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Remembering the 1960s

I have been asked to contribute an introduction to this anthology which, almost four decades after the journal’s demise honors EL CORNO EMPLUMADO / THE PLUMED HORN. Those of us who knew one another back then—in the wild and meaningful 1960s—have begun to reconnect. One of the instigators of this reconnection is the film about EL CORNO which is about to make its appearance. A young woman and a young man—the ages we were when we edited the journal—have been interested in its history. Their interviews, their questions, their concerns helped scratch our memories; and ultimately brought us together.

And so today, as George W. Bush’s doctrine of preemptive aggression threatens to annihilate life as we know it, I have found myself thinking about that time—when we believed, with all the power of our youthful openness, energy and naiveté—that creativity in rebellion against mediocrity and conformity could truly influence society.

When we believed that poetry could change the world.

I no longer believed poetry can change our world, although poems may embody all that we need to know in order to change it. A poem can change a person. And it takes people, nurtured by such as poetry, to change the world. Therein lies the transformative power of art.

A month or so before the United States invaded Iraq, U.S. First Lady Laura Bush invited a group of poets to a White House symposium on Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes. When the administration got wind of the fact that some of the invited poets might read poems against the administration’s impending war, she cancelled the meeting. Although the three this symposium featured were all poets of dissent (also, in all three cases homosexuals), their inheritors were clearly deemed too dangerous, an embarrassment to the powers that be.

Of course, like all repressive acts, the cancellation of this symposium sparked an immediate and vibrant response from poets across the country. Dozens and then thousands sent poems of protest through cyberspace. Web sties display hundreds of these. Readings happened everywhere. Anthologies went into production. During the U.S. war in Vietnam, it took us several years to build “Angry Arts,” the artists’ protest movement of the era. With computers and the internet, a few days is all we now need to share our creative rebellion. If poetry alone cannot change our battered world, it clearly has a role to play.

But I want to go back to that long-ago time, when young poets in Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Caracas, Managua, Havana, Santiago de Chile, Kyoto, Helsinki, New Delhi, New York, Paris and so many other cultural centers believed our words and community might turn what we perceived as stagnant values and conformist attitudes into the life we so desperately needed. Revisiting that time, my memory is precise about much of what we dreamed and did, vague about some of the details. But I vividly remember our excitement and sense of possibility; they embrace me now as they did then.

Those of us from the United States had been shaped by the McCarthyite repression of the 1950s. It had cast a chill on creative people, especially. The writers and artists who were gaining the recognition, winning the prizes and settling into the security of academic jobs, were those whose work avoided political “messiness,” were clean and spiritless and safe. Our Latin American sisters and brothers were more in touch with the political and social issues affecting their lives; their poems were testaments to that awareness and involvement. All over the world creative people seemed to be struggling against a sort of crippling suffocation. The idea that a political poem was, by definition, a bad poem, was an utterly false premise. Independence from the authority of the respectable “schools” was a prerequisite to our freedom.

We created our own movements—with passion. La nueva solidaridad, launched by Miguel Grinberg, was one of these. Sergio Mondragón and I, founders and co-editors of the Mexican bilingual quarterly EL CORNO EMPLUMADO / THE PLUMED HORN, were at the center of this dream. As was Grinberg and his ECO CONTEMPORANEO, Thelma Nava and her PAJARO CASCABEL, the TECHO DE LA BALLENA group in Caracas, the Nadaistas in Colombia, Ulises Estrella and the TZANTZICOS in Ecuador, Cuban poets and artists living the first glorious years of their brand new revolution, and so many others. Independent journals, theater groups, publishing ventures and galleries provided forums for our efforts. A laborious network of snail-mail communication and visits achieved via “travel now, pay later” plans helped us build a far-reaching community.

When I conjure that splendid sense of community, the images that come most powerfully to mind are those from the Primer Encuentro de Poetas that we launched in Mexico City in February of 1962. We announced our gathering, and the arrival of dozens of poets upstaged meetings of psychiatrists and oncologists taking place there at the same time. Local poets hosted the visitors—on couches and floors. Group readings in Chapultepec Park and at the National Press Club lasted hours, even days. This was where many of us met personally for the first time. We needed one another.

What did we want? Freedom, for one thing. Freedom from the strictures of official control and restraints. Some of us called this freedom national liberation or socialism. Others gravitated to more personal spiritualities. Those of us who identified with la nueva solidaridad supported a plurality of creative ideas; we resonated with Allen Ginsberg’s explosive pain, Ernesto Cardenal’s monastic sensibility, Raquel Jodorowsky’s evocative surrealism , Roque Dalton’s revolutionary humor, the “concrete” picture poems of our Brazilian brothers, and the social yearnings of our Cuban brothers and sisters.

