Five Upbeat Poems in the Alley
Poems in Balmy Alley poem video are performed among the Balmy Alley murals allowing us to see what treasures the artists have created there. The poems are contemporary with the murals. Each time I see the video I am struck with beauty and vibrancy of the murals and the endurance of my poems. The poems were written within the same artistic and political movement that created those murals over the decades.
My poems are so at home in this setting. With the threat of urban development and gentrification the murals become an “endangered species” and all the more precious. How could we resist videoing in this picturesque alley adorned with the ever changing panorama of murals since the late 1960′s when Latino artists were painting up the barrio while poets incanted words and printed books and broadsides. By the early 1970′s the Mujeres Muralistas (Women Muralists) climbed up scaffold, breaking the art world’s “glass ceiling”, ignoring the jeers and scoffs to make their own unique, bold, visual statements.
The mural movement inspired by the Mexican greats Los Grandes (Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros) was revived in the late nineteen sixties with the blooming of the culture of protest, nonconformity, and expressiveness that characterized the period in San Francisco. At that time, people arrived in the San Francisco scene, expecting to wear flowers in their hair and leaving their hearts. The murals appeared in the alley in the early 1970’s. They reflect many popular themes, including opposition to the Vietnam war, to US support of the military dictatorships in Latin America, and in support of the rights of people of color, women, gays, disabled and immigrants. The murals reflect the search for ancestral spiritual roots as a response to the consumer society and military industrial complex with its corporate take-overs.
Over the decades Balmy Alley has become a tourist attraction for the whole world. Visitors speaking many languages walked by, as we filmed. There were even guided tour groups. Miranda and I found it ironic to witness the international impact of the murals while the artists, the movements and communities that gave rise to these murals are being forced out of the neighborhood by today’s economics. Many of the murals, like Miranda’s, are deteriorating after more than 30 years in the weather. Without any official sponsorship, it falls upon the artists and the individual residents to maintain and restore them.
Artists Song to Funders
We videoed the poem “Artists Song to Funders” (from Heart’s Journey) in front of Miranda Bergman’s and O’Brian Thiele’s mural while Miranda was restoring it, 30 years later. In the poem, the inspiration for the use of the refrain “Good man” comes from Harlem Renaissance Jamaican immigrant poet, Claude McKay. I liked the lilting sardonic quality of the phrase that on the surface is complimentary and flattering but also suggests the hierarchical order of society, a title used perhaps by street vendors or beggars pleading for alms. Miranda spontaneously responded to hearing the poem with the laughter of recognition while she was painting the empty plate of the Salvadoran child. I was delighted and the whole crew laughed. She handed me a brush to help and I added a highlight to the figure.
The poem “Hurrah!” (from Heart Strong) grows out of an enduring internal debate of over fifty years. When I was in my late teens, a person very close to me, said accusingly, “You and your family think that life is about being happy.” Well, there was no denying it. And I couldn’t see what was wrong with it. Over the decades, no matter how I argued with myself there was no way out of it. Happiness is my goal and had been my parents’ goal too. But what was wrong with that? What my critic was saying was that achievement should be the main goal of life. As life is working out, personal achievement has certainly brought me some happiness, though currently, the scramble for achievement seems to be making everyone unhappy, driving the human race crazy and putting the planet in crisis. Along with considering happiness an inferior goal this critic also believed it was bad luck to celebrate things before they were totally completed. I, on the other hand, believed you should celebrate for the slightest reason, just in case you didn’t live to see the end and then you would have missed the chance to celebrate. So after half a century of musings, this poem captures my considered opinion on the matter. It is the celebration of life itself that is main thing. I believe that life’s struggle is about creating a joyful society where all people’s needs are met. As a young woman with two small children, on my first visit to Cuba just months after the triumph of the 1959 revolution, I saw a giant billboard that said, “Children are born to be happy.” I felt so affirmed to find a whole society that agreed with me. Splashing in the warm Caribbean waters I recommitted myself to “Hurrah!” It only took some decades to go by before this tiny poem got written down (and now videoed) because I was so busy living it.
“Neighborhood Shaman” (from Heart Strong) speaks to the search for roots and spirituality, one of the basic elements reflected in the murals that line both sides of the alley on garages, buildings and fences of the short, and now world famous street. My poem responds to this quest. In the 1960’s, small stores opened called “Head shops” that sold paraphernalia for marijuana and hallucinogenic drugs. Other shops called Botanicas also opened featuring artifacts for spiritual rituals and healing. People were searching for earlier cultural models to deal with their physical, mental and emotional challenges, often turning to indigenous older traditions. Some developed special skills and knowledge that I celebrate in my poem. Their diction and vocabulary or mastery of English may not reflect medical or graduate school education but their practices proved over time very popular and effective. Alternative medicine can now be found in the mainstream culture. I am very grateful for it as the poem attests.
I recited “On Factionalism” (from Heart Strong) standing in front of Miranda’s work in progress filled with colors and symbols evoking history. “On Factionalism” felt like a duet of poet and muralist as we each performed our separate crafts. It felt appropriate to video the poem in front of this mural because the Salvadoran left forces during the civil war split by factionalism. It wasn’t until much later that they were able to unify. Today the FMLN has won state power through its elections. This mural and the struggles it shows, along with my poem, may be decades old, but the issue of factionalism is still relevant today.
Rush of Joy
I wrote “Rush of Joy” in Cuba in 1975, during the UN designated “Year of the Woman.” It was on one of those many euphoric days I often experienced there and that inspired many of the poems in Heart Songs, the Collected Poems of Nina Serrano, 1969-1979. “Rush of Joy” was written after my daughter, Valerie Landau, and I marched in the May Day Parade in Havana, celebrating the end of the Vietnam war in 1975. We smiled and smiled under our straw hats almost in tears after 12 years of brutal war. We marched behind a giant banner of sunlit sky blue with flying peace doves, passed thousands of smiling faces feeling the world wide collective joy. Rush of Joy eludes to one of my favorite Emily Dickenson lines, “Hope is a thing with feathers” that gave rise to my line “hope feathers fly high.” In the thirty nine years since I wrote the poem, it continues to describe the wonderfully reoccurring ecstasy, unaccountable happiness, and heightened moments that give my life its emotional rhythm and form.