Hearts & Hands -- A Pathway to Authentic Community

I am pleased to report that Hearts & Hands: Creating Community in Violent Times will be the core curriculum in a newly certified staff training program for State of California juvenile detention centers, halls, and camps.

The Seven Stories Press book was first published in 2001 and summarizes the almost 30 years of work I've had with youth, gangs, community building, men's work, and justice work.

Drawing from ideas as old as the oldest stories, to some of the best findings in current practices among community youth advocates, Hearts & Hands is a call for imagination, connection, caring, vision, and hope in a political environment that abandons youth, removes vital creative resources from schools and the economy, blames the family and the youth themselves, and then creates massive prisons and juvenile facilities as the only means to address the breakdown of adequate and whole sustenance -- spiritual and physical -- for all of us.

The actual program that has been certified is called "Conflict Management Training: Breaking the Cycle with Dignity," created by Fidel Rodriguez of K.R.Y.L.O.N-13 Educational Initiative (he's also with Divine Forces Radio and co-owner of Imix Bookstore in Eagle Rock, CA) and Michael de la Rocha of the City of Los Angeles Human Relations Commission. Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall Superintendent Edward Anhalt was instrumental in seeing this program off the ground and eventually certified. My hats off to this open and courageous leader in youth transformation work in some of the most dire circumstances -- youth detention centers.

The program utilizes spiritual practices (yoga, meditation, indigenous, African, and others) and deep rage/grief work with staff members in our juvenile facilities so that they become the real advocates and activists for the youth themselves. It also includes work with the youth in those facilities, supported by and sustained by staff.

I took part in three of the six-month trainings this year first held at the Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, CA. Youth probation superintendents and staff from LA County probation camps, juvenile halls, and gang units were also involved. All participants were encouraged to buy Hearts & Hands and read various chapters throughout the training. Guest facilitators included Luisah Teish, a long-time African American spiritual leader and community activist from the Bay area.

I hope this becomes a major step to injecting imagination, deep soul and spirit work, and mentoring/eldership into places where our most troubled youth need it the most. I'm honored to be part of this immensely vital work.
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A Letter

I recently received this letter by email, which was an honor to read. I'd like to share it with the rest of us (although with a couple of slight changes).

Dear Mr. Rodriguez,

Having just completed your most beautiful novel (Music of the Mill), I feel compelled and inspired to write you to say you are a timely voice -- not only for your people, but for all of us who cherish the eloquence and commonality of the human spirit. How relevant you are these days when the borders of our so-called American nation have become confounded with thoughts about who is, or is not, American. As you instruct, long before the onslaught of the Europeans, (Native peoples) crisscrossed a borderless land with hope and dreams of equanimity. Funny how those who usurp and uproot can now claim moral outrage. Shock and awe! You have certainly made me a convert to desire the assimilation, not only of current immigrants to this nation, but in the ultimate possibility of an America inclusive and truly diverse. What a voice you are. An awesome writer. I can't wait to read your next book.

Yours Truly,

Bob Rubenstein
Brooklyn, New York
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Teatro Chucheros

The young people, including several children, had their faces painted partly in skull face; boys with a cursory knowledge of music played bass, violin, guitar, and drums in the background; and a small but appreciative audience that included parents and friends smiled, laughed, and applauded during the opening performance of Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural's newest arts theater project: Teatro Chucheros (named after our cultural establishment in the Northeast San Fernando Valley).

Funded in part by the City of San Fernando, the play brought out the history of the community surrounding the San Fernando Mission, including the devastating impact the Spanish invadors had on the Native peoples, but also the role of their descendents and Mexicans in creating and expanding the city's roots, flavors, and future.

Taught and organized by the renowned Chicano comedy theater group, Chusma Theater Collective, Teatro Chucheros gave these youth and children theatrical and comedic skills as well as important history lessons, confidence, and recognition. We are thankful to Chusma as well as the City of San Fernando for making this project possible. We are also hoping it will continue and expand as an ongoing project of Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural.

