Adrienne Rich, Victor Hernandez Cruz, and Michael S. Harper have changed the way poetry is heard, read, and absorbed. This program showcases these three poets who exult in language’s ability to illuminate culture and history. Filmed at the Biennial Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. (58 minutes)
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POET: …some body-body-body-body-body-body-body-body …
POET: Poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes they are sleeping.
POET: At 12 years old, Gato is no good.
BILL MOYERS: They are here to celebrate life.
POET: Here, on this bridge between star-shine and clay …
BILL MOYERS: They have come to celebrate language.
POET: … about how, despite all the kung-fu phooey and the chop-saki muey, ah-ooh-ah!
BILL MOYERS: Poetry readings are flourishing across America in many different places, in wondrous variety.
POET: … daggers then have at thee, you’re a foul and evil fiend.
BILL MOYERS: Nowhere is the renaissance of poetry more vivid than in the historic village of Waterloo, New Jersey. Every two years thousands of people gather to hear some of the world’s best poets at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival.
POET: Even with insects, some can sing, some can’t.
BILL MOYERS: In this hour, we will rejoice with the Puerto Rican poet, Victor Hernandez Cruz.
VICTOR HERNÁNDEZ CRUZ: … what the eyes of the bamboo flute see, what the eyes of the bamboo flute see, a reptile sees.
MICHAEL HARPER: … guns in the recording studio…
BILL MOYERS: We will take in the rhythms of Michael Harper.
MICHAEL HARPER: … meals eaten while running in place, for mom and dad, who could dance.
BILL MOYERS: And, we will hear from the incomparable Adrienne Rich.
ADRIENNE RICH: Now, again, poetry, violent, arcane, common …
BILL MOYERS: Adrienne Rich, Michael Harper, and Victor Hernandez Cruz. Theirs is THE LANGUAGE OF LIFE.
JIM HABA: Welcome. I’m very pleased to see you all here, and I’m also very pleased to have with us today Adrienne Rich.
ADRIENNE RICH: It seems to me all of my life I’ve thought of poetry both as a source of joy and deep, deep pleasure. And as a way, sometimes profoundly disturbing and even painful, of moving deeper into the heart of things. And this is called “PROSPECTIVE IMMIGRANTS, PLEASE NOTE. And I was not thinking, really, when I wrote this poem, about literal immigrants. I was thinking about internal immigrants, those who are passing from one place to another, from one country to another, in themselves. “Prospective immigrants, please note. Either you will go through this door, or you will not go through. If you go through, there is always the risk of remembering your name. Things look at you doubly, and you must look back and let them happen. If you do not go through, it is possible to live worthily, to maintain your attitudes, to hold your position, to die bravely. But much will blind you, much will evade you, at what cost? Who knows? The door itself makes no promises. It is only a door.”
ADRIENNE RICH: Thank you. I think in this poem, what I am talking about is the choice that we can make, to move deeper into things, or simply to live worthily, maintain your attitudes, hold your position, even die bravely, but not to see what might have been seen. Not to grasp what might have been grasped. And that is a choice, for us all, whether in poetry or in life.
BILL MOYERS: Why do you think poetry has such a hard time getting a hearing in this culture?
ADRIENNE RICH: Well, it’s very interesting, we’re at a very interesting watershed, I think, because I have been seeing and noting a tremendous renaissance of poetry in the United States, over the past ten, twenty years. Watered and nourished by the voices of many groups which had been silenced before that. Watered and nourished by the voices of women, by the voices of people of color, by the voices of gay men and lesbians, by the voices of working class white Americans, and there is the seething, burgeoning, poetry out there, but it’s many poetries.
VICTOR HERNÁNDEZ CRUZ: (FOREIGN LANGUAGE SINGING)
ADRIENNE RICH: And it’s coming from many cultures, many communities, all over the country, I see groups who are generating their own poets, many of whom we see here today.
VICTOR HERNÁNDEZ CRUZ: …(FOREIGN LANGUAGE SINGING.
