Friday, January 6, 2012

Last Inch

For a moment I got excited about the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations: a spark of revolution, vocal expression of discontent. I had the flash of an idea a while back that a way to get students involved, because they must be involved, was to show them that they’re being ripped off, lied to, manipulated.

Education in California at UC, CSU, community colleges used to be nearly free.  With state residency, every student was entitled to equal access to a fully degreed education for a mere $200 in annual fees.  That was up until 1970, until Reagan became governor and revoked that very successful 100 year old policy which stated that every California resident was entitled to an excellent education.  Now students in California pay exorbitant sums to be educated by a system that has declined from number one to one of the poorest in the nation.

The revocation of that policy was his punishment for student demonstrations in the sixties and seventies.  He said the state of California was not going to pay for the education of those who disagreed with state or federal policies.  So he set in motion an ever increasing cost of state education that relegated students to what amounts to indentured servitude because they have huge loans to pay off.

This reality has spread to education across the nation, effectively muting student voices which were so integral to the movements of the sixties and seventies.  These days, if it ever did, a college education does not guarantee a good salary, better than a student’s parents’ salaries.  Most of a student’s salary will go to paying off loans.  Even the Obamas only recently paid off their loans and what did that get them?  A presidency of no authority.  Authority still is in the hands of the one percent, still resides on Wall Street (or so we are led to believe).

For decades, perhaps centuries we have been deluding ourselves in amerika.  We have believed that there are multiple classes.  There are only two, there have been always two because we live in a dressed up feudal system.  The middle class, upper middle class have never been strong even though we believed that was so.

The middle classes and the carrot of the hope of achieving middle class status are a delusion that helped to create the virtual world economic realities of this century.  What’s in middle class wallets are credit cards; what’s in their bank accounts are loans.  I learned by hanging out with middle class people that they have no more cash in their wallets than I do.  I learned that there is not enough real cash in the world to match the figures that represent personal wealth (especially among the one percent) or the figures that represent profit margins.

For quite some time most citizens of amerika have been one paycheck, one late payment away from poverty.  That is a lie too; it is a threat to keep us believing in the controlled mentality of indentured servitude.  We have allowed ourselves to accept that servitude because after all we have deluded ourselves to believe it’s better than the enslavement of poverty.

Ninety-nine percent are subjected to the stick of poverty of money, house, car.  The poverty really to be feared is one of courage, independence, freedom as well as uncorrupted, nonmonied valuation of wealth.  Every dollar we make and spend  ends up in the hands of the one percent, their corporations, governments, wars, institutions, laws.  They made money; it’s theirs and it is used to control, manipulate, divide, confuse us.

Wealth could be something else.  While Occupy Wall Street is probably well intentioned, it accepts the premise that the one percent have authority over our lives, perpetuates the premise that the economics of money has meaningful value. or has any meaning at all.  I’d suggest a movement called Abandon Wall Street.  Since some of the OWS demonstrators have taken to wearing Guy Falks masks worn by V, I will quote the lesbian character in the movie V for Vendetta:  “Our integrity sells for so little… Yet, it’s all we really have; it’s the very last inch of us.  In that last inch we are free.”

Thursday, February 3, 2011


Poetry is the grass that comes up in the cracks of the sidewalk.

I’ve been a housepainter and on one particular job there’s a woman from Germany.  As we precariously dangle from ladders, she wants to find out more about me.  What do I do when I’m not painting houses.  I paint pictures with words as a poet.  She gets a look on her face like someone awesome has just walked into the room.  I look around and we’re the only ones there.

She explains that poets in her country are revered revolutionaries.  Some time later I read a newspaper headline:  Polish Poet Shot to Death for Treason.  I utter a sound like the moment somebody hits a baseball right into my throat.  It’s not a memory I remember too often.

I really understand the part about revolutionary.  It’s revolutionary to be a woman poet in the seventies; there is poetry after Beat.  It’s revolutionary in the 1800s when stalwart women poets, who quite often start out with male pen names, publish poetry with any name at all; the most prolific of women poets is Anonymous.  Then, women are called poetesses; obscured by "ess" sounds.  It’s revolutionary for women to speak our words in our own voices.

As to the awesome part, well I don’t know about that.  Sometimes I just like to play with the words. I can cram as much as possible into the usual five minutes allotted at fundraisers; 15-20 minutes, whoo, turn me loose. This is possible for poets: a poem, perhaps two, can be written on a matchbook cover.  I  prayer-form to thousands and to three when there could be more; I also know that three is enough. 