Speaking of which, it's always great to come back from my many trips to this cultural space created by my wife Trini, my brother-in-law Enrique Sanchez, and myself, something I've always dreamed of and now have seen become a positively invaluable meeting place of books, art, poetry, performance, music, dance, and our indigenous Mexican and Central American roots.

Open to all people who can appreciate and honor these aspects in themselves, we've become a beacon of imagination and creativity in a community that had no bookstores, cultural outlets, or even movie houses until Tia Chucha's Cafe Cultural opened its doors more than four and a half years ago (in an area with more than 400,000 people, mostly Spanish-speaking, although LA is considered the Entertainment Capital of the World).

Thank you all, especially the children, the youth, their parents, and their teachers for expanding this dream of community empowerment.
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Where We Go From Here?

Today President Bush proposed deploying 6,000 National Guard Troops on the US-Mexico border to stop the flow of undocumented immigrants. This is nothing but pandering to the most conservative elements in Congress and in the country, including the vigilante anti-immigrant group, the Minutemen. Despite the fact the Minutemen have not had more than 200 people at any of their events (far less most of the time), they seem to matter more to Bush than the millions in 150 cities who boycotted, marched, demonstrated, and walked out on May 1 – probably the largest social mobilization in US history.

We know that the government will not do the right thing. Even their plans for guest worker programs are super exploitation programs. What the movement has been demanding is full and complete amnesty for close to 12 million undocumented people, and a fair & equitable immigration and border policy.

But it appears Bush and Congress will have nothing to do with this.

I think at present the movement has to expand its vision, its reach, its unity, and its organization. At the heart of this movement are the economic rights for all people to have decent lives, decent work, decent pay, decent healthcare, and decent housing. There are millions of American citizens, let alone immigrants, who don’t have these vital things. Let’s move into this Heart of America that the capitalist class, as well as their policy makers and apologists in the media, pretend don’t exist or don’t matter.

A unified, strong, ongoing movement of the poor by the poor and for the poor is the direction the present struggle for dignity and human rights for immigrants is going. Once engaged, the linkages across all borders in this hemisphere and other parts of the world can make this a truly world-wide, historically momentous movement, the possibilities of which are inherent in the recent mobilizations among labor, churches, and social organizations to change immigration policy in the US.
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We Can Do Both: Welcome Immigrants and Be Safe

When I arrived—a couple of hours late mind you—to the Greensboro, North Carolina airport last April 8, around 45 children, teenagers, parents, and community leaders greeted me with signs, specially-made T-shirts, and song.

Other people in the waiting lounge looked interested, and perhaps as surprised as I did, to have such a welcome.

I was completely overwhelmed and honored. They were a group organized by Centro de Accion Latino in Greensboro, who had been awaiting my arrival for talks I was doing in the library, the community, some schools, and county jail. It was one of the few returns I’ve made to North Carolina since I spent ten weeks in early 2000 traveling from one end of the state to the other–from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Outer Banks.

North Carolina, like many US Southern states, has had a tremendous rise in the Latino population this past decade—I read somewhere around 600 percent. These people include many migrants from Mexico, but also from Colombia, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and other Latin American countries. Many are working in the lowest paid, most dangerous work available, including turkey and chicken farms, tobacco fields, service industries, factories, and textiles.

As in most states, tensions between these Spanish-speaking workers and English-speaking Americans, specifically African Americans but also Whites, became the catalyst behind my momentous residence: In two rental cars, I drove my way around this amazingly beautiful country to speak, read, and conduct workshops in some 21 events a week in universities, colleges, public and private schools, prisons, juvenile detention centers, migrant camps, churches, cafes, bookstores, and other venues.

Organized by North Carolina Word Wide (sponsored mostly by the state’s arts council), I spoke to Black, White, Asian, Native American (I now have good friends on the Cherokee rez), and Latino audiences, in English and Spanish.

It turned out to be one of the most healing efforts I’ve ever embarked on.

This April one of my talks/readings was in Greensboro’s Carolina Theater (one of those old ornate turn-of-the-century structures) to around 500 people. That particular visit capped a quick tour of the East Coast with visits to Amherst, MA and Syracuse, NY—both fantastic cities that treated me well and had me addressing many large and important audiences.