VICTOR HERNÁNDEZ CRUZ: The PROBLEMS WITH HURRICANES. “A campesino looked at the air and told me, with hurricanes, it’s not the wind or the noise or the water. I’ll tell you, he said. It’s the mangoes, avocados, green plantains and bananas, flying into town like projectiles. How would your family feel if they had to tell the generations that you got killed by a flying banana? Death by drowning has honor, if the wind picked you up and slammed you against a mountain boulder, this would not carry shame. But to suffer a mango smashing your skull, or a plantain hitting your temple at 70 miles per hour, is the ultimate disgrace. The campesino takes off his hat, as a sign of respect towards the fury of the wind and says, don’t worry about the noise, don’t worry about the water, don’t worry about the wind. If you are going out, beware of mangoes. And all such beautiful sweet things.”
VICTOR HERNÁNDEZ CRUZ: I write from a cultural point of view. I don’t write so much about my own personal biography, I write about myself as a Caribbean man, a man within a larger tapestry, and I try to see the connections between everything. Between myself and history, myself a racially mixed person, and all these things that make me up. I explore them in my poetry.
BILL MOYERS: Is there something in the Caribbean, especially friendly to poetry?
VICTOR HERNÁNDEZ CRUZ: The Caribbean is made up of different peoples of the world, that have come there, on top of the indigenous peoples that were there, so there is just a lot of information there. The blendings, the racial blendings, the many ways people look, the combinations that they look like. All the gestures of the human race, coming together. The different eyes, noses, mouth, lips, hair, forms. The different types of musics that have been able to come together. A guitar next to a drum, Spanish medleys with African rhythms. The feel for all those rhythms simultaneously, not just separate, but to be able to come together and form something new? This is Caribbean society. It’s not so much multi-cultural, as it is multi-racial, that is the Caribbean.
BILL MOYERS: Did your parents read poems to you? Did you hear people in your neighborhood reading poems?
VICTOR HERNÁNDEZ CRUZ: The PROBLEMS WITH HURRICANES: I would say that the poetic tradition that I most heard growing up was the oral tradition of Puerto Rican society. The declamadores, those who said poetry out loud, and my grandfather, Julio Biamia, was a tobacconist in the Caribbean, in Puerto Rico, in a small tobacco workshop.
BILL MOYERS: Did he roll cigars?
VICTOR HERNÁNDEZ CRUZ: And he rolled the cigars, and the tradition of the tobacconist, in Cuba and Puerto Rico, they actually read from books and they would read a whole novel …
BILL MOYERS: As they were rolling?
VICTOR HERNÁNDEZ CRUZ: Yeah, they would have a reader come in and read. And they would read this work to its end, they might read a chapter a day, and the tobacconists would roll their cigars, and it was, and also they would declaim their poems, cause in the Caribbean setting, the tobacconists have, in a sense, the, more leisure. Where their agricultural work is a little less than cutting cane, you know, or the coffee people, but the tobacconists were able to actually develop their minds a little bit.
BILL MOYERS: That’s a wonderful image, rolling cigars, which I happen to like, listening to poetry.
VICTOR HERNÁNDEZ CRUZ: And that’s how I first heard poetry.
BILL MOYERS: And what does this poetry from the Caribbean bring to the mainland?
VICTOR HERNÁNDEZ CRUZ: It brings so many things. It brings a language which is still connected to agriculture. Which is still connected to nature, in a way that a lot of urban, North American poetry is not.
VICTOR HERNANDEZ CRUZ: YJUANAS. “There’s not an iguana that isn’t drawn up first an ocean sea shell, changes of color, some with splashes of azules and pinks, round their waist a Matisse of blue, achitoe feet crawling out of topaz sand dunes, umbrellas of crimson amapoles, despite the Yankees, a grace from Areyto singing, right through all malfunction, emotion takes transport in guiro circles, if life, if life has left society, the singers claim there are ears alive in river rocks by night and day, from which Yjuanas gowns dive towards baptism, legs scrambling through waterfalls, what the eyes of the bamboo flutes see, a reptile sees. Yjuanas picture a place that can never be told in words.”
MICHAEL HARPER: I can’t imagine anybody honestly wanting to be a poet full time. My parents, when I first said I wanted to write poetry, they looked and said, well, how are you going to support yourself? You know? I mean, they just said that unequivocally. Why don’t you become a doctor like you’re supposed to be? (Laughs.)
