CHANTS & VERSE.

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GLOBAL PROTESTING, THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY
[posted 04.23.2003]

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“SO ANYWAY, IT WAS started back in the day and it started hosting readings on a regular basis for the general public, which is kind of a strange idea.”

Thus spoke Kenneth Clarke, executive director of the Poetry Center in Chicago, on the origins of his organization back in 1973. We met briefly early this month at the opening of Words of Art, the Poetry Center’s exhibit running through April in celebration of National Poetry Month.

Words of Art features broadsides from poets and artists as diverse as National Public Radio personality Andrei Codrescu, U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins and acclaimed Chicago poet Li-Young Lee, among others.

At the opening on April 5, I saw poems about chocolate candies and emotional separation, molecules and existence, time and paradise, corporate symbolism and childhood. Each was printed on Somerset paper with a secondary illustration derived directly from the poem.

I did not, however, see any poems about war. In that sense it was a radical departure from the sprawling peace protest I attended downtown earlier that day. But what Mr. Clarke said next made me think that the two events might not be all that different.

“Poetry at the time was kind of a cage-bound thing,” he continued. “So this idea of the performance or presentation of poetry was a new thing, and it was especially new considering the modern poets. They like to keen their poetry. And if you know what keening is…if you’ve ever heard Pound or Eliot or even Carl Sandburg read their poetry it’s kind of a makes monotone “yaa yaa yaa yaa yaa” sound weird kind of Zen trance reading. So these were kind of in real time and in real voice performances with maybe music or things like that.”

PRESENTATION & PERFORMANCE

The protest everyone knows about, which started at Chicago’s Federal Plaza around noon the same Saturday, was quite the spectacle. If you were there for three hours in the cold marching with us, you probably saw and heard a lot of the same things I did:

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Placards as far as the eye can see. Not one of them pro- or anti-Saddam. Most featured the president juxtaposed with various visual representations of his own nefarious buzzword. One had the header SAME SHIT, underneath which was a picture of Hitler on the left and Bush on the right, with the subhead DIFFERENT ASSHOLES. Another was a message addressed to the Pope: SEND EXORCIST NOW. The one I kept looking for was actually four. Giant granite-colored heads of posterboard featured photos of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz staring blankly beneath glowing red letters that spelled out WAR, FAMINE, PESTILENCE or DEATH on each withered forehead.

Various organizations were represented in polyester and posterboard above the crowd, including the ISO, environmentalists, christians and anarchists, which I only know because their black-and-red flag kept swatting me in the face.

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Excerpt from a protest transcript:
Girl with megaphone: What do we want!?
Everyone else: Peace!
Girl with megaphone: When do we want it!? Everyone else: Now!
Girl with megaphone: What do we want!?
Everyone else: Peace!
Girl with megaphone: When do we want it!?
Everyone else: Now!
Girl with megaphone: What do we want!?
Everyone else: Peace!
Girl with megaphone: When do we want it!?
Everyone else: Now!
Girl with megaphone: What do we want!?
Everyone else: Peace!
Girl with megaphone: When do we want it!?
Everyone else: Now!

[Et cetera for about 20 minutes or so…]

Girl with megaphone: When do we want it!?
Everyone else: Now!
Girl with megaphone: What do we want!?
Everyone else: Peace!
Girl with megaphone: When do we want it!?
Everyone else: Now!
Girl with megaphone: Whoo! Yeah!
Guy two inches behind me: Peace peace peace peace peace peace….
Guy next to him: Yeah! Peace kicks ass, man.
Guy two inches behind me: You know you want peace! You want it. Peace peace peace peace peace peace….

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Quite a few nu-vaudevillians were present at the first protest. Costumed folk with an agenda and a sense of humor. If you waited in the same place long enough you’d see flashes of yellow, and focus long enough to see bright yellow city vests with CLEANING UP AFTER CAPITALISM and a .co.uk website on them, trailing electric super brooms that weren’t plugged in, but made a noise. The vested one without a broom carried the Stars and Stripes; minus stars, with corporate logos like McDonalds, Playboy, IBM and NBC in their place.

It was hard not to notice the cave-dwelling gentleman in long-sleeved T-shirt and faux wooly mammoth fur. The one carrying a plastic club and wearing a rubber Bush caricature mask that I first thought was Nixon. I watched him wave his club for 10 minutes, waiting for his extinction at the hands of the peaceful.

And then there was the grey-haired werewolf covered in red paint that was clearly not blood. He held no placard. Why werewolf? I asked myself, but eventually decided he must just like werewolves. Good enough.

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Have you ever seen a wall of police? A wall with plastic helmets that were bluer than the sky? Bobbleheads with serial numbers on black plated flak jackets mumbling epithets with soft parts in between? I saw them Saturday. They marched in single file next to the procession for peace. At one point I turned around and saw nothing but black and blue for miles.

Even the horses had riot gear. Bare except for shields over their black pools of eyes.

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Excerpt from a protest transcript:

Guy with megaphone: Black.
Everyone else: Black! Guy with megaphone: Latino. White girl with affected barrio accent: La-tee-NO! Chorus: Arab, Asian and White. White girl with affected barrio accent: Say what? Chorus: No racist war no more no more defend our civil rights.

[This went on again for 20 minutes or so while the mostly African-American and Hispanic police officers poked each other in their plated ribs and chuckled.]

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Loud chants, anti-Bush placards, sky blue helmets and black flak jackets for miles, flags and banners of all makes and models, sideshow street sweepers, paparazzi, paparazzi and Bush was here post-its scribbled furiously and dropped on steaming piles of horse dung. It was loud, it was omnipresent and it was all in the service of peace.

EXPRESSIONS

The second protest at Bell Studio Gallery, however, was silent. Or very nearly so. And if you asked its organizers, they would probably deny that they were having an anti-war protest at all. But I disagree. For what they were celebrating was poetry, or a person’s right to civil disobedience of a different kind — a kind like this 1945 anti-war poem by Randall Jarrell:

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life.I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

As my Saturday at the peace rally and poetry exhibition taught me, there is more than one way to peacefully voice your opposition to war.

And it doesn’t have to be obvious. A poem at the broadside show called Shiloh uses the Civil War as a metaphor, but there are no poems by Randall Jerrell or Wilfred Owen or any poet lyrically describing the horrors of war. Nonetheless, each work is a testament to free and peaceful expression of the human experience. And in that sense each is anti-war. On this point I doubt my fellow protestors would object.

April is a time of war, a time for peace and also National Poetry Month. It’s important that we don’t forget.

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bryson meunier lives and works in chicago as a search marketing manager/seo guru for resolution media. which means he knows what you’re searching for even before you ask.