KERRY PRIZE TALK
KELLY WRITERS HOUSE
18 MARCH 2004
It’s an honor to be here in Philadelphia delivering the Kerry Prize Talk this evening. Let me tell you why. I’m giving a talk, but it’s a talk named after a woman who gave herself, was in some ways an activist, so that we in this room might recognize the common interests we share. Her work & the work of everyone here at the Kelly Writers House makes me want to depart from talking about my own specific projects that I as an individual am doing -- you know, I could talk about how great LUNGFULL! is & how like a saint I am & how my work reveals where Gertrude Stein, John Ashbery, Moses & Abraham Lincoln & your parents went wrong -- but I’m not because we’ve only got a little time & there are more important things, more accurate & helpful things to talk to you about.
Instead I want to talk to you about the broader context that we are coping with & some of the conditions that bind us together -- I want to talk about it so that you are more aware of it & thus able to respond to it & also to overcome the sense that difficult times call for every man for himself. Beyond some of the more craven motives that drive people to become artists & writers, motives like thirst for notoriety & feeding the ego, beyond all the other distractions that yield work that reinforces existing power structures & inequity, beyond that there is a hand that everyone in the room & 99% of the people outside it have been dealt. I want to thank Tom Devaney & Brian Cope in far off Japan for having me here. & I want to thank Tracey Mctague for being the Pound to my Elliot in helping put this talk together. She is circling the building with the great dane Sirius right now to make sure nobody leaves. Keep your hands away from the windows.
After I come home from my full-time daygig that almost completely covers some of my blls, I’ve been spending every night for the past few months working on issue 13 of LUNGFULL. Issue 13 has got me thinking about what’s considered lucky & unlucky & about fear in a larger way & who decides what it is we should be afraid of & what benefit those folks get out of our fear. & finally what we can do abt it & how working in a non-corporate sub sub economic beyond-the-margins medium can help.
America is changing. The founders who convened here in Philadelphia mapped out that trajectory & it is proceeding very nicely as planned. One of the side effects of this change is that its getting harder to be an artist or writer -- & by extension, harder to simply be a human with time for relationships & the pursuit of, you know, happiness. Poet Eddie Berrigan alludes to some of the changes we’ve seen in our lifetime in his poem Pastures of Plenty (give away ending).
Pastures of Plenty
I want you to understand
that I don’t know why I’m here.
I was born in another country
with which I now have no association.
I was raised in a New York City
that has been wiped away by economics.
Much of my immediate family has
been removed from this life,
& much of my sense of experience
of this life has been removed with them,
making all of us new people.
I have let much of my sense of self
be informed by an art that is little used
& undervalued. I have sacrificed many
social relationships to these experiences,
which are inextricably linked, because
I come from a family of poets. The life
& values of a poet are antithetical to the
political landscape of the country
I live in, & no political machination
that I may inhabit remotely serves
the causes for which I live, though
I am bound to this land by knowledge of it.
I continue in poetry & song
because the experiences of my senses
are wholly held in these continuous
& inexplicable drives, their reason
& mine never idle or held to law or language.
The trouble with talks, be they state of the union addresses, job interviews or lectures like this one is they don’t permit anyone to express the actual motives behind what they’re saying. Because they emerge from the “law & language,” the constraints of the institutions they represent, they chop the protruding bits from anything too expansive & channel the rest into a lineup of what you already know. Poems, like nations or not getting a job, can be infinite things, extending into the unknown, beyond what can be codified or commodified. We’re taught to be afraid of that sort of thing — not afraid of poems, afraid of devoting one’s life to making them, or to anything that can’t be used as a response to “so what do you do?” Were taught to be afraid of a great many things.
The inchoate, the unknown, the void surrounds us. Friends and colleagues also surround us, but the abyss surrounds them too. Fear is one perfectly natural, healthy response to that which lies in the here-be-dragons beyond our experience. Fear can lead us to act against our own best interests because the alternatives are so much worse. As such, it can be an effective tool — if you’re on the delivery side. Fear can be concrete, like someone following you on a dark street — or entirely abstract, like the number 13. But in every case, fear is manufactured.
Historically, the primary reason to instill fear in a people has been to control them. To keep them in the dark about why their lives are difficult. People cannot be allowed to know that scarcity & poverty are willfully created & sustained. Despite the burgeoning global population, despite the huge number of starving, homeless & sick people on the planet, there exist the resources to feed, house & treat all of them many times over. But a small handful of corporations have concentrated the resources of the planet in such a way that their extreme wealth ensures the continued existence of shortages. When your leader tells you to fear an enemy you probably have more in common with than you do with your leader, somethings fishy.