BILL MOYERS: (Laughs.)
MICHAEL HARPER: You know? What do you do? Well, do you think we sent you to school, you know, for you to mess up like this? (Laughs.)
BILL MOYERS: (Laughs.) Fooling around–
MICHAEL HARPER: … locked into self-expression?
(MUSIC WITH HORNS)
MICHAEL HARPER: This poem is called, DEAR JOHN COLTRANE. I wrote it before John Coltrane died. John Coltrane was one of the ancestors and I owe him plenty.
(JAZZ BLUES MUSIC)
MICHAEL HARPER: “A love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme. Sex, fingers, toes, in the market place near your father’s church in Hamlet, North Carolina. Witness to this love in this calm fallow of these minds, there is no substitute for pain. A love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme…”
BILL MOYERS: What’s it like for a poet to be up there reading to music?
MICHAEL HARPER: Well, the first thing you have to do is, you have to catch the cadence, and what you’re looking for is a space to enter. And it’s about timing, and it’s about waiting for, rather than rushing into.
MICHAEL HARPER: “What does it all mean? Loss so great, each black woman expects your failure, and new change. The seed gone. You plod up into the electric city, your song now crystal in the blues, you pick up the horn with some will, and blow into the freezing night. A love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme…”
MICHAEL HARPER: Much of it has to do with measure. It has to do with what is said, and what is not said.
BILL MOYERS: That’s what it, poetry has in common with jazz, is it not?
MICHAEL HARPER: Very much. Very much so.
BILL MOYERS: Back and forth.
MICHAEL HARPER: “… why you so black? Because I am. Why you so funky? Cause I am. Why you so black? Cause I am.
MICHAEL HARPER: “Why you so sweet? Cause I am.”
MICHAEL HARPER: “Why you so black? Cause I am.”
MICHAEL HARPER: “Why you so sweet? Because I am. Why you so black? Because I am. A love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme …”
BILL MOYERS: Does rhythm become a kind of language?
MICHAEL HARPER: It does for me. The fundamentals, the structural fundamentals, in poetry, in art-making, is always the same.
BILL MOYERS: So even in the improvisation, there is, of necessity, kind of loyalty to structure, to rules, to rhythm, that …
MICHAEL HARPER: Always.
BILL MOYERS: … you can only go beyond if you respect? I was present yesterday when you read a Gwendolyn Brooks poem that sounded like jazz. It was the first I could see, I could hear, that poetry was jazz, is jazz.
MICHAEL HARPER: When people read this poem, I don’t think they hear it as it was originally meant to be heard. So I’m going to read it as she reads it. As Gwendolyn Brooks reads it. It’s called, WE REAL COOL. ” The pool players, seven at the Golden Shovel.” We real cool, we left school. We lurk late, we strike straight. We sing sin, we thin gin. We jazz june, we die soon.”
(JAZZ PIANO MUSIC)
MICHAEL HARPER: ” …a love supreme, a love supreme. So sick you couldn’t play Naima, so flat you ache for a song you concealed with your own blood. Your diseased liver gave out, it’s purity, the inflated heart pumps out the tenor kiss, tenor love. A love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme.”
ADRIENNE RICH: This is so different from the poetry world in which I was a student, a young poet, in the 1940’s and 1950’s, which was the world dominated by a few major figures, all white. I see poetry in the United States as coming out of the points of stress in our society. We have at least a thousand points of stress. And we have, we see poetry emerging from the places, not only from those places, but certainly from those places. As if the stress in itself creates a search for language in which to probe and unravel what is going on here. The moral and ethical confusion, the confusion of values, and these are questions which I know press on many, many people. And some of them turn to poetry.
