This essay was published in the catalog for Organize Your Own (Soberscove, 2016) and was commissioned by Mark Nowak in order to contextualize the poems written by the Young Patriots Organization (reproduced here in a chapbook by Society Editions) which served as an inspiration for the commissioned visual and performance art and poems presented throughout the exhibition and events series.
Panthers, Patriots, and Poetries in Revolution
by Mark Nowak
is first a dreamy note,
till it be wrote.
—Ed Mampel, from “A Poem,”
Time of the Phoenix, Vol. 4
Literary history is a curious motherfucker. Let’s take 1970, for example. On May 4, Ohio National Guardsmen open fire on a crowd of anti-war protestors at Kent State University. They kill four students––Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, William Schroeder, and Sandra Scheuer––and wound nine others. Eleven days later, at Jackson State University in Mississippi, police fire approximately 400 rounds of bullets and buckshot into Alexandra Hall to quell a protest. They kill Phillip Gibbs, a junior and the father of an 18-month-old child, and James Earl Green, a high school senior. Gil Scott-Heron releases his first album in 1970, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. The album opens with “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and its cover proclaims Scott-Heron a “New Black Poet.”
While events like Kent State, Jackson State, and “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” produce ruptures and resistance across the American landscape, the Pulitzer Prize in poetry is given to Richard Howard’s Untitled Subjects. Composed during the social turbulence of the late 1960s, and officially released in 1969, Untitled Subjects is far from a thermometer of the times. In fact, Kirkus Reviews asserts that if it were Howard’s “intention to create a kind of historical almanac with fusty circumlocutions, garden party wit, and the flavor (rarely strained, though rarely infectious) of nineteenth century mores, obsessions, and somnolence, all done up in elaborate forms, mostly syllabic (oddly-enough, everything here could really be read as prose), then he has eminently succeeded.” Indeed Howard’s book is hardly a volume of poetry with any intentions to stand in solidarity with the times or “bring the war home.”
The following year, in 1971, the accolades of institutional poetry (a.k.a., “Poetry”) grow slightly sharper political teeth. When W. S. Merwin learns that he’s been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his volume The Carrier of Ladders, he authors a brief notice, “On Being Awarded the Pulitzer Prize,” which is published in the June 3, 1971, edition of the New York Review of Books. Merwin opens by thanking the judges for their opinions about his work, but continues by asserting that after “years of the news from Southeast Asia, and the commentary from Washington,” he is “too conscious of being an American to accept public congratulation with good grace, or to welcome it except as an occasion for expressing openly a shame which many Americans feel, day after day, helplessly and in silence.” He concludes by asking that his Pulitzer Prize money “be equally divided between Alan Blanchard . . . a painter who was blinded by a police weapon in California . . . and the Draft Resistance.” One month later, in the pages of the same eminent magazine, Merwin’s Pulitzer response is chastised by none other than W. H. Auden as “an ill-judged gesture,” which “sounds like a personal publicity stunt.” Merwin, as might be expected, publishes a retort to Auden that is also printed in the pages of the New York Review of Books.
This is how literary history is played out at the apex of the pyramid: Reviews review; secret judges secretly judge; younger male poets, for reasons solid and self-serving, attempt to slay their Oedipal elders in the pages of esteemed New York City-housed literary monthlies; and the singular genius is isolated from the masses of creative workers, excessively celebrated and handsomely rewarded. The years under discussion here represent a watershed period for publications in the people’s history of poetry and the poetry workshop. The poems produced in community spaces and published during this historical moment are not only more profoundly engaged in the political climate of this radical era than many of the celebrated and canonized volumes of the period, but also take on a more agitated, partisan stance. They are attempts to rewrite those “hidden episodes” of migration, war resistance, racism, police violence, sexism, and other struggles faced by poor and working people, particularly poor and working women of color.
So in contrast to a vertical and hierarchical literary landscape, the objective of what follows is not an engagement with the history of canonized poets and elite arts organizations, but the employment of what I’ve taken to calling a people’s history of poetry and the poetry workshop. It is an analysis of more populist poetries produced during the same period by the non-canonized non-elite, including school children in Brooklyn, inmates at Attica prison in the months following the riots, and social movement activists from the Black Panther Party, the Weather Underground, and the Young Patriots Organization.
The term “people’s history” is, of course, borrowed from Howard Zinn’s monumental study A People’s History of the United States. In the book’s opening chapter, Zinn argues for a new conception of history that is both creative and emancipatory: “If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win.” Similarly, then, a people’s history of poetry and the poetry workshop is a creative literary history emphasizing ‘those hidden episodes of the past.’ It encompasses poems that deeply engage suppressed histories, resistance practices, agency, and solidarity among their community’s members.