Poems are ashes blown by the wind.

I come to California from New England in 1979.  The purposes of moving are to write, to heal which aren’t necessarily separate activities. Before I begin writing again, I do a purging, transformation ritual.  I take a bag full of poems written ten years before and burn every page.  When I tell this story, I sometimes get a reaction like the listener’s throat has just suddenly closed off oxygen to the lungs.  It’s a ghastly sound so I don’t tell the story too often.

Fire is transformation; burning the poems enlightens the way I write poetry.  I decide to stop saying I’m a writer and say: I am a poet.  My verse forever changes. Taking my self seriously as a poet is a profound moment.  I understand how Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Bronte craft words to sound like bells, feel like the moors. I become fluent in the poetic language of the disturbed common ground found in a book From the Ashes written by young residents of Watts after the 1968 Martin Luther King assassination riot.

A poet’s verse is a stone thrown into the pond.

In 1980 I begin reading poetry in public, like with other people in the room.  Then I move out to women’s bookstores and bars.  There’s a line in one of the bar dyke poems about lesbians being beaten to death by strangers and lovers.  I’m cautioned that “we” shouldn’t tell “those” stories because “they” could be used against “us” by homophobes. I take out the “and lovers” for one reading.  I put the words back in.  I witness the life of another bar dyke who is beaten to death by her lover.  If I lie about that, I’m not a poet.

I view and explain life in poetry, metaphors, alliterations.  When I write news articles, columns, short stories, they’re disguised poems.  I use commas, periods, whole sentences.  They’re poems none the less.  Poetry isn’t just form.   My work as a poet is to take everything of a story, image, feeling, anything really and write the essence.  The listener brings it back out to everything.  It’s a different everything than mine and that’s as it should be.

Poetry is the work I love to do.  The Tibetan Buddhist monks create intricate, exquisite sand paintings, then sweep them away when completed.  They love that the creation and prayer is their work and that is enough.  Still, I probably won’t burn any more poems any time soon.


In 1967 I stand at the Sunday vigil now up to a dozen people, inspired by the woman who stands there in all the weather of snow, rain, icy cold, muggy hot -- every Sunday.  A white van circles around Court Square, once, twice, three times…  It disappears for awhile; then a man with a 35mm camera appears and stands in front of us taking our pictures.  I ask who he is; someone casually says:  he’s an FBI agent.

I hand out leaflets.  A woman stops, addresses me directly:  I won’t take your leaflet.  My husband works at Pratt and Whitney (the maker of bombers sent to Vietnam, many many bombers).  His job puts food on the table that feeds our children.  Supporting this takes away his job.  What he does is the right thing to do.

In 1970 the vigil crowd swells to hundreds.  The crowd is restive, wants to lower the flag to half staff honoring all US and Vietnam dead; they chant for the mayor.  They are increasingly agitated as no mayor appears to speak, or to hear their request.  A group of us race up city hall steps into the reception area, rush right into the mayor’s office. 

Sitting there is the vice mayor who explains that the mayor is out of town.  Even so, could he in the mayor’s stead order the flag lowered.  He responds he doesn’t have that authority, the supervisor of the janitors has that authority.  I step forward:  so let’s be clear, you’re saying that you have the authority of the mayor to run the city in his absence, but you don’t have the authority to direct the supervisor to lower the flag.  He grins:  that’s right. 

In 1966 I’m a student on the campus of American International College.  The definition of a college includes living on campus, although every student’s dream is to live away from home and off campus.  At AIC, we’re all commuters; we matriculators refer to the alma mater as Almost In College.  I'm not fond of the place because I’d rather be at UMass where the beatniks are.

I’m at AIC, a rebel without a cause.  Whenever on the campus, I want to act like I’m away from home.  I hang out with a group of poets that morphs somewhat.  We are sort of hippies, sort of existentialists, sort of beatniks; sort of not.  We write an underground newspaper, start a coffee house, go to coffee houses together. This is an enclave of rebellion.

On a cold Sunday I pass Court Square in Springfield, Massachusetts -- one lone woman stands with a sign saying something about some place called Vietnam.  I bring this news to the group.  We casually study pacifism.  We connect with two radical history professors, one is a pacifist and the other is a historian; they say this Vietnam “Conflict” needs scrutinizing.  It’s the right thing to do.