ADRIENNE RICH: “I know you are reading this poem late, before leaving your office, of the one intense yellow lamp spot, and the darkening window, in the lassitude of a building faded to quiet. Long after rush hour. I know you are reading this poem standing up in a book store, far from the ocean, on a gray day of early spring, faint flakes driven across the plains, enormous spaces around you. I know you are reading this poem in a room where too much has happened for you to bear, and the bed clothes lie in stagnant coils on the bed, and the open valise speaks of flight, but you cannot leave yet. I know you are reading this poem as the underground train loses momentum and before running up the stairs, toward a new kind of love, your life has never allowed. I know you are reading this poem by the light of the television screen, where soundless images jerk and slide, while you wait for the newscast, from the Intifada. I know you are reading this poem in a waiting room of eyes met and unmeeting, of identity with strangers. I know you are reading this poem by fluorescent light, in the boredom and fatigue of the young who are counted out, count themselves out, at too early an age. I know you are reading this poem through your failing sight, the thick lens enlarging these letters beyond all meaning, yet you read on, because even the alphabet is precious. I know you are reading this poem as you pace beside the stove, warming milk, a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your hand, because life is short, and you too are thirsty. I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language, guessing at some words while others keep you reading. And I want to know which words they are. I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn between bitterness and hope, turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse. I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else left to read. There, where you have landed, stripped as you are.”
ADRIENNE RICH: When I was writing DEDICATIONS, I wanted to speak to people as individuals, but also as people who, individuals multiplied over and over and over and over. But finally, I was thinking of our society, stripped of so much of what was hoped for and promised, and given nothing in exchange, but material commodities, or the hope of obtaining material commodities. And for me, that is being truly stripped. I was looking at the Weather Channel this morning, and there was a commercial, which I thought summed it all up, in a sense. It was a commercial for a book, issued by some insurance company, and the title of the book was, DIE RICH: HOW TO AVOID ESTATE TAXES. And I thought, this is, this is what it’s come to. It’s not about quality of life, it’s not about even preserving the society under the seventh generation. It is about the preservation of wealth, perhaps, but it’s not about the quality of our children’s lives or our grandchildren’s lives. Die rich. And one of the things that I ask myself, and that I have to tell you frankly, I feel skeptical about is, when people encounter a program like the one, you know, you are trying to create here, on a television which is so dominated by the messages of corporate capitalism, of, I would say, a kind of contempt for humanity, representations of humanity in its, in the most gross and belittling forms, I ask myself, how is this embedded in all of that? I was …
BILL MOYERS: How is the message shaped by the?
ADRIENNE RICH: … how is the content and the substance of what you and I are trying to do here, affected by this context?
BILL MOYERS: What does poetry have to say to just that?
ADRIENNE RICH: Well, I believe that poetry that is poetry, is asking us to consider the quality of life. And it is reflecting on what makes it possible for us to continue as human? Under the barrage of brute violence, numbing indifference, trivialization, shallowness, that we endure.
MICHAEL HARPER: I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. You know, I know something about gang fighting. I know something about the rigors of living in the street. I got no romance about violence, none at all. And when I wrote this poem, I was incredibly angry, about a lot of things. This boy was begging for his life, and a policeman killed him. The mother is witness to this, and she is reiterating his last plea. He’s gone.
MICHAEL HARPER: “THE ALGIERS MOTEL INCIDENT, DETROIT. It’s too dark to see black in the windows of Woodward or Virginia Park. The undertaker pushed his body back into place with plastic and gum, but it wouldn’t hold water. When I look for marks or lineament or fine stitching, I was led away without seeing this plastic face they built, that was not my son’s. They tied the eye torn out by shotgun into place, and his shattered arm cut away with his buttocks that remained. My son’s gone, by white hands. Though he said, to his last words, oh, I’m so sorry, officer. I broke your gun.” Question. Do you have a response to…”
MAN: I’m hearing you and I don’t see in your persona the anger that I hear in the poem.
MICHAEL HARPER: Uh-huh.
MAN: And …
MICHAEL HARPER: You’re not supposed to.
MICHAEL HARPER: The point is, I mean, that’s a very good, uh, distinction, I’m glad you said that, but the job of the poet is to make the reader angry. The job is not to come in front of you and masquerade as though you are some kind of entertainer, and your job is to, I mean, that’s an insult on your audience. The point is to put the criticism and the movement in the work, to make the tears go off in the reader, not to scream and yell.
BILL MOYERS: Michael Harper’s poem, THE ALGIERS MOTEL INCIDENT, describes the death of an urban youth. But he has also confronted private tragedy himself, in poems that deal with his own grief over the early deaths of his two infant sons.