One significant example of this kind of people’s history of poetry and the poetry workshop is The Voice of the Children, an anthology collected from community-based poetry workshops facilitated by June Jordan and Terri Bush in the late 1960s in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood. In the book’s afterword, Jordan describes the founding of the workshop, its unstable funding and geography, and the type of students the workshop attracted: “At first we were sponsored by The Teachers and Writers Collaborative Program,” she writes. “Then, and ever since, we have continued on a volunteer basis, supported by the growing number of friends these Black and Puerto Rican teen-agers have gathered around them.” Finding a space for these community-based youth workshops was never easy. Jordan goes on to note: “[W]e had some trouble finding a place of our own: someplace warm with a window, tables, and an outlet for the phonograph . . . But finally, The Church of the Open Door gave us a room of our own. Then Doctor White Community Center has given us a space where we can be together, working with, fighting with, words.”
The young writers group met every Saturday, And though Jordan admits that Saturday’s were usually “no time for school,” she and Terri Bush “tried to set things so that the workshop would differ, as much as possible, from school.” For the Black and Puerto Rican teenagers who participated in their workshops, Jordan believed “school is mostly a burial ground for joy and promise. School is where these poets and writers are often termed ‘verbally deficient,’ or worse.’ One illustration of typical New York City public schools in the years leading up to the early 1970s can be found in Herb Kohl’s classic volume 36 Children. Kohl describes a school in which “there was no complete set of sixth-grade arithmetic books,” and social studies units are “full of stories about family fun in a Model T Ford.” In response to these textbooks, one of Kohl’s students responds: “It’s a cheap, dirty, bean school,” while another concludes that the books are “phoney.” Conditions like these were ubiquitous in the schools attended by June Jordan’s workshop participants.
Through poetry, however, Jordan’s workshop students were given an opportunity to address this locus of their lives. The poems published in The Voice of the Children are divided into five sections: “Politics,” “Observations,” “Blackness,” “Love and Nature,” and “Very Personal.” In “Politics,” 12-year-old Veronica Bryant writes a poem in which she asks, “why women can’t be president,” while David Clarke, Jr., 14, declares in a prose poem that “We Can’t Always Follow the White Man’s Way.” The predominantly rhyming couplets of “The Last Riot” by Vanessa Howard still ring true in our era of Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter. Likewise, 10-year-old Christopher Meyer’s mordant examination of “Wonderful New York” moves from an opening stanza that describes the decaying cityscape:
The hypnotizing neon light
the street banks like garbage dumps
and the drunk vacuum cleaner
who suck up whiskey like air
to stanzas where he links global New York to his personal experiences of the city:
As New York provides a building for the U.N.
so shall it provide its cemetery
Invisible dangers are always around the corner,
as hell is around the corner for me.
While this is both a stark and fiercely political ending for anyone’s poem, it speaks even more vociferously when it comes from the pen and imagination of a child who has barely been in the world for a single decade.
Yet it isn’t only the “Politics” section where the political poems are to be found. For example, the “Observations” section includes writings on “The Lost Black Man,” “Children as Slaves,” and “I’m No Animal,” while the “Blackness” section includes a strong range of poetic subjects including “for Nina Simone wherever you are” by 15-year-old Linda Curry, young Miriam Lasanta’s “My Soul Speaks Spanish,” and the interrogative-laced, Black Arts–inspired “What’s Black Power?” by Loudel Baez, age 12:
Is Black power a knife in your back?
Is Black power winning a fight?
Is Black power killing a White?
Is Black power having a gang?
Is Black power getting high?
Is Black power wanting to die?
Or is Black power being proud,
standing out in the crowd,
standing with your fist held high?
This political tenor continues throughout the remaining sections of “Love and Nature” (with poems about the Vietnam War) and “Very Personal” (including a poem that employs the repetition of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s famous line, “i am waiting”). The Voice of the Children closes with a compelling haiku by 14-year-old Juanita Bryant—in which she reiterates the idea that is prevalent throughout the anthology—the idea that the personal is the political:
No friends nor enemies
cross my way
And isolated I will stay
Unfortunately, but not uncommon for political verse, The Voice of the Children is published in precisely the same year as the much more apolitical and playful Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Poetry to Children by Kenneth Koch and the students of P.S. 61. Koch’s volume garners significant national attention (including a number of feature pieces in the New York Times, Life, the New York Review of Books, and elsewhere). Koch’s affable approach, rather than the radical agency of Jordan’s The Voice of the Children, becomes a model for the poetry in the schools program funded by the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1970s and serves as the inspiration for literally hundreds of playful “wish” and “lie” and “dream” poems in anthologies published by state arts boards across the United States. It becomes, quite simply, a Fordist model for the mass production of youth poetry. As Phillip Lopate argues in his assessment of Koch’s technique, “[T]here is still something mechanically induced about the hip, modernistic surface of many of the Wishes, Lies, and Dreams poems . . . This method is a fail-safe pedagogic machine for the mass production of surrealist metaphors.”
