Is Brooklyn J’Ouvert Dead?

Ray Allen, Brooklyn College

Following weeks of debate over new security measures aimed at curbing violence, Brooklyn’s much scrutinized 2017 J’Ouvert celebration thankfully took place without incident. But New Yorkers might have missed this news amidst the plethora of media stories incorrectly attributing criminal activity to the event. “Bullets fly at J’Ouvert: Bloodshed despite changes” barked the September 5 headline of the New York Post. Even the New York Times and the Daily News, publications that tend to be friendlier to Brooklyn’s black Caribbean community, felt obligated to list several shootings that occurred over Labor Day morning and afternoon. It seems that any violent crimes committed during the holiday weekend in central Brooklyn are now routinely linked to J’Ouvert and Carnival.

A close read of the reports, however, reveals that none of those unfortunate episodes were actually associated with J’ouvert—all occurred blocks away, before or after the event. The Post’s recounting of a shooting in Crown Heights took place at 5am, an hour before the J’Ouvert procession began, and more than two miles from the start of the parade route. The real news is that there was no reprise of the deadly shootings that tarnished the event in the previous two years.

Decisions to move the start time up from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m., along with increased police security, metal detector check points, and a no-alcohol policy, came as a result of intense negotiations among the event’s organizers, J’Ouvert City International led by President Yvette Rennie, the NYC Mayor’s Office, and the NYPD. These measures may have been responsible for a more peaceful J’Ouvert, but, as many participants asked, at what cost? The loss of the magical darkness to dawn transition, which could only be experienced with the traditional 4am start, was troubling for some. Odie Franklin, arranger for the Despers USA steelband that chose not to participate in J’ouvert this year, complained that the later time start “dishonored” the tradition of the culture. Michael Manswell of the Pagwah mas band was appalled that costumed members of his group had to be individually wanded and seemingly treated as potential criminals before entering the parade area. Many others felt that the excessive security created a police state atmosphere that stifled the spirit of the celebration. Had this year’s J’Ouvert, as the Times reported, been “sapped of its usual energy”?

Not completely. The crowd might have been slightly smaller than in past years, but there was no shortage of exuberant art and play on the streets. Fourteen masquerade bands, eight steelbands, and six rhythm bands participated in the JCI-organized competitions along the route. And there were hundreds, perhaps a few thousand, of revelers who had donned home-made, raggedy costumes accented with paint and powder. There were sightings of oil-drenched jab jab devils, mysterious midnight robbers, cross-dressing Dame Lorraine figures, and other traditional ole mas characters that have been absent from the Eastern Parkway’s fancy mas for decades. The Oil Downeres band lampooned Trump and his wall with a mas titled “Dey Showing Their True Colors.” Crowds thronged around Radoes, Pan Evolution, and the other steelbands. They wined and sang along in a high-spirited pan-on-the-road performance, another Carnival tradition that has been lost on the Parkway due to competition from deejays and mobile sound trucks. Those who played J’Ouvert mas and jumped up to the steelbands did so with unabashed enthusiasm.

Fortunately, the new security measures did not prevent the crowd from melding in with the musicians and masqueraders on the road. J’Ouvert, more than any other aspect of Carnival, has always been a participatory affair rather than a spectator sport. This in contrast to the big Eastern Parkway parade where metal barricades and police separate onlookers from the fancy mas bands and sound trucks. When what was once a participatory ritual becomes a presentational spectacle, something deep is lost. Brooklyn J’Ouvert, at least for the moment, has managed to maintain that core communal sensibility.

Now that this year’s J’Ouvert has come and gone, members of Brooklyn’s Carnival community must ask themselves some tough questions. Did the sunrise start and heavy police presence constitute a necessary price to pay for a safer J’Ouvert? Or was the original emancipation spirit of the pre-dawn celebration so deeply violated that many will opt out next year? As a non-Caribbean Brooklynite I’m not going to weigh in on that one, but as a folklorist I can offer some historic perspective. Ever since the first Afro-Trinidadians took to the streets of Port of Spain in the 1830s to celebrate their emancipation with dance/drum/masquerade processions known as camboulay (the precursor to J’Ouvert and what would become the opening of the pre-Lent Carnival), government and civil authorities have been trying to shut down, curtail, or control Carnival. In the early 1880s police clashes with bands of stick fighters led to the banning of drumming and stick fighting during Trinidad’s Carnival season. The ex-slaves responded by developing bamboo and metal percussion groups that eventually led to the emergence of the steelbands. Committees were formed to “improve” calypso lyrics in the 1920s by censoring the most lewd and offensive lyrical themes, but calypsonians continued to lampoon their colonial masters and compose ribald songs. British and American authorities cancelled Carnival during the WWII years, only to have it return stronger than ever in 1946 led by the newly constituted steelbands. Following 1962 independence, a national Panorama competition was established in part to move steelbands from the chaos of street Carnival to the more controlled environment of the Savannah stage. But many grassroots steelband men maintained their rebel persona and continued to aggressively dominate the streets during J’Ouvert.