I want to focus on the number 13 as an object of fear to combat the sense this is the way its always been, on one hand, and the fallacy that it’s all Bush’s fault on the other.
The most frequently (& inaccurately) cited origin for number 13’s bad rap is the Last Supper. Thirteen people sat down to eat & one rose to betray Christ. But several pre-Christian parables, including a Norse myth, predates that by several millennia — twelve gods were enjoying themselves at a Valhalla feast when a 13th showed up uninvited. The guests tried to throw him out & one of the gods was killed in the ruckus. To this day, some believe 13 people at a dinner table means one will die within the year. Franklin “Fear Itself” Roosevelt, a triskaidekaphobe, would have his secretary be the backup 14th at any function. A service in Paris now offers additional dinner guests on standby just in case. Throughout Europe, executions have traditionally involved the devil’s dozen — before reaching the 13 knots of a hangman’s noose, you ascend 13 steps to the platform. Until recently, Friday was the executioner’s day of choice.
The cultural aversion to 13 was first joined to Friday in an act of state-sponsored terror in Europe about 700 years ago. On Friday, October 13, 1307, the Knights Templar, an organization whose economic & political power was beginning to rival that of established governments, was set upon in the name of European Security. On that single day, 2,000-5,000 Templar operatives were arrested, many without charges. Those who weren’t put to death were detained indefinitely. It sent a clear message to other dissidents not to try anything funny. The date was chosen for the symbolic value already established, a value that would help people remember what had gone down.
But 13’s aura was merely reinforced, not created, by these designs. The first time the number 13 was vilified, years before 1307, years before even the deadly feast at Valhalla, the first charges were leveled in the defamation of matrifocal social structures. During the transition from Paleolithic to Meso- & Neolithic social structures, around 4,000bce, massive environmental changes created unprecedented scarcity. Plentiful resources that had been equitably shared for millennia gave way to shortages & the need to fight for whatever one could get. Hunter-gatherer males became the more efficient herder-agriculturalists & began to usurp traditional female civic & life-giving roles. Up to that point, almost 70% of societies’ resources were gathered by women while 30% were hunted by men. In region after region, the moment men became agriculturalists marks the moment women became commodities rather than providers. In the new society, the ability for women to determine their own lives was initially superfluous & ultimately destabilizing.
New technologies and organizations were developed to meet the increasing demands for stability & security. With resources vulnerable & stretched thin, anything representing the creation of life or exhibiting matricentric thought, the principles of the ousted regime, had to be controlled or demonized. Goddesses within the pantheon were eliminated or relegated to the background. The 13th astrological symbol was stripped from the zodiac. The 13-lunar/menstrual-cycle calendar, developed during the Paleolithic era for tracking the passage of life, was deemed obsolete & was replaced with the 12-month year for tracking harvests. Lupercalia, a vestigial fertility celebration observed on February 13th was ultimately transformed into Valentine’s Day on the 14th, the day when men would choose their bride (& their dowry) — a day designed to celebrate sexual power transformed into one celebrating sexual commodity. Whether you were an architect of buildings or of social structures, 13 became something to avoid.
Though the environmental collapse corrected itself & the shortages went away after a few hundred years, the drive to acquire & hoard resources did not — it was a central tenet of the post-Paleolithic civilization & a crucial justification of the new leaders’ actions — & that justification continues into the 21st century. If people stopped believing that there wasn’t enough to go around, the social structure based on shortage would start to come apart. Entire populations have been terrified by demons & threats invented by their own rulers, be they kings, presidents or CEOs. The fears have been invoked to generate popular support, to “manufacture consent,” as Noam Chomsky would say, to convince them their interests are being served by the very concentration of wealth that places them under duress. Often the vestigial animosity outlasts the reason it was generated — as with homophobia, racism & sexism. Fear of 13 is but one, now entirely abstracted, manifestation.
