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Scott T. Starbuck on Activist Poetry

A commercial salmon troller and charter boat captain turned creative writing professor, Scott T. Starbuck is a fierce protector of the environment.

After the Exxon Valdez oil spill coated over a thousand otters in 1989, and 21 years before Deepwater Horizon oil ran for months, Starbuck wrote Memorial Against Offshore Oil Drilling for the City of Depoe Bay to the Oregon Governor's Ocean Resources Management Task Force. He’s published two activists chapbooks, The Warrior Poems, and The Other History or unreported and underreported issues, scenes, and events of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. He’s author of River Walker, a fishing poetry book, and Industrial Oz, a collection of activist poetry, will be published in 2016.

Starbuck was a 2014 Friends of William Stafford Scholar at Speak Truth to Power Fellowship of Reconciliation Seabeck Conference, a 2013 Artsmith Fellow on Orcas Island, and writer-in-residence at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology. He writes about fishing and the environment on his blog.

"The truth is these disasters to Earth’s climate and inhabitants were done in exchange for adding zeros and ones in banking computer databases,” writes Starbuck in Manifesto from Poet on a Dying Planet. “The same type of men who invented clay symbols for record-keeping in ancient Sumer are exactly the ones killing life today by getting the rest of us to place more value on abstractions than on our children, our ecological communities, or each other. Poets know viscerally this has to stop."

Scott T. Starbuck recommends three activist poetry books:

The Moon Reflected Fire
by Doug Anderson

Most poets, before we die, want to write at least one poem that matters, that resonates across place and time, and hopefully more than one.  A way to do this is to go to the most dangerous and most difficult places one has experienced and/or imagined, and not look away from suffering, as fine poet Thich Nhat Hanh and writer Toni Morrison have said. Anderson’s book is essential because it shows many examples of war horror with precise details that are authentically literal and richly symbolic. Given our recent war history after Sept. 11, 2001, it is also timely. This book changed my standards for my poems. I was a different, and better, poet after reading it.

The Light Around the Body
by Robert Bly

I read this book when I was about 25, and loved how Bly attacked institutions and individuals responsible for immense unjust suffering while also making his poems fun to read through historical and place references. I also found in them a home for right-brainers, or people who reject materialism and the official order of things because they hear and perceive the world through inner images that often confuse and frustrate left-brained disciples of commerce, industry, and politics.

I imagine most people are quickly suffocated by activist alarms as if being squashed by a giant stack of king-sized mattresses. This book is different. Bly’s truth-telling and psychological insights devastate the money changers and their political puppets, and truth-seeking readers delight in this devastation. One memorable example is his poem Driving through Minnesota during the Hanoi Bombings: “We were the ones we intended to bomb!” noting a seldom spoken root of violence in self-hatred.

Another is his poem Come With Me, showing how capacity to care equals capacity to hurt, or, put another way, why some of the most dedicated activists are psychologically, emotionally, and/or physically destroyed by systems of control they challenged. Maybe they didn’t have, or refused, support from loved ones, or had no healthy balancing influences such as meditation or time alone in wilderness. The gulag and cubicles of Industrial Oz don’t usually offer those luxuries. It reminds me of a wrestling coach on my charter boat The Starfisher who offered, “A man’s strength is also his weakness” — meaning too much generosity of spirit can lead one to poverty if a person can’t find a healthy way to recharge.

What Happened When He Went to the Store for Bread
by Alden Nowlan

Most poets probably wouldn’t think of this as “activist poetry” in the way Carolyn Forche’s The Country Between Us is with its “human ears on the table” in her poem, The Colonel. I chose Nowlan because of his precise details regarding human decency in an age which, in the words of William Stafford, has “blasted it away.” Nowlan is a wise elder delivering narratives peeled like onions to cores of truth and beauty, especially in unlikely places. I used this book many years in my poetry seminars, and students felt it gave them a meaningful place to enjoy contemporary poetry, as well as a point of departure for their drafts. A 29-minute documentary from National Film Board of Canada, Alden Nowlan: An Introduction, complemented the poems by giving an inside view to his life of poverty and close observation.

Nowlan’s poem There is a Horrible Wing to the Hotel shows how beauty appears even in squalor:

The toilets are plugged.
There is excrement on the floors
and urine in the bathtubs.

In one room I saw a dog
eating a kitten.

[ . . . .]

But one night on the roof we released balloons
in the shape of little animals;
there was a bear, for instance, and a giraffe
which was bright red, and a blue rhinoceros.

They flew very high, those balloons,
and I am afraid of heights, yet I watched them
like everybody else, until they vanished
into that enormous, spinning funnel of blackness.

They flew very high and fast,
and I have never seen anything that looked so free.

In Nowlan’s poem “Rites of Manhood,” a young sailor looking for sex comes to understand being a man is more about accepting responsibility:

and at first it was great fun to play at being

an old salt at liberty in a port full of women with
hinges on their heels, but by now he wants only to

find a solution to the infinitely complex

problem of what to do about her before

he falls into
the hands of the police or the shore patrol

—and what keeps this from being

squalid is

what's happening to him inside:

there were other sailors here

it would be possible for him
to abandon her where she is and joke about it

but he's alone

and the guilt can't be
 divided into small forgettable pieces;
he's finding out

what it means
 to be a man and how different it is
from the way that only hours ago he imagined it.

Robert Bly, discussing Nowlan’s poetry, said, “First of all, he breaks through denial. You know denial is now used as a guide for foreign policy in the United States. . . But especially in poetry there is a lot of denial. . . You can say that you can practice denial by saying that radiation won’t hurt you. That is the NSB (National Science Board) way. . . Then you can say that our bombs resemble high-level surgeons. That’s Bush’s way. Or you can practice denial simply by not mentioning death, cancer, or poverty at all. So we could call Nowlan a teacher of grief. . . This moment of suffering and confusion is the real place where we touch our reason for being born.”

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