MICHAEL HARPER: Ruben was my second son. He died of what they now call respiratory distress syndrome. “Ruben, Ruben. I reach from pain to music, great enough to bring me back. Swollen head, madness, love fruit. A pickle of hate so sour, my mouth twicked up and would not sing. There’s nothing in the beat to hold it in melody and turn human skin, a brown berry gone to rot just two days on the branch. We’ve lost a son, the music, jazz, comes in.”
MICHAEL HARPER: At the time that I wrote this, I wasn’t trying to write a poem at all. You know? I was just trying to deal with my wife’s grief, number one, and I just made some notes. The notes for this poem, I had written on the back of an envelope, and it just disappeared, and I came upon it months later. So, later on, when I found the poem and read it, I said to myself, this is something I could not write now, but there it was. And because I had the evidence, I began to craft it, as I would any other time. I was, I was through the, but, if I had not written that, I hadn’t, if I had not made those notes, I wouldn’t have written that poem.
BILL MOYERS: Put it down when you have to.
MICHAEL HARPER: You have to.
BILL MOYERS: Even if it’s not a poem yet?
MICHAEL HARPER: Even, and it certainly wasn’t a poem then.
BILL MOYERS: Did you read it, finally, to your wife?
MICHAEL HARPER: Oh yes. Although there are some poems I don’t read around her. Like for example, the NIGHTMARE BEGINS RESPONSIBILITY.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
MICHAEL HARPER: I, well, because, I think I’m more sentimental than she is, she’s very tough minded. You know, she understands it’s a poem and whatever, but I’m still kind of reliving–
MICHAEL HARPER: NIGHTMARE BEGINS RESPONSIBILITY. “I place these numb wrists to the pain, watching white uniforms whisk over him in the tube-kept prison. Feel what they will do and experiment, watch my glove stick shifting gasoline hands breathe, box car information, please. Infirmary tubes, distrusting white, pink, mending paper think silken and hairs, distrusting tubes shrunk in his trunk skin cap shaven head, and thighs distrusting white hands picking baboon light, on this son who will not his second night of this ward-strewn intensive air pocket, where his father’s asthmatic hymns of night train, train done gone, his mother can only know that he has flown up into essential calm, unseen corridor, going boxcar home mama born, sweet son child, going down into an under research testing warehouse battery acid. Mama sons have gone, me telling her another train tonight, no music, no breath stroked heartbeat in my infinite distrust of them. And of my distrusting self. White doctor who breathed for him all night. Say it for two sons gone, say nightmare, say it loud. Pain breaking heart madness. Nightmare begins responsibility.”
BILL MOYERS: There’s so much distrust in that poem, the word distrust appears time and time again. What’s that distrust about?
MICHAEL HARPER: Well, that distrust is about medical culture. You’ve got people there going through their mechanical responsibilities. Nurses, doctors, whatever, and you got all that machinery. And you’re on the other side of a window, you’re looking through, and you want to hold this child that you produced, and you haven’t even gotten a chance to touch. And there’s also an awareness that they’re doing all they can, but all they can is not enough. And I’m not saying that they’re unfeeling, but they’re technicians. You’re hoping that your kid is in the hands of an artist, and there are artists. The man who breathed for my son all night, he was an artist. But, and there’s also a racial distrust in this…
BILL MOYERS: He was white?
MICHAEL HARPER: He was white. The divide of race always operates when one is in need, and you haven’t even held this child.
BILL MOYERS: Why is it nightmare begins responsibility?
MICHAEL HARPER: Um, one has to transcend what one can’t change, and one has to live in the world. And the grief that is brought to you, I don’t think much of the grief that is brought to you is something you can’t live through. If you can accept it, willingly, openly.
BILL MOYERS: Have you been able to do that?
MICHAEL HARPER: I’ve tried. And I didn’t, when I wrote it, I just wrote it to deal with my own circumstance, but you find out that there’s a certain kind of universality of loss of children, that is shared by many, many people. And it gives you a certain kind of succor, when they come up to you and say, you know, your poem that you wrote helped me get through whatever.
BILL MOYERS: So, what is the job of the poet?