Six thousand years after its launch, the campaign against 13 has yielded nearly 29 million Triskaidekaphobics in the U.S. alone. I have a friend who won’t leave his apartment Friday the 13th. Absenteeism at work & school is huge on that day. There are statistics that bear out the danger posed by 13: Although fewer people drive on that day, there are more crashes — and a higher mortality rate from those accidents than on other days. Apollo 13, launched at 13:13 & scheduled to land on April 13th had a problem, Houston. One hundred years earlier, the British ship HMS Friday, launched on Friday the 13th, sailed into the Atlantic & was never seen again. But could we come up with an equally impressive array of disasters for 12 or 14? Ultimately, people harbor fear of 13 because they are made to be afraid.
And fear is made because somebody wants it to be made. Ralph Waldo Emerson said “Fear, Craft, and Avarice cannot rear a State.” But our current president is the most popular in history. Ever. As with any form of pain, fear drives people to make decisions, any decisions, that will make it go away. Tap into or create fear in someone & then provide a way around it & you have manufactured a willingness in them to do as you say. You have made followers who will be as happy to have their car searched, their email read in the name of security, as they would be willing to be vigilant on the 13th in the name of common sense. A small price to pay is whatever you pay to stay alive.
A few hundred years ago, killing all the Native Americans was the small price to pay for the colonists in the New World. The conditions that had forced the Indo-Europeans to abandon generosity & cooperation in order to survive had never been experienced by groups like the Arawak. So they, and countless other native American tribes after them, didn’t resist much when the Europeans initially demanded their resources. But their unwillingness to be enslaved, to do long-term damage to the environment or to locate the gold that didn’t actually exist, & their occupation of land that Columbus required, meant they stood in the way of progress. They were preventing the efficient transfer of resources & moreover, their initial willingness to share what they had, presented a threat — the threat of the good example.
And so they had to be killed. The colonists didn’t relish the idea of killing fellow human beings. Most of them had been coerced into coming to America & had little vested interest beyond saving their own hides. Bloating their boss’ profits wasn’t big on their to-do list. In fact, many impoverished white colonists & African slaves began to realize they had a greater affinity with each other & with the Native Americans than they did with their masters. But then it was revealed to them (by Columbus & subsequent colonial leaders) that the Indian “savages” were going to kill them if they didn’t act first. The perception that the natives were brutal, semi-human monsters reduced genocide to the level of clearing a field. The colonists had to be made afraid and angry because their leaders’ wealth wasn’t a compelling motive.
Five hundred years later, neither is Halliburton’s. That’s why corporations that are profiteering from the war in Iraq have used fear to replace “loss & profits” with “terrorism & freedom” in public discourse. CNN might debate the success or failure of Bush’s military delirium, but the war, in terms of the real reasons it’s being waged, has been a monumental triumph — it’s made a few people very, very rich. The cost of the war, $7 billion per week, is not vanishing into the ether, it’s being paid to a handful of companies, most of whom made down payments on the administration’s campaign or are owned by members of Bush’s cabinet. Even the Vietnam War, which was a military victory for the Vietnamese, was an economic victory for a small slice of the U.S. Executive Class. In Vietnam, 3,858,000 mostly poor and working-class people died and U.S. corporations made $494 billion (in real dollars/adjusted for inflation). Thirteen years in Iraq have left 713,772 dead so far (70% as a result of Clinton’s ban on the importation of food & medicine) & U.S. corporations are expected to make $507billion. Per-death profits have skyrocketed from Vietnam’s $128,000/death to Iraq’s $713,310/death. Have your wages gone up that much?
Iraq is a massive money-laundering operation funeling 15% of your weekly paycheck into the hands of a few corporations. That it’s the largest such operation in U.S. history is less important than the fact the U.S. has never not been at war for more than a few months, whether a Republican or Democrat’s been at the helm, since the country was formed. The U.S. economy relies on a permanent state of war & the U.S. form of democracy relies on consent being given for the war. That consent needs to be built out of fear. Fear mixed with revenge for Afghanistan & Iraq, with paranoia for Korea & Vietnam & with moral outrage for WWII.
