August 2003

I want to start this talk tonight by telling you about a poem I wrote when I was eight years old. Mercifully, it hasn’t been preserved on paper, and only a few lines have been preserved in my mind, two couplets, the first and the last, I suspect. I grew up in various ignorances and prisons and one of them had to do with rhyme, as you’ll hear. I wrote the poem just after Dwight Eisenhower died, in 1969. The previous summer, Robert Kennedy had been killed in Los Angeles, causing great, mixed grief in my mostly Irish Catholic and quite conservative town south of Boston; and the previous spring, Martin Luther King had been killed in Memphis, which stayed in my mind because my mother dashed my brother out of the barbershop with his hair half cut when the barber said King got what he deserved. But I didn’t write any poems about that. I wrote about Eisenhower, who I knew had been a general and president, and sent the poem to his wife, who sent me back a little card I kept for a long time. Here’s the first couplet: “The president is a great man,/Ruler of all the land.” When I showed it to my mother she looked worried, and I didn’t know why. “I’m not sure about that word ‘ruler,’” she said. “Maybe you’d want to put ‘leader’ instead.”

You all have made me think about the word ‘leader’ this week; what is a leader? Is it something to aspire to? When you talked about this on Sunday after Lyde’s beautiful speech, someone suggested the word ‘leader’ might mean a tie to ‘the establishment.’ Someone else thought it might be the person who takes charge on the fly in an emergency. “The word leadership makes me think of the military,” someone said. Do leaders imply, as someone said, groundlings? How you lead as a collective? “Everybody’s a leader,” someone said, which seemed to me to blur the sense of the word; for me, leader implies follower, just as teacher implies student. You can’t have one without the other. They go together. They create each other, in the sense David Valentine talked about. They’re couplets. They’re dialogues.

This of course made me think of Elvin Jones. Who knows who Elvin Jones is? On Valentine’s Day in 2002 I heard the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra play “A Love Supreme”--go get that CD, “A Love Supreme”—and I heard someone behind me patting his knees, which I usually hate but not this time. After the intermission Wynton Marsalis introduced the man over my left shoulder: Elvin Jones, who played the drums with John Coltrane.

This past summer I heard him play at the Blue Note, just him on the drums and Cecil Taylor on the piano, and I noticed three things. Number one was that Elvin Jones clearly hadn’t been sitting around wishing his lost leader John Coltrane would come back and tell him what to do. Number two was that there wasn’t really a leader; he and Cecil Taylor kept trading it back and forth, so the drums were both background and backbone, making all these beautiful patterns of possibility flash across your mind, so the whole idea of a leader seemed superfluous. Number three was that Elvin Jones looked like the happiest old man I’ve ever seen.

The woman I live with, who as some of you know is most of the time a psychiatrist, a blessing for any house in which a poet lives, is between June and August a drummer; every Monday night she goes to a class on West African drumming, Ewe drumming, that meets in Riverside Park. She told me about a young man in the class who was so good with the complex rhythms that the teacher invited him to play in his performance group; she figured he was a professional musician, but he said he was moving to Princeton to go to graduate school, so she thought he was going to get a Ph.D. in physics or something. But he said no, he was going to get a Master’s in Accompanying.

It’s a beautiful word, isn’t it? Accompanying. If you break it down literally, it means ‘to go toward your companion,’ your friend. Elvin Jones said in 1963, about the way he played with John Coltrane, “It isn’t something I developed deliberately. It’s more or less a natural step, a natural thing to do. It was a step from staying away from the soloist, staying in the background, staying with the form of the composition without joining the soloist in his improvisation--the conventional way of playing. It must be done with a great deal of discretion and feeling for what the soloist is doing...[then] John realizes he has this close support and, therefore, can move further ahead; he can venture out as far as he wants without worrying about getting away from everybody and having the feeling he’s out in the middle of a lake by himself.”