Caribbean migrants established the first street Carnival in Harlem in 1947 only to see the event shut down in 1961 following a so-called “riot” that consisted of a handful of rock and bottle throwing incidents and an unlucky bystander being clubbed over the head with a steel pan. Carnival resurfaced in Brooklyn in the late 1960s, and came close to being shut down in 1991 following the Crown Heights riots. Over the years, the West Indian American Day Carnival Association and J’Ouvert City International have faced a barrage of hostile coverage from the mainstream media that too often characterized their Eastern Parkway Parade and J’Ouvert celebration as violence-ridden, mob scenes that threatened public safety and order—not so dissimilar from the racially and class-tinged charges voiced by nineteenth century Trinidad papers that called for the dissolution of Carnival.

History tells us that J’Ouvert has been under attack since day one. This should come as no surprise, given the ritual’s legacy of celebrating liberation from tyranny, resisting colonial authority, and satirizing the rich and powerful. So, is Brooklyn J’Ouvert dead? I doubt it, especially in these current troubling times when standing up to xenophobia, racism, and class inequity has taken on new levels of immediacy for all American immigrant communities. J’Ouvert, with its spirit of resistance, has survived for over a century and a half, and there is no reason to suspect it won’t continue to do so. Of course, exactly what form it will assume next in Brooklyn remains to be seen. Stay tuned for J’Ouvert 2018.

For additional background see “J’Ouvert! Steel Pan and Ole Mas Traditions in Brooklyn Carnival” by Ray Allen at:


The Bell Tolls for Ringling

The Poetry of Everyday Life Blog Post #6

This past spring I bought two tickets to the last show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus,  scheduled for May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, New York. The iconic three-ring circus, mother of all American circuses, was closing its doors after 146 years.

At the time, my friend the circus historian Richard Flint was busy researching a book commissioned by Ringling Bros. to commemorate the history of the famed circus for its 150th anniversary in 2021. Ringling didn’t make it that far.

Ringling Bros. image with circus performer Gleice Gillet on the lead elephant.

“People call it the Greatest Show on Earth,” Richard told me, “but it was literally the Greatest Show on Earth. A large, profitable circus, Ringling was able to deliver grandeur no other show could match. Not just horses, acrobats, and clowns. Not only numerous elephants, but lavish costumes, state-of-the-art lighting, three rings, five weeks of rehearsals, Broadway choreographers to help train a bevy of showgirls and clowns, original music composed annually for each show, a live band, the best acts from around the world, and an entirely new show each season. As one friend said to me, Ringling’s demise is something like the Catholic Church shutting down.”

I attended a three-ring circus once in my childhood. My uncle Walter took my brother and me to Ringling sometime in the early 1950s, and I can still remember walking through its legendary sideshow tent past giants and fat ladies, and seeing the elephants lined up as an attraction. That one unforgettable visit sparked my imagination. You need to see the circus only once to experience its magic—and you can’t experience it on your phone. Once the images of the circus and the sideshow enter our lived experience, they emblazon our imaginations with unforgettable imagery.

The circus serves as a powerful metaphor for the poetry of everyday life. It often harbors its own elevated language: circus impresario Milton Bartok, for example, pointed his audiences’ attention to the aerialists not at the “top of the big top” but to the “lofty recesses of the big top.” The circus  has kindled the imaginations of countless writers, poets, and musicians. In his poem “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” William Butler Yeats wrote: “Winter and summer till old age began / My circus animals were all on show / Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot / Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.”

In his song “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” Bruce Springsteen sings of a circus where “the flying Zambinis watch Margarita do her neck twist” and where the “circus boy dances like a monkey on barbed wire… / And the Ferris wheel turns and turns like it ain’t ever gonna stop / And the circus boss leans over, whispers in the little boy’s ear, ‘Hey son, you wanna try the big top?’”

Years ago, I used a circus metaphor to write about a crazy and wonderful girlfriend: “Rosemary, lioness of rare beauty / struts across her cage / scratching with her claws / rattling her cage! / Yet she pats with velvet paws / the keeper of the neurotic woman / who puts his head between her jaws.” Not just poets but all of us need the circus as a world apart, a world of daring, extravagance, and wonder.

A few weeks after the final Ringling Bros. show closed, the Smithsonian Institution featured circus arts as part of its Folklife Festival on the National Mall, in Washington, DC. Among the performers were members a number of youth circuses and small circuses, along with a few veteran, multi-generational performers, including Dolly Jacobs, who just two years earlier won a National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts for her career as an aerialist with Ringling Bros. and other circuses. From June 29 to July 9, visitors to the festival could see aerial acts, jugglers, tightrope walkers, and trapeze artists, and attend panels on circus lingo and circus life. This magnificent array of circuses included the Hebei Golden Eagle Acrobatic Troupe, which features two dozen of China’s top acrobats; UniverSoul Circus, which is a unique celebration of urban pop culture; the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, based in New York City; and a number of youth circuses, including Sailor Circus Academy, from Sarasota, Florida. In contrast to the Ringling Bros.’ demise, these were ten banner days for circuses in the nation’s capital.