There is a growing interest in Chicano/Latino literature, but also in the rapid and extensive growth in the Latino population wherever I go. Here’s what I’ve found—and this after more than 25 years traveling and speaking around the country, Canada, Mexico, Central America, Puerto Rico, and Europe: Most people I’ve met are open, welcoming, and genuinely concerned about why Latinos are here and how we can best incorporate them in this country. I’m also aware that many are scared about our future, about security, about the sense that our resources are being spread too thin.

However, I’m convinced there are imaginative, encompassing, and significant ways to have a country free of terrorism AND a fair, equitable, and humane immigration policy.

The fact that millions mobilized around the country on May 1 for immigrant rights (and they were not only undocumented and documented immigrants, but many American citizens as well) is forcing us to re-examine this issue and find ways to resolve it in the interests of both Americans and non-citizens. This may seem impossible, or at least unlikely, but it’s timely and necessary.

We cannot continue to insist on policies and projects that isolate Americans from the rest of the world—this is the most indefensible position to have.

The vast majority of new immigrants without documents in the United States—reportedly close to 12 million people—are pro-America, willing to work hard, pay taxes, and even go to war (I don’t think they should, but that’s where they’re at).

Minutemen and other anti-undocumented people are cutting their own throats by trying to drive away a mostly peaceful, flag-waving, honest, hard-working people from our shores.

Fortunately, for the moment, their efforts are ineffective. The fact is we need these workers and they need us. It’s time to make this work for all of us; it's time for real imaginative work to make sure we can be safe and have a decent and dignified position around immigration.
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Unfounded Fears Drive Anti-Immigrant Movement

The number of anti-immigrant organizations have exponentially grown in the past few weeks--beyond the myopic racism of the Minutemen (regardless of how many Black and Latinos they manage to recruit) into an alphabet soup of organizations, many of which don't even get along. Some groups are building their own walls on the US-Mexico border, many are rallying in various cities (around 200 average, often smaller), others are waging recall campaigns of candidate they feel are pro-immigrant rights (recently several city officials were kicked out of office by anti-immigrant candidates in a small town in Florida).

However, they are organizing in the midst of the greatest mobilization of people in the history of the United States--for example, on May 1 millions marched, rallied, got off work and school in support of amnesty for undocumented immigrants and fair and equitable immigration and border policies.

These millions also include many citizens and legal residents; the weight of their efforts is on the side of human rights for all people, including undocumented immigrants.

Not so the anti-immigrants. They want whatever pie the US economy consists of to be just for them (although, they'll find that they're being pushed out of the economy just the same, and not because of immigrants).

Yet, it's very likely the Senate will more or less heed the smaller number of Americans who want greater border enforcement and removing undocumented immigrants from US society. Although, I'm sure some Senators will pull away from the total absurdity of the House Sensebrenner Bill that got passed earlier this year (the bill included a 700-foot border wall to the tune of billions of dollar; the criminalization of undocumented immigrants and anybody who helps them; and other inane proposals).

Yet what most pro-immigrant rights groups have been fighting for will probably not see the light of day.

Guest worker programs, different tiers of amnesty approval, and other suggested policies are not good enough. They maintain a second-class population, to be exploited below the exploitation most American workers have to endure.

Our basic premise: If we lift the repression and remove the exploitative nature of being undocumented in this country, it will help all workers, whether they are citizens or not.

But the anti-immigrant groups are poised on fear. One woman called the large number of Mexicans in this country a "genocide" (presumably of white citizens). A recent editorial in the LA Daily News (and echoed on TV shows, including Lou Dobbs on CNN) continues to decry the Mexican flags at rallies (although this is mostly sparse, with millions more US flags in evidence), the spectre of Mecha as a pro-Aztlan takeover organization (Mecha is none of that; besides this movement, which most Mechas support, is much larger than Mecha), and the Spanish-version of the Star Spangled Banner (although there are now reports that George W. Bush sang the National Anthem in Spanish while campaigning in Texas; also, there is evidence the US government commissioned a Spanish version of the National Anthem in 1916).

