Poetry, Democracy & the Hope of Sounds | Diane Raptosh | TEDxBoise

Translator: Janet Paton
Reviewer: Tanya Cushman Hello everybody,
poetry lovers all of you. I know. It’s so great to be here. So, I’m the granddaughter
of Sicilian peasants. My maternal grandfather,
Giuseppe Cardinale, would read an English dictionary at night, writing down words
he hadn’t seen before in a notebook. My paternal grandmother, Anna Raptosh, came here to the United States,
alone, when she was only 16 from what is now Slovakia. I’m the daughter of a man
who dropped out of high school, ran away from home,
joined the Navy, and later got his GED. I’m the daughter of a first-generation
Sicilian-American mother, and it’s in no small part due to her
that I became a poet. She has been a fantastic source
of swatches of wisdom, and off-beat sayings my whole life. So like my forbearers, I work hard. But as poet Walt Whitman
told us we should do, “I like to lie in a hammock and loaf
and invite my soul.” In my inner worlds, I’m an outlaw, a hobo, a gypsy; an outlier at heart. I’m almost always at odds
with the status quo, with the dominant culture
that I’m also a part of. My brother, my sister,
and I are the first in our family to receive a higher education. And so on that note,
I’m going to read you a poem by the American poet Felix Stefanile. It’s called “The Catch.” So here, you’ll hear the Italian-American
immigrant father talking to his son. I identify very much with the son. “The Catch”: You call it learn you.
Be smart. Talk fancy. They tell you, “You go
with the girls.” Talk fancy. You tell your mother, “Ma, why you got
the bun on your head?” Old fashion! You call it learn you.
Don’t respect your mother. Some college! Now you say this girl, you live together?
Marriage, never mind! Old fashion! Your mother cry, and with the beads, pray, pray, and pray. “What you think?” she asked me. You know what I think, boy? I think if you was a pig
we raised by and by, we sell you for money now. Not your mother cry. (Laughter) Well thanks to my immigrant
grandfather and my mother, I am aware of the magic of language,
at how it can transform our lives. So, when my mother gives advice, I listen. So here’s a gift from my mother to you. Some of her sayings: “Polish your teeth with a dry washcloth.” “Drink only skin-temperature water through a wide-mouth glass with a straw.” “Never put anything
into your mouth that’s white.” (Laughter) Well, I listened to her. I knew she was a store of wisdom
from the old and the new country. And she’s always had
this kind of perfect pitch about the sounds around the words. I just talked to her on the phone
a couple of days ago, and after I’d uttered
about seven syllables, she said, “What’s wrong with you, Diane?” Instantly, she knew
there was something wrong. This is probably like your mom too!
They know immediately. So under her influence,
her amazing ear for tone, I have always had the sense
that words are talismans to be taken seriously. Words really are
supposed to mean something, and poetry is here
to make sure that they do, and that’s why I write it. Poetry retunes language
into angles of truth. So along these lines,
poetry can help us to script in the most genuine and kind terms, what it might mean to be human. What it might mean
to be a member of a family, of a community, of a nation,
and of the world. The late, great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda said that “The poet is at once a force for solitude and solidarity.” This is one of the best job descriptions
I’ve ever heard for the poet. When I was a child,
in a somewhat loud family of five, I loved to be alone. I hung out in my bedroom
and read “The Bobbsey Twins.” I hung out in the sumac tree
and listened to the leaves. In solitude, the poet unveils truth. In solidarity, the poet speaks them. In solidarity with Walt Whitman, I decided some time ago,
that I wanted to be Walt Whitman! (Laughter) The Walt Whitman of the 21st Century! I know it’s kind of ridiculous,
but Whitman, you probably remember, never separated his poetry
from his vision of American democracy. He tells us in “Song of Myself,” that “I am no stander above women and men, or apart from them.” And later in the poem he says,
“I give the sign of democracy.” “Through me, voices of the generations
of prisoners and slaves. Through me, voices of sexes and lusts. Voices veiled, and I remove the veil.” Whitman’s poetry acts
as a necessary part of the world. His poetry removes the veil,
gives voices to thieves, and speaks for those whose voices
are silenced or veiled. These are among poetry’s most important and lesser-known jobs. So how to become the new Walt Whitman? Well, I tried growing a beard.
That didn’t work. But like Whitman, I wanted
to speak for the everyman, so I created an everyman character
in my most recent book, “American Amnesiac.” I named him John Doe,
and I gave him a big handlebar mustache. I decided he’d be my mouthpiece. So here’s a little overview: John Doe, a white man in his 50s, wakes up one day on a bench
in Civic Center Park in Denver, with no memory of who he is or what his own country is about. And he finds on his arm
a wristband with the name John Doe. He kind of likes that name,
chooses it over his old one. And so the book is mostly a chance
for him to meditate on some things. On, for example,
what it means to be human and what a great nation
could really look like. So as he moves deeper
