Poetry Out Loud, Latino youth, a hundred years of Progressive magazine, and May Day Rally

The recitation of poems by master poets like Martin Espada, Allen Ginsberg, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Edna St Vincent Millay resounded in the Lisner Auditorium in Washington DC where the national finals of the Poetry Out Loud competition were held the last week of April. The recitation contests involved some 300,000 high school students from around the country. Like last year, I was invited to be one of the finals judges, something I truly prize. Seeing young people recite powerful poems, with the emphasis, understanding, subtleties, and respect these poems deserve is truly an inspiring thing.

This year's final judges included my long-time friend (and Tia Chucha Press poet and National Book Award nominee) Patricia Smith, A Prairie Companion's Garrison Keillor, actress Tyne Daly, journalist Jeffrey Brown, poet Suji Kwock Kim, and Tim McCarty of "Quest: Arts for Everyone."

Poetry Out Loud is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation of Chicago.

We had to determine who would get the $20,000 in scholarships as this year's Poetry Out Loud champion from the twelve finalists. After outstanding presentations from all the finalists, William Farley of Viriginia took the top prize. His emotional response was met by that of his young brother and parents--they were all so proud of William.

Poetry was big for me these past few weeks. Previously at Xavier College Prep High School in the Coachella Valley of Southern California, I read poetry with former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins. Also Tia Chucha Press just released the astounding collection of Kansas City poet Linda Rodriguez (no relation, except in the larger sense of "we are all related"), entitled "Heart's Migration." You can find this on Amazon.com as well as any major and independent bookstores (ask for it).

And then after the Poetry Out Loud finals, I talked and read poetry to Blair High School Students in Maryland, and later in Virginia at a Youth Community Center, both due to the efforts of long-time activists and friends, Luis Cardona and Susan Cruz.

I flew from Washington DC to Chicago, where I rented a car and drove the two hours to Madison, Wisconsin to take part in The Progressive magazine's 100th Anniversary. I've been a columnist for The Progressive the past two years (a poem and an essay is part of a 100th Year Anniversary Anthology recently released by the University of Wisconsin Press). I was a panelist on a Civil Rights panel, and I read poetry--along with poets and speakers such as Martin Espada, Dolores Huerta, Naomi Klein, and others.

Later Robert Redford and Howard Zinn held a reception where I got to speak to Mr. Zinn (his talk on US wars taught me more significant history than all my history classes). I also got to speak briefly with Mr. Redford--he remembered that I was a Sundance Institute Fellow for Arts Writing. In the mid-2000s, I took part in a film lab, workshops & panels, and two film festivals where Mr. Redford was in attendance.

I was most honored to again share the stage with labor leader Dolores Huerta. She is the consummate labor and community organizer, presently promoting the Dolores Huerta Foundation. Her talk was instructive, wise, personable, and an example of how to engage one's audience. I also saw Jesse Jackson in the lounge area of the Hilton hotel--he was among the key presenters.

I want to thank Matt Rothschild and the staff of The Progressive for inviting me to share in this historic event. Several hundred people were in attendance from all areas of struggle. And there was much inspiring and unifying talks and presentations to dramatize that progressive politics in the United States, especially in this age of change, is strong and growing.

I left feeling renewed.

I wanted to also thank Eric Shager and the students of the Work and Learn Center of Madison. For fourteen years, they've been reading "Always Running" and communicating with me through the Internet and email. I spoke to Eric's class, something I try to do whenever I get back to this liberating city. They had poignant and well thought-out questions.

AND I'm grateful to Alex Gillis and the organizers of this year's May Day Rally, held at the steps of the state's Capitol building and the county building. I was one of the speakers to several hundred participants, including labor leaders, immigrant rights activists, and community people. I didn't have much time, so I gave a rousing talk, directed to the many young people in the audience, in Spanish and English. I encouraged them to keep organizing, keep getting consciousness and knowledge, and to make their own history. I was very pleased by the inspired response after my talk.

Today I drove several hours from Madison to Pontiac, IL, site of one of the state's major prison complexes. I'm here to see my son, Ramiro, tomorrow in one of the prisons. Since his incarceration twelve years ago, I try to visit with him whenever I'm in the Chicago area. Despite all we've been through, my son and I are very close.


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