Sunday, January 15, 2017

Writers Resist - Defiance, Remembrance and Inspiration in Venice

Today I went to the Writers Resist event at Beyond Baroque in Venice. It was a packed house, raising funds for the ACLU. I believe they could only fit about 100 people in the room, so they used a patio as overflow space and pumped the audio feed out there. It’s too bad they didn’t have a bigger venue for this incredible gathering of writers, but then again it was nice that the event had an intimate feeling.

Writers Resist events took place all over the country today in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and in response to the impending inauguration. Nobody used the President Elect’s name today but he hung like a specter over the proceedings. The event was three hours long and 27 writers were given five minutes each to read their own work or work of other writers that suited the theme.

Some writers read from Dr. King’s work. Viet Thanh Nguyen (below) read from the speech “Beyond Vietnam”. David Ulin - after saying he was angry we all had to be there, that things had come to this point - read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”.

Some writers used their timeslots to pay tribute to other writers. Carol Muske-Dukes read from “Of Courage and Resistance”, a speech given by Susan Sontag. Ishmael Beah read “Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes. Dana Goodyear read Ann Sexton’s poem “Snow”. Naomi Hirahara read from Michi Weglyn’s book “Years of Infamy” about Japanese internment camps. Mona Simpson read Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach”. Amy Wilentz revisited The Gettysburg Address. Safiya Sinclair (below), Lynne Thompson and Vanessa Villarreal gave stirring readings of June Jordan poems, including “In Memoriam: Martin Luther King, Jr.”.

Some of my favorite readings were from those who shared their personal stories about the election. Aimee Bender read an essay about an election night party she tried to host that turned out to not be much of a party. They had to throw the jug of cocktails down the drain. She tried to give leftover pizza to a neighbor, but the neighbor said he had lost his appetite.  It reminded me of my own dark night of the soul on election night in the fun capital of the world Vegas, after a week of canvassing for Hillary (I wrote about it in this essay). Meme Kelly shared a letter she wrote to her sons after the election to help them grieve and encourage them to carry on. Michelle Latiolais read a fantastic piece about her sister excitedly telling her last week’s news about Russian interference. Michelle knew it wouldn’t derail anything. “You can’t blackmail someone who has no shame,” she wrote. Douglas Manuel talked about drinking “Nasty Woman” cocktails in anticipation of an election night celebration that didn’t come, and then read a Jean Valentine poem called “I Came to You”.

Some shared original work. Douglas Kearney wrested everyone’s attention with a dramatic interpretive riff on the theme of “We Shall Overcome.” Ron Carlson read a hilarious poem about being annoyed by someone in front of him texting in his car who had ignored the light changing to green. Victoria Chang read her thought-provoking poem [Today my daughter wants to be a waitress when she grows up she doesn’t]”. Amy Gerstler read her poem “Giraffes”, and Vandana Khanna shared her poem “Dot Head”.

I was also somewhat relieved to hear that all these successful writers who I know have better self-discipline and work habits than me were also having trouble writing since the election. But this is the kind of event that reminded me how important it is that we try, and if we can’t manage to write right now, at least we can read some important classic works, like the ones I've linked here.

David St. John (above), one of the organizers of this amazing event, closed the gathering by remembering a conversation between his mentor Adrienne Rich and Philip Levine. I may not be remembering the exact quotes, but this is the gist...

Levine: There’s still work to be done.

Rich: There’s always going to be work to be done.

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