By contrast to Wishes, Lies, and Dreams, the reception of The Voice of the Children is limited to a pair of brief, sober notices in the New York Times. On January 24, 1971, the Times publishes Eve Merriam’s response to three new books, which includes The Voice of the Children. Accompanying her review, titled “For Young Readers,” is an image of two darkened hands bound by shackles. Merriam opens her inept review by informing readers of the Times that, “Black consciousness-raising is an ambiguous phrase.” She contends that it can “suggest raising the level of consciousness among whites about blacks” (of course she opens with what the term might mean to white people) as well as “making blacks more self-aware.” She says almost nothing about Jordan’s book, instead opening with a lengthy quotation from Christopher Meyers’s poem “Wonderful New York,” cited above. She follows this with two more lengthy quotations from poems by Michael Goode and Vanessa Howard, then concludes with a single sentence of her own, “One can only echo what June Jordan states in her Afterword: ‘With all my heart, I wish the voices of these children peace and power.’” In the pages of the New York Times, the revolutionary agency of June Jordan’s The Voice of the Children will decidedly not be televised.
Ten months after Merriam’s dismissive notice, Martin Gansberg brings Jordan’s book back to the New York Times readership when he pens the project’s obituary. In “Voice of the Children Is Stilled,” Gansberg’s first sentence reproduces Merriam’s final statement on wishing the children’s voices “peace and power.” After a brief overview of the workshops, Gansberg informs readers that “[n]ow comes word that their writing workshop . . . has been stilled for lack of funds.” After mentioning dried-up funding “from an earlier group called Writers Collaborative” and “some additional financial support when Holt, Rinehart & Winston gave the group an advance of several thousand dollars on the book,” Gansberg concludes by citing poems already printed in Merriam’s earlier review, including those by Michael Goode and Carlton Minor. Gansberg terminates his death notice by quoting a single all-caps stanza from Minor:
I’M NO ANIMAL
I’M NO ANIMAL
I’M NO ANIMAL
In the end, the principal newspaper of New York City chooses to barely notice Jordan’s exceptional project while it thrives, but is seemingly all too happy to devote additional space for the project’s detailed obituary.
As the Koch anthology continues to be glorified in the press and in classrooms across the United States, numerous politically engaged poetry anthologies begin to appear in the first years of the 1970s, most receiving even less or poorer press coverage and classroom use than the Jordan-Bush anthology. In 1970, New York’s World Press releases Herbert Kohl and Victor Hernández Cruz’s magnificent anthology Stuff: A Collection of Poems, Visions, & Imaginative Happenings From Young Writers in Schools—Open and Closed. The following year, 5X Publishing in New York publishes a similarly noteworthy volume, Three Hundred and Sixty Degrees of Blackness Comin’ at You: An Anthology of the Sonia Sanchez Writers Workshop at Countee Cullen Library in Harlem. Grove Press releases yet another compelling anthology of youth poetry edited by Irving Benig in 1971, The Children: Poems and Prose from Bedford-Stuyvesant. The following year, American Faculty Press releases Nicholas Anthony Duva’s outstanding collection of Jersey City middle school poets, Somebody Real: Voices of City Children.
Between the two reviews of June Jordan’s The Voice of the Children in the New York Times, radical protests begin to break out in the expanding US prison industrial complex. On August 21, 1971, prison guards at San Quentin open fire on and murder writer, activist, and Black Panther Party member George Jackson. The following morning, inmates at Attica State Prison in Western New York fast and hold a silent protest in response to Jackson’s murder. Two weeks later, Attica inmates rebel and take the D-Yard (and up to fifty hostages). After four days of negotiation and standoff, Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller orders troops to retake the prison on September 13, which results in the death of 43 inmates and guards. While journalists are initially told that inmates slashed the throats of some of their victims and emasculated others, an independent coroner’s report later concluded that all had died from “a bullet that had the name Rockefeller on it.”
Several months after the Attica revolt, Celes Tisdale, an assistant professor at Erie Community College in the nearby city of Buffalo, is invited to run a creative writing workshop at the prison. Tisdale’s journal entries from his first workshop at Attica on May 24, 1972, are divided into sections titled “Anticipation,” “Before the Great Wall,” and “Within.” The 6:15PM entry under “Within” reveals the deeper personal connection that the poetry teacher had to some of his new students at Attica: “The men are coming in now. I recognize some of them from the old days in Willert Park Projects and Smitty’s restaurant where I worked during the undergraduate days. They seem happy to see me but are properly restrained (strained?).” Tisdale finds something quite different from the media’s portrayal of rebelling inmates who were supposedly slashing throats and severing genitalia during the Attica rebellion. “Their sensitivity and perception were so intense,” Tisdale writes, “that each Wednesday night, I came home completely exhausted.”
