with critique by Jendi Reiter
Spring-sets punctuated with toxic bliss
urban upheavals echoing
chants of social miscarriages
leaving bitter/sweet rhythms to plume
like afros from swaying heads
of '60's hippies uncharted
oomps uncharacterized in free meters
thunder out poignant lyricism
soaked in copper tunes
of hydraulic blues to pump
bruised hearts of a people
an audience witness to archetypes
of inner rebellions awash
with anger primed fists rise high
in a singular movement to rattle
against worn out songs of Congress
only to stamp out idle anger
with purpose and causation
garbed in canvas cargos
and a nearly wild top
a trombonist blows life
onto the backs of bold
crisp notes freshly baked
from the morning high
in tune with a common voice
drum beats swell
charging the multitude
flooding a mesmerized crowd
bitten by inequity and frustration
for one last time
vocalized in every guitar riff
ripping chords of rising up
speaking as one
on the play-list for today
a tide of change
one voice one struggle
a wall of sound
[Author's Note: "A spring-set is the list of songs a band will perform at a particular event. Play-list is similar, but a bit more strict—the music played in this list will be performed in a planned arrangement and not often deviated from. Yet, there is always tolerance for flexibility in either list."]
Copyright 2009 by Ryan K. Sauers
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, "Roster Forever" by Ryan K. Sauers, employs the freewheeling rhythms of jazz and blues to convey the energy of people seeking social change. These improvisational musical styles befit a moment when values are in flux and established political procedures are overwhelmed by a popular uprising.
The poem's title sounds like a rallying cry, as well as an invitation to imagine an ideal society. "Forever" is such a utopian word. With its suggestion of heaven on earth, it sanctifies a temporal political movement by connecting it to timeless values—justice, of course, as well as the beauty and creativity represented by music. "Forever" also holds out the dangerously simple and seductive promise that the problem of injustice could be permanently solved. If only...
Sauers' vibrant and action-packed imagery honors both the light and dark sides of the revolutionary impulse, the thrilling creative ferment as well as its potential to boil over into chaos. We see this duality from the outset in phrases like "toxic bliss" and "bitter/sweet rhythms". The author's lively verb choices convey a passion that pushes beyond conventional speech, finding release in the musical sounds of "oomp" and "plume" and "rattle", in the way that music has always brought into focus and made bearable the overflowing emotions of oppressed people.
Poetry on political themes must find a way to address specific events without seeming dated or flatly journalistic, a feat that Sauers accomplishes. There are enough details to situate us in the 1960s counterculture, an allusion that enriches our experience of the poem with our own brightly colored memories (or fantasies) of that time. However, Sauers' main subject is not the era's specific controversies but the element that maintains its hold on our imaginations: the genuine and spontaneous hope for a better world, one where art and justice could be intimately connected.
The phrase "worn out songs of Congress" exemplifies one successful strategy for addressing current events in a lyric poem, namely, to include them in a magical-realist rather than a naturalistic storyline. Bureaucracy, the antithesis of song, is "co-opted" (to use a good old counterculture word) into an alternative scheme of meaning. Music is the true language, and political doubletalk is judged and rejected according to its higher standard.
The drug scene makes an appearance too, in language that deftly connects the consciousness-transcending effects of music, drugs, and mass uprising (what could be called, in less flattering terms, the "mob mentality"): "a trombonist blows life/onto the backs of bold/crisp notes freshly baked/from the morning high". The people are "moving/speaking as one/fighting forward/not within". Will they be able to distinguish between unity and unreflective conformity? The poem leaves them on the cusp of change, with a predominant mood of optimism. And yet, the title suggests, it is the "roster" that has lasted "forever"—the change itself, or only the music that carries forward the dream of change? Perhaps that question is the poem's invitation to today's activists to keep the song going.
Where could a poem like "Roster Forever" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Marjorie J. Wilson Award for Excellence in Poetry
Postmark Deadline: April 30
MARGIE, an eclectic annual journal with a social conscience, offers this $1,000 prize for unpublished poems up to 60 lines
Poetry 2009 International Poetry Competition (Atlanta Review)
Postmark Deadline: May 8
Highly competitive award offers $2,009 for unpublished poems, plus publication for up to 20 runners-up
Dancing Poetry Contest
Postmark Deadline: May 15
Unique prize offers awards up to $100 plus opportunity to have your poem presented as an interpretive dance at festival in San Francisco
Wag's Revue Poetry & Prose Contest
Entries must be received by May 31
Prizes of $500 for poetry, fiction and essays, from new online journal whose contributors include Brian Evenson and Dave Eggers
Burning Bush Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: June 1
$200 prize for poems reflecting progressive economic or environmentalist values
This poem and critique appeared in the April 2009 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to email@example.com. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.