The Hebei Golden Eagle Acrobatic Troupe performs in the Open-air Ring at the 2017 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Photograph by Art Pittman. Courtesy of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archive and Collections, Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Smithsonian Institution.
















I attended the festival, and a number of the participants suggested that Ringling Bros.’ closing was just the end of an era, a business decision by a circus too big and unwieldy to survive (which does not appear to have been the case). One person likened it to a large oak tree that came down but that now would allow the underbrush to grow, suggesting that the small youth circuses sprouting across the United States would now be able to blossom.

The Circus Historical Society convened in the same hotel where the Smithsonian participants were housed; it promised the Greatest Convention on Earth for 2017! The meeting showcased a film about renowned tiger trainer Mabel Stark (December 10, 1889–April 20, 1968). The film depicted times when she had been mauled, her heroism, and her love for the tigers. Circus historian Charles Taylor met Mabel Stark when he was eighteen years old. He was, he said, “naive and precocious enough to ask her why she had so many wrinkles. She sweetly answered, ‘Why, dear, they are all places where I have been bit by lions or tigers. There is not a square inch on my body that doesn’t have a scar!’” Legendary juggler and Big Apple Circus performer Hovey Burgess told me that the youth circuses on the National Mall were, to use his crazy pun, a “stark” contrast to the film about Mabel Stark.

No animals—no lions, no tigers, no horses, no animals at all—were featured in the circus program. A sign at the festival read, “major compliance regulations and costs relating to sanitation, safety, and welfare (both human and animal) eliminated the presentation of exotic animals. Nonetheless, several sessions in the Circus Stories tent will discuss the role of animals in the circus.”

Mabel Stark

One of the circus participants said that if indeed animals had been allowed, protesters from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) would have lined the walkways to add controversy to the event, generate publicity, and put a damper on the occasion. The circus, they suggested, is a perfect target for PETA’s cause, because it guarantees publicity.

PETA and other animal-rights groups did picket Ringling Bros.’ performances for a number of years, holding up graphic signs purporting to depict the disputed mistreatment of elephants in the faces of children and families waiting to enter the big top. The Humane Society of the United States and other groups sued Ringling Bros. for its alleged mistreatment of elephants, but in 2014 their suit was thrown out by the judge when it turned out that they had paid a low-level elephant groomer to bring the suit claiming that the mistreatment hurt his personal relationship with the elephants. Despite losing the battle, the protesters and the PR nightmare they created ultimately forced Ringling Bros. to retire the circus elephants to a preserve in Florida. Without the legendary elephants, the circus seemed doomed to fail, and its demise came a year later. The Humane Society lost its legal battle against Ringling Bros. but won the war; children of all ages lost.

The Ringling Bros. elephants had been part of New York City folklore for generations. When the show was over in Madison Square Garden, the elephants paraded from the circus train through the Lincoln Tunnel with pomp and circumstance, often paying the tolls with great fanfare. New Yorkers lined the streets in the middle of the night to watch the procession. These elephants hearkened back to the beginning of Western civilization, from ancient India to the early nineteenth-century circuses. Until recently, at the Blessing of the Animals at Saint John the Divine in New York, Episcopal priests sometimes paraded an elephant in, at least once led by Gunther Gebel-Williams, Ringling’s star animal trainer in the 1970s and 80s.

Elephants on parade

The animals, clowns, and aerialists that make up the circus free the human imagination to consider the glorious possibilities of how the body moves, how animals can be trained, how human beings can choose to live dangerously, and how human beings interact with the natural world. As a child, ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson recalls that he thought the festooned horses he saw at the circus were actually unicorns. He told the Times reporters Sarah Maslin Nir and Nate Schweber that the world is losing “a place of wonder.” The athletic youth circuses cropping up across the country are healthy and wonderful—they are a form of gymnastics in which young acrobats await the audience’s applause rather than the judges’ scores; they are a place for retired circus performers to teach; they support many thousands of underserved young people; they are a boon to physical fitness and youth camaraderie. But no one runs away to join a youth circus.

Cruelty to animals is a serious offense. No one questions that. As Richard Flint put it, “In this day and age, those who insistently shout the loudest prevail.” I don’t believe there is any point in debating the impossible question of whether elephants are happier in their natural habitats in Africa and Asia (where they are frequently killed for their ivory tusks) or in the zoo or the circus. I’ll leave it to others to ask the elephants that question. But who is there to raise a whisper in honor of the collective creative genius that created the modern-day circus and the role it plays in sparking our imaginations. The circus in all its glory is one of humanity’s great imaginative constructs—like the opera or the sonnet. And the circus, I believe, needs to be experienced in its fullness, with animals and acrobats and clowns; those diverse attractions have defined the circus since Philip Astley, an English cavalry officer, brought the three together to create the first circus in his London amphitheater in 1770; without that combination of elements, it’s an opera without the music.