Two years after Tisdale’s initial workshop at Attica, Detroit’s Broadside Press publishes an anthology of the participants’ poems, as well as Tisdale’s journal entries, in Betcha Ain’t: Poems from Attica. In my reading of poems from Betcha Ain’t, I want to draw on Joy James’s essential work on the “(neo)slave narrative,” a term she initially borrows from John Edgar Wideman’s introduction to Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Love from Death Row. For James, (neo)slave narratives “reflect the languages of master, slave, and abolitionist.” The battle between these three subject positions “created the language of the fugitive or incarcerated rebel—the slave, the convict.” When addressing the long literary history of the (neo)slave prison narrative, James asserts that:
Through their narratives, imprisoned writers can function as progressive abolitionists and register as “people’s historians.” They become the storytellers of the political histories of the captives and their captors. These narratives are generally the “unauthorized” versions of political life, often focusing on dissent and policing and repression.
A single-stanza poem by Brother Amar (George Robert Elie), “Forget?,” certainly registers as having been written by a “people’s historian” of the Attica revolt, offering readers, as James asserts, an “unauthorized version” of political life in the prison while “focusing on dissent and policing and repression”:
They tell us to forget Golgotha we tread
scourged with hate because we dared
to tell the truth of hell
and how inhuman it is within.
Inmate Isaiah Hawkins addresses the bloodiest day of the revolt, September 13, 1970, in his poem “13th of Genocide,” while Mshaka (Willie Monroe) writes of the Attica rebellion’s aftermath in “Formula for Attica Repeats”:
. . . . . and when
the smoke cleared
they came aluminum paid
of S.O.S. Collect Calls,
They came tearless,
apologetic grin factories
that breathed Kool
and state-prepared speeches.
like so many unfeeling fingers
groping without touching
the 43 dead men
threatening to rise
Other poems in the collection also examine this bloody massacre, including Christopher Sutherland’s “Sept. 13” and Sam Washington’s “Was It Necessary?.” The writers in Tisdale’s Attica workshop were certainly becoming, in James’ configuration, “the storytellers of the political histories of the captives and their captors,” perhaps none with such force as John Lee Norris’s poignant, lyrical, and ultimately devastating poem, “Just Another Page (September 13–72)”:
A year later
And it’s just another page
And the only thing they do right is wrong
And Attica is a maggot-minded black blood sucker
And the only thing they do right is wrong
And another page of history is written in black blood
And old black mamas pay taxes to buy guns that killed their sons
And the consequence of being free…is death
And your sympathy and tears always come too late
And the only thing they do right is wrong
And it’s just another page.
In this atmosphere of a vibrant people’s poetry surfacing everywhere from community centers in Brooklyn to prison classrooms in Attica during the early 1970s, is it all that surprising that revolutionary organizations of the same historical period begin documenting their encounters with racism, sexism, state repression, police violence, and the war in Vietnam through poetry? For the remainder of this essay, I’d like to look briefly at the writings of other “people’s historians” in a coauthored volume by two members of the Black Panther Party and a poetry anthology by women in the Weather Underground, then conclude by examining a bit more deeply the verse collected in four volumes of Time of the Phoenix, a poetry magazine/pamphlet of writings by members of the Young Patriots Organization, the Rainbow Coalition, and fellow travellers in the early- to mid-1970s.
The connection between the United States prison industrial complex and the Black Panther Party and other radical movements runs deep—even as it relates to poetry. As Amy Washburn argues in “The Pen of the Panther: Barriers and Freedom in the Prison Poetry of Ericka Huggins,” incarcerated Panthers like Huggins regularly turned to poetry not as an escape, but as a form of ongoing activism. Huggins spent three years, 1969–72, in prison at Niantic State Farm for Women, often in solitary confinement. According to Washburn, Huggins wrote regularly while in prison and “nurtured her devotion to revolution behind bars by writing about the deplorable social conditions she and her community experienced.” Some of these writings were eventually released by acclaimed San Francisco publisher City Lights Books under the title Insights & Poems, a volume that also includes writings by Panther cofounder Huey Newton.
One of Huggins’s poems in Insights, “A Reflection on Niantic,” is a musing on prison life and the disproportionate incarceration of people of color that Michelle Alexander has cogently dubbed The New Jim Crow. Huggins’ poem opens by reflecting on the myriad ways in which she experiences “brown” at Niantic:
fall the leaves of
golden yellow on
brown the feet
of the dispossessed
that darkens the
Though the leaves themselves maintain a golden yellow—or do so at least momentarily in their autumnal transition in the Connecticut landscape—everything else is either described with the color brown or by words like “asphalt” or “darkens.” In the lines that follow, Huggins sets this symbolic and politicized “brown” in a dialectical relationship to whiteness: “the winter comes/brown is covered/ with snow/ and heavy prison coats.” These lines suggest several possible readings. In one, Huggins is simply documenting the changing landscape; the fallen leaves are being covered by winter snow as prisoners don winter coats in the inclement weather. In an alternate reading that incorporates race and struggle, the “heavy prison coats” represent the prison guards themselves, whose whiteness covers and attempts to silence the prisoners.