On Monday afternoon, for the second time in the past three years, I participated in Irene King’s exercise about strategies for social change; she mentioned that people tend to change their choices as time passes, but for better or worse I had the same experience twice, when it came time to discuss the relative effectivenesses of ‘listening to a friend who has a problem’ and ‘participating in a revolution.’ When each of these came up, I and one student would walk to one end of the spectrum and everyone else in the room would walk to the other. To explain why, I said that I’m forty-two and I’ve been listening to my friends’ problems for a long time, and it doesn’t seem to have brought the better world any closer; and I said that ‘revolution’ is one of the most beautiful words I know—that I had grown up at the edges of one—the non-violent civil rights revolution Ray talked about this morning—and had been watching for signs of the next one—or of that one’s interrupted continuation—ever since.

But then I started to wonder, out there in the middle of the lake, worrying about gettng away from everybody, whether I was missing something, in that idea of listening to a friend who has a problem; and it occurred to me that the political impact of that choice might depend on who you consider your friend. Can you have a friend you’ve never met? It made me think of those first days in Manhattan after September 11 two years ago, when that separation between friends and strangers changed for a while. Here’s a piece of a long poem I’ve just finished, about a subway ride I took on September 12 that year:

We travel pressed together Downbound/Ashen So close we wear the same face
Touching The woman beside me at hip/and elbow and shoulder When she breathes I move
Southbound Downtown To where the train ends/She’s holding copies of a printed page
With a photograph and a man’s name/He’s disappeared and she wants to know where

He’s missing She is missing him/The tattoo of a bird on the back of his thigh
The scar on his left knee He wears the ring/she wears In her lap he’s laughing and strong
Her eyes are red Her hands nervous Her hair/smells of hours of cigarettes
The train can’t move fast enough for her/All the trains are local now

She slept through the earlier stations El Chorillo/Cuzcatlán Quetzaltenango
Buenos Aires Santiago Saigon Jakarta/Léopoldville Tehran Athens Berlin
The other pages of missing faces/flutter in their thousands as we pass
She’s not sleeping now Her face lit with agony/She hasn’t slept all night

The names of those places are some of those visited by what Kasturi called yesterday American empire: El Chorillo the poor neighborhood in Panama City attacked in 1989 under Colin Powell’s supervision, Buenos Aires and Santiago and Jakarta where our government supported dirty wars to try to eradicate the civil left, Tehran where the CIA, under my beloved President Eisenhower, staged a coup to depose a democratically elected president, fifty years ago this month. Maybe being a leader isn’t the only worthy work citizens of an empire could aspire to. Maybe aspiring to accompany—as David said, to tune your ear to what people are telling you—is part of what could help these old ways change.

Let me add to that list of places Ramallah, in occupied Palestine; here’s the beginning of an email I received in April 2002 from a friend I didn’t know, with a problem I helplessly helped to create: “My name is Tzaporah Ryder. I am an American student from the University of Minnesota. I currently am in Ramallah. We are under a terrible siege and people are being massacred by both the Israeli army and armed militia groups of Israeli settlers. They are shooting outside at anything that moves. I am urgently pleading for as much outside help as possible to help save lives here.” I got this letter sitting in my office at Sarah Lawrence and thought, What would you do if you got this letter on a piece of paper from Hamburg or Leipzig or Freiburg in November of 1938? And what would you think of yourself, what would your children and your grandchildren think of you, if you did nothing at all?

A substantial part of my political life consists of grieving helplessness, and I was afraid nothing I did in response to that letter would be especially effective; but that April I relied on Martha Graham as I do in relation to poetry, who said about creative expression, “It is not your determine how good it is, nor how valuable, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep the channel open.” And through that channel came Tzaporah Ryder’s letter, and then a voice on the radio that turned out to belong to a Sarah Lawrence student, and on April 13 I got on a plane for the first time since September 11 to travel to Beirut, to sleep on the sidewalk as part of a peace encampment called Tents of Resistance, protesting the Israeli Army’s invasion of the Palestinian cities. And when I got there I saw you—not you exactly, but people with some of your passions and determinations, people of your generation, students from France and Italy and Morocco and Lebanon, trying to accompany the Palestinians in their suffering and those Israelis who resisted it.

