headset. When he got back, Holman blithely announced that he had never left the room at all--that was just a poem happening. Defending Champ Sherman Alexie, (Spokane/Coeur d'Alene author of Reservation Blues, Indian Killer and The Toughest Indian in the World), countered Holman's crowd-pleasing antics, (and very effective, side-splittingly funny verse), with a Native chant, comic jabs and his trademark biting personal-universal revelations. Alexie won the Bout, but the crowd was cheering wildly for both poets.
Both Bob Holman and Sherman Alexie demonstrated how poetry can stare down even death. And win, with a smile. It may be that it is that sort of confidence, that grit, that is needed for us all to survive these times, when real corporate monsters roam the earth and the effrontery and blind visionary courage of poetry may be what we all need most.
Anyway, there was plenty of grit, imagination, and humor evident at Taos Poetry Circus 2000. The list of poets who participated goes on and on, including Lewis MacAdams, Terry Jacobus, Danny Solis, Paula Friedrich, Donna Snyder, Jesus Guzman, Lisa Gill, Socorro Romo, Gary Stewart Chorre, Shanee Stepakoff, Mitch Rayes and so many more. Novice poets and world-class "heavyweights" mixed and mingled and joked together all week. Not much sleep, many good words, finely felt emotions, and a collective strength and generosity that has been carefully nurtured by Circus founders/leaders Peter Rabbit and Anne MacNaughton over the years. No one feels left out at this gathering.
Perhaps the quietest, most economical, yet strongest voice at Taos was that of Nanao Sakaki, the haiku master, world-walker and cheerful Zen prophet of the anti-nuclear environmental struggle. Long white hair and beard, hiking boots and a felt presence that filled the auditorium all by himself. Nanao responded to an audience question, "How important is it to keep wild places flowing through poetry?" with, "Good question!" and a quiet smile. Later, Nanao told listeners that he hopes to see many more wildlife parks built, including "a human park", and that "the greatest source of poetry is silence".
The Taos Poetry Circus is a place to go to meet some of the bravest souls on the planet, speaking out and encouraging the
rest of us. It is well worth the journey there from anywhere.
Resources and further reading:
Bill Nevins writes and teaches from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he works for the University of New Mexico. firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos: ©2000 Bill Nevins unless otherwise noted