MICHAEL HARPER: The job of the poet is to tell the truth no matter what.
WOMAN: Thank you.
ADRIENNE RICH: You’re very welcome. If you ever write a poem and have it published, make sure you get to proof read it. Because …
ADRIENNE RICH: … (Laughs), nobody else can proofread your own poem. It’s really, really tricky to proofread poetry. We do things with punctuation that are very important, and they’re very, they’re real decisions, they’re not just happenstance.
WOMAN: I’ve gotten my poems published.
ADRIENNE RICH: Good. I hope you proofread them, and I hope they came out absolutely perfect.
WOMAN: Thank you.
ADRIENNE RICH: Even when I was very young, I was reading poetry, looking for what it could tell me about how to live. For me, poetry has never, ever been just an escape from the world, an escape from history.
WOMAN: You’ve taken my life in a different direction, thank you very much.
ADRIENNE RICH: For many years, I taught basic writing to college freshmen who were untrained in grammar, in reading, in math skills and so forth. And that, those years were very, very exciting years, that was probably some of the most exciting teaching I’ve ever done. We don’t know in teaching who we’re reaching. We don’t always know, the lives in which we have made the deepest imprint, and that those of us who are privileged to teach poetry, are possibly touching into places where the unsayable exists, for our students. And one hopes that then they can come to speak, to speech, and that would be the great hope.
ADRIENNE RICH: I wanted to read you this short poem, IN THE CLASSROOM. “Talking of poetry, hauling the books, arm full, to the table, where the heads bend or gaze upward, listening, reading aloud. Talking of consonants, elision, caught in the how, oblivious of why. I look in your face, Jude, neither frowning nor nodding, opaque in the slant of dust motes over the table. A presence like a stone. If a stone were thinking, what I cannot say is me, for that I came.”
ADRIENNE RICH: The teacher in that poem, who’s been talking about poetry, immersed, I think I say, in the how, oblivious of the way, suddenly sees the person who comes speechless into the class. And perhaps in that moment of recognition, the teacher learns that intelligence is not limited to those who are fluent in the English language. In writing that poem, I was thinking of so many students I’ve had, who were capable of becoming poets, but who had not even been given the opportunity to write an English sentence. And in the writings of my students, I found so many images, so many leaps of the imagination, so much passion often.
BILL MOYERS: So the teacher learns from the student.
ADRIENNE RICH: Yes.
ADRIENNE RICH: Poetry, for me, is of course personal, it’s a, it’s a tool, it’s a probe, it’s a, it’s a means of meditation. It is a reflection upon consciousness. But it’s a reflection on consciousness through concrete embodiment always. Through the concrete. But I don’t set out to sort of tell it how it was. I think a poem takes whatever was, whatever is happening, takes the event, if you will, the concrete event, into a different dimension. It is an act of the imagination, transforming reality, transforming what is. Not into some kind of deception of wishful thinking, but into a deeper perception of what is. I mean, I don’t make a distinction between the ordinary and the visionary. I feel as if they’re intimately connected. Isn’t it in the ordinary that we find depth? Isn’t it in the ordinary, isn’t it in the stuff of everyday life, that we find embodied in the deeper places we have to go? Maybe I’ll just read you a poem that addresses that.
ADRIENNE RICH: It’s called, FOCUS. “Obscurity has it’s tale to tell. Like the figure on the studio bed in the corner, out of range, smoking, watching and waiting, sun pours through the skylight onto the work table, making of a jar of pencils, a typewriter keyboard, more than they were. Veridical light. Earth budges. Now, an empty coffee cup, a whetstone, a handkerchief, take on their sacramental clarity, fixed by the wand of light, as the thinker thinks to fix them in the mind. Oh secret in the core of the whet stone, in the five pencils splayed out like fingers of a hand. The mind’s passion is all of the singling out, obscurity has another tale to tell.”
VICTOR HERNÁNDEZ CRUZ: Okay. How’s everyone doing?
VICTOR HERNÁNDEZ CRUZ: Bien. As long as it don’t get any colder than this … it’s going to be okay. Cause from Aguas Buenas, this is the heaviest thing I found. (Laughter) So tell me about it. I grew up in New York, I want to recall that neighborhood that I grew up in, in this poem here.
