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Dancing to the New Music | The Nation

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Dancing to the New Music

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In a few weeks the Split This Rock Poetry Festival will be held in Washington, DC. This event will bring together poets and writers committed to activism and social change.

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About the Author

E. Ethelbert Miller
Poet E. Ethelbert Miller is chairman of the board of the Institute for Policy Studies.

Also by the Author

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The directors, Sarah Browning and Melissa Tuckey, consider their event a public opportunity to hear poetry of provocation and witness. The first Split This Rock Poetry Festival was held in 2008. I was a participant, along with poets like Martín Espada and Naomi Shihab Nye. I consider us to be believers in the expression of speaking truth to power. On the last day of the festival a number of writers walked down to the White House to protest the war in Iraq. I'm certain that poets visiting Washington in March will have something to say about the foreign policy of the Obama administration and the war in Afghanistan. Our poems--and yes, our chants--always seem to be on call. Once again, our New Year's resolutions contained prayers for peace. The year 2010 represents not just the start of a new year but also the beginning of a new decade. Might it be a prelude to the "terrible teens" of this century? If so, what might poets and writers be doing? What do the times demand?

I think our first challenge is "language work." How has language distracted us from defining ourselves as well as our work? Words enter our vocabulary often acting like predators. They circle what we do with the capability of creating havoc. How often have I sat in meetings listening to someone use the word "transparency"? I've become suspicious of this term; as someone reminded me, transparency might be the beginning of totalitarianism. Words are luggage for our politics, and those of us who are writers have a special responsibility to prevent the erosion of their value and meaning. I want to compose poems with words that can wear pants and shirts without creases.

As we witness the rapid transformation of our society, from the vanishing daily printed newspaper and independent bookstores to the declining use of snail mail, what will become of the poem and novel? It appears people will have more access to what we write. This should mean writers in the future will bear greater responsibilities. I now post many of my poems on my blog, E-Notes. My audience is no longer limited to the 500 copies of a chapbook or a few students in a college classroom. I write a poem today and discover that someone has placed it on his or her blog or on Facebook. Is my first concern with copyright, or do I first ponder why the person placed certain graphics around my work?

In December I visited a Washington high school. I was standing in front of students talking about my work while their teacher sat at his desk pulling up relevant material on his computer and projecting it on the screen behind me. I remember how in the old days someone would accompany me on bass or maybe a percussion instrument. Today's technology permits us to create new music. Once again, it's back to how we sound.

Lately I've been listening to the music of Ornette Coleman, his recordings around 1959 and the early 1960s. Here was a man giving birth to the new. His musical group challenged the ears of the status quo. What Coleman was playing was music that would help shape the things to come. Coleman's jazz was as free as the Internet.

Can contemporary poets create something today just as visionary? Must we find new words to use? Should we go back and reclaim the old ones? I would like to find a way to use "utopia" again. What if my new poems resemble text messages? What if the entire process changes--and the way I create? As the world fits in my hand or BlackBerry, how do I handle the power of language once again? What does it mean to be a poet during this time of Obama? If we witnessed a political milestone in world history in 2008, did it have a cultural counterpart? For those of us who failed to see Obama becoming president of the United States, what else did we fail to see? I wrote celebratory poems after Obama's election; in one I tried to be experimental, because I felt it was the only way I could structurally produce work that echoed the times.

I'm more aware these days of how my poetry explores the themes of religion and spirituality. Whereas W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about the twentieth century being shaped by the color line, it has become obvious that the twenty-first century will be influenced by religion. I've noticed already how Islamic and Buddhist terms have slipped into my poems like a sideman with a horn. The Islamic references I used in the late 1960s were an outgrowth of being influenced by the Black Arts Movement and Malcolm X. Today I have a better understanding of the faith, and I wrestle with the complexity of Islamic law. My concern with issues of gender encourages me to listen more to how Muslims are dealing with these matters. A number of my fellow poets are Buddhists, and I find a special kinship with them. I find the love poems I write are often influenced by certain concepts that I feel show a compassion for mankind. If my poems are going to be antiwar, I want them first to address the issue of love. I want them to have the strength to love.

As the new decade unfolds, I find myself more hesitant to recite in public. Too often the venues seem to cater to performance and entertainment. I worry at times about the poems that people dress in Halloween outfits. I'm curious about the politics of those who have decided to wear the mask. Words have the power to disrupt, to destroy as well as to decay.

The poet as gardener must have the skill to plant and the patience to wait for things to bloom. Yes, there can be a spring, but it requires hard work on bending knees. I want to be the type of poet who maintains a closeness to the earth. I want to celebrate what Whitman once celebrated. After all the civil wars inside our hearts, we must accept nothing less. I want to hear America singing once again. I want to dance to the new music.

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