I live just outside Northampton, Massachusetts. About ten years ago, Northampton established the position of City Poet Laureate, with a two-year term. Until two years ago, the post was mostly ceremonial. The official poet would occasionally show up and read a poem to mark some event or other, but kept a low profile.
Then Lesléa Newman was chosen for the post. She used her entire two years to work as a catalyst to bring poetry to the people–and the people to poetry. She organized event after event, and brought formidable community organizing skills into the task of making poetry relevant to every generation.
Among her accomplishments:
<li>Filling an 800-seat theater with a poetry reading involving readers from the community as well as cities within a few hours drive (none of them superstars)
</li><li>Getting poets to agree to write a poem a day for a month and get sponsors to pledge contributions, raing over $11,000 to benefit a literacy program that helps new immigrants
</li><li>Putting together an anthology of local poets
</li><li>Taking poetry programs into the schools
</li><li>Providing exposure to local poets in a newspaper column
The list could go on and on. Newman has been a dynamo and an inspiration. Perhaps this is not surprising from a woman whose 57 published books (!) have included such groundbreaking material as <em>Heather Has Two Mommies</em> (possibly the first lesbian-friendly children’s book to get wide circulation, <em>Letter to Harvey Milk</em>, and one of the first novels about bulemia.
In the United State, we tend to be uncomfortable with intellectuals. People who pride themselves on their lack of knowledge of the world around them actually do grow up to be President (GW Bush) and run for Vice President (Palin). When we do elect a leader who’s an intellectual, like Barack Obama or Bill Clinton, it’s because they disguise it well, and we see pictures of them doing “man of the people” activities like chowing down burgers at McDonald’s (Clinton) or taking his kids to the bumper cars at a fair (Obama). I think the last prominent US leader who was not afraid to show himself as an intellectual may have been Franklin Roosevelt.
Other countries treasure their artists, and especially their dissident artists. The first president of free Senegal was the poet Leopold Senghor; in the Czech Republic, it was the playwright Václav Havel. In the United States, yes, we’ve had a number of Presidents who’d written books before taking the office, including both JFK and Nixon as well as Obama (and his former opponent Hillary Clinton)–but these people were already in public life when they wrote their books. Outside of the movies, which gave us Reagan, Schwarzenegger, and even former Carmel, California mayor Clint Eastwood, it’s hard to think of major US policy makers who really came up out of the arts.
We’ve had plenty of dissident artists, some of them even pretty famous (Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Ani DiFranco). But while art can shape people’s movements, as protest folk and protest rock helped to solidify protests against segregation, the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons, it doesn’t seem to shape policy. And in many cases, we find that the dissidents who achieve fame are quieter about their dissent, at least until they’ve already achieved fame (classic example: John Lennon, who did become quite visible in the peace movement after moving to New York). Not too many people stop to analyze the working-class-hero lyrics of Bruce Springsteen and find the progressive values underneath, because it’s cloaked in something that looks superficially like a right-wing version of patriotism. But get down-and-dirty with <a href=”http://www.lyrics.com/born-in-the-usa-lyrics-bruce-springsteen.html”>the lyrics of “Born in the USA”</a>, and you’ll see it’s about a Vietnam vet who went into the army because he grew up in a depressed town, couldn’t find work, and got into trouble–and then after his hitch still can’t find a job.
Hey, Bruce, ever thought about running for office?