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Power to the people – through poetry

By Kimberly Wohlford
The Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance is a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.

Today, many of us communicate by writing messages on the virtual walls of social media where the public might view them. Yet if you had the power to change the world through a message you wanted to share, would you think of writing a poem? Not likely, but maybe you should.

“There is a poem, a poem that is perfect,” says poet Li-Young Lee. “And it happens to be a proposition about the evolved human being. There won’t be peace on earth unless we evolve. The writing of poetry is very integral to evolution.” With this message, Lee introduces the first scene of the documentary, “ Poetry of Resilience,” directed, produced and written by award-winning filmmaker Katja Esson.

The film highlights six poets from around the world who have survived some of the worst political atrocities of the 20th century – Hiroshima, the Holocaust, China’s Cultural Revolution, the Kurdish Genocide in Iraq, the Rwandan Genocide and the Iranian Revolution – and found peace with the past by writing poetry. The film is being shown April 17 and 18 as part of the 2013 Sensoria program presented by CPCC. A discussion about the making of the film will follow the April 18 screening, and Lee, whose father was personal physician to Mao Zedong before the family fled to Indonesia, will read his poetry on the evening of April 18. (A full schedule can be viewed at ).

For many, poetry is boring and difficult to understand. Esson’s feelings about it were much the same when she was invited to Massachusetts in 2006 to document a conference of poets. In an interview with the International Documentary Association, she revealed, “I have to admit, my first thought was, ‘Oh boy, filming people reading poetry…How boring!’ But as soon as these poets – who are also survivors – stepped on the stage and spoke…I knew this was a film I needed to make.”

Esson was drawn to this project by her connection to these people, their need to share their history and their emotional evolution through the process. Placed within the context of film, their poetry comes to life. Their words reach forward, touching the audience in the universal language of survival and engaging the viewer on a visceral level.

For these artists, poetry became their vehicle to process rage, anger, revenge, sadness and loss instead of resorting to destructive outlets like violence, or finding solace in other substances. The film raises provocative issues: Can poetry and art facilitate healing? And more importantly, could outlets for artistic expression help society to keep from engaging in criminal behavior all together?

Although “Poetry of Resilience” deals with events of the 20th century, it resonates today. It does not take long to connect these documented historical tragedies to the acts of violence that have recently occurred in our own country. From public atrocities and prejudices to the cruel realities we face in our private lives, there is something in the poetry we can all identify with. Whether it’s the loss of a parent, a spouse, a child, a lover, a marriage, a job, a home or one’s health, each of us are affected by something that calls for the strength to survive and the need to find the promise of hope.

Local poet Amy Bagwell knows about the power of poetry. Her Sensoria exhibit, “ The Factories Don’t Install Emotion Tapes,” suggests the idea of poetry as a positive force for change in society. Another project, The Wall Poems of Charlotte, was launched last week with the installation of a poem by A.R. Ammons on the wall of The Dandelion Market, the first of many poems scheduled to go up in Charlotte’s uptown. Bagwell says her source of inspiration was the Wall Poems of Leiden in the Netherlands, and Poetry in Motion in New York City.

“It may be impossible to quantify (though researchers do try), but we know that art, and poetry not least, has the power to affect,” Bagwell says of Poetry in Motion. “The Poetry in Motion project in New York City, featuring poems or excerpts in colorful posters on subways and buses, arguably had a profound effect on the psychological landscape of the city. Violent crime rates for New York City rose steadily through the 1980s and early 1990s. But they began to decline in 1992, the very year Poetry in Motion hung its first transit posters. “

With the Wall Poems project in Charlotte, the proactive presence of poetry takes shape in our city. By placing poetry on the walls of buildings, an experience is being created similar to the one Esson establishes by layering the words of the poets over images of Warsaw and Hiroshima, as the poets revisit landmarks that anchor the memories of their youth. People and place are connected through the context of culture and the power of words.

Bagwell says poetry is a natural element intrinsic to the culture of the south and passed down from one generation to the next through language. There’s the Southern accent that cajoles with its own poetic rhythm, a language filled with cadence and colorful nuance, phrasing and undertones.

And that’s not so different from “Poetry for Resilience.” The essence of any culture can be preserved through the written and spoken word. In a WVRO NPR Radio interview with Li-Young Lee in May of 2010, the poet remembers his parents reading poetry to the family when he was a young boy.

“When they recited Chinese poems, the atmosphere changed around us and even the relationship changed between me, the listener, and whichever parent – mother or father – who was reciting it. I felt close to my parents, but when they recited poems, I felt close and intimate with them in a way that was different.”

It’s thought provoking to consider poetry to have that kind of power. The power to affect our environment, enhance our relationships, capture our history and help us evolve as human beings to become a more resilient and peaceful society.

For Lee, Esson and Bagwell, art is essential to their expression of the human experience – and for them, poetry just might, in some small way, change the world.

This article is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.
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