Huggins brings her reflection on life at Niantic State Farm for Women to a close by invoking the solidarity of sisterhood and re-invoking the symbolic color brown:
my sisters linger in the night air
hover by the door
handcuffed or not
the jail holds their bodies—brown;
holds their minds—blue.
Throughout her writings in Insights & Poems, Ericka Huggins becomes a “people’s historian” of Niantic, documenting the struggles of the incarcerated women while employing the poem as a mode of activism and resistance. As Washburn asserts, “Repositioning women’s political and cultural work with the black power/liberation movement shows a fuller, more inclusive vision of this historical period.” Likewise, Huggins’s poetry demonstrates “the role aesthetic productions played for black women as critiques of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy in ways they could not do politically, socially, and economically due to [their] imprisonment.”
Sing a Battle Song: Poems by Women in the Weather Underground Organization, an anthology written and published during the same period as Newton and Huggins’s Insights & Poems, illustrates other facets of the early 1970s political climate and the importance of alternative aesthetic practices. The untitled, anonymous introduction to Sing a Battle Song, dated January 1975, outlines how a collection of poetry penned by “people’s historians” might be distinguished from the poetry of elite institutions. “We are not professional poets,” the authors of the introduction declare. “We prepared this book of poetry as cultural workers, striving to create poems which are accessible to the people and responsible to the struggle.” This configuration of a poetics of accessibility, responsibility, and struggle is significant here; it establishes a poetics distinct from institutional poetry and centers poetic practice as a tool of people’s active resistance.
The women of the Weather Underground—inspired, as they declare in their introduction, by radical women poets like Sonia Sanchez, June Jordan, Judy Grahn, and Diane di Prima (none of whom have ever receive accolades like the Pulitzer)—sought to engage what so much poetry of accessibility, responsibility, and struggle attempts to do: work between the first person singular (“I”) and the first person plural (“We”), while simultaneously allowing space for both individual voice and group solidarity within a creative process. The writers of the introduction inform us that each poem is written by a woman who is an individual, yet they go on to highlight that each poem was also workshopped; each poem was “discussed collectively: praised and criticized for its content, its craftswomanship, its effectiveness.” Overall, the women poets of the Weather Underground sought “to integrate individual and collective energies” as a means to “develop and improve” women both individually and as a collective social force.
Contemporary literary history and criticism rarely examines the poetry of people’s historians. Though recent volumes like Mike Chasar’s Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America are beginning to pay critical attention to more populist forms of poetry, the tenor of most literary criticism is seldom anything but derisive. Reviewing the reprint of Sing a Battle Song in the Guardian, for example, British poet and book reviewer Ian Pindar can only muster up a three-word phrase to describe the poetry of the women of the Weather Underground, dismissing it as “hectoring feminist verse.”
Against this widespread dismissiveness, I see a distinctive range of poetries at work in Sing a Battle Song. Some of it employs themes and strategies from progressive women poets, such as Muriel Rukeyser and her attention to “the road” and the nation-state in “The Book of the Dead: The Road.” The anonymous poet who wrote “People’s War” (Summer 1972) that was published in Sing a Battle Song, for example, talks about “the same road,/built and then destroyed and rebuilt,” as well as “invisible trails . . . the path/where headlights would betray,” and “The streets/lined with legless beggars.” In one central section, the poem uses the symbol of the road in relation to US imperialism in the context of the Vietnam War:
What is the road?
The Americans mark it on the map
a known line –
But its measure lies in other dimensions…
The poet uses the opening interrogative to engage the reader (again, this idea of accessibility) followed by a line that critiques United States’s dominance and aggression. The use of “line/lie” in the third and forth lines of the stanza follow the opening question by examining whether the line marked by Americans is yet another imperial inscription, another one of the compounding lies of the US government during the Vietnam War, or something inaccessible (“in other dimensions”) about US involvement in the war. This brief excerpt even engages several of the categories of the poem itself (line/measure) to reflect on the larger context and connotations of poetic composition.
The interrogative is a mode frequently employed in many poems whose poetics are grounded in accessibility, responsibility, and struggle. In Sing a Battle Song, poems like “Venom II,” written during the winter of 1974, pose significant questions like “What turns class hatred/inside out?” and “What is the bridge to you?” I find these persuasive inquiries to be irreconcilable with the notion of a ‘hectoring feminist verse.’ Additionally, to cite but one example, the opening stanza of “Venom II” appears to me as concise and well-crafted an opening to a poem as one might find in any issue of an institutional literary journal like Poetry magazine from the early 1970s:
I wonder about the
in cloth coats and curlers
in Birmingham or Boston.
Yet in the end, it’s never a question of whether poems such as these might somehow be on par with poems of the literary establishment. Quite the opposite. The objective of the “craftswomanship” of “Venom II” isn’t about entering the literary canon. In response to the question “What is the bridge/to you?” the author of “Venom II” inscribes a two-line response which also serves as the conclusion to the poem: the bridge is an action, i.e., “our struggle/to reveal it.”