On a crisply clear fall day in 1966, I stroll the small campus; some tables have been set up in the quad.  There are books, pamphlets covering the tables; staffed by slender unassuming young men.  They’re representatives of the pacifist way. 

I have an attraction for books; I head in that direction.  A pack of frat boys descends on the display.  They verbally harass one of the guys, spit in his face.  He stands there without flinching.  One of the frat boys grabs a book, sets it on fire.  That makes me an activist, that burning of the book.  Books are sacred in a free society.

At UMass in 1970, I write several peace movement letters to the editor, against what is now called a war.  Each time, the next issue publishes a respondent to my previous letter, protesting my opinion on war.  It’s always signed with the same name. 

The next semester, I meet the fellow a woman friend is dating.  It turns out he’s a Vietnam veteran.  It turns out he’s the respondent.  We have a very long conversation about my opinions, his experience.  He admits he argues my opinion because he has to believe that the terrible things he sees and maybe even does in Vietnam are the right thing to do.


In the seventies women's liberation movement, we let go of the vision for liberation and get mired in equivocation, a drive for equality that thirty years later we still haven't got.  We settle for equality which quite often means "the same as".  We can make the same money as a man for being a CEO and earn more money than any human has a right to or a need for.  This is a result for many liberation and civil rights struggles that emerge from the era.

In our political activism we're often met with adamancy, stridency, resistance.  Ultimately we get out-chessed in the game. The experience for some of us leads to a cutting cynicism from knowing that not all that much has been changed. When the outcome is broadened to the world, the effort still has a long, long way to go.   We haven't been able to bring down the patriarchal institutions; we haven't been able to eradicate the pervasive attitude regarding women's status.

When gay folks begin the chants for marriage, I'm sitting here saying to my self:  oh yeah here we go with "the same as".  We're still failing to get at the linchpin, to fundamentally challenge the institutions that keep the patriarchy looming over us.  Now we're gonna get the right to divorce and have nasty custody fights and spend too much money on a wedding.  Swell.  Still I can't stop reading or watching the persistent stories, listening to the rising swell of voices, observing the narrowing focus on this one issue.

As this goes on I notice something amongst the clamor and clash and flash of it all.  There's panic; the reaction to the call for gay marriage is inducing a panic.  This is different than the adamant negative reactions to Blacks calling for civil rights or women chanting for equal rights or even gays asking for the simple right to be out.  When gays start with the right to marry, though, one state after another scrambles to pass laws stating that marriage is between a man and a woman.

The news media and even those of us pushing for marriage seem to miss this panic.  The overriding description of the action is that this issue is one of equal rights.  The recurring legal argument is that separate but equal hasn't been right for other groups and it isn't for this group either.  Because we've used this rhetoric for so long to wheedle and cajole bits of rights, we fail to understand what we're really getting at.

When I see a picture of Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin marrying after 51 years of a committed relationship, I notice something.  They are the same height, the same build; and obviously they are both women.  Suddenly I get what the panic is about. We have finally, though perhaps unwittingly found the linchpin of the patriarchy and we are tugging furiously to pull it out.

Marriage is traditionally between a man and a woman.  Traditionally in that relationship the man is taller, broader.  Often the woman is his little lady.  Even when a woman hyphenates her name, the man is still the reference point.  Even if they use an "alternative" commitment ceremony, most usually it's the man's name she adopts.  These are vestiges of the premise that women are literally the property of their husbands.  In a lot of places in this country and around the world, the sun hasn't really set yet on that premise.

The panic about gay marriage isn't about the need for the species to reproduce more. If we were rabbits, humans would be finding ways to reduce our population.  The resistance isn't about the natural order of things.  Gay is in the wild as well as the history of the strongest civilizations.  It's not about the Bible.  There are several instances of gay that God doesn't seem to notice. 

When men marry men, they are refusing to own women; when women marry women, they are refusing to be owned by men.  The ownership of women is the linchpin of patriarchy and we are about to pull it out.  The panic is that when we manage to do this, the patriarchy may come down.


When I attend UMass Amherst, I major in sociology.  I choose this major because I want to know the people's stories.  This is because even though I have cynical moments (ach, people, who needs them anyway), I love the people.  I am hungry for a good story.  What I am taught are phrases like abstinence syndrome.  Sociologists get lost in the syllables; we study studies, we study black dots on demographic maps.