The artist Philomena Marano drew this picture of the circus after seeing it as a child.

My wife Amanda and I never did get to see the last show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. We had a family emergency—so two seats were still available. Here’s hoping that two curious children, their eyes filled with wonder, snuck under the big top and found those seats for the last performance of the Greatest Show on Earth—and that children everywhere will always have the chance to see clowns, acrobats, tightrope walkers, tigers and elephants gallivanting under “the lofty recesses of the big top.”




“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.


Consulting Hafez on the Trump Administration

Poetry of Everyday Life Blogpost, June 15, 2017

In a bedroom she shared with her three siblings in Elmhurst, Queens, 9-year-old Sahar Muradi snuggles up to her mom. Sensing her daughter feeling pensive, her mother asks, “Is there something on your mind?” Then her mom reaches for the magical red book. Sahar remembers, “I can picture it – the book was leather-bound, frayed from overuse. It was small and fit perfectly into my little hands.” This was Hafez’s divan, the collected works of a 14th century revered poet from Iran, where great poets are considered seers. Hafez’s sobriquet or nickname is lesān-al-ayb, or The Tongue of the Unseen.

Sahar Muradi, Director of Poetry Programs, City Lore

“My mother received her book from my grandfather (my dad’s dad),” Sahar wrote to me. “My grandfather had bought it while visiting family in Mashad, Iran, and he eventually brought it with him to NY. My grandfather left Kabul for NY before we did (my dad came in 1981, shortly after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Mom and we kids came in 1982). He gave us the book when we arrived. As new immigrants, he probably knew we’d need all manners of guidance.

“My mother had taught us to turn to Hafez’s divan with a harrowing decision or a life impasse (apparently, she had even consulted him on whether to marry my father!). With the book in my hand, I would start the ritual by reciting aloud in Farsi the invocation one makes prior to posing their burning question:

Ya Hafez-e-Shiraz
Tura ba shakh-e nabat-et qasam meytum
Agar ras-e-ta ba ma bogoye bareh azee

Oh, Hafez from Shiraz
I ask you to swear on your branch of sugarcane [i.e. your beloved]

That you will tell me the truth about the following

“I would hold the question silently in my heart. To tell your question aloud would surely jinx it. And to tell your mother your question – well, that would be self-sabotage! My secret was with Hafez, immune from any parental judgment. Then I would open the book at random and hand it over to my mom to read the Farsi. Oddly, she wouldn’t read the poem on the page it fell on – she would read the preceding one as if reading the obvious one wasn’t chance enough.”


Sahar Muradi and her mom, Shaima

She then would interpret the poem for an answer to my tortured question. As I grew, I often asked silly questions – ‘Does so and so like me?’ ‘Is this popular girl going to be my friend?’ and, later, ‘Will I get into the university?’ ‘Will my father’s health improve?’ My mom would offer her interpretation of the poem, and she usually made it sound as if some good would come of it. I would sometimes try to manipulate the outcome. I would test to see if the ‘best’ poems, the ones with the most affirming answers, were more in the middle of the book or towards the front or the back. Of course, that never worked.”

“Turning to Hafez was a family thing we did, although my mother was the guardian of the divination. It was part of the way we bonded (and continue to). Because of our reverence for him, we’ve even done family translations of Hafez’s poems. This is one we love:

What is better than pleasure, conversation, a garden, and spring?
Where is the cup-bearer? Tell me, why are we waiting?

Seize every joy that reaches your hand.
What anyway is the end of all our efforts?

Fathom: we are tied to life by a hair. Think twice.
Be kind to yourself; what do the little griefs matter?

          ~translated by Ali, Shaima, and Sahar Muradi

“During my childhood, my father did not engage in the tradition as much as my mom did. He would really only turn to it if something bad happened or he couldn’t make a decision on his own. But my mom says that in the last year or so of his cancer, before he passed away last October, he would turn to Hafez after morning prayer.”

Fal-e Hafez is the name of this ancient tradition in which a reader asks Hafez for advice, often when facing a difficulty or an important juncture in life. People open Hafez’s divan the way they might consult an oracle, with a deep wish for a soul requesting guidance. This custom was so well known that even Queen Victoria was said to have consulted Hafez in times of need.

Why Hafez? Hafez is known for his lyrical dexterity and his philosophical musings, for calling out moral hypocrites and for elevating social outcasts. Hafez describes himself in one poem “with hair disheveled, face flushed, and smiling drunkenly / Wine cup in hand, shirt open, singing poetry” (translated by Jawid Mojaddedi). He sings the song of the sinners and sees the beloved in their wine cups. One poem:

When Hafez’s coffin comes by, it’ll be all right to follow behind.
Although he is a captive of sin, he is on his way to the Garden.

