February 2, 2003
Writing about the World, One Year Later


Last February, when the world felt newly fragile, City Type made its debut as a column about how Boston's writers and poets see their world. As it marks its first birthday, I went back to some of the people I've talked with to see where the year had taken them and what was on their minds. It is no surprise that they all felt the cloud of war hanging in the air reflected in their work.

Michael Brown is a poet, host of the poetry slam venue at the Cantab in Cambridge, and author of Falling Wallendas and two collections about to be published, Susquehanna and The Man Who Makes Amusement Rides. His poetry has frequently been political, but this year it has grown more so.

"I've always written political poems but I feel like I can't get away from that now," he said recently. "I'm on sabbatical and doing a lot of writing and I'm finding that probably one out of every three poems I write is political. These are just the things I'm thinking about.

"Right now we are, in many ways, the German people we used to rail against. The Germans probably didn't shut their doors against what was going on. They probably just went home and had their dinner and their evening entertainment. They were just living their ordinary lives. That's what we're doing, too.

"If I had other ways of speaking out I would do that. But I am a poet, so this is what I need to do. This is my responsibility as a citizen."

Marcie Hershman, the author of Tales of the Master Race, Safe in America, and Speak to Me, took a polar bear plunge on New Year's Day as her way of immersing herself in a world that feels entirely changed.

"There is a sense of dread. It's hard, especially when we know something is about to happen," she says now. "Immediately after 9/11 I starting writing about it, then I stopped. As an artist, you have to get perspective. It's like the first anniversary of a death. You're past the energy of active grief, and energy of surmounting it. The second anniversary is an emotional letdown. You reach a certain maturity with it--that this can happen to me-- this death, this wound, this grief--and I must go on. But now it feels wider than that: do you trust your companions on this march? Who is it you've had to clasp hands with or clench fists against?"

Norah Dooley's children's books, Everybody Cooks Rice, Everybody Bakes Bread, Everybody Services Soup, and Everybody Brings Noodles are about people sharing a Cambridge neighborhood, recognizing what they have in common. She told me about the Talespinners, an intergenerational storytelling group she started in 1998.

"We did a show of world folk tales this fall and included a tale on the futility of violence. I've always wanted to do that story, but it is not a happy one. This year, somehow, people seemed ready to hear it, and it got the most passionate, excited, and positive response.

"It is a Limba tale from West Africa. In it all the animals have a contest to see who has true strength. All are appreciated for their displays of diverse strength. After elephant is man's turn. The animals do not respect his strength. He gets angry, goes to where he has hidden a gun, and shoots the elephant--blam! Dead. The animals run away and hide and ask themselves, was that strength? They decide it was not: that was death. And that is why to this day, man walks alone in the forest and the animals hide from him. He is the animal who does not know the difference between strength and death."

Adnan Adam Onart is a poet whom I interviewed about what it's like to write in an adopted language. Now, in his adopted country, he is preoccupied with what he calls "the unbearable heaviness of what might be."

"I was born and raised in Istanbul, the edge of the Balkans. I have firsthand experience how complex the web of the past is, and how delicate today's balance. I chose to live in this country because I value a society built on the concept of freedom. I assumed a new responsibility I had not bargained for when I became a naturalized citizen.

"My poetry cannot stay the same. It takes time for words to tell what they mean, for them to become poetry. By that time, what type of world we might be living in, what type of country America might have become? I wish my poetry could be a warning. I don't mean to say this is 1930's of Germany. Still, I wonder could anyone then have anticipated the magnitude of human tragedy that was to come?"

City Type features the city's writers exploring their world. If you have suggestions, contact Ellen Steinbaum at citytype@globe.com.

 
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