These black dots represent people of certain classes, cultures, educational levels and other such groupings.  Sociologists like to look at groups with a good deal of distance between them and the individuals of the groups.  Perhaps they really believe that the dots and numbers tell a story.

In some ways they do offer some information.  For example, when the groupings have to do with poor people of color living in the projects, the black dots are crammed all together in the center of a city.  When the groupings have to do with rich people living in estates, there's more space and room for a person's life.

I take one day away from the university to visit a friend living in New York City.  I am a working class rural woman of color (which I don't realize then).  She is an upper class urban woman. At a drug rehab program I meet up with her; she once is a client and now is a member of the staff.  She introduces me to a young (actually we are all young) poor Puerto Rican woman.  We spend the day at the beach, all of us together.  We are able to converse with each other, enjoy the company of each other even though we come from different realities.

When day is done, we take Maria "home".  Rising from the ground is a cluster of sixty-story buildings in which thousands of people live.  She advises us to stay close with her and not to stray.  As we go up many stories on the elevator, she explains to us that the noise level is always 24/7 as loud as it is now.  I am sure there are studies that talk about the effects of constant noise.  We get off the elevator about midway up the tower and go into her apartment which is hermetically sealed; no windows open and all the sound is shut out.  I am certain there are studies about the deleterious effects of oxygen and sound deprivation.

We sit at her kitchen table and she tells me the story of her eighteen year life.  At fifteen she is a prostitute, at sixteen she is a heroin addict, at seventeen she is raped and all she can think of to say is:  don't mess up my new boots.  The way she tells the stories makes me listen with my whole body; I feel every word.  Then she asks me about my life.

I explain I am going to the university, that I have political activist friends who are working hard to improve the quality of life.  She gathers me in with her fierce ebony eyes and holds me very firmly with them as she says: I want you to go back to the U-ni-Ver-Si-Ty of Massachusettes Am-Herst and I want you to tell your Po-li-Ti-Cal activist friends that they don't know Nothin about My life.

She is not angry with me; she just wants to make sure I have her message and that I will deliver it.  She gives me my work for the whole rest of my life.  I am to tell the stories, mine and hers.  I am to stand at a bus stop and listen intently with my whole body as a perfect stranger tells me the story of life full of pathos and terrible things and profound courage.  I am to know that each dot represents a life.  I am to know that abstinence syndrome means puking up all the pain and sweating out the horror of a life someone has the courage to live.

Ultimately this life's work that she gives me is as described by the poet Muriel Ruckeyser:  time comes into it.  say it. say it.  the universe is made of stories not atoms.


In a recent trip to Oakland, I stand on a side street with three other queer women.  On this corner is a café nobody seems to know the name of but they know where it is and go there.  On the sidewalk all along the front and side of the café are tables and chairs, every single one full.  Among these people within and without the café there is a good number of old seventies Berkeley radical literati.  It has been oh… thirty years since I have seen them.

The seventies is a time of the Black Power, Gay Liberation and Women's Liberation movements.  This is a time of the Berkeley Barb, Black Panthers, Shameless Hussy Press, COINTELPRO.  This is a time when I choose to write sports for PLEXUS which is a small press newspaper of radical notions: producing a women's feminist newspaper, writing about women's sports. 

I am required to go to the news collective meetings which is responsible for reporting a great upsurge of urban political activism.  In the early seventies on occasion in places like New York City or Philadelphia some underground radicals have an accident with the production of explosives.  The resultant explosion takes out them and a tenement block.  There are robberies of large sums of money.  A rich heiress is kidnapped and turned into an urban guerilla (what's known as terrorist and looter in 2004 terminology).

The guerillas are few.  The rest of us are caught up in a high wind of creativity, activity, productivity.  There is an urgency to get it done.  We spend hours talking about what "it" is: feminist presses, women's coffee houses and bookstores, newspapers and magazines, and women's land.   We talk about woman hating, gynocide, music production companies, birth control, sexuality.  We are rushing to dream a new world.  We think we will get "it" done soon.

It is a time when we become aware that the federal government isn't benevolent.  Dissent is not a right, it is a threatening bother.  So the government moves to squelch even the hint of a threat.  It is a time when the government sends provocateurs to blend in with the restless, to stir up trouble where there is none.  It is a time when informants are rampant; if they don't get a good story, they create one.  The government initiates COINTELPRO.  Phones are tapped, people followed, groups infiltrated.