~translated by Robert Bly and Leonard Lewisohn

“He is the Persian Leonard Cohen,” Sahar said. He is perhaps a patron saint of sinners and I was reminded of Cohen’s line, “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

Fal-e Hafez is part of a larger tradition of bibliomancy—using books for divination—found in many cultures and religions. Christians often open the Bible in the same way, as my friend Ruth Campo pointed out to me. “Did you do that when you were a kid?” I asked her. “No,” she answered. “Only as an adult. Back then I thought I knew all the answers.”

Hafez volume with interpretations for divination

Hafez died in 1390 and for more than 600 years Persians, Middle Easterners, and lovers of Sufi poetry have turned to his poems for advice. The tradition persisted through times of war, despots, torture, love and death through the centuries. Certainly today the political and personal situations have changed, to say nothing of the technologies. So whether the issues came up in the 14th or 19th or 21st century, the answers come in the form of a poem. Why a poem? Perhaps while the options being considered in the question may be simple, they may require an answer deeper than a yes or no because our lives are not so clear-cut.

“Unless your mother is doing it for you,” Sahar told me, “you are interpreting for yourself. Hafez is the intermediary, if you will; you draw your own conclusions and find the meaning in the poem that serves as a useful metaphor for your life.” The poem connects divergences and gaps with metaphor. Then the poem, in turn, becomes a metaphor for your life, encouraging you to think poetically and philosophically about decisions in your life. In the end, you find your own solution. As Jackson Browne sings, “bring your own redemption when you come.”

So how can we use this ancient tradition to survive these troubled times? A question that many of us have in our hearts is, “how do I survive the Trump administration?” If I were to pick a work of contemporary poetry to open at random for this question, I would probably select the Collected Works of William Butler Yeats. (Of course, telling you the question would probably jinx it.) And when I open the book like cutting a deck of cards, I feel sure the page would fall on Yeats’ “Second Coming”

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Or perhaps we would do better to consult Hafez, and not only because he calls out hypocrites. “My poems,” he writes, “lift the corners of the mouth – the soul’s mouth, the heart’s mouth. And can effect any opening that can make love.”  Since now it is possible to experience the Fale-e Hafez online, I decided to pose my not-so-secret question at Here is a verse from Ghazal 327 that the webmaster of randomness found for me: 

Tending to desires of the heart
Privately I make a start
Let the liar’s venom part
And let friends play their role

~translated by Shahriar Shahriari

The poet, unlike the politician, always tells the truth, at least a truth. Perhaps the tradition of the Fal-e Hafez is a way to seek wisdom in poetry rather than politics and to find our own pathway and meaningful ways to engage with the world. “At times like this,” Sahar told me, “when so much appears corrupt, the clarity of a poem can seem sacred.”

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.










Treasure Language

Poetry of Everyday Life, blogpost #4

“There are nine different words for the color blue in the Spanish Maya dictionary,” writes Earl Shorris, “but just three Spanish translations, leaving six [blue] butterflies that can be seen only by the Maya, proving that when a language dies six butterflies disappear from the consciousness of the earth.”

6,500 languages – with at least that many words for butterflies – are spoken in our fragile world. By the end of the century more than half will disappear. Our languages are melting like the icecaps.

KHONSAY: POEM OF MANY TONGUES, directed by Bob Holman, produced by myself and City Lore is a tribute and call to action for linguistic diversity. A 15-minute motion poem (poem on film), each line comes from a different endangered or minority language, currently referred to as treasure languages. 48 speakers each speak in their mother tongues, as line by line, language by language, the poem is created. In the Boro tongue of North India, itself a treasure language, Khonsay means to pick up something with great care, as it is rare or scarce. We invite you to watch it here:

The written poem, along with background information, and information on how to contribute to endangered language revitalization appears at .

It was a screening of KHONSAY that piqued the interest of Robert Rosenwasser, Creative Director of Alonzo King LINES Ballet. The ballet, which will premiere in San Francisco on May 4, was choreographed buy Alonzo King to stories, chants, songs in endangered languages; the theme of the ballet is the loss of cultures and resultant disruption in the Ecology of Consciousness. A taste of the ballet was recently seen in “Let the Body Speak,” an event produced by Amy Schoening at the SF Opera. KHONSAY was playing silently in the lobby as the audience gathered, a visual parade of diversity of the world’s language speakers. Then the audience entered the Atrium Theater to the many voices of KHONSAY rising to a crescendo and then then an abrupt silence and blackout – a world without language diversity is a silent world. “Let the Body Speak” was performed by poets, musicians, and dancers from a variety of cultures, and in Chochchenyo Ohlone, Hawaiian, ASL, and Nisenan languages. Bob read the English version of KHONSAY from a scroll as the LINES Ballet dancers swirled around the stage.  The audience joined the Nisenan rock band Walan Amana to end the show with “Isimdiw,” “Stand By Me” in Nisenan, which now has a single fluent speaker. But that night 500 people were singing in this treasure language.