Although the poems of Ericka Huggins and the women of the Weather Underground have been published and reprinted by progressive presses like City Lights on the West Coast and Seven Stories on the East Coast, the vast body of poems published in Time of the Phoenix, a journal that emerged out of the Young Patriots Organization, have received almost no attention until now. Nevertheless, the poetry published across the four issues of Time of the Phoenix (1970-1976) leaves a vast repository by “people’s historians” on struggles with poverty, police violence, migration, and more, all in verse form.
Formed in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood in the late 1960s, the Young Patriots Organization (YPO) was part of a “vanguard of the dispossessed.” Its members were raised in Appalachia, and the organization’s politics were inspired by the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords. In Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times, authors Amy Sonnie and James Tracy assert that the YPO “may have formed with or without the direct influence of the Chicago Panthers, but there is no doubt that the Black Panther Party lent primary inspiration, theoretical framework and a programmatic model to the Uptown organization.” And while members of the YPO were involved in varied activities such as creating breakfast programs and health clinics, several Patriots, including one of the YPO’s founders, Doug Youngblood, “worked most of his ideas out in poetry and political essays.” The pages of each issue of Time of the Phoenix suggest that many other Patriots and fellow travellers in the early years of the 1970s turned to poetry, too.
The inaugural issue of Time of the Phoenix included a wide range of poetic styles and themes. The Patriots members’ Appalachian roots were celebrated in poems like Georgia Atkins’s “A Southern Band of People” and Ruth Gorton’s “Mountaineers are Always Free.” An emergent feminist critique is inscribed in poems like Gorton’s “You Think ’Cause I’m a Woman” and others like it, many of them in poetic solidarity with poems by the women in the Weather Underground from the same historical period.
One of the more multifaceted poems of the first issue, a poem that engages many of the themes discussed throughout this essay as well as one of the first in Time of the Phoenix to discuss poverty and the political state of Uptown Chicago, is Patricia Gonterman’s “Apathy, Confusion & A Wee Bit O’ Irony.” The poem opens by addressing an array of issues including prisons, cops, schools, alcoholism, and murder:
Did you hear, Mary Scott had a boy?
When the jailer tells Billy Rand he’ll jump for joy!
The police beat up on the boy down the way;
What with delinquency as it is, it happens every day.
The drunk left his wife again. He comes back every year,
Then goes when she’s expecting another kid.
Last night in the alley a man was shot;
It’s another old story, around here it happens a lot.
Gonterman’s poem continues to expand its reach across social issues like welfare and social services: “That nice couple got their kids taken away./Welfare came and grabbed them.” She includes a stanza about a hospital that refuses to treat a wino (“Guess they didn’t know he’d die”), and then she turns to one of Uptown’s largest problems, the lack of safe, clean, and affordable housing:
A rat bit the Bots boy on the face,
The housing shortage is a shame,
They’re still trying to find another place.
In the very next line, the narrator informs readers that her taxes have gone up: “I guess the government needs the money/For war and such.” This is followed by a stanza on two more boys who got shot, a stanza on the Vietnam War, then a concluding longer stanza that brings together themes such as police violence on college campuses with a feminist critique of the everyday lives of women in Uptown:
Yesterday the downstate college had another riot.
The police broke in and a few people got hurt,
At least today everything is quiet.
The world sure is in a mess,
Sure wish there was something I could do;
Well, better go home and cook, I guess.
The second issue of Time of the Phoenix, published in 1972, likewise contains poems that return to the Appalachian themes of the inaugural issue. Michael Browning’s “The Coal Miner’s Kid,” for example, paints a stark picture of the generational cycle of coal mining in rural Appalachia. Readers are introduced to “the pot-bellied coal miner’s kid” who’s been “[b]orn through ignorance and reared in poverty.” The child’s landscape is bleak amidst “[c]rumbling, rotten tipples,” the “dark, worked-out mine shafts,” and “a boarded-up commissary/and his playgrounds.” We learn in the next stanza that the local school was “burned down and never rebuilt.” The poem concludes with the repetitious life cycle that is unfortunately produced by this kind of Appalachian upbringing:
His security rests in a broken, pension-drawing
miner, coughing too hard
and drinking too much,
who tells about when this deserted,
poverty-ridden camp was booming and full of miners —
all working and spending and never saving.
With never enough clothes or food or money,
the coal miner’s kid lives and grows
and finally digs coal for his own kid.
It’s like an illustration out of some Appalachian version of Paul Willis’s Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. Browning’s poem encapsulates the geography, desperation, and “people’s histories” that so many of the Patriots escaped, only to find a different kind of desperation and poverty in the North. Although Issue 2 of Time of the Phoenix includes fewer poems on Appalachia than the inaugural volume, it begins to directly address the place that was becoming YPO members’ new home in 1972, the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago.