VICTOR HERNÁNDEZ CRUZ: THE LOWER SIDE OF MANHATTAN. “By the East River of Manhattan Island, where once the Iroquois canoed in style, a clear liquid caressing another name for rock, now the jumping stretch of the Avenue D housing projects, where Ricans and Afros, Jonny Pacheco, Wilson Pickett, the transistor radio night, across the Domino Sugar neon sign, of the Brooklyn shore. Window carnival of megalopolis light, from Houston Street, 20 kids take off on summer bikes, across the Williamsburg Bridge, their hair flying with bodega bean protein, below the working class jumps like frogs, parrots with new rain coats, swinging cane of bamboo, like third legs down diddy-bop Sixth Street of the roaring dragons. Strollers of cool flow, when winter comes they fly in capes down Delancey Street, past the bites of pastrami sandwiches at Katz, marching through red bricks aglow, dragging hind step of leg, a swinging arm defying in simulcast. Hebrew prayers inside metallic containers rolled into walls, tenement relic roofs of pigeon air ports. Horse driven carts arrive with the morning, slicing through the Venetian blinds, along with a Polish, English, barking, peaches and melons. Later, the ice man a-cometh, selling his hard water cut into blocks, the afternoon a metallic slides intercourses buildings which start to swallow coals down their basement mouths. Where did the mountains go? The immigrants ask. The place where houses and objects went back into history, which guided them into nature, entering the roots of plants, the molasses of fruits, the coconut of fruit…”
BILL MOYERS: Your poetry contains the sounds of the street, Caribbean salsa, jazz, popular music, black English. Puerto Rico, New York, Africa, Asia, on and on and on, I mean, how do you explain this cacophony of sound that’s in your poetry?
VICTOR HERNÁNDEZ CRUZ: Well, it’s the history of the migrations that I have participated in. As a young child, my family uprooted and left a small, tropical town in the middle of Puerto Rico and went on into one of the largest cities on the planet Earth, New York City.
BILL MOYERS: Just like that, kerplunk?
VICTOR HERNÁNDEZ CRUZ: Just like that. Smack into Manhattan. From the mountains, and, which was like moving into one age to another. Back in the ’50s, and then the area where I grew up in, I grew up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. I grew up near the Avenue D housing project, it was mostly an African-American, Puerto Rican neighborhood. And there was some blendings of these cultures that, on the street level, that ñ that I was a participant of, just in the natural way that I grew up.
BILL MOYERS: Put yourself back 25 years ago, you’ve just arrived in New York. You want to write poetry and from your soul comes a poem called, TODAY IS A DAY OF GREAT JOY. Read it for me.
VICTOR HERNÁNDEZ CRUZ: Yeah, that’s a poem from 1967. Let’s read that. TODAY IS A DAY OF GREAT JOY. “Today is a day of great joy.” When they stop poems in the mail and clap their hands and dance to them, when women become pregnant by the sight of poems, the strongest sounds making the river go along, it is a great day. As poems fall down to move crowds and restaurants and bars, when poems start to knock down walls, to choke politicians, when poems scream and begin to break the air, that is the time of true poets, that is the time of greatness, a true poet aiming poems and watching things fall to the ground. It is a great day.”
BILL MOYERS: Did you really expect poems to knock down walls and to choke politicians?
VICTOR HERNÁNDEZ CRUZ: I think you have those illusions when you’re younger. But I think that they, you know, language being the natural force that it is, I think it has quite a lot of power. You know? People that go crazy, the first thing they do is they start talking to themselves. So, the power of language and the power to control it, is the power to grasp who we are inside, and to get a hold of our lives, is the important task of poetry, and of a poet.
ADRIENNE RICH: Thank you. Victor Cruz is from the Caribbean and he’s cold, and I’m from California, and I’m cold. So I’m keeping my coat on. I’d like to read to you some poems from a book that’s still unpublished. And this is called, WHAT KIND OF TIMES ARE THESE? And the title comes from a poem by the great German communist playwright and poet, Bertolt Brecht, who said in a poem, what kind of times are these? When it’s almost a crime to talk about trees, because it means keeping silent about so many evil deeds. He was writing in the Nazi period.
