Poets, Writers & Inspiration

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Quick: name the current Poet Laureate of the United States. Stumped? Read on.

Poets & Writers, one of my all-time favorite magazines, websites, databases and causes, threw a two-day event in San Francisco recently under the theme, Inspiration. It took place on the scenic grounds of historic San Francisco Art Institute. What’s not to love about all of this? I signed up at the first invitation.

(For one thing, if you’re hanging out at the Art Institute you can snatch any spare moment to gaze at the WPA mural The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City by Diego Rivera. So you could think of this as poetry/literature/art immersion.)

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The event featured a list of favorite poets & writers: Jane Hirshfield, Benjamin Percy (way more favorite after hearing his lively, entertaining talk,) Susan Orlean, Ishmael Reed and Jonathan Franzen to name a few. But for sheer inspiration, it would be hard to beat the Poet Laureate of the United States, Juan Felipe Hererra.

Born in California to Mexican migrant farm workers shortly after the end of World War II, Hererra is far more than an award-winning poet and Laureate. He has produced short stories, children’s books, essays, young adult novels – 21 books total in the last decade, according to his Wikipedia page. After growing up in trailers and tents following the harvests, he picked up a BA, MA, MFA and – last June from Oregon State University – an honorary Doctorate. By his own account he also has “a PhD in window-shopping,” from his childhood days of being “always on the outside looking in.”

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Hererra’s poems are not the casual, uplifting sort that poetry lightweights such as yours truly generally favor, but they have a marvelous power. One, for instance In Search of an Umbrella in NYC, starts with the line

You were having a stroke – i

did not grasp what was going on . . .

 

and ends with

 

i was a man
running for cover from the waters
i could not lift your suffering
it was too late the current pulled
i was floating away (i noticed it)
you
were rising

Imagine being able to write things like that.

But it is Hererra the unpretentious man who was worth the price of admission for the entire event. Billed as the keynote speaker, he didn’t as much “keynote speak” as ramble through thoughts and reminiscences. Amidst today’s talk about wall-building, immigrant-excluding and rights-removing, listening to the Poet Laureate was more than refreshing. It was, in a word:

Inspiration.

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Evolution & the Curious Child

 

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It was a simple question about being distant kin to the monkeys. The kind of question, like “Why is the sky blue?” “Where do stars go in the morning?” that any curious third grader might ask. His teacher, however, was irate. “Ridiculous,” she said. “Don’t bother me with impertinent questions.”

This kind of a rebuke did not sit well with the grandson of Peter Klopfer.

Klopfer is a distinguished Duke University biology professor, author of more than 20 books and an expert in animal behavior and evoluntionary biology. His daughter Erika Honore, the questioner’s mother, is a retired veterinary scientist with multiple degrees and the author of A Concise Survey of Animal Behavior. She and her doctor husband know a thing or two about kinship with monkeys, and had – along with his grandfather – passed along enough anthropological truth to the third grader that his teacher’s rebuke had the opposite effect: now he wanted to know the story of evolution.

“Erika and I started looking for an age-appropriate book on evolution,” Klopfer says, “and it was nowhere to be found. That’s not to say that it doesn’t exist, but we couldn’t find a good book for six-to-ten-year-olds anywhere. So we decided to write our own.

Thus evolved Darwin and the First Grandfather, a small, colorfully illustrated (by Gretchen Morrissey) book of how humankind began.darwin-1

Darwin’s narrator, asked the where-did-we-come-from question by her own 8-year-old replies that she’ll tell him two stories. She tells first the biblical creation story – which would presumably please the creators of Texas textbooks (and which many if not most Christians see for what it is: a story.) Then she launches into another story, a tale of a boy names Charles and the discoveries he makes as he follows his own curiosity. It is a delightfully readable account of  creation from one perspective and evolution from the perspective of scientific truth.

Scientific publishers who had brought out Klopfer’s scholarly books were less than enthusiastic about undertaking a children’s book. The firm that had published his earlier children’s book had subsequently gone out of business, and he lacked a good connection to children’s book publishers. One atheist publisher was delighted with the idea, but eventually said he could find no way to market such a thing. “So we just put it aside,” Klopfer says now, “and it sat in a file cabinet for years.”darwin-4

Happily for children everywhere, the father-daughter duo recently dug the manuscript out again and decided to self-publish. Klopfer’s neighbor, a textile design artist, agreed to do the illustrations, and Darwin and the First Grandfather was born.

That third grade questioner? He did learn the scientifically accurate story of evolution, which today’s third graders can learn with the help of his mother’s and grandfather’s book. Currently he is a graduate student in computer science at Yale University.

 

One Bright New Voice for Justice

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My money is on today’s young people.

Faced with problems local, national and global that earlier generations could barely have imagined they remain undaunted. They take on mountainous debt to get good educations despite bleak job prospects, they resist any attempt to be told how to act or think or vote, and they expose themselves to the world on social media to an extent utterly frightening to their grandparents.

As one grandparent, this writer can only applaud.

This is a snapshot of one college student whom I applaud. I have never met emerging artist Brennen French; I was introduced to his art because despite the thousands of miles and several generations that separate us it speaks my language.

French, the son of a college professor and a retirement home administrator, grew up in one of the many American small towns that saw the economy tank and opportunities vanish in the last half of the 20th century, when plants closed and jobs went overseas. Though his own family was comfortably middle class, he learned firsthand about poverty, racism and injustice – and seems determined to confront those issues in the best way he can. As his website explains, he “found his voice for justice in his art.”