The hyperbole is insane. What are they afraid of? It's clear Mexicans and other immigrants want to be part of the United States, are willing to work, pay taxes, and even fight in their wars (many have already been killed--I understand there are thousands of undocumented soldiers presently fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan).

I don't personally agree we should buy into everything this country is about. But the fact is most Mexicans and other immigrants are very loyal, law abiding, and Christian (although there are many non-Christians among them).

These anti-immigrant people are undermining one of the most solid pro-American sectors in this country. Again, I'm for the end of all borders, for the end of nations to determine our future and destinies, and for the equitable and just distribution of our vast resources to benefit everyone. But, hey, that's just me.

The anti-immigrant groups, driven by unfounded fears and paranoias, are cutting their own throats--similar to what the Confederates did when they seceded in the 1800s and the segregationists did when they opposed Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.

The world is changing. This country is becoming more like the world. This is not bad; it can be very good. But don't blame this just on immigrants--the corporations went global a long time ago. They have long participated in shifting the borders and our formally "sacred" delineations of country and culture.

However, while the corporations do this to enrich themselves, immigrants are here to make real whatever American Dream still exists. Most whites I've talked to support this. It's just a few old-guard whites (and, again, some Blacks and Latinos) who just can't adapt until they're forced to.

With the current pro-immigrant movement issues of race and class are coming to the fore. We don't need to divide around our shallow racial/social positions. We can find the essential goals we all need to unite around--and begin to create a country worthy of all of us, not just the few.
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Expand the rights of Immigrants to include all People

I was privileged enough to take part in the May 1 massive mobilization for immigrant rights that involved 150 cities and millions of people in the US (as well as Mexico and Central America). Our bookstore/cafe, Tia Chucha's Cafe Cultural, closed for the day in solidarity with the Great American Boycott. I took part with my wife Trini, my daughter Andrea, my son Luis, and my grand-daughter Cati who joined Tia Chucha's other partner, Enrique Sanchez, and three Tia Chucha employees/volunteers.

We marched with around 1.5 million people in Los Angeles (officially, it's been declared 600,000 people in two marches). I felt the spirit of unity, of peace, of the righteous demand that all human beings should to be free of hunger, exploitation, oppression, and fear. This is the cause underlying this movement, the banner of which is: Full and complete amnesty for 12 million undocumented workers, and the establishment of fair and equitable immigration and border policies.

In the march and rally I took part in, there were no fights. No rancor. No anger. People felt strong and united. While most were Mexicans, there were many from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Japan, Cambodia, the Philippines, Korea, and other countries (I saw one man with a sign that said: "Polish Immigrants Support Amnesty"). Most people wore white and waved American flags.

The world is here. The world is at issue. What we do as a country will make sure we are a beacon for smart, progressive, and encompassing change--or home to some of the most backward, mean-spirited and idiotic ideas (including building walls on the border and criminalizing undocumented people and those who help them).

I'm not sure the Senate will do the right thing when they meet again to debate this issue in two weeks. But I hope the message makes an impact. As activists and leaders, we know we have to do more.

I was pleased with the participation of African Americans in the march, particularly the leaders who spoke and helped with security. We need more whites, Asian, Native peoples, and others involved. We need to expand this struggle to include all people. We still have a war to deal with. We continue to have growing joblessness, homelessness, prisons, lack of health care, eroding environment, and rotten schools. Immigrant rights is part and parcel of all these concerns.

The battle to push forward the rights and economic realities of millions of undocumented and documented immigrants should be seen as a foundation to address why workers of all races, tongues, and creeds continue to lose ground economically, politically, and socially.

Capitalism can only ensure the profits of a few wealthy will grow at the expense of everyone else (while everything else goes up and down, mostly down, profits have steadily soared to astronomical proportions). Gas prices are beyond $3 a gallon now--while Exxon, Mobil, Chevron, and other major oil companies post the biggest profits in their history.