ADRIENNE RICH: WHAT KIND OF TIMES ARE THESE? There’s a place between two stands of trees, where the grass grows uphill, and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows. Near a meeting house abandoned by the persecuted, who disappeared into those shadows. I’ve walked there, picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled. This isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else, but here. Our country moving closer to its own truth and dread, its own ways of making people disappear. I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods meeting the unmarked strip of light. Ghost-ridden cross roads, leaf mold paradise. I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear, and I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you anything? Because you still listen. Because in times like these, to have you listen at all, it’s necessary to talk about trees.”
BILL MOYERS: What did you mean when you said that, our country moving close to its own truth and dread. What is our country’s truth?
ADRIENNE RICH: Our country has many truths, but certainly one of them has to be that this was never a democracy. That this was a hope of democracy, an enormous, an enormous hope for true democracy, and that it failed many people from the outset and it’s failing more people now.
BILL MOYERS: And it’s dread? Is that it’s dread? That it’s failing more people?
ADRIENNE RICH: I think that more and more people feel uncared for, feel that their lives are not only unvalued, but meaningless. Feel that though they may care for their lives, no one else will. Feel that the only way that they can protect their survival and their interests is by the gun. I’m afraid that many people feel an enormous desperation which plays into the propaganda of hate.
BILL MOYERS: But your poem doesn’t reflect that bitterness. Your poem doesn’t rise from some sense of being poisoned in the world.
ADRIENNE RICH: I think that poetry speaks beyond that, to something different. And that’s why it can bring those parts of us together, that are both in dread, and which have the surviving sense of a possible happiness, and a possible collectivity, a possible community, a loss of isolation.
BILL MOYERS: You put your finger, in my opinion, on part of the problem in your poem, IN THOSE YEARS. Would you just read this, it’s a short one.
ADRIENNE RICH: I’d be glad to.
BILL MOYERS: Okay. Thank you.
ADRIENNE RICH: “In those years, people will say, we lost track of the meaning of we, of you. We found ourselves reduced to I. And the whole thing became silly, ironic, terrible. We were trying to live a personal life, and yes, that was the only life we could bear witness to. But the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged into our personal weather. They were headed somewhere else, but their beaks and pinions drove along the shore, through the rags of fog, where we stood saying, I.”
BILL MOYERS: What I take from that is that the we the people, the sense of the Republic, the founding concept of this country, becomes now just a series of individuals, isolated and fragmented …
ADRIENNE RICH: Fragmented?
BILL MOYERS: Yes. Struggling for their own survival. And yet, you say in there, we were trying to live a personal life. Now ñ now, what’s wrong, even in the midst of all this, with trying to lead a personal life?
ADRIENNE RICH: There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s incredibly important. Because at the root of real social transformation, real change, has to be a love of life, and a love of the world, not hatred of the world. We must try to grasp and treasure those moments that are given us. In another poem I say, take what’s still given. Because it’s those moments and those times, in a personal life, that give us a sense of the value of life, and give us a sense of what could be aspired to for the common life, for the common weal, for all of us.
ADRIENNE RICH: TO THE DAYS? “From you I want more than I’ve ever asked, all of it. The news casts terrible stories of life in my time. The knowing it’s worse than that, much worse. The knowing what it means to be lied to. Fog in the mornings, hunger for clarity, coffee and bread with sour plum jam. Numbness of soul in passive neighborhoods, lives ticking on as if. A typewriter torrent suddenly still. Blue soaking through fog, two dragonflies wheeling. Acceptable levels of cruelty steadily rising. Whatever you bring in your hands, I need to see it. Suddenly I understand the verb without tenses. To smell another woman’s hair, to taste her skin, to know the bodies drifting underwater. To be human, said Rosa, I can’t teach you that. A cat drinks from a bowl of marigolds, his moment. Surely the love of life is never ending, the failure of nerve, a charred fuse. I want more from than you than I ever knew to ask. Wild pink lilies erupting, tasseled stalks of corn, in the Mexican gardens, corn and roses, shortening days, strawberry fields in ferment, with tossed aside bruised fruit.”
This transcript was entered on June 24, 2015.