As the poet WS Merwin notes at the close of Bob Holman and David Grubin’s film Language Matters, “where will meanings be when the words are forgotten.” Scholars have shown that many of the world’s most endangered languages and many of the planet’s endangered species appear in the same geographical areas, tying the disappearance of languages to the fate of the planet. Languages like the flora and fauna of the planet are part of a world ecology.

We need to treasure language. “The true author of a poem,” writes Octavio Paz, “is neither the poet nor the reader, but language.” The Poetry of Everyday Life – the wellspring of meaning in our everyday lives – is embedded in words. With the loss of languages around the world humanity loses a portion of its inventive and creative genius, and six blue butterflies disappear from the consciousness of earth.

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.





Donald and the Arts

The Poetry of Everyday Life, Blog Post #3

In October 2016, at the meetings of the American Folklore Society in Miami, I ran into Wolfgang Mieder, a professor of German and Folklore at the University of Vermont and the world’s leading expert on proverbs. He mentioned to me, as we shook our heads over the forthcoming election, that both candidates failed to take advantage of metaphors and colorful language in their campaigns. “Hillary Clinton,” he noted, “makes far more use of proverbs and metaphors in her books (It Takes a Village) than in her speeches.” He lamented that when she was asked about Obamacare, for instance, she didn’t have the proverbial sense to say, “Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.” “On the other hand,” he said, “Donald Trump really does appear to speak basically without metaphors or proverbial phrases.”

Many great presidents, he pointed out, have provided the populace with enduring metaphors (Lincoln’s “A house divided against itself can not stand”) as well as proverbs and turns of phrase (Theodore Roosevelt’s “Speak softly and carry a big stick”). So what are we to make of an artless president, a president with little or no feeling for poetry, language, or art? Metaphors connect ideas—and sometimes people—through language. We find we need poetry at occasions like weddings, where words can create union, funerals, where they ease separation – and politics where they span divides. Instead of calling on language and poetry to connect, Trump instead traffics in power relations. Power is hierarchical, a vertical line that severs other patterns, connections, and meanings. Trump’s linguistic creativity has been limited to insults and name-calling—Pocahontas, Lyin’ Ted, Little Marco, Jeb “Low Energy” Bush.

The language a person uses reflects their worldview, so it should come as no surprise that Trump would propose the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, along with the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, cutting America’s most literate institutions off at the knees. Their elimination would be akin to the destruction of ancient monuments in that it would be difficult if not impossible to ever bring them back. Abolishing them eradicates not only a vast body of knowledge, but also the career-long efforts of smart, caring civil servants who have made the most of the relatively small resources allotted them in honing processes to best support the nation’s arts, heritage, history, and culture.

1982 Heritage Fellow Brownie McGhee Photo by Tom Pich

1982 National Heritage Fellow Brownie McGhee; photo by Tom Pich

In addition, our artists have been among America’s greatest ambassadors. Each year since 1982, for instance, nine to thirteen individuals from across the country are chosen to receive onetime National Heritage Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, in recognition of lifetime achievement and artistic excellence. These individuals embody America’s heritage. The NEA has honored all variety of musicians and craftspeople, including blues singer Brownie McGhee, Irish fiddler Liz Carroll, Chinese opera star Qi Shu Fang, blues singer Mavis Staples, and Cajun fiddler Michael Doucet and Chilkat blanket weaver Clarissa Rizal. Cutting these agencies diminishes the significance of these awards and past awardees, including the parallel NEA awards in jazz and creative writing. I can imagine one of the former honorees saying someday, “Ah, yes, I once won an award from a government that cared about its culture and its art, but those agencies no longer exist.”

2006 Heritage Fellow Mavis Staples Heritage Concert EPhoto by Tom Pich

 2006 National Heritage Award winner Mavis Staples. Photo by Tom Pich.

As Trump so emphatically noted, much of America, particularly in rural areas and small towns, is depressed and wants change. But the arts are part of the solution, not the problem. Shannon Monnat, assistant professor of rural sociology and demographics at Penn State University, explored the election data from districts where Trump did well in November. “I started looking at the data, especially within regions of the country where the opiod epidemic has received a lot of attention. And what I found was that Trump outperformed the previous Republican candidate Mitt Romney the most in counties with the highest drug, alcohol, and suicide mortality rates.” Funded arts programs were never a choice in many of these communities, and the National Endowment for the Arts can help bring a sense of purpose and alleviate some of the hopelessness that plagues these areas of the country, particularly if it were given the necessary resources.

“There’s nothing to do in this town but get high,” said a young woman from one of these towns in a recent television show.” A 2017 study published by the Social Impact of the Arts Project at the University of Pennsylvania notes that “cultural opportunities represent an important dimension of social inclusion and community well-being. The arts provide a resource that people can use to make sense of the world as it is and to imagine the future. Communities with a vital cultural life also enjoy a variety of ‘spillover effects,’ including stronger community and civic engagement, improvements in public health and social stability, and economic revitalization.”

