Thursday, August 25, 2005

CA Poet Laureate Al Young + Free the Slaves

YoungToday's Los Angeles Times features an article by staff writer Scott Martelle on new California Poet Laureate Al Young, entitled "Bringing poetic works to the people." In it, Martelle offers a fine profile and overview of Young's past and initial efforts in his post. (I met Young years ago, and thought he was a lovely, generous person; Californians are incredibly lucky to have him in this position.)

Young, who emerged as one of the premiere poets in the Black American literary tradition in during the 1960s and early 1970s, talks about his aims as the Golden State's official champion for the oldest literary art form. These include bringing poetry back into the public and popular discourse, in part through the medium some have argued poses the greatest threat to reading and literature: online technology. Electronic technologies, Martelle states, have "atomized" us, and Young sees one of his primary roles as using "the distilled purity of poetry to breach walls of isolation." One concrete plan is to develop an electronic coffeehouse that will be accessible to California's poets and poetry enthusiasts.

I have some issues with the notion that it is mainly technology that has caused social atomization, and that poetry of any sort is "pure"--distilled linguistic expression the best of it may be--but Young's Kantian view of poetry as a potentially universal social and aesthetic connective is something I do agree with, and I agree with his larger concept of the necessity and indispensibility of art. As anthropologist and aesthetician Ellen Dissayanake has argued, what we term "art" in the West, in at least some of its modes of expression, representation and practice, has existed in every culture and society on earth, even if those societies have no explicit name for it. In so many ways it's essential to human life and experience.

I also agree with his claims that at its best, "poetry is important...because it freshens the language of the mind, the attitude of the mind toward language." Our public discourse and skepticism about official uses and abuses of language have degenerated sharply over the last half century, and are perhaps at their nadir today. Young sees poetry, and literature in general, as one sort of corrective, and intends to plant and cultivate it in the consciousnesses of Californians with the hope that an appreciation for and critical sense of language's power, its possibilities, will take root there. This is especially important for young people; though appointed by Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger after his predecessor and fellow Black poet Quincy Troupe had to resign because of a credentials snafu, the progressive Young plans to use his post to advocate directly to the people and their legislative representatives for increased funding for the arts, especially as part of the educational system. This is something that all artists, especially those in positions of power and influence, should make a regular practice.

One of my favorite quotes from the piece is this statement he offers to the audience during one of his first official appearances as Poet Laureate, at the California State Fair in Sacramento: "You're not remembered for your armies or your navies…. You're remembered for your music and for your stories. For your literature. For your dance. For your film. For your painting. For your great art. That is what ennobles a society." Ennobles, enriches, enlightens--art can, at its best, do all of these things, and more.

Back in June, I received a reply from Jacob Patton to an earlier May post on a Forced Labor conference at MIT, but only recently came across it. I don't know Patton, but his reply linked to his employer, a fascinating organization called Free the Slaves, whose mission, simply put, "is dedicated to ending slavery worldwide." Among the organization's many activities to achieve this goal across the world are working with grassroots anti-slavery, partner, organizations; raising public awareness through a range of media resources and presentations; promoting slave-free global trade; educating policy-makers; and conducing research on modern slavery.

On the organization's site you can find basic information on slavery today, including field reports on slavery and forced labor in San Diego, southwest Florida, and Northern India, and testimonials by former slaves like anti-slavery activist and former Mauretanian bondswoman Salma (pictured above, courtesy of Free the Slaves). They also post up-to-date news about their projects and efforts, and have an online action form.

Looking through the site I learned that Patton is the Director of Outreach and Technology, so I thank him for contacting me and alerting me to the work his organization is doing, and hope all J's Theater readers will check it out.

Today I turned on the registered-only function for the comment section of the blog because of several recent anonymous spam posts. It also appears that spammers have set up dummy blogs on Blogger as well, but it seems easier, at least for now, to control their posts to this site rather than allowing bots to fill up the commentary box. When this blog again flies under the spam radar (maybe it was was highlighted by Blogger or some other service), I'll allow anonymous posting.


  1. John, thanks for taking the time to check out our organization, and thank you for your kind words about our work. We're very busy right now getting ready our documentary, Dreams Die Hard, about modern slavery in the United States, but I'm glad I took the time to check back on your blog. Keep up the good writing!

    p.s., I didn't notice a link to our site in this post. Do you mind if I link to Free the Slaves here?

  2. Hi Jacob, I've fixed the link so now it should show, and thanks for all the great work you and Free the Slaves are doing. I just hope people take a look at your site and realize that slavery isn't something that disappeared in the late 19th century.