Before Madison Writers Resist on Sunday night, poet Marilyn Annucci unearthed a few poems from a notebook and made some changes.
As she did, she was struck by how that process of revising things from the past is much like the work of citizenship itself.
“Writing is really a form of democracy,” Annucci said. “It takes love and attention. It’s a process.”
Madison Writers Resist, a lively, well-attended reading in the Gates of Heaven synagogue, joined 90-some events taking place around the country and the world on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.
The stated purpose of these gatherings was “to resist the Trump administration.” But in Madison's two-hour-plus event, 19 featured writers dropped the new president elect’s name less than a handful of times.
Many of the writers had ties to the university. Author/educator Kara Candito and artist Victor Castro organized Madison Writers Resist with Rita Mae Reese of Arts + Literature Laboratory and Ron Czerwein of Avol’s Books.
Sean Bishop from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s creative writing department opened by paraphrasing Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
The five-minute time limit made a good fit for poets like Derrick Austin, Natalie Eilbert and Jamel Brinkley. Brinkley read Ada Limón's "A New National Anthem," and Eilbert read an excerpt from a longer work of her own called “The Lake.” She read some of what she'd written after the election, “in the age of the autocrats.”
“The tyrant glides along, orange dander colliding with the brutality of naming us what we are,” she read. “Rust sprinkles in the long grass and I loop its belt around and around my waist.
“I have nothing to say to you, America. Wear your safety pins. Register. Safety. We have failed us.”
The assembled crowd heard from Madison’s poets laureate past and current, Fabu (a Capital Times opinion columnist) and Oscar Mireles, editor of three volumes of “I Didn’t Know There Were Latinos in Wisconsin.”
Mireles read a poem that recalled his mother, his aunt and two of their friends picketing outside trains in Minneapolis that meant to deport Mexican immigrants.
“They were afraid to hold up the picket signs, yet were more afraid worse things would happen if they did not.”
Some writers read work not their own. Timothy Yu read Allen Ginsberg. Sarah Fuchs choked up during an excerpt of James Baldwin’s 1984 essay “On Being White ... and Other Lies.” Marcela Fuentes read Albert Rios’ “The Border: A Double Sonnet.”
Araceli Esparza gleefully reported before reading that she’d just followed her poem’s author, January Gill O’Neill, on Twitter.
O’Neill’s “Old South Meeting House” sounded like a powerful call to action, especially apt in Gates of Heaven: “We draw breath from brick. Ignite the fire in us. Speak to us: the language is hope.”
Novelist Dale Kushner read a bit of Walt Whitman, but opened with a story about her father. Kushner came to college in the 1960s, “when cities and campuses were battle zones,” and before she left her father took her aside and said, “don’t sign anything.”
“He was worried that I would be signing radical petitions,” she said, “assuming that I was a lot more daring than I was. But he was also coming from a lineage of persecution and exile.
“He knew well the power of the state to crush opposition, and the charisma of demagogues to lead the naïve into danger.”
Some poets, like SP Mulroy and Andy Gricevich, read their own work, exploring difficult compassion and shared vulnerability. Judith Claire Mitchell read an excerpt from her first novel, “The Last Day of the War.”
Especially powerful were two poems by Rubén Medina, a professor of Latin American literature at the UW.
“Applying for Citizenship” explored Medina’s relationship to “this, my nation of others,” the adopted country he has called home for four decades.
The poem took the form of a series of “conditions,” some humorous — TV commercials should be limited to one minute per hour — and others more serious.
“The White House should be moved to Puerto Rico, the Congress to Harlem, the United Nations to Wounded Knee,” Medina read. “Half of the billboards in this country should be given to poets or anyone who wants to imagine the nation, the other half to children.”
Medina followed that with a first reading of a poem called “Homeland” with the repeated refrain, “This country has never been mine.”
“Countries don't have owners,” Medina read.
A short open mic section followed the main event, though most folks cleared out before that began. James Lee Phetteplace got in several pertinent zingers to the president-elect: “They may like the cut of your jib now, but when the winds shift they’ll cut that jib.”
Readers and listeners at Madison Writers Resist raised more than $2,000 for the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin. Another similar event, not associated with Writers Resist but in the same vein, is set for March 18. Nasty Women Reading is taking submissions through Feb. 3 and will be a benefit for Planned Parenthood.
“Giving writers something to do, to look forward to, is really important,” said ALL’s Rita Mae Reese. “But also I think people need to hear the voices in their community.”
When Dale Kushner got up to speak, she put it another way.
“This inspiration is what feeds us, is what we need,” Kushner said. “I’m happy to be here today to encourage all of us to imagine together how we can create public spaces that feel safe for controversial discourse.”