A two-year ethnographic study of collaborative informal arts groups in the Chicago metropolitan area underlined the impact of arts on community. The study, led by Alaka Wali, looked at writing groups, painting circles, choirs, and other informal networks in which people congregate around a shared interest. They discovered that the collective pursuit of informal arts enables people to come together across the often-intransigent boundaries of race and ethnicity. The study suggests that these groups create a “metaphorical space of informality” with few barriers to participation, affirmation, and mentoring. The arts can help bring people together across the ethnic and social divides that defined the recent election.

2001 Heritage Fellow Qui Shu Fang EPhoto by Tom Pich-2

2001 National Heritage Fellow Qi Shu Fang; photo by Tom Pich

“The only cure for life is art,” read a homemade sign that went up after September 11. A taxi driver in New York echoed this sentiment when I asked what he was listening to on the radio: “Music is only thing in this world that’s pure.” We need to pay attention to the poetry and art of everyday life to restore a sense of meaning and purpose to the mental health and well-being of communities across the American landscape.


Certainly, we can come up with our own colorful, metaphorical language to describe Trump in the Oval Office. We know that “there’s a bull in the china shop,” and that “the fox is in the henhouse now.” Trump’s words and actions also often bring to mind a Hasidic proverb: “Not only is what he says not true, but the opposite of what he says isn’t true either.”

Yet asking Trump to use more proverbs would certainly not solve the problem of arts funding or the value we place on arts as a nation; preserving the National Endowment for the Arts, on the other hand, is crucial to our civilization. It costs each American only the price of a postage stamp each year, but consider how much good its programs do in alleviating the despair and lack of opportunity that afflict so many communities across the nation—perhaps even in how many lives they save. It is said that when Winston Churchill, who always supported funding for arts and culture, was asked why he didn’t cut the national arts budget during World War II, he offered this fabled reply: “If we cut the arts, then what are we fighting for?”

* * *

Poetry_book-cover“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.










Art and Protest: A Jewish Folktale

The Poetry of Everyday Life Blogpost #2

February 20, 2017

A story. Once upon a time in the old country, there was a tiny town in a wine-producing region of Eastern Europe. The villagers in this region heard that a revered and renowned rabbi was planning to visit their town on a grand tour. So they called a meeting and said, “We must host a great celebration in the rabbi’s honor.”

Then one of the villagers suggested, “Since we all make wine, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a wine festival where the rabbi could taste the very best of our wine?”

And then someone countered, “But each family only makes a little wine each year. A big celebration would use up a family’s entire supply of wine for a year.”

So they devised a plan. They put a big oak barrel in the center of town, and every week, just after sundown on Shabbat, every household was to bring a small pitcher of red wine and pour it into the cask. Then, by time of the rabbi’s arrival, they would have a full cask.

In one of the village families, Mendel went home and said to his wife Rebecca, “Listen, you know that everyone is going to be bringing wine, and we’re not a rich family. There’s going to be so much wine in that one cask, ours certainly will make no difference. Why don’t we just fill our pitcher up with water? When I take it to the barrel – I’ll pour it right at the lip – I guarantee you that no one will notice.” And that’s what he did, every week.

Six months later, the big day arrived. The villagers set up a stand in the center of town and put the cask on top of it. Right on schedule, the famous rabbi appeared. The townspeople were all very proud of their village and their wine, and they were anxious to impress the rabbi. They presented him with a beautiful, ceremonial kaddish cup to taste the wine and inaugurate the celebration. He put the lovely cup underneath the spigot, filled it up, and lifted it high.

Suddenly there was a gasp from the crowd: his cup was filled to the brim with water.

This story, told to me years ago by Rabbi David Holtz and published in my book Because God Loves Stories, popped into my head as I sat on the bus on the way to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. If everyone thought the way that Mendel and Rebecca did, what would that mean for the protests? Perhaps, as my friend Barbara Dyer pointed out, that’s why the election turned out the way it did – so many stayed home and didn’t vote.  It’s precisely that so many didn’t decide to “pour water and not wine” that we saw the numbers we did at the Women’s March and continue to see at other protests, such as those for immigrant and transgender rights. Though many through history have sacrificed more, their bodies and their blood, we all gave a measure of our time.

At the march in D.C. following Trump’s inauguration, I was struck too by the astonishing creativity we contributed collectively to the protests – from the puppets to the slogans and the imaginative signs: “We’re the witches you forgot to burn.” And the chants, this one heard from middle school children marching near the Capital building, “We want a leader, we want a leader, not a creepy tweeter.”

