By Danielle Champiet-Coronado
As thqe sun concluded its brilliant light show and bid good-night with a dazzling array of stars, literature lovers amassed to the Barnes & Noble in Vancouver for the open mic Poetry Group. The reading was of two of the most poignant books in the gender equality movement; Veils, Halos and Shackles and Raising Lilly Ledbetter. One of stories of social struggle and empowerment of women around the world and the other depicts the struggle for equality in the workplace. No better way to close out the readings for 2017 than with two of the heaviest topics that lay on our hearts and minds this year. On the surface, the two books appear to tackle two separate topics; workplace and life. Dive in and explore the waters below and their commonality becomes glowingly apparent; the universal mistreatment of women around the world.
In current events, we have politicians, entertainers and others toppled from their turrets by massive allegations and charges of sexual harassment and assault. Movements like activist Tarana Burke’s #MeToo, with the help of other activists like Alyssa Milano and Mira Sorvino, has blown up social media with those accountings, illuminating the pandemic crisis that crosses not just social, economic, race and gender lines. I say pandemic crisis because it is just that; it is a human-made disease of our global society. No country is exempt from mistreatment of women and children, though some may be less than others. This disease does have a cure; love and respect. Love and respect for ourselves and for those with whom we share this planet. Veils, Halos and Shackles is the literary equivalent of #MeToo, it too was born of an outcry over a sexual assault and a desire to change what is so hideously wrong, to give strength to those who have been weakened by such brutalities and give a voice to those shamed into silence.
Over 180 artists from around the world, including the book’s editors, Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay, contributing their poetic accountings of those global atrocities. Not all of the poems are about assault and oppression from another, some are of such things as being oppressed and shackled by a debilitating illness. Veils, Halos and Shackles also contain stories of female empowerment; women empowering themselves, women empowering other women and men empowering women. As Ms. Sahay says in Veils, “I want us to stand back and take a look at these stories and the many ways our civilization cages a woman and strips her of her basic rights.” A desire echoed by Mr. Fishman at the end of his Veils entry, “human beings crave dignity and freedom and, insofar as they are able to, resist efforts to chain them or beat them down.”
I was thrilled that we were featuring Veils, Halos and Shackles and Raising Lilly Ledbetter, but their readings come at a price. While I lived in Illinois, I had spent some time as an advocate for sexual assault victims/survivors. Getting those middle-of-the-night calls to go to the hospital and hold the hand of someone who had just been assaulted as she went through the exam, to look into her eyes and she recounts the brutality she’d just endured, to feel her pain and her bravery because she survived and to know what lies ahead for her because #MeToo. I will never understand how anyone could take an act that is meant to be extraordinarily bonding and connecting between consenting adults and use it so destructively. When will this legacy of violence and degradation be ended?
Our first featured poet, Judith H. Montgomery, addressed that same topic in her Veils’ poem selections; On Violence Against Women by Linda Pastan, The Barrier by Laura Madeline Wiseman and Blue Sky by Lana Hechtman Ayers. Not all violence and oppression of women is from men and the lesser talked about, but just as destructive is that of women by women. Judith’s choice of Moonlight Imperatives by William Heyen accurately captures the abuse of women by women in his poem about Araminta Ross whom we know as Harriet Tubman. Her own contributions to Veils, Against Knowing and Her Silence Is, explore a novel concept; the silencing of women through their clothing. If one was thinking of a particular fashion style, one would be very incorrect. Though using different mediums, both poems speak to the same problems; the why and how women have been oppressed in what may seem to be innocuous ways. Little by little we justify and rationalize away things we should not because they don’t seem harmful until we recognize them for what they truly are; shackles. Judith concluded her reading with For A Friend Who Thinks About Going Back To Her Abusive Husband When The Nights Are Long & Cold by Barbara Crooker, a poem of empowerment with the best message; stay free.
Judith’s amazing career in poetry has garnered her awards such as The Oregon Book award in 2000 for her chapbook, Passion. In 2007, she was a finalist in the Finishing Line Press Chapbook Competition for her collection, Pulse & Constellation, and her current project has been awarded two arts fellowships!
Wayne Lee returned as one of our guest poets for this event and shared his Veils contribution, ‘Campfire,’ a poem about his mother’s rape at the age of 12, and Home By Dark, from Wayne’s The Underside Of Light collection captures a more subvert form of abuse. Girl On The Bridge, which is also from The Underside Of Light, depicts the quiet empowerment of a young girl being as free as the nature that surrounds her to be herself. He also read Veils’ contributions from other poets; The Missing Wife by Diane Lockward, a bittersweet tale of freedom. The Left Of The Horizon by Pervin Saket which is a brilliant piece that is two poems in one, showing the power of a change in perspective and wrapping up with a poem of hope and healing, Petals by Nola Passmore.
Wayne was a featured poet at the first reading of Veils, Halos and Shackles this past June. Well-known for his irreverence and showing that poetry has teeth, he is equally accomplished and known for his profound and moving pieces. His award-winning poetry has appeared in numerous publications and Wayne was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, which is poetry’s version of an Oscar! He is also an elder in The ManKind Project, a non-profit, all-inclusive organization that focuses on integrity, authenticity, love and growing consciousness to help men break confining cycles and develop a mature and healthy masculinity. I found the website to be inspiring and would love to see them expand to a program for women. It’s too easy to become accustomed to the shackles that continually surround us that without realizing it, we begin to chain ourselves, and the fight to be free becomes like quicksand and we cease to resist. Unhealthy cycles must be broken at all of their sources for positive change to gain momentum.
The second anthology of the evening, Raising Lilly Ledbetter, further explores the struggles of women, concentrating on the workplace. Inspired by the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay law passed by President Obama in 2009, three very talented and accomplished poets, Carolyne Wright, Eugenia Toledo and M.L. Lyons, created this collection, giving a stronger voice to women in all walks of life. From traditional occupations to those who have broken the short-skirt ceiling, from laborer to executive, stories of struggle and victory are represented. The first thing that leaps out is how disturbingly similar their struggles are regardless of the where or occupation type. Once that wears off, I was overwhelmed by their strength and perseverance and the unity that is generated through a shared fight.
Personally, I find it abhorrent that in the 21st century a law actually had to be crafted to say that women deserve equal pay and that nearly nine years after its passing women are STILL not paid equal to men for the same work. Absolutely inexcusable. Can’t blame it all on men either, having a female boss sadly does not guarantee that a woman would be treated with the equality and respect she deserves. That social disease that was spoken of at the beginning of this article has metastasized. Women have worked for centuries, so why are we still fighting the same fights? Why have perspectives not evolved? And why are we still made to choose between career and family? My favorite movie that addresses all of these problems is 9 to 5. It came out in the early 80’s and everyone loved it and yet little has changed even from that time. What will it take to wake us up?
The Barnes and Noble open mic Poetry Group will meet again on January 30th, 2018. Our featured poet, Matthew Minicucci, will be reading from his books, Translation and Small Gods. I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Minicucci and will be sharing that and a review of his books tout de suite!
If you are interested in purchasing any of the books mentioned in my article, please visit the links below: