Letters from California #1 | Sophia Naz

Photo : Divya Adusumilli

I've seen the future, baby: 
it is murder 

Leonard Cohen, Sept 21, 1934 - Nov 7, 2016

In the early hours of November 9, 2016 the unthinkable happened. A man who had built his political career on a racist lie disparaging the first African American President of America was himself elected to the highest office in the land. In his run for the White House Trump broke every rule in the Presidential campaign playbook, he insulted minorities, women,  the Muslim immigrant family of a decorated war hero, a disabled reporter, the list goes on and on. Even the leaked video in which he boasted  about sexually assaulting any woman he chose with impunity did little to dent his momentum. Since the election much ink has been spilled on how this travesty could possibly happen, and yes, a large part was played by Russian hacking of the election , the growth of “alt-right” aka white supremacist media, along with the progressive vote being siphoned off to third party candidates post Bernie Sanders’ unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination but the bald fact remains that Donald Trump won by blaming the economic troubles of blue collar white voters on non-white immigrants successfully stirring up a toxic brew of racism and xenophobia. For me, this outcome was particularly disturbing  because like countless others, when I received political asylum in America it came with the promise of a country that  would not discriminate  on the basis of ethnicity religion or any of the markers that plagued the country of my birth. I come from lands that know all too well the  horrors that are unleashed by demonising an imagined “other”.

In the aftermath of the election, I was reminded of Brecht. In his Svendborg Poems, written in exile in Denmark in the 1930s, Brecht wrote: ‘In the dark times/Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing/About the dark times.’ His life was shaped by these dark times, as ours will no doubt be, in these years to come. It is in times of trauma that poetry becomes indispensable to our lives because nothing else can gauge the barometer of our horror, or distill the stubbornness of our resistance:

Diane Di Prima,  Revolutionary Letter  #7

what will win
is mantras, the sustenance we give each other,
the energy we plug into
(the fact that we touch
share food)
the buddha nature
of everyone, friend and foe, like a million earthworms
tunneling under this structure
till it falls

Here in California, the election  results could not have been more starkly different. Californians not only voted for Clinton by a record margin, but they also approved a raft of progressive measures, that included the legalization of recreational marijuana, easing parole for nonviolent criminals, raising taxes on cigarettes, extending income-tax increases on the wealthiest few, increase in school spending, restoring bilingual education and banning single-use plastic bags. Californians made Kamala Harris the first Indian-American (and second African-American woman) to be elected a United States senator, and reaffirmed overwhelming Democratic majorities in state politics. With Clinton’s popular vote lead surpassing 2 million, there are secessionist  rumblings that could gather steam if Trump’s threats to withdraw federal funds for so-called “sanctuary cities” such as San Francisco and Los Angeles which do not  expel undocumented immigrants. In general the mood here is one of anger and disbelief, summed up perfectly in Michael McClure’s poem from his compilation Huge Dreams, San Francisco and Beat Poems written in 1961 but eerily prophetic in its tone:

The part left smolders.

Indeed  San Francisco and the “Left Coast” is no stranger to poetry that stands against the status quo. In fact one could argue that it is its very crucible, that the Beats came here because there was already a movement, both poetic and political already underway with the help of older poets like Kenneth Rexroth and Jack Spicer.  Spicer was one of the founders of the Six Gallery, site of the 1955 reading with Allen Ginsberg, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen. This was the first important public manifestation of the Beat Generation, as McClure recalls in the documentary, Rebel Roar:

“The East Coast Beats really reached a watershed moment when the Six Gallery reading took place, in particular Kerouac. ( who was in the audience)  It was after the Six Gallery reading that he was able to write Dharma Bums and Big Sur. In all our memories no one had been so outspoken in poetry before. We had gone beyond a point of no return--and we were ready for it, for a point of no return. None of us wanted to go back to the gray, chill, militaristic silence, to the intellectual void--to the land without poetry--to the spiritual drabness. We wanted to make it new and we wanted to invent it and the process of it. We wanted voice and we wanted vision.”

I lift my voice aloud,
    make Mantra of American language now,
            I here declare the end of the War!
                Ancient days’ Illusion!—
        and pronounce words beginning my own millennium.
Let the States tremble,
    let the nation weep,
        let Congress legislate its own delight,
            let the President execute his own desire—
this Act done by my own voice,
                nameless Mystery—
published to my own senses,
        blissfully received by my own form
    approved with pleasure by my sensations
        manifestation of my very thought
        accomplished in my own imagination
            all realms within my consciousness fulfilled

Allen Ginsberg, Wichita Vortex Sutra #3

Post this apocalyptic election the hunger for voice and vision has grown fierce once more. Poetry has taken on an urgency not seen in recent years. Reactions to the election that resists Donald Trump and his ideology dominate Calls For Submissions at journals. The most poignant of these  calls was from DarkHouse Books: “If you are so inclined, maybe send us a Descanso ( roadside memorial marking a fatal accident )for America, and place it, like a pushpin on a calendar, on Election Day 2016”  An array of  poetry protests all across the state are ongoing. Typical  is this notice:  “Open mike at Union Square, San Francisco, Open to all genres, all arts, all people. If not in SF--send work, will read! NOT MY PRESIDENT!”

So, sweet seeker, just what America sought you anyway? Know
that today there are millions of Americans
seeking America. . .

Gregory Corso, Elegiac Feelings American

There is some consolation in the fact that in many ways the counter culture of the Beats has become the culture in California. It now remains to be seen whether the rest of America will catch up or go another way. The fate of our planet may well hang in the balance.

- Sophia Naz
Glen Ellen, California,
November 2016

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