Poetry Peace Vigil
by Stephen Thorley

It is the duty of every poet to speak fearlessly and clearly.
– Sam Hamill

On Friday, October 14, 2005, about 50 people gathered in Hanover Square in downtown Syracuse to attend a poetry for peace vigil against the war in Iraq (see Poetry for Peace Vigil in November PNL). Teachers, students, veterans, citizens, we huddled together against the gray day and the chill, in a tight circle, body to body, straining to hear each others’ words. From the poems of published poets, to the handwritten words of ordinary people moved to write by their anger at the war, from Edna St.Vincent Millay to Galway Kinnell, from those of a high school student not born at the time of the Viet Nam war, to the testament of a Viet Nam vet, these words rose into the air with our breaths, bearing witness.

Hearing this chorus of citizens’ voices – raised against the war machine, using words of their own composition as well as those of famous poets from our own and other time periods – sparked the idea that it would be in keeping with the mission of the Peace Council to witness against the war in this way on a regular basis. The Syracuse Peace Council agreed to join in this effort by devoting space each month for the words of poets among us to raise their voices in protest.

This is not a new idea – Sam Hamill, poet, translator, publisher, activist – attended the vigil, which was held the morning after his own reading in Syracuse. Hamill is known for having turned down the invitation of Laura Bush to a poetry “symposium” (ironically enough titled “Poetry and the American Voice”) at the White House in March 2003 on the eve of the war. His refusal to participate prompted him to write a letter calling on other poets to resist being complicit in the war effort, and ultimately led to the creation of the organization Poets Against the War. Hamill directly compares this effort to the outcry of poets against the Viet Nam war. His initial invitation to a few poets ultimately led to the creation of a website (www.poetsagainstthewar.org) and the production of an anthology dedicated to poems of protest against the war. The website now features over 13,000 poems, from poets in all 50 states and from around the world, including works by former SU poetry teachers Hayden Carruth and Tess Gallagher, among many others.

Surely, as we who work for peace and worry about the fate of our democracy and the world, grow weary from listening to the bad news from the war front, the spin from the mouthpieces in Washington, the glib pronouncements from our “free” press, there may be comfort and renewed hope in listening to the “fearless” and “clear” speech of poets. Let us vow to continue to speak out, and listen to the anger and grief and astonishment of poets who look unflinchingly on the horror and refuse to be silent, who work to craft words that will bear witness to the suffering of others and perhaps persuade others to awake and to resist.

This month, we begin this ongoing vigil by featuring a poem from Syracuse poet Georgia Popoff.
Rising Again
September 16, 2001 – The Fifth Day After

I am afraid to sleep tonight because last night I slept like a baby and when I awoke, it was a nightmare. Larry Jaffe

I am surrounded by coal tar,
fear trapping hearts like flies.
In spite of a sunrise every day since
the darkness inside looms thick.
In spite of candles lighting porches and parks
and the flap of flags innumerous and low
against this morning’s blazing near-autumn sky.

I didn’t ask permission.
In fact, I was jolted back to joy.
A momentary reminder of the balm of laughter,
a blessing of innocence resparked in me
from the embers of grief.
And for all of yesterday, I chose celebration
of souls and spirit rather than tears.
Music filled the air like August.

Instead of merely opening the lids of the window
blinds, I drew them fully open.
I flung open the doors to let music spin
into the yard and drift like milkweed seeds
when the pod is too weak to resist their need for freedom.

My own song mixed with the birds and breeze.
I renewed my strength, baptized again with hope.
I pledge to be a beacon, a small star to honor
all who once sang the sacred song of breath.
– Georgia Popoff

A note from the poet:
Larry Jaffe is a west coast poet colleague who founded the website poets4peace.com. The poem evolved in the days of shock from the 9/11 tragedy and my fears for our world. I was, like all of us, unable to comprehend the act, any act of blind hatred. The skies were still quiet since the airlines had not been fiying, it was a beautiful late summer day somehow tainted, and I decided that I needed to not only fill the quiet with music but that I needed to hear Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn, his joy and spirit, to somehow break the spell. I hoped that it would somehow permeate my neighborhood and that fear would lessen. I was remembering the hatred for Asians I grew up with in the 50s and 60s and was determined that I could not witness a racial hatred again. The poem just fell onto the page later that day.

Georgia A. Popoff is a community poet, performer, educator,spoken word producer, and senior editor of The Comstock Review (www.comstockreview.org).

Submissions Welcome
If you have been moved by this unjust war to write a poem, or poems, please consider submitting work care of Stephen Thorley at thorleyp1@yahoo.com. Any work that speaks to themes of war, the war economy, oppression and political injustice, and/or which celebrates more positive hopes and visions for our country and the world, will be considered.

Stephen teaches in the Writing Program at Syracuse University, where he received his MA in Creative Writing – Poetry and studied with Hayden Carruth and Tess Gallagher.