Two works illustrate how that goal is playing out, as French pursues an art degree at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. “The Rise of Feminism (Break the Chains, Rise Up, Be Free)” (below) is an homage to women from around the world who have made significant contributions to women’s rights through their accomplishments in a variety of fields. With a powerfully drawn female figure centering the piece (while breaking her chains,) French has created a design with multiple interpretations, using profiles of some of the women he references. He includes initials just in case, but viewers could recognize many of them without clues: Virginia Woolf, Susan B. Anthony, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, nearly two dozen profiles rising from silhouetted crowds of anonymous others.

In “America’s Response to the Syrian Migrant Crisis,” (above) French uses somber tones to portray an endless line of refugees, fronted by a garishly contrasting image of an American TV talking head, a red Starbucks cup on the screen behind her. “I created this in the winter of 2015,” French explains, “to raise awareness of the current migrant crisis. At the time, American news feeds were flooded with the Starbucks Red Cup ‘scandal.’ I was shocked that news organizations felt this story was important enough to dedicate two weeks’ worth of airtime, time that could have been given to discussing the Migrant Crisis.”

Voices for justice may be around for a long time yet.

The Rise of Feminism

 

Arne Duncan on education — and inequity, and injustice

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Arne Duncan

Arne Duncan sounds like a man who is ready to get out of Washington.

At a recent Commonwealth Club of California program moderated by EdSource editor-at-large John Fensterwald, Duncan spoke briefly about educational gains made during his seven year term as U.S. Secretary of Education – but repeatedly and at length about the inequities and injustices that remain across the country. His frustration is palpable.

All those debates about Common Core, testing, over-testing? Sideline arguments. “All we can do at the federal level,” Duncan says, “is fight for equity, excellence and innovation. Take politics out of it. Figure out how to get better faster. The school-to-prison pipeline is real; suspensions and expulsions lead to crime.” And don’t even get Arne Duncan started on gun violence.

“The arc of the moral universe is long,” the Secretary quoted Martin Luther King Jr. as saying, “but it bends toward justice.”

Duncan clearly believes justice is not happening. “It doesn’t bend by itself,” he says, “or fast enough. The fight is not just about education. It’s about increasing social mobility, about keeping good jobs in our economy. From the standpoint of social justice, it’s about economics, and about keeping kids alive.”

Where is the arc not bending? “With early childhood education. The average child living in poverty starts kindergarten one year behind.” With gun violence, which Duncan repeatedly spoke of as closely tied to schools. “There have been more gun deaths since 1970 than in all of our wars combined. And there are too many instances in which the quality of education depends on where you live.”

Listing three top priorities he believes must be addressed, Duncan cites early childhood education as number one. He sees no reason why it can’t be done. “In the Netherlands, every four-year-old is in kindergarten, and they are working toward extending early childhood education to three-year-olds.” Second: “Great teachers matter. In South Korea, teachers are ‘Nation Builders.’ A teacher in North Carolina is giving blood to help pay the bills.” (Speaking of injustice and inequity.) And third: “How do we build demand for great schools, great teachers particularly in poor communities? How do we make it a badge of honor for teachers and principals to go where the need is greatest?”

Duncan cites the fact that in Massachusetts, the nation’s top state for education, 30% of all high school graduates take remedial classes to get into college. The percentage goes far higher in other states. “Do we want to keep doing that or not? And it is unbelievable to me that we don’t take action to end gun violence.”

Asked what he’d like to have as his legacy, Duncan fired back, “It’s not about me. We have a long way to go, and we must accelerate the pace of change.”

With that, Duncan stepped down from the stage. One gets the very strong impression – hearing him also say that being Secretary of Education was never something he aspired to, but he took the job because of his great admiration for Barack Obama – that he is more than happy to have stepped down from the national stage and headed back home to Chicago.

Wit, Wisdom and Joe Biden at USNA

Covers awayHe may not be known for his oratorical/linguistic skills, but as commencement speakers go Joe Biden did himself proud at the U.S. Naval Academy’s recent graduation and commissioning ceremonies: a few pearls of wisdom, a handful of jokes (some better than others), a smattering of policy comments and it was all over in a matter of moments.

For the serious heart of his talk, Vice President Biden spoke of the significance of the planet’s waters, from the Arctic Ocean to the Baltic Sea to – most specifically – the Pacific. He recounted a conversation with Chinese president Xi Jinping during which he was asked why he referred to the U.S. as a Pacific power, and he responded, “Because we are.” Biden added that he told the Chinese leader further, “Mr. President, you owe your stability over the last 30 years to the United States Navy and military.”

Pacific oceanThe midshipmen were congratulated on having “spent summers on real ships instead of internships,” and for having a job immediately upon graduation. “You chose to join the real 1%,” Biden told them, “to protect the rest of us 99%.”

But it was Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert, USN, Chief of Naval Operations, who got in the best words in the briefest amount of time, offering four lines of advice before administering the oath of office to the Navy-bound members of the Class of 2015.

“Guard your integrity,” the Admiral said. “Learn unconditional trust.”

His third piece of advice probably hasn’t been given to graduating seniors over very many years: “Keep your social media private.”

And lastly, “Call your mother once a week.”

If any of those 1,070 men and women commissioned by Adm Greenert (and General Joseph Dunford, USMC, Commandant of the Marine Corps), were listening, someone from the USNA Class of 2015 could certainly wind up Chief of Naval Operations – or Vice President of the US.