Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Song of John T. Williams

Maybe only poets can cut through the surrealistic double-speak and crazy bureaucratic excuses that pass for justice to make sense of recent events following the cold-blooded murder on August 30th.  The victim was shot in the side while innocently crossing the street in broad daylight.  He carried a closed pocket knife and a small plank of wood.  The event was videotaped and witnessed by several bystanders.  The murderer is on a long paid vacation.  The victim's family is nearly destitute, living hand-to-mouth in cheap motels, being harassed by the killer's colleagues, men with guns, at every turn.


Storme Webber's poetic justice doesn't right this wrong. Clearly, the story would be different if we weren't talking about a cop shrouded in impunity and a non-threatening Native American carver, now dead. It's coming on winter, and the combination of the cold wet weather and the cops'  harsh treatment has people spooked and uneasy.  Rick Williams, John's brother, sells his carved totem poles and masks near Pike Market or at the Seattle Center, now he's wary as the police try to intimidate him.  He's asking for support and needs accompaniment.  Maybe something like Peace Brigades is called for, someone to serve as a witness and non-violently defend the human rights of those living on the street.

Poet A K Mimi Allin is embarking on another kind of witness, her own self-imposed residency at Seattle's Tent City 3 beginning in December. From her blog, Song of Tent City: "while living in a tent, she'll work full-time at Seattle's migrating, outdoor, homeless encampment. Like Whitman, she believes in the democracy of poetry. 'This is the meal equally set, this the meat for natural hunger, It is for the wicked just same as the righteous, I make appointments with all, I will not have a single person slighted or left away…' From Song of Myself by Walt Whitman."

final n'est pas un arme

Monday, November 8, 2010

Homage to the ghosts of deportees

A friend, artist Katy Krantz, recently took a studio space in the old INS building in the Sodo neighborhood of Seattle.  In the shadow of the stadiums, this is where immigrants were "processed" from 1930 until 2004, when the building closed.  That could mean detention and deportation, or citizenship swearing-in ceremonies.  The building evokes strong memories and emotions in Seattle immigrants and, presumably, among countless others who were turned away.  The deported left their mark on the building in the form of graffiti they painted with hot roof tar. The words in many languages cover the brick walls surrounding the upper floor courtyards which were used for "recreation" by the detainees.

I admit to feeling ambivalent about Katy's choice of studio space.  How could you "convert" a former prison into artists' studios?  Would the history and the fate of those no longer here be remembered and commemorated?  How would it affect the art created there? Katy struggled with the same questions and her response was an installation which brought her in intimate contact with those detained years or decades before, a visual memorial to the symbols they left on the building. She talks about her piece here on KPLU's Artscape

During the opening, other artists also presented thoughtful responses to the building's past.  The Seattle Butoh dance troupe performed a powerful work, other installations acknowledged the pain and joy contained within the walls, and a group of Seattle immigrants held a storytelling festival featuring immigrants and refugees telling their own histories with the building.

Inscape is the name of the new conversion, but also the name of a concept developed by English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins referring to "the distinctive design that constitutes individual identity, [an] identity is not static but dynamic."  After the successful opening last month, most of building is now rented to artists and creative non-profits. I hope the commemoration of the past and retelling of the stories that the building holds will also be dynamic and not forgotten as the building's new tenants shape its future.