The second issue opens with poems like J. Schmidt’s “The Uptown Woes” and Robert Emerine’s “Inner City.” Later in this issue, poems like Jean Tepperman’s “New in Uptown” and particularly her serial poem “October Uptown,” inscribe the new poverty of the industrialized north. After an opening section on a “Little boy smoking/With hill colored hair” who watches the Uptown traffic, we learn of the “Helpless hearing” of the new urban poor who can hear their “landlord/shut the furnace/At ten o’clock/The night of the first/frost.” Tepperman’s poem concludes with the solitary loneliness of this new Chicago geography:
The light in the room
Darkens the street’s dusk
If I can just see
Through the night
Will walk up the sidewalk
The mountains and the coal tipples are gone, replaced by the isolation of Uptown’s poverty and a people some called “simply too poor to organize.”
If Issue 2 of Time of the Phoenix signaled a move away from the central theme of Appalachia to poems grounded more in the geography and politics of Uptown, Issue 3 of the magazine saw a move away from the predominance of the “hillbilly nationalist” theme toward a wider inclusivity of poets from the “vanguard of the dispossessed.” Early in the issue, two poems by Jesus Ledesma initiate this transition. The first of these poems, “Life in the Streets,” illustrates Uptown from a perspective readers would not have seen in the first two issues of Time of the Phoenix:
Life in the streets ain’t too cool
’Cause you always have someone who wants to
Make a fool or burn you. You drink a little
then you get busted for a bullshit charge
Like disorderly conduct. You want to cop some
Tea? Then you get burned, then you find him
And beat his head, not for takin your money
But it makes you lose your pride if
You don’t do nothing about it. Then you go
Home with blood on your hands and your mother
Says, “Que pasa, hijo, you fighting again.
Que pasa you got no corazon. all you do is fight.”
And your sister’s crying ’cause she knows
What is happening. Wait till tu padre comes
from work. and all you say is “I had a fight
con some blancos.” “tu un malo muchacho” “mira
La sangre.” and you say, “forget it, I’m going
To bed after I wash up.” “Life in the streets”
A number of other poems in the third issue of the journal offer visions of Uptown from the perspective of Black and Puerto Rican writers such as Victor Rosa’s “I’m a Proud Puerto Rican.” This transition continues through issue four of the magazine as well in poems like Alfredo Matias’s “Where Are The Latin Poets?”; several poems by David Hernandez (who would later go on to become Chicago’s unofficial poet laureate); Eduardo Condes’s “Tecato’s Dream,” and others. Perhaps this range of poetic styles, languages, and modes of address comes to full engagement in “Bla-Bla” by Cesar Quinones, which appears toward the end of this final issue of Time of the Phoenix:
La monja habla habla
el colr a manto azota
el cristo se derrota
Ante el pecado de otro
Nubes grises de anti-cristo
derrumbando un tonto mito
que no aplica ni revela
ni a los tiempos ni a los hombres
¿Hán de callar la materia?
¿Pára sublemizar el espiritu?
bla, bla, bla
tan solo bla bla.
Yet this is not to say that the YPO poets ever left Appalachia and its mountaineers completely behind. If “memory is a motherfucker,” the writers published in the final two issues of Time of the Phoenix also kept the people’s history of Appalachia alive in the public memory for years after they’d migrated north. In Issue 3, for example, Shelva Thompson’s poem “The Hyden Disaster” re-examines the death of 38 miners in the Finley Mine Disaster in southeastern Kentucky in December 1970. And in Issue 4, Kathleen Sowers’ “The Legacy of My Father” is a moving elegy to everything left behind when an elderly miner and family patriarch dies, including both a literal and symbolic mountain of memories:
My father left us a log house built by him
in a hollow in Emlyn, Kentucky.
An acre of ground to grow our food
A gold spring that ran from an under-
ground source purified by rocks
over which it ran.
A corncrib on high stilt legs covered with
tin to keep out the rats.
A loving mother who would never forsake us,
and, best of all
he left us a mountain.
The four issues of Time of the Phoenix present a vast array of remembrances of Appalachian culture as well as the political and social adjustments to and challenges within the poverty and violent policing of the urban north in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. They also illustrate the simultaneous establishment of the Appalachian-centered poetics of the early YPO and the expansion into a much more expansive “vanguard of the dispossessed” in the issues that followed. Finally, the poems published in Time of the Phoenix offer a varied and persuasive display of a poetics of accessibility, responsibility, and struggle on nearly every page.
This brief look at a people’s history of poetry and the poetry workshop by schoolchildren in Brooklyn, prisoners at Attica, and activists in the Black Panther Party, the Weather Underground, and the Young Patriots Organization suggests that poetry in the early 1970s broke significant new ground in audience, authorship, and agency. It opens a range of questions about social movement spheres in which poetry might have been a tactic in other struggles of the era. For example, how might poetry have been used by postal workers in the US Postal Workers strike of 1970, by farmworkers in Delano during the UFW grape boycotts, by textile workers at the Farah Garment Factory in El Paso, by the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and organizations like DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement) in Detroit, and countless other resistance movements by workers and the working poor? My guess is that we still have an incredible amount to discover about the uses of poetry by social movements, with the poetic practices of the Panthers, Patriots, and others examined here leading the way.
