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Celebrating Intersections Between the Humanities & Poetry: A Look at Recent Grantee Projects

National Poetry Month, launched by the Academy of American Poets in April 1996, reminds the public that poets have an integral role in our culture and that poetry matters. This April, we highlight work by recent California Humanities grantees that utilizes poetry as a meaningful method to connect with the humanities.

California Humanities has supported several documentary films about poets and poetry through the California Documentary Project (CDP) grant program. The CDP program supports the research and development and production stages of film, audio, and digital media projects that seek to document California in all its complexity.

TURN LEFT: The story of City Lights Booksellers and Publishers

The front of the City Lights Booksellers and Publishers store showing tons of books inside the windows and blue banners with drawings of people.With the recent passing of poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti at age 101, San Francisco lost one of its most revered cultural icons. TURN LEFT: the STORY of CITY LIGHTS BOOKSELLERS and PUBLISHERS is an upcoming documentary that traces the history and the legacy of the bookstore he co-founded. A mainstay of San Francisco’s bohemian North Beach neighborhood since 1953, it is among the nation’s oldest independent bookstores. It holds a special place in American literature as the rebellious publisher of unique voices, from the Beat poets of the 1950s to U.S. Poet Laureates and a new generation of artists, poets, and activists keeping the City Lights spirit alive today.

The documentary is about the values, people, and the atmosphere that have animated City Lights over seven decades and asks how does a place born of the ideals of Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac survive in a literary world overtaken by Amazon, Kindle, and Google? To learn more about TURN LEFT: the STORY of CITY LIGHTS BOOKSELLERS and PUBLISHERS and watch the trailer, visit, https://www.citylightsdocumentary.org/.

KEEPER OF THE FIRE

A group of persons walk and carry signs in favor of Nicaragua liberation.
Photo by Alejandro Stuart

KEEPER OF THE FIRE is an upcoming documentary exploring the life and work of poet and activist Alejandro Murguia, San Francisco’s first Latino Poet Laureate and winner of two American Book Awards. Murguia’s talents flowered in the City’s Mission District, a seedbed of Latino culture. His contributions include co-founding the Mission Cultural Center; founding Tin Tan Magazine, the international periodical that he edited and published; and rallying his community to fight for affordable housing and cultural survival in the face of rampant evictions and gentrification. Watch a trailer for KEEPER OF THE FIRE here: https://wordsonfire.info/.

ROMEO IS BLEEDING

Donte Clark stands outside on the street with their hand covering their chest. A longtime favorite here at California Humanities, ROMEO IS BLEEDING by filmmaker Jason Zeldes illustrates the power of poetry in young people’s lives when facing a community history of gun violence and trauma. The documentary film follows Donté Clark, a young poet in Richmond, CA, as he transcends the violence in his hometown by writing about his experiences. Growing up in a city haunted by a fatal turf war, Donté and like-minded youth mount an urban adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, hoping to start a dialogue about violence in the city. To learn more about ROMEO IS BLEEDING, visit http://www.romeoisbleedingfilm.com/.

BIG JOY: The Adventures of James Broughton

A photo of James Broughton with the title BIG JOY.Finally, BIG JOY: The Adventures of James Broughton profiles the poet and filmmaker who encouraged us all to “Follow Your Own Weird.” Broughton, a pre-Beat-era poet, underground filmmaker, gay man, and artist who dared to live boldly and experiment wildly, fought against the grain of dominant culture to live an authentic life. BIG JOY explores Broughton’s life, art, and love where he weaves the quirky, bizarre, sexual, and charming – all with a sprinkle of spirituality. Whether as an out poet during the oppressive and anti-gay McCarthy era or as the bard of the modern gay rights movement, James’ expansive life inspired thousands toward their own “Big Joy.” To learn more about BIG JOY, visit http://bigjoy.org/.

Humanities for All is a grant program that supports locally initiated public humanities projects. This program responds to Californians’ needs and interests and encourages greater public participation in humanities programming, particularly by new and/or underserved audiences. It aims to promote understanding and empathy among all our state’s peoples in order to cultivate a thriving democracy.