We cried out against hypocrisy. Officialdom’s double standards and opportunism seemed evident to us. What wasn’t yet so evident—we’re talking the 1960s, after all—was the racism many of us carried within us from birth, the misogyny and homophobia so inherent to all our social structures, or our disregard for the earth and its environment. Poems by women were in a distinct minority in the pages of our publications; a feminist consciousness didn’t yet exist. Brown or black poets, when we published them, were still anomalies. There was the occasional poem from the U.S. Civil Rights Movement or a few translations from one of the continent’s numerous indigenous groups. Almost no one yet identified as openly gay.

Yet la nueva solidaridad was surely a necessary antecedent to our later ability to identify as proudly Black or Indian, consciously feminist, defiantly lesbian or gay, ecologically aware. As poets living at the midpoint of the twentieth century, we led the way in our exploration of the Other, and in our willingness to explore the Other in ourselves.

La nueva solidaridad also sought bridges—between peoples and cultures. In the mix of North American poets who’d come south, Latin American poets who went north, and European, African, Asian and Australian poets who read our work and shared their own, we all learned more about each other and ourselves. We thought of ourselves as bridges, creatively functioned as such, and—with pitifully limited financial and institutional support—assumed the role with great success. Some of the translations to emerge from those years have yet to be equaled. And, beyond the work itself, what many of us would do with our lives, the journeys upon which we would embark, trace their roots to that energized and magical time.

Our experiments during those years were courageous and profound. We used hallucinogenic and other drugs; some of us lost our minds to them. We explored a variety of human relationships, some of which we rejected as unworkable while others became models for future human interaction. We were fearless as we entered unknown terrain. We learned that our stories were indispensable to our sense of Self, and honored the languages in which we told those stories. Mostly, we experimented with honesty: making our stated values integral to the way we lived.

Years have passed, as they always do. We couldn’t have predicted it back then, but the world is an infinitely less healthy and more dangerous place than it was when we were so confident we could fix, or at least improve, it. To a terrifying degree, at least here in the U.S., the forces of terror and greed have won over human consciousness. Peace is imperiled as never before. Power is in the hands of a small group of (mostly white) men, who engineered a judicial coup in a country with almost unchallenged preeminence. Fear drives a society whose primary weapon is violence, a society that wields its enormous power to cast other nations in its image, and twists language itself in the service of that greed.

This twisting of language is of particular concern to poets. Democracy no longer describes a system of checks and balances, where opposing views are valued and government represents its citizens. Today, democracy means a system amenable to U.S. demands. Weapons of mass destruction don’t refer to the tens of thousands stockpiled by the U.S. but to those our pseudo president declares—against all evidence to the contrary—to be held by states he labels as “rogue” or belonging to an “axis of evil.” Human beings become “collateral damage.” “Consumer confidence” is the new term for spending money one doesn’t have. The term “liberal,” once used to define someone less than solid in his or her progressive politics, has become a dirty word in 21 st century America. Politicians only slightly left of center are accused of being liberal. U.S. Justice Secretary John Ashcroft recently stated that the U. S. Bill of Rights doesn’t really refer to rights, but to privileges. I could go on and on.

But the poets continue to speak. We continue to live a solidarity which, if no longer so new, remains inclusive, concerned, and burning with the human spirit. I do not believe it is a coincidence that over the past year or two some of us from those years have found one another again. The young Danish/Mexican couple working on the film about EL CORNO EMPLUMADO has brought some of us back together. Sergio Mondragón, Thelma Nava, Leandro Katz, Miguel Grinberg, Ulises Estrella and Regina Katz are among those sister and brother poets with whom I am thrilled to be back in touch.

I pay tribute to the young women and men we were in the 1960s, and with the retrospective wisdom we now possess to those who carry the torch forward: a new generation of young people who are inventing new ways of looking at the challenges we face, who are evolving new methods of struggle. The peace and justice we so desperately needed at the midpoint of the past century we need still—and even more desperately. Cupolas of power and greed are even more entrenched today. And the risk inherent in not finding viable solutions is certainly more terrifying.

In the 1960s we faced problems of racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, cultural erasure, war, injustice and censorship. In 2004 we face ecological disaster and the death of life as we know it as well as the previously noted ills. For the sake of all our children and grandchildren I fervently hope that the visionaries of today will be more successful than the visionaries of my generation in pointing the way out.