But as fear is used to reallocate the world’s resources into fewer & fewer hands, more and more people are being squeezed. Pvt. Lynch had no choice but to join the military in order to pay for college so she could ultimately become a school teacher. She was a hostage before her transport ever landed in Iraq. As the options get more bleak for all of us, fear has to be ratcheted up. The choice to go along with the story has to be more compelling than the risk in not complying. To the extent that you are spending your time making art that doesn’t parrot received wisdom & , if yr a poet, that doesn;t make any money, you are in non-complience. Its easier when yr a student & gets exponentially harder as you get older. How many people in the room who now identify as writers will still be writers in ten years? There was an Onion article a few weeks back “Local Musician’s day Job Becomes Real Job”
What part of the story are you not supposed to know? Real wages have fallen about 25% in the past 30 years. That means you have to work an extra three months every year to make what you were making in 1970. We are meant to believe that’s because the world’s resources are stretched thinner & thinner, or because foreign workers are stealing our jobs, or that competition is narrowing profit margins. The people who want you to think that, the people who want you to fear & hate foreigners, are corporate executives whose salaries have gone through the roof in the past 30 years. Average CEO compensation has jumped nearly 800% since 1970.
So how can we, you & I, get a piece of the action? That is to say, how can we regain the resources & choices that have been removed from our lives — choices like not joining the military to make ends meet, not having to put kids in daycare to earn the money to feed them, like not eating & breathing toxins, not having taxes pay for the incarceration of 1/3 of all male African-Americans, not having to chose between rent, healthcare or food, not consuming products which create vast pools of third-world slaves. How can we counter the fragmentation of the poor & the concentration of wealth America was actually set up to create & achieve? One step is recognizing that economic mobility is a myth, a myth that keeps people believing they have the same interests as people much wealthier than themselves. Why should I demand the billionaires pay their fair share when I’m gonna be a billionaire too someday, right?
So what then? Protests, civil disobedience, the poetry of resistance, all seem pretty futile. When the other side has endless cash for public relations, opposition voices sound like the idealistic whinnying of pinwheel-eyed conspiracy nuts. But would using fear to our own advantage do any better? It’s what the terrorists are trying in response to intense suffering, but that tends to fail as a political tool. Besides, the economic elite will always have more guns & more resources. When the Reichstag burned down in 1933, allegedly at the hands of terrorists, it was enough to cement the Nazi rise to power. (That the Bush family assisted that rise, & made a fortune doing so, by selling selling oil to the Nazis is incidental to this argument, but an interesting note.) But even when used by a dominant power, fear has a way of backfiring. Outside the U.S., fear of what The White House is scheming has overshadowed fear of terrorism & domestically, it’s galvanized the doves as never before.
Ultimately, as people uncover the truth behind the current administration’s motives, they begin to search for other options. Trouble is, this administration’s policies are removed from all previous ones in terms of overtness, but not intent or magnitude. Even our progressive President Carter was responsible for genocide in East Timor during his term. He better build those Habitats for Humanity a little quicker to make up for it. It’s easy to overlook Clinton’s military adventures & the equally deadly effect of a decade of sanctions on the people of Iraq, unless you were dying in Bagdhad of an easily-treatable illness.
It’s true that a Democrat in the oval office won’t be as openly venal, racist, homophobic & sexist as a Republican, that some of the money earmarked for bombs would be diverted to cover up the use of those bombs, but it’s hard to remember all the strides we’ve made when even two jobs won’t pay the rent. The gap between rich & poor widened exponentially during the go-go 90s. I guess we should’ve specified where we wanted to go-go. A Democratic president won’t be anti-abortion, but whether or not you’ll be able to afford one if you need it, or any medical procedure for that matter, remains to be seen. What also remains to be seen is if the wars under Dean, Clark or Kerry will be any more palatable than the current one. Democrats & Republicans have historically given the same amount of money to the consortium of corporations that constitute the military. Clinton broke with that tradition by overseeing the largest increase in military spending in history.
So what’s to be done? Americans aren’t stupid, as certain people insist. We make reasonable choices based on information provided by media corporations that profit from propaganda. Companies are in business to make money & they would be foolish to tell us anything but what will achieve that aim. Improving education would be awfully nice, but behind its humanist aspirations, the role of education is to provide a stable & subservient workforce. With the exception of Channel 1, the commercial TV network that provides lessons for schools without teachers, nobody makes money off schools. The education system as an extension of a much larger institutional web has no need for anything beyond “reforms” i.e., standardized testing, vouchers & uniforms. Reforms which train students to fit into the grid — get a job, a wife, a kid & a car (repeat) — not how they might examine & analyze their surroundings.
