Our State of the Union is a Poem

By Arlene Goldbard, USDAC Chief Policy Wonk

It’s been two weeks since the 2016 Poetic Address to the Nation was performed live at the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia, filmed by PhillyCAM, and live-streamed by Free Speech TV. You can see the video here.

If you’ve been following the USDAC,  you know that the Poetic Address is the culminating artistic gesture of an annual civic ritual sponsored by the USDAC, the People’s State of the Union—this year, #PSOTU2016 for short. Groups around the U.S.—schools, community centers, faith communities, humanities councils, arts organizations, and many more—downloaded free Toolkits and hosted their own Story Circles. Individuals anywhere uploaded their own stories to the Story Portal, where you can read them now.

If the PSOTU stopped there, it would make a powerful statement that expressed the USDAC’s foundational principles. It says that democracy is a conversation, not a monologue, that all our voices are needed to assess the state of our union, that the lived experience of people in communities counts as much as—perhaps more than—expert opinion or official statement.

But it doesn’t stop there. The next step is to craft the Poetic Address to the Nation. With the guidance of the USDAC’s Chief Rhapsodist of Wherewithal (and newly appointed Philadelphia Poet Laureate) Yolanda Wisher, an incredible group of poets across the U.S. composed sonnets and another wonderful cohort close to Philly wrote poems inspired by stories uploaded to the Portal. These were arranged in sequence to compose this year’s Poetic Address.

Still, it doesn’t stop there. Stories from #PSOTU2015 formed the body of information we used to devise the generative cultural policy proposals in An Act of Collective Imagination: The USDAC’s First Two Years of Action Research, the publication we issued at the end of September 2016. #PSOTU2016 stories will again tell us what people care about and what they want when we create our first major cultural policy platform, to be released in November.

As Yolanda put it in her introduction to the Poetic Address, #PSOTU2016 “embodied the simple truth that the state of the union is not an annual declaration, but something that we create together everyday. We’ve also embodied the truth that all our lives are the material of art, and all our experience is worthy of being uplifted into poetry. So, what state of union will we choose to create? Democracy for the few or a cultural democracy for everyone?”

Poetic Address to the Nation  cast taking a bow after the performance.

Poetic Address to the Nation cast taking a bow after the performance.

As #PSOTU2016 unfolded, someone put this question: So what? So what if we all tell our stories and they become a poem? Why does that matter?

Everyone who is working in the arena of art and social justice gets similar questions all the time. I often respond with another question: so what does matter more?

There’s a conventional attitude that says art is insignificant: entertainment, a frill, a luxury, that we should save our energy and resources for important things. Depending on who is making this assertion, the meaning of important shifts. Our national policymakers have chosen to spend a huge proportion of our commonwealth on war and punishment: I often cite the statistic that we are spending more than three annual National Endowment for the Arts budgets a day on the military, seven days a week. That’s one way to measure importance.

Others think priority ought to go to direct action to protest those same conditions, that anything else is a diversion or self-indulgence. It’s not that any one form of action is definitively proven to be most effective, even though some people will stake that claim. All that can be known is that when many of us choose to use our own gifts and instruments to raise awareness and inspire action—whatever our gifts may be—the wellspring of change is replenished.

The truth—as Citizen Artists everywhere know—is that to change the world, you have to change the story. To shift culture, which shifts behavior, you have to ask the real questions, the ones that are being glossed or ignored. As the late great James Baldwin put it: “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers. You have to hold up a mirror so people see themselves truly, as resilient and powerful even while the status quo broadcasts the message that power rests with others and it’s best to come along quietly.

Tell me, what could say it more heartfully, hit home more strongly, than these stanzas from “Seek Shelter” by Trapeta Mayson & Monnette Sudler?

Oh give me shelter in this fractured Union
Give me shelter in this fractured Union
Stitch up these worn bones
Open my mouth
Rip this silence from my foreign tongue
Move this wedge of indifference
Show me a sign that I am home
Take away our boxing ring of conflict
where we bloody each other with pride and prejudice
Put out a welcome mat

Oh give me shelter in this fractured Union
For I too am a sister and a prodigal son
I’ve walked the earth and need to settle
Give me space to be
Let me be
let me be in this United Place of America.

Don’t take my word for it. Consider the way that Sarah Chalmers tells it, why she believes that sharing our stories and singing our poems matters greatly. Sarah is a founding member and Director of Civic Engagement for the Civic Ensemble, a “civic-minded theater company” based in Ithaca, New York. This year was Ithaca’s second experience with convening Story Circles for the People’s State of the Union; read Anne Rhodes’ account in the USDAC blog.

I spoke with Sarah after #PSOTU2016 to learn more about how it had unfolded locally. The Civic Ensemble uses Story Circles to devise issue-based plays, so Sarah has a lot of prior experience with them. Like a great many Citizen Artists, Sarah is super-busy. But when she saw that #PSOTU2016 was coming around, she leapt into action to help organize an event. “I think I was the person this year that was like, ‘Hey this is happening again.’ We do this even though we don’t really have time because we’re always looking for ways to get into a bigger conversation, to get our community thinking ‘What’s the big picture here?’

“The fact that our stories are shared with a national audience, that the people at USDAC are reading those and using an artistic approach to expressing what’s a national conversation that’s really coming from the people—that’s the pedagogy that we live by. To be a part of that is something I just wouldn’t want to miss out on.

“We consider ourselves Citizen Artists ultimately. That’s how we identify and how we talk to people when they work with us. It’s not about just making a play. Making a play is our vehicle and it doesn’t mean it’s not a beautiful thing in itself. We appreciate the art of it. But what’s the question? What’s the challenge? And the challenge is the fact that it brings us together to make something different, that we can create our community.

We don’t have to accept what’s being told to us. We need to recognize our own power.  To me, the Story Circle, it’s unassuming, but it has the potential to help us recognize that.”