Sunday, August 7, 2011

Poetry and Cannons

Governors Island, NYC
The last time cannons were fired in battle at Governors Island in New York harbor was in 1776. After a long run as an Army and then Coast Guard headquarters, the ancient forts and cannon, 19th century officers quarters and rows of barracks were given over a few years ago to New York to add to its tourist attractions. It’s been a long time since this tranquil setting has been disturbed by the upheavals of war. So it was that a highly emotional raising of voices amid the old battlements on Governors Island recently was from participants at the First Annual New York Poetry Festival.

One of the delights of demilitarization is enjoying the creative reuses of former military installations. An arts center run by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council occupies a former munitions warehouse near the ferry dock. The roadways for munitions trucks and ranks of marching troops are now bicycle paths. Bugle calls have been replaced by music concerts. Cannon mounts are overshadowed by whimsical sculptures.

The tree-lined lawn in front of the Victorian-era houses along Colonels Row made an inviting setting for a poetry festival. The balmy summer day induced poetry lovers to sprawl on the grass, many settled in with food and drinks on picnic blankets. Billed as an eclectic gathering of diverse poetry groups, organized by the Poetry Society of New York, the festival presented three outdoors stages with simultaneous readings by poets with a wide variety of styles and topics, including the Nuyorican Slam All Stars, the Poetry Whores, the Mom Egg, Bowery Poetry Club and Warrior Writers.

Sean Casey, an Army captain who served in Iraq, kicked off the Warrior Writers reading to a relaxed but attentive audience with a poem tracing the swirling emotions of a soldier at the end of a second deployment in a war zone.

Two weeks to go, anticipation
Trained my replacement, he’s taking over, relief
Holding the release paper in hand, freedom
Boarding a plane for the final leg of this journey, warmth
Emerging from the gate, tension
Crowds applauding, embarrassment
Greeted by family, blank
Embraced by a loving girlfriend, empty
Reunited with all that was longed for, NUMB

At a previous reading of this poem at the Bowery Poetry Club, recorded on video by filmmaker Sara Nesson, Casey noted that this experience was set in motion by being called back to active duty after serving in Iraq and ordered to do another combat tour.

Noting how emotionally draining it was to read poetry in public, Eli Wright, a former Army medic in Iraq, presented a poem revealing a kaleidoscope of colors in ominous swirls that tracked his moods as a soldier and war veteran.

In a more chipper mood, Nicole Goodman, who also served in the Army in Iraq, introduced her set by saying, “Poetry is liberating. It’s good for your soul.” But the three poems she read were anything but upbeat. Here’s an example of the dark-night-of-the-soul mood she explored:

I am not a soldier today.
This desert wide and thick
has swallowed all of my courage up.
And so I let the sun bleed into my skin again,
All I sweat is reckless disregard.
I stopped wondering if I am to survive,
For I have died by living each day…

On the upside, Nicole Goodman is studying creative writing at the City University of New York after a rough patch after coming back from the war in which she and her young daughter ended up homeless. A profile of her in the New York Times—conveying her stark outcry that many soldiers don’t find home front support when they leave military service—brought an outpouring of assistance that helped get her back on her feet.

Another reader with the veterans’ poetry group was a woman who was in the Marines, whose name I didn’t get, who participated in a writing workshop at New York University. A fellow veteran from that program showed up, delayed by a long subway ride from the Bronx to the Battery to catch the ferry, just after the Warrior Writers session ended and another group took the stage. Yet he seemed happy just to breath in the atmosphere of a poetry festival on Governors Island.

And so was I. The last time I visited Governors Island, it was a closed Coast Guard base that occasionally hosted an open house for the public to visit. I remember feeling I’d been transported, via a short ferry ride, from frenetic Manhattan streets to a delightfully timeless New England fishing village. It was rejuvenating to return, with the military trappings relegated to history, and read poetry in such a setting.

Art seems like such a fragile reed to lean on. Yet the city of New York is relying on artists to create the beguiling sort of attraction on Governors Island that turned Greenwich Village, the East Village, SoHo and many other once rundown sections of the city into popular places to live as well as travel to, to hang out, spend some memorable recreational time and money.

Art and poetry can help people rebuild their lives, as well. That was why several war veterans were drawn to a poetry festival at a former military base on a sunny Saturday this summer.

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