“One Leg At a Time” by Heidi Duckler Dance Theater

Three shoes are on top of a white canvas. In black text there is a poem written by a residency participant.
Photo by Sean Deckert

Heidi Duckler Dance Theater creates place-based performances that transform non-traditional spaces, provide learning opportunities, and engage diverse communities in the belief that the arts can change our vision of the world and ourselves. In “One Leg At a Time,” a project supported with a Humanities for All Project Grant in 2018, the company partnered with Just Detention International to develop a site-specific dance residency and humanities learning program connecting two distinct audiences: the inmates and staff at the California Institution for Women in Chino, CA, and the general public. A series of workshops led by teaching artists and humanities advisors enabled a group of incarcerated women to reflect on and share their experiences concerning the theme of “control and manipulation” through words and movement, leading to a performance and presentation for inmates and staff summer of 2019.

The project’s culminating public program in downtown Los Angeles in February 2020 included an exhibit of poems and visual art pieces created by the participants, an abbreviated performance by the teaching artists/workshop leaders who had worked with the women, and a panel discussion. The panel included activists, former inmates, social workers, artists, and experts – including the project’s humanities advisor. These activities provided an immersive and powerful learning experience about the history of incarceration, concepts of freedom and self-determination, and California’s criminal justice system’s current realities. A copy of the recording of the panel discussion and images from the project can be found here.

Voices of the Nation: Celebrating the Works of Three U.S. Poet Laureates, California Lutheran University, Thousand Oaks

California Lutheran University is currently presenting Voices of the Nation: Celebrating the Works of Three U.S. Poet Laureates, a three-part virtual series bringing together community members to explore the works of poets Joy Harjo, Tracy K. Smith, and Juan Felipe Herrera. This series focuses on the ways poets and works of poetry examine America both past and present, illuminating beauty, variety, power, and prejudice. At each event, a panel of faculty poets and scholars will provide cultural context on topics such as social justice, immigration, and indigenous land struggles. Students currently enrolled in the Cal Lutheran Honors English class, Poetry and the National Consciousness will present selected poems by the laureates. The next reading in this is scheduled for April 14, exploring the works of Joy Harjo. The project is supported by a Humanities for All Quick Grant.

Accoutrements: A Public Literary Series, presented at Avenue 50 Studio Inc., Highland Park

Accoutrements: A Public Literary Series presented at Avenue 50 Studio in Los Angeles consisted of a series of readings and publications curated to accompany visual art exhibits and interdisciplinary events. The readings organized as part of the Accoutrements series were made possible through a collaboration with the La Palabra readings series, one of the oldest public open mic poetry readings series in Los Angeles, amplifying the works of Latinx writers and writers of color. The poems compiled in the Accoutrements readings and chapbooks focused on a range of issues impacting the lives of the community from the environment, mental health, community displacement, technology, food justice, language justice, and health, voiced by poets from across Los Angeles. This project fostered community poets’ work through the support of a network of community organizations that included Avenue 50 Studio and Alternative Field, and this project used the literary arts to strengthen the voice of writers and the community in North-East Los Angeles. Accoutrements was supported by a Humanities for All Quick Grant.

Veterans Write Their Poetic Myth, organized by Returning Soldiers Speak, Los Angeles

Veterans Write Their Poetic Myth included a series of poetry writing workshops for Los Angeles-area veterans. Based on their military experiences and return to civilian life, the participants explored, discovered, and wrote their personal myths in eight weekly workshops. Supported by a Humanities for All Quick Grant, the veteran poets who took part in this workshop explored the questions: How does my poetic myth shape my relationship to myself and others? What does “come home” mean for the individual, the family, and society? Project director, Leilani Squire, explains how this project fostered listening and sharing, “When members of the community listen to veterans tell their stories, a dialogue begins, and a bridge of understanding and compassion between the two groups can then be built.”

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