All this affects immigrants as it does citizens. At some point, beyond all the racist, anti-immigrant stands and hate mail, we can find the common thread that ties us all in the same battle, the same struggle, with the same conclusion: the creation of an imaginative, healing, cooperative, and truly secure social system to replace the present decaying, profit-based, material-oriented capitalist system.
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May 1 – Boycott and Demonstrate for Immigrant Rights

This Monday, May 1, pro-immigrant rights leaders and organizations are asking undocumented and documented residents (and others in solidarity) to boycott their jobs, shops, employers, and schools. “The Great American Boycott” is part of a long and rich tradition of civil disobedience in our continual struggle to improve the lives and rights of all people living on this land.

There have also been demonstrations, vigils, and marches planned that day throughout the country for the same issues: full and complete amnesty for some 12 million undocumented people, and a fair and fast immigration policy for those still needing to come here.

Already some well-known people have gone against the boycott, apparently concerned this will disrupt the economic and social life of the country for a day, resulting in an unwanted backlash. Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahoney is one of the most vocal opponents of the boycott.

And, interesting enough, so is President Bush.

“I think it's very important for people, when they do express themselves, they continue to do so in a peaceful way, in a respectful way—respectful of how highly charged this debate can become,” the President said Friday. “One of the things that's very important is when we debate this issue that we not lose our national soul.”

The fact is the millions of people who have demonstrated, marches, and walked out of schools or their jobs since late March have been peaceful. This has been one of the most peaceful massive human mobilizations in recent history.

The work boycotts are meant to escalate the power of the message that apparently have yet to be heeded by Congress enacting new immigration laws—the people will not accept anything less than the full rights accorded any human being, be they documented or not.

Bush and some of those who have gone against the Boycott appear to be “scolding” their children. That's how much disdain they have for the people.

For the most part, immigrants have worked extremely hard (against great odds), have paid taxes, lived lawful lives, and continue to enrich this country. They have full capacity to think, to organize, to plan, and to implement. They should not be told what will work for them or be scared from what they need to do to win these rights.

A backlash has always existed—it did so against Gandhi's movement, against Martin Luther King Jr., against Cesar Chavez, against revolutionaries in Mexico like Emiliano Zapata, against the US revolutionaries of 1776. Since when did strategies and tactics get determined by a backlash?

I agree—the peaceful way is the best. But this has been a long-gone conclusion. Every tactic and planned action so far has peace built into them. When it can become violent is when the powers that be decide to carry out their plans to criminalize undocumented people as felons, to build 700-foot walls on the border to the tune of $8 billion, or to isolate and attack the most vulnerable workers in the workplace and our communities.

Since the marches and demonstrations in late March and early April, Homeland Security's immigration authorities have carried out highly publicized raids of hundreds of undocumented workers. There was at least one instance of a Mexican restaurant burned (with anti-immigrant messages scrawled on the walls). There have been a few violent confrontations against peaceful students walking out of schools (including wanton attacks by police and anti-immigrant students), death threats to Latino politicians, and even a terrible instance in which a Latino youth, 15, was beaten and sodomized during a party by two teenagers as they spit out anti-Mexican statements.

Bush should address that violence—the real violence occurring in this struggle.

I ask Bush, “What about the national soul that erodes when radio stations put out anti-Mexican slogans, Minutemen pit groups (African Americans and other US workers) against immigrants, and people create video games in which Mexicans, including women with children, can be “killed” for points?"

The “Great Boycott” is on. People who feel strongly about this issue will not work, shop, or carry on any normal business interactions that day. Others who may lose their jobs, their livelihoods, or their homes can choose to take part in the many demonstrations. Many will do both.

The point is we must be heard. We must not let up the amazing national efforts that have rocked this country and the world.

Nobody wants violence. But we must demand justice, rights, and dignity. We are not anyone's children. People will choose what to do—the message, however, must be loud, clear, and united.
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Los Angeles Recognizes One of its Own

It was a surprise to me.

Today, April 26, I met with LA City Councilman Ed Reyes (District 1) to thank him for his use of my poem, “The Concrete River,” as part of an exhibit of poems, photos, and paintings commemorating the Los Angeles River (on the Third Floor Bridge area of City Hall). I thought it was to be quick hello and good bye.

