Artists have a stage and they sure should use it. They could sense dangerous shifts in the body politic before non-artistic citizens do, and they should act on on these instincts. And poets are always in the midst of difficult times — it comes with the profession — so they could guide others when the difficulties spread.
Those were some of the ideas and insights that emerged from a quietly impassioned panel discussion on “The Role of the Poet in Difficult Times.”
It was convened by the Poetry Institute of New Haven at the Institute Library Thursday night, where a dozen people gathered to hear poet and physician Laura Manuelidis and visual artist and teacher Corina Alvarezdelugo talk about what artists should do when faced with the challenges to basic human rights and freedoms and the health of the planet.
Alas, everybody agreed the topic is timely.
Alvarezdelugo spoke from deeply personal and recent experience. A native of Valencia, Venezuela, she fled in 2000 after she had become politically active against what she sensed were going to be the excesses of Hugo Chavez, who became president in 1999.
“I saw things happening in my country before [other] people. I worked to unite against giving him power. People didn’t understand me when I left [the country] in 2000,” she said.
The precipitating reason for her departure was that she began to receive anonymous and threatening phone calls at home. “My kids were targeted,” she said. “I was never a politician,” just an active citizen, she said, and yet the Chavez government made clear to her they knew where her kids went to school. It was clear she had to leave.
“People didn’t understand when I had to leave. Now they do,” she said.
Alvarezdelugo went on to get get a fine arts degree from Albertus Magnus, to show her work widely, and to teach mixed media painting at Creative Arts Workshop and other venues.
Thursday night she showed her mixed media and works in the ancient technique of encaustic, which she also publishes in books. Alvarezdelugo reminded her audience that students, protesting in the streets of Caracas and other Venezuelan cities, continue to be killed, this time by the repressive government of Nicholas Maduro, who succeeded Chavez in 2013.
To help tell the current story Alvarezdelugo created her “Peace Interrupted,” which features large three-by-three-foot panels of wall surmounted by barbed wire. After exhibiting them, they have become part of Remendando Mi Patria, or Mending My Country, her self-published photos of the exhibition.
To Alvarezdelugo, the wall — beneath the black veneer you can make out the colors she has put there evoking the Venezuelan flag — represents the government that is at fault for denying people their rights of expression and today driving them to starvation, she said.
Manuelidis, who studied poetry at Sarah Lawrence College before choosing medicine, appeared to be a little less optimistic about the power and the role of the poet, at least these days.
“Poetry has always been political . . . until recently,” she said.
After a quick survey of snippets of her favorite poets covering political themes over the centuries, ranging from the Englishman William Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” and “mind-forged manacles” to Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes bemoaning, “I tire so of people who say things take their course,” Manuelidis read her own moving “Trades” from her book Out of Order.
That work, written on Yale’s campus, immediately after the poet heard the news of the World Trade Center attacks, has as its final stanza:
The smoke can’t really reach New Haven,
And not until tomorrow we are told
Will bombs fly their fury’s cargo
To hit some faces just like yours
In a field, in a house, in a village
That would have done just fine
Manuelidis expressed regret that many poets in the academy, as well as the handful who have a popular following, in her view often do not tackle political themes.
This reporter remembers that in the immediate days after the September 11 attacks, the overwhelming emotions of national grief and fear, and the need for a kind of national consolation, did suddenly make poetry not only somehow relevant, but almost necessary.
Like Manuelids, many leading writers wrote public poems on that grievous occasion, and gave readings where they also resurrected poems from the past that had special resonance. W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” which he wrote as the German blitzkrieg rolled into Poland triggering World War II, was one of the most invoked, and collections of published poetic responses followed.
The gathering at the Institute Library ended with a discussion of freedom and what it means to the writer and to everyone. Manuelidis said that for her, sensing a current threat to freedom is “a big issue.”
Alvarezdelugo insisted that while she is not a political artist, when rights are infringed on, when there are creeping abuses to freedom, everyone has to respond, including artists.
The Poetry Institute, which convened this event, brings together practitioners every third Thursday of the month at the Institute Library.