By Vincent Ball and Chereese Cross
Before performing his poetry at the dimly lit theater, Max Blagg warned the audience: “I wanted to avoid a rant, but I can’t.”
Tasked with capturing the essence of stories they heard from members of the community at a roundtable in January, Blagg was one of ten Long Island poets to gather at the Parrish Art Museum on Friday night. Known as The People’s State of the Union, the roundtable discussions were a concept created by the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture. The conversations focused on the uncertainty had by locals following the election.
“They [USDAC] were asking community centers and cultural centers around the nation to hold story circles,” Corinne Erni, the museum’s curator of special projects, said. “We did one here and we had about 50 participants and facilitators and moderators who helped navigate these circles. The stories were absolutely mind blowing.”
Through the initiative, the Parrish Art Museum invited and encouraged individuals to address the social issues that concerned them.
“It’s a little political and that’s what brought us together,” Star Black, one of the poets, said. “It’s ordinary people talking about what they thought, which is nice because it’s not filtered through newspapers. It’s face to face in a circle talking about what you think is going on in the country and it’s relieving of privacy and private anxieties.”
Those anxieties were fresh in January, as Southern Poverty Law Center reports that in the 34 days following President Trump’s election, there were over 1,000 hate crimes and 37 percent of them were a reference to Trump.
Whether it was hearing about dealings with cultural assimilation or racial profiling, by basing their works off of the experiences of others, the poets found themselves in an unusual place, doubling as both writers and town criers.
“I see my role in this not as a poet, but more as a conduit,” Tyler Penny, another poet, said. “They gave me their words, their experiences and their stories for me to essentially be a megaphone so I could put it out there [so] I could turn it into something not just as beautiful as it already was, but something that could move people even more so to action, to do something, to be apart of a community.”
With emotions ranging from somber to anguish, each poet had a unique way of conceptualizing their stories despite having attended the same roundtable.
“I had my own rage about what’s going on, and I don’t normally write political poetry, but that’s what evolved from the material I had to work with,” Blagg said.
The roundtable discussions didn’t only provide the poets with a unique experience, but the facilitators and moderators as well.
“It was really an honor to be part of drawing people into these circles, and understanding how they feel about the state of the union during these times,” Sara Gordon, one of the facilitators, said. “It was very moving.”
This was the Parrish Art Museum’s first night hosting a poetry event, but Erni hopes to host similar events in the future.