The tactics are aggressive, divisive, destructive, effective.  The social, political movements are set back by pressures from within and without the groups.  The intent is to divide and destroy lawful political dissent.  People lose their jobs; some people lose their sanity, faith, courage; and the lives of many people are unnecessarily shattered.  Not one CIA or FBI detention, action or list is lawful.  Still it happens all over the country.

The nineties are the sixties upside down.  We are suppressed and tricked by the smiley good will of Clinton.  The millennium is the seventies unmasked.  There is no Tricky Dicky (Nixon); we have Master George and Darth Dick.  What happens in the seventies illegally, is now made legal.  The government can spy at will on the citizens of this country and with the blessing of congress.

This is a dangerous moment.  The pretenses have fallen.  We see what we are looking at.  This is a delightful moment.  The reality has risen.  I have seen this before.  I  see what I am looking at.  We have an opportunity now to make this our world, not theirs.  Carpe diem: seize the day, seize the god.  Now is the time to set intention, pick a work, do it, and hold to knowing that it is "dark before dawn".

In this moment I work without fear of Master and Darth because what I know from the seventies is that it is they who are afraid.  In Star Wars the rebels have a long journey of struggle.  There are many scary moments and some unsavory villains.  In the end, the rebels, the Jedi, the Wookies, the robots, the Ewoks are all gathered around.  They are at peace in a great forest.  They drum, sing, chant, feast and speak sweetly with each other.  May it be so for us.


Of late I've been called to stand up with my understanding; be a poet, witness.  I watch, listen and speak what I see hear.  I travel a narrow passage between one side and another.  It's difficult to keep balance and not tip too much one way or another.  This isn't about neutral; this is about following the precipitous trail of truthfulness.

"I've found in poetry that it's better to ignore the facts and tell the truth."  (Ani DiFranco)

When I'm in high school we play various team sports in gym class.  During an inning of softball, I'm playing first base.  A woman from the opposite team smacks a powerful line drive toward the short stop who manages to field it, and she zings it over to me.  It's one of those sports moments when the action is faster than the humans playing the game.

The ball and the runner arrive at the bag at just about the same time with a whisker's width of a difference in timing.  The gym teacher who's umpiring has her view slightly blocked by my body.  She misses the play and doesn't know if the runner is our or safe.  She needs a second opinion.  The runner can't give it because she is only aware of when she hits the bag, not when I catch the ball.

The only person who can answer is the first base player; that would be me.  I know for sure because  I can feel both the runner touch the bag and the ball touch my glove.  The fact is that if I say she's out, my team gets the advantage.  If I say she's safe even if that's true, her team gets the advantage and my team gets even with me.  I could say I don't know, but there's no honor in that kind of obfuscation.  So I answer with what I know to be true from my view of the bag:  the runner is safe.

"The politics worth having, the relationships worth having, demand that we delve still deeper."
(Adrienne Rich, Women and Honor…)

In the early days of my arrival in California I participate in a therapy group.  There are seven of us and the counselor.  One night the counselor throws a Kleenex box into the center of the circle.  She asks: What do you see?  We look at the box; we look at her.  We look at each other' we look at the box.  In the interim created by these silent glances, an exasperated incredulousness grows in us:  we're paying her forty bucks each; that's $280 for two hours worth of work; and here she is asking us the silliest of questions.  We look back at her and a few exclaim in annoyed unison:  It's a dang Kleenex box!

She asks again:  No, I'm asking, what is it that you see?  Now we're absolutely piqued to redness of the face:  just Exactly what is your point; it's a dang Kleenex box!  We fail to notice that this is a Buddhist lesson moment.  The point is actually at least two.  It's a Kleenex box because we, as a group, agree to call it a Kleenex box.  What each one of us sees of the Kleenex box is different depending on where we're sitting in the circle.

Two people sitting across from each other will see not only a different side but different directions.  My left and right is the right and left of the woman across from me.  We all see different sides and ends; and some of us only see extended corners.  These are blocked from each other's view until we describe them.  Even though we can all see the top, we see different angles of the box.  None of us can see the bottom.

I know what my view is; I speak it without alteration or apology.  If someone sees something different, the difference does not make either view untrue.  I don't have to change my view in deference to someone else's; I understand there are different views.  How we honor the group is to describe our view.  How we come into agreement with the group is in the naming of the dang Kleenex box.