Posted in Around Town, Poesy

The Poetics of Community

The world is lousy with poetry. I like poetry because it makes a point in the most interesting way possible. I like irony, even though it hurts, like a little four-year old Latina girl wearing a full-color Barbie t-shirt. When I first heard the word irony, my kid-mind went straight to the image of a wrinkly piece of fabric. You are trying hard to iron the fabric, but the wrinkles don’t come out. The truth of the wrinkles remains. That’s irony.

“The making of community against anti-social technology is the chief object of the poetry gathered here.” – Andrei Codrescu, New Orleans, April 16, 1987 – Introduction to the first edition of American Poetry Since 1970: Up Late.

I first read those words in December 1993, and they might as well have leaped off the page and danced around the room. Making community has always been important to me: it is vital to our survival and yet one of the most difficult things in the world. Our American society is based on rugged individualism. Think of the Marlboro man belting out Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” – then devolving into a paroxysm of coughing thanks to his two-pack a day habit.

What can break down the cultural and economic divisions in our society? I moved to Northwest Pasadena in 1982 because of John Perkins. Since 1960, John’s been preaching about the 3Rs – Relocation, Reconciliation, Redistribution. In addition to his work in Jackson, Mississippi, he founded Harambee here in Northwest Pasadena and, more recently, The John Perkins Center at Seattle Pacific University (which not very ironically happens to be my alma mater, though I was there long before the Perkins Center). I have not maintained a close relationship with Harambee, but I’m still here in Northwest Pasadena.

John travels around the country telling the church that it has molded itself in its own image, that it is more concerned with preserving cultural and economic divisions than with the deep love that is the heart of the gospel. John says that 11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. I would add to that – in the cases where the church is more integrated, all the members tend to come from one economic group.

Few worldwide institutions have wreaked more havoc than the Christian church. “Taking the Lord’s name in vain” is not a word couplet that comes out of your mouth. Taking the Lord’s name in vain is doing whatever you want to do to spread your own political, economic and sexual interests while pretending that God told you to do so.

Around the time that Harambee opened Harambee Preparatory School, I was the PTA President at Washington Middle School (about 4 blocks away). While I admire Harambee’s work and must respect their decision to open a school, I couldn’t help but think how great it would be if all the effort going into starting a new school could go into the local public school. At the time I was there (mid-1990’s) there were 240 students in the eighth grade class, and around 70-80 did not graduate. That’s a crisis.

Today is a tough day for those of us who love Pasadena. Two more people have died in violence, in vain. The headlines of the local papers: “Man watches as son, nephew gunned down” says the Pasadena Star-News. “A booming Pasadena fights rise in gang killings” says the Los Angeles Times.

Here in Pasadena, we are writing the poem of our community. So far the poem is about two education systems and great economic disparity. Our poem is awash in blood and hate and neglect.

There has got to be a way for kind-hearted, intelligent people to turn this poem around. It will take more than the do-gooders’ sense of wanting to help “those people.” I want the next line of our poem to say that we overcame embraced our myriad differences and, through participation, made our existing institutions do the work they were intended to do in the first place. Now that would be ironic.