I’ve seen you other places over the past year, too; my nine-year-old daughter is always amazed at the way Sarah Lawrence students appear wherever we go. She was standing in the sleet in Washington with her Count All the Votes sign in January 2001 when a little contingent from Sarah Lawrence came up to say hello; and we passed Sarah Lawrence students on February 15 as we proceeded toward our metal pen on First Avenue to protest the war. I saw more Sarah Lawrence students later that afternoon, when I went down to Times Square alone, when the police picked up the metal barricades and crushed half a block of us between them, while ordering us to move. “You should have stayed home,” said one of the police officers near me, and I didn’t say then but thought that night: I was in the heart of the city, the middle of the island where I live, surrounded by friends I didn’t know. I was home.

You might have thought you’d escaped the recitation of the last two lines of my eight- year-old poem, but no, here they are: “The President of the United States/Has many many many mates.” Subtle metrical variation, huh? And he does. Fortunately those who oppose him have many mates too. I saw you in all your glory that day in February, and many other days around that terrible time. Accompanying each other. Accompanying the violence of history with something else, something new, something still in the delicate, difficult throes of getting born. I saw you in the spring when I interviewed Huwaida Arraf, a young Palestinian-American woman who helped found the International Solidarity Movement, who grew up in Detroit waving flags and wanting to grow up and be the president, who now waves the banner of non-violent resistance in occupied Palestine; I saw her in a photograph when I was in Beirut, standing in front of an Israeli tank blocking the road to Birzeit University, and in the description of someone who was there who said the tank moved closer and closer and Huwaida wouldn’t back up, and the tank moved away. And I saw you in March when Rachel Corrie died, whose name I hope you know—this young woman in her junior year of college—there’s one picture of her on the internet walking down a street in her hometown in Washington, dressed as a dove—who tried with her companions in the International Solidarity Movement—with her body and her fluorescent vest and her megaphone—to stop a two-story Caterpillar bulldozer driven by an Israeli soldier in Gaza from tearing down a Palestinian doctor’s home. She wrote from Rafah in an email to her parents, "I'm witnessing this chronic, insidious genocide and I'm really scared, and questioning my fundamental belief in the goodness of human nature. This has to stop. I think it is a good idea for us all to drop everything and devote our lives to making this stop. ... I still really want to dance around to Pat Benatar and have boyfriends and make comics for my co-workers. But I also want this to stop.”

Unaccountably, I think it is stopping, and that part of what characterizes the time we live in is the desperate violence of its dying. In the words of Jonathan Schell, “The cooperative power of nonviolent action is new, yet its roots go deep into history, and it is now tightly woven...into the life of the world. It has already altered basic realities that everyone must work with, including the nature of sovereignty, force, and political power... it has, with the steady widening and deepening of the democratic spirit, over and over bent great powers to its will. Its point of origin is the heart and mind of each ordinary person. It can flare up suddenly and mightily but gutter out with equal speed...It now must be brought to bear on the choice between survival and annihilation. It is powerful because it sets people in motion, and fixes before their eyes what they are ready to live and die for. It is dangerous for the same reason. Whether combined with violence, as in people’s war, sustained by a constitution, as in democracy, or standing alone, as in satygraha or 'living in truth,' it is becoming the final arbiter of the public affairs of our time and the political bedrock of our unconquerable world.”

As I told some of you, I gave everyone in my family the leadership styles quiz we took Sunday morning; my daughter didn’t understand what ‘content’ was, and I said "You know, when everything’s pretty much okay," and she said, “I don’t see how anybody can be content when that dumbo George Bush is president.” When I visited Beirut and later Israel and Palestine, almost everyone I spoke with said the same thing. I just saw in an email that there will be a demonstration in New York City on August 29, 2004--isn’t it great to know that already?--the day before the Republican convention opens in Madison Square Garden. I’ll be there, accompanying my daughter, accompanying the hopes of all the people who live at the point of the sword of the American empire, and I hope accompanying you. As Emily said to you yesterday, It’s no big deal. It’s just that your life depends on it. And as Michele said this morning, Have at it. Make this your place. Thank you.