However, Councilman Reyes arranged a small reception for me and my wife Trini. Then he took me to visit the council chambers where I was presented with a signed, beautifully designed, certificate of recognition by the City, and allowed to say a few words.

I was surprised, and terribly pleased.

When a writer and activist like me writes and organizes, it is hardly for any official recognition. In my case, “official” recognition may smell of compromise and capitulation. I have been one who has fought “City Hall” on issues of justice, urban peace, and the arts since I was a teenager. But as one observer today said, “Could you ever imagine a time in the past when someone like you would ever be honored in the council chambers?”

Los Angeles, like many other cities, has undergone a major complexion, and I hope character, change—more people representing communities of color and the poor are now sitting in this parlor of municipal power, including a few Chicanos—Ed Reyes, Alex Padilla, Tony Cardenas, and Jose Huizar. And we also have a Chicano mayor, Antonio Villaragoisa.

This, I believe, has helped make the difference.

Of course, I also thank the other council members who supported this recognition, including African American Bernard Parks as well as Eric Garcetti (President of the Council), Tom LaBonge, and Bill Ronsedahl, all who shook my hand that day.

For poets and most writers, our only currency is acknowledgment. For political, class conscious, and socially engaged poets, even this is not forthcoming. So, yes, I’m honored and moved by this effort on the part of Councilman Reyes. I also hope to continue to struggle and fight for the rights of all people, including the millions of undocumented immigrants currently under attack in Congress, on the border, and in the workplace (with carefully calculated Migra raids around the country).

On May 1, cities will explode with work stoppages, demonstrations, vigils and marches. Thank you, City of Los Angeles, for honoring me. Now let’s realize the best ideals of this country and provide full and complete amnesty for undocumented immigrants, and the rights accorded any human being to live free of hunger, exploitation, oppression, and fear.
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The Paterson Poetry Prize

I want to express my humble thanks to the Paterson Poetry Prize administrators, authors, and committee for awarding my 2005 poetry collection, My Nature is Hunger: New & Selected Poems 1989-2004 (Curbstone Press/Rattle Edition) with the 2006 Paterson Poetry Prize.

I received a phone call from Sandy Taylor, publisher of Curbstone Press, and a letter from Maria Gillan , the long-time Director of the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College, Paterson, New Jersey. The prize includes $1,000 and a trip to Paterson to receive the award and to read.

It’s hard to get such recognition, due largely to the vast number of worthy poetry books being published around the country today. Most of these are with small and mid-size presses, the heart of poetry publishing in this country. I’m deeply honored.

I also edit a poetry press, Tia Chucha Press, which I founded in Chicago in 1989. Since then, we have published around 40 major poetry collections and anthologies, three chapbooks, and a CD. Tia Chucha Press, which became part of the Guild Complex in 1991, is now connected with the not-for-profit workshop space and publishing center, Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural (that I also helped create in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles).

To commemorate our 16 years of publication, in December Tia Chucha Press came out with Dream of a Word: The Tia Chucha Press Poetry Anthology, edited by Quraysh Ali Lansana and Toni Asante Lightfoot.

We hope to spread the word about this great collection that features all our authors, including Elizabeth Alexander, Terrance Hayes, A. Van Jordan, Patricia Smith, Rohan B Preston, Sterling D. Plumpp, Michael Warr, Angela Shannon, Marvin Tate, Cin Salach, Carlos Cumpian, Mary Kathleen Hawley, Lisa Buscani, Jean Howard, Dwight Okita, Tony Fitzpatrick, Nick Carbo, Kyoko Mori, and many more.

There is also a study guide in the back of the book for each of the poems—something we did to help poetry, literatures, and English classrooms in high schools, colleges, universities, and writing workshops.

I also want to mention that in 2005 we did the first poetry book of ariel robello called My Sweet Unconditional. This year, we're publishing Patricia Spears Jones' Femme du Monde (out this month) and Alfred Arteaga's Frozen Accident (due in the fall). All our books are distributed by Northwestern University Press .

April is National Poetry Month. Please support your local poets. Buy poetry books. Help make poetry central to our culture, our spiritual life, and our communities.
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