on his journey within, he finds himself feeling
almost painfully alive. And here he is, musing about what it means
just to be someone. The self is a thousand localities
like a small nation – assembly required: borders and roads,
armies, farms, small and large pieces of parchment. I stand by all the territories
I’ve ever been, even as I can’t remember them. I am a locum –
ear to the emperor penguin, a banner ad blinking to the hoi polloi. Since I’ve become John Doe, I swear I can feel most objects
with sixty digits instead of five. A train moans from a far hummock. Which reminds me that everyone
I’ll have to live without, I’ll have to find a way to place within. Which is an act of granite will. A strain. A ditty. An exercise in utmost beautility. A few poems later, John Doe becomes bold enough to take issue with one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s
most famous quotes. “We estimate a man by how much
he remembers,” says Emerson. In place of this, John Doe
dishes out the following: We remember a man by how much he esteems the “we.” In other words, John Doe has
on his mind, “We the People,” just like our Founding Father
Thomas Jefferson did. And like Jefferson, John Doe thinks a lot
about the stuff a nation is made of. One day, John Doe encounters
the following fact: This morning, it was revealed that Jefferson initially referred
to American people as “subjects.” Then, in an 18th century version
of search and replace, he swapped in “citizens.” Wow! What a difference a word makes! Would my grandfather have uprooted
his large family from Sicily and come to the new land if the Declaration had promised
they would be royal subjects here? Words mean things, and this might be too obvious even to say, but we live in an era when false-sounding
terms and too-easy slogans are sometimes used
to disinform, to misinform, or dramatically oversimplify. And is anything more sacrosanct in America
than the word “freedom”? Think of all the ways it gets misused,
battered, and wrenched into its Orwellian opposites. “A poet is somebody free,”
the poet June Jordan said. A poet is by nature a student of freedom. A poet knows that language
can set us free. The sounds of the words can do that, their music, their meaning,
their mouth feel. So it seemed natural to me
to study what makes us unfree. Entirely natural for me to give
poetry workshops in places like prisons. So let me break some silences
for a moment here while I break down some numbers. This is some stuff you won’t hear
in the usual news cycles. Not long ago a Pew Center report came out on what it called
some really startling numbers, reminding us that over 2.3 million people
in the United States, or one in every 99.1, is behind bars. If we were to count
all the people in prisons, in jails, as well as those under the supervision
of probation or parole, we’d find 1 out of 30 Americans in jail, prison,
or on probational parole. Broken down further, 1 out of every 28 children
in the United States has or has had a parent
under penal supervision. Poets love statistics and facts;
it’s a very little known fact. (Laughter) Crime rates peaked in 1992, but incarceration rates
have continued to soar. All right. So the land of the free
is the global leader in the rate at which
it imprisons its citizens. So let’s see what John Doe
has to say about some of this stuff. Cal’s the one I used to call Myself: He was me when I plumped
for Goldman Sachs. I’ve made myself free
of the home in his body. But where might I last? John Doe is a scope, a crypt, a safe with great leg room. America is a major term. It contains acre and cream; acme and ma, crime and me. Each of us helps corrupt our age. There are 200 times more inmates in this acme of acres than all the stars visible
to the naked eye. I underlined this in green
in a library book. I couldn’t make myself stop. Marauding Everyman!
Take back his ink pens! His Brother’s Love mustache wax
may contain flammables. So what kind of a country willfully breeds
a permanent, black undercast? Since when did greed
wax into brass self-rightousness? And before I forget: Will the White House live-in grandma
get a chance to say her peace among the eco roses
and the floribunda? Don’t you love the sounds
of the word “floribunda?” The poem’s over! (Laughter) It rhymes, almost, with America. So I’ve inherited what might be described
as the immigrants’ naive optimism in America’s endless possibilities, in its promise of justice for all. And like my grandfather, I know well the hard beauties
of the English language. As a poet, I see myself
as language’s bodyguard. And in this role, I have to hold the country
to its original written promises. So here’s a line
from that poem “Preamble” that you all will recognize. We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice – I’m leaving some out – … and secure the Blessings of Liberty, do ordain and establish
this Consttution for the United States. Words don’t just say things,
they do things. So let’s listen to John Doe
one last time. And he goes a little bit global. Here is my wedding ring; here is a bouquet of vowels: Anamika, spine of a possible decency
whose sounds yield great notions. The weight of one man’s hand
upon nation-state. A way to sit still. May I come to know
a bit about you for my files? Thank you very much. (Applause)

Maurice Vega

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