Another option is to educate yourself through sites like MoveOn.org & indymedia.org or with writers like Howard Zinn, John Pilger & Noam Chomsky. But even that kind of inoculation against fear is reactive. I mean, once you know the fear of terrorism is manufactured, designed to replace the war on drugs and the cold war before that — all the way back to the savage Red Man of yore, once you know that, what then? And even if you get off on carrying that burden, few others would. Though under increasing pressure, indeed, because people are under increasing pressure, many make the necessary compromises just to keep their heads above water. For those that might have second thoughts, there are the terrorists on one side & increasing police powers on the other. & those who, despite everything, choose to resist, are limited by the factionalization within most movements — which is what the governing corporate elite want & what has kept the dissidents, the leftists & the progressives at each others throats. After all, wars have traditionally been fought between two groups of poor & working-class people who have more in common with each other than they do with the people sending them into the trenches. If feminists believe their agenda is separate from African-Americans & the gay community thinks their struggle is separate from labor unions, then the elite has won.
The way out is to identify the opposite of fear — & it’s not courage, the willingness to make supreme sacrifices. It’s not heroism. It’s not bravery. These are all flip sides of the same coin & tacit acceptance of divisive, reductionist myths. In suppressing vulnerability with big guns abroad & prisons at home, there can be no complete safety. In fact, as we have seen, such policies exacerbate our insecurity. Killing Iraqis won’t make the world any better than killing the Iroquois did a few hundred years ago. As Noam Chomsky says, “The best way to win the war on terrorism is not to use it.”
The opposite of fear is realizing there is no need to fear. If fear is based on somebody taking things from you, there would be no need to worry if everyone had enough. If nobody has enough & you manage to fend off one person who wants what you have, there’s about 6 billion behind him coming at you — which renders you life a neverending fight for the bare basics. People with well-lined pockets & underdeveloped morals manufacture fear to cover up the true causes of scarcity & then pit us against each other. The growing ranks of the working poor & of third-world slaves, is a necessary product of & a condition for the extreme wealth of corporations — that the disenfranchied burn down their own neighborhoods to assert somje control over their lives is just a bonus prize. There have been many superficially different economic systems over the past 6,000 years, but they have all operated in such a way that the fundamental conditions that allowed them to exist in the first place, the shortages that ended the Paleolithic era, are maintained.
The opposite of fear is a force that ends those artificially maintained shortages. A force that allows individuals to act with confidence & generosity out of a sense of abundance. Once you see that there is actually plenty to go around, the only threat is from the people who are keeping it from going around. In a system of abundance, coercion becomes ridiculous, the ability to give replaces the ability to take as a measure of social success. People build relationships & compassion, not safe rooms & alarm systems. In attempting to crush every enemy, there can be no complete safety. But in eliminating the grounds for enmity by making sure everyone has what they need — not just materially, but creatively, spiritually — what would happen to fear?
Many of the people in this room and in others where there are readings happening are providing good examples of how to resist it, even if their poems aren’t all that political, the act of being a poet is a declaration of value in something beyond the stystem. To spend your money & time editing a magazine or press so that the poets can get some external affirmation in a culture that is generally allied against it even more so. Everything in our culture will tell you creating something that can’t be commidfied is futile. I know a lot of people who have given up a lot to be artists, they’ve made sacrifices & many of them have given up -- either by dying or calling it quits and getting a more stisfactory response to “so what do you do.” But to the extent they sacrificed, their labor was anything but futile. It was inspiring.
I think abt this in another way all the time baceause of where my house is. One of the first battles of the Revolutionary War took place on the hill in Brooklyn where I live. The very block. Every single revolutionary soldier who held his ground was killed. The Redcoats ordered that the bodies be left unburied where they had fallen so anyone else with revolutionary ideas could see their fate. Shortly after the battle, a thunderstorm hit the area, blowing down a massive oak tree, roots & all. The crater in the earth, where the roots had been, swallowed up many of the bodies & when farmers came out the next day, they found the slain rebels had been buried by a force stronger than either of the two sides. This is all documented. There was a tattered flag caught in the branches — not the familiar colonial 13 stars & stripes, but one with a red field & bone-colored letters that said LIBERTY. The farmers in the area, just working stiffs themselves, began thinking. The Revolutionary War patriots fought because they’d been told they were fighting for liberty. Maybe they were. But it isn’t here yet.
The current state of the world isn’t America’s fault any more than it is your fault, born into a program already in progress. It didn’t start with W, with Clinton, with the Cold War or the Nazis. It didn’t start with African-American slavery, nor with Columbus. The domination of the vast majority by a tiny elite didn’t start a few hundred years ago. But it did have a beginning, and everything that has a beginning has an end, everything lost can be found.