About the Author
Mark Nowak, a 2010 Guggenheim fellow, is an award-winning poet, social critic, and labor activist, whose writings include The New York Times “Editor’s Choice,” Shut Up Shut Down (2004, afterword by Amiri Baraka), and the acclaimed book on coal mining disasters in the US and China, Coal Mountain Elementary (2009), that Howard Zinn called “a stunning educational tool.” He directs both the MFA program at Manhattanville College and the Worker Writers School at the PEN American Center. workerwriters.org
1 With a nod to the opening of Bill Ayers’s Fugitive Days: A Memoir (“Memory is a motherfucker,” p. 8).
2 Wyckoff, Whitney Blair. “Jackson State: A Tragedy Widely Forgotten.” <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126426361>.
3 “Untitled Subjects,” Kirkus Reviews. <https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/richard-howard-4/untitled-subjects/>.
4 Merwin, W. S. “On Being Awarded the Pulitzer Prize,” New York Review of Books (June 3, 1971). <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1971/06/03/on-being-awarded-the-pulitzer-prize/>.
5 Auden, W. H. “Saying No,” New York Review of Books (July 1, 1971). <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1971/07/01/saying-no/>.
6 Merwin, untitled reply to Auden, New York Review of Books (July 1, 1971). <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1971/07/01/saying-no/>.
7 Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States: 1492–Present (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), p. 10–11.
8 Jordan, June and Terri Bush, eds. The Voice of the Children (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.: 1970), p. 94.
9 Ibid., p. 95.
11 Kohl, Herbert. 36 Children (New York: Signet, 1968), p. 19–20.
12 “Wish” poems begin to densely populate state-sponsored poetry in the schools anthologies almost immediately after the publication of Koch’s anthology. To cite but two examples from different regions of the country: Measure Me, Sky: The South Carolina Arts Commission Anthology of Student Poetry for the Poetry-in-the-Schools Program (1972) includes numerous wish poems; likewise, the inaugural publication of the Arkansas poets-in-the-schools program, i used to be a person (1973–74), is saturated with Koch-inspired wish, lie, and dream poems.
13 Lopate, Phillip. “The Balkanization of Children’s Writing,” The Lion and the Unicorn, 1.2 (1977), p. 101–02.
14 Gansberg, Martin. “Voice of the Children is Stilled,” New York Times (Nov. 7, 1971), A18.
15 I believe Writers Collaborative here refers to Teachers and Writers Collaborative. And while I couldn’t locate a source, it seems likely that the advance was a payment to the book’s editors, not direct financial support of their workshop.
16 In the intro to The Children, Benig says that his decision to teach in Bed-Stuy was motivated by the war in Vietnam: “Someone told me that teachers teaching under the auspices of the Board of Education of the City of New York don’t get drafted; that is, if they teach in a “bad” area, Harlem or Bedford-Stuyvesant… The bloodied hands of Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, and W.W. Rostow, clutched at me and, with my tail between my legs, I chose the Board of Education” (p. vii–viii).
17 Wicker, Tom. A Time to Die: The Attica Prison Revolt (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011; first published by Quadrangle/New York Times Book Co., 1975), p. 315.
18 Ibid., p. 301.
19 Tisdale, Celes (ed.). Betcha Ain’t: Poems from Attica. (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1974), p. 51.
20 Ibid., p.12.
21 James, Joy (ed.). The New Abolitionists: (Neo)Slave Narratives and Contemporary Prison Writings. (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2005), p. xxv.
22 Ibid., p. xxxii.
23 Washburn, Amy. “The Pen of the Panther: Barriers and Freedom in the Prison Poetry of Ericka Huggins,” Journal for the Study of Radicalism 8.2 (2014), p. 56.
24 As Alexander notes, “The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.” In Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010), p. 6.
25 Washburn, “The Pen of the Panther,” p. 71.
26 Ibid., p. 71–72.
27 Dohrn, Bernadine, with Bill Ayers and Jeff Jones, eds. Sing A Battle Song: The Revolutionary Poetry, Statements, and Communiqués of the Weather Underground, 1970–1974. (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2006), p. 74.
28 Ibid., p. 74.
29 Ian Pindar, “Weather Reports,” Guardian, Jan. 20, 2007. <http://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/jan/20/politics1>.
30 Sonnie, Amy and James Tracy, Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2011), p. 3.
31 Ibid., p. 69.
32 Ibid., p. 72.
33 Ibid., p. 4.
34 See Footnote #1.
35 For an overview of these and other labor struggles in the 1970s, see Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. And for one source of poetry’s engagement in Detroit’s revolutionary union movements, see Marvin Surkin and Dan Georgakas’s classic, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying (A Study in Urban Revolution), which includes several workers’ poems.