On my way home, my phoned binged and it was from photographer Martha Cooper who had been at the march. “Why don’t we do something with the signs?” She told me about the installation of signs created at the Washington Memorial.

ecooper7218                    Photo by Martha Cooper

We talked on the phone about how the magnitude and widespread dispersion of the signs and protests across the U.S. and beyond seemed as powerful an outcry as the memorials that cropped up nationwide after September 11th. At that time in 2001, we worked with Martha Cooper to document the memorials and to produce both an online exhibit and an exhibition at the New York Historical Society; 15 years later, we had the opportunity to work with her again. We began to plan an exhibit in the City Lore gallery on the Art of Protest, and we are inviting the public (i.e.: you) to send us images of the signs and your stories to my email below. Let us know, too, if you saved your signs.

170121_nyc_womensmarch_flashart_loresLive-Drawing from 2nd Av & 46th St, NYC Women’s March, January 21, ‘1 © Flash Rosenberg 2017


As our bus pulled into Port Authority, another bit of Jewish folklore occurred to me—this time an often-quoted piece of wisdom from Rabbi Hillel:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?

I began to spin a Talmudic gloss on the line to try to get to its deeper meaning. “If I am only for myself, who am I?” Yes, take action. “If not now, when?” Do it now!

But the first line made me think a little deeper. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” You cannot be only for yourself, but we need to find ways to channel our outrage into creative acts that mean something in our lives. We need to do it for our own sake and our own sanity, to avoid becoming depressed, and in that way, let the other side win. We are doing this so our own lives have meaning as creative beings at the same time as we try affect change in the world. The signs and chants represent art for social change at its best, but they also speak to the poetry of everyday life. So do it for yourself, for your army of one – then let it become an army of two and then four, then four hundred thousand. Let us protest creatively.

And so – as it happened in story – my wife Amanda and I decided not to skimp on the wine we poured into the cask. We got on the bus to DC. Because we marched, five hundred thousand marched. Because you did, others did. Three million worldwide….

paintinghopingpraying_mongeon_blog           Painting, Hoping, Praying: Women’s March on Washington.” Artwork by Jessica Mongeon


       *        *        *

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.




January 27, 2017

“We all have to face this thing sometime,” my wife’s father, Lucas Dargan, told me around the time he turned ninety-nine.

Six months later, he found himself facing precisely that “thing.” A retired forester who planted over two million trees in his lifetime, he had split wood every morning until two years before.

Photo by Sarah Dargan

Photo by Sarah Dargan

Tonight, he lay in a hospital bed at the McCleod hospital in Florence, South Carolina, unable to properly swallow or get out of bed unassisted. Family members took turns staying overnight with him, and this night was my turn. At one point, I thought he was sleeping. I was working on my computer, when I heard lines from a poem coming from the other side of the room:


I am dying, Egypt, dying

Ebbs the crimson life-tide fast,

And the dark Plutonian shadows

Gather on the evening blast


“I think it’s from Shakespeare,” he told me, so I brought my laptop over to his bedside and looked up the lines. Born in 1917, Lucas was always amazed at the magic of the Internet to access any tidbit of knowledge. The verse turned out to be from a poem by William Haines Lytle inspired by Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. The first line, “I am dying, Egypt, dying,” is from the play itself. We then looked up the drama online and found Marc Antony’s soliloquy that begins with that line. Then I read to him from Shakespeare’s play.


Photo by Rosa Dargan Powers





       Photo by Rosa Dargan Powers

When I finished, he said, “Steve, when I close my eyes I think of the billions of people who have done this before me.”

“Well, you know you’ll be remembered,” I said.

“That’s true,” he said, “not as good as heaven—but a lot better than hell.”

The next day the doctor told Lucas and the family that there was nothing more to be done medically and recommended hospice care. That day, we brought Lucas home to the family farm and set up his bed in the living room, where for the next three weeks he was surrounded by family members and a stream of visitors, including guests for the weekly poetry and music nights he had hosted at the house for many years. Other visitors included members of his old Boy Scout troop, who talked about what they had learned from him, and a local farmer, David White, who had started a tradition of bringing lunch to share with Lucas every Monday, and who this time brought in a newborn duckling on his visit.

Among his many visitors was the hospice chaplain with whom Lucas couldn’t help but share his view of religion: “I do not claim to understand the nature of the Supreme Being, and I do not acknowledge that anyone else does either.” Lucas was a devoted agnostic who believed that it was just as much a leap of faith to be an atheist as a believer. The chaplain, who returned for a second visit, said he enjoyed discussing spirituality with Lucas and concluded, “He just doesn’t want to put God in a box.”

It was clear to all of us that in his final days Lucas sought solace in poetry, not religion. He told my wife Amanda, “I think all poets share a deep concern for the human condition.” And the poets whose works he wanted to hear or to recite were those who wrote about death and dying and those whose poems he had memorized when he was young.

Many of the poems he knew by heart, including some we had never heard him recite before. Once, when I asked if he wanted us to read him a poem, he said, “Steve, look up Carruth.”

“Carruth?” I said.

“Yes, C-a-r-r-u-t-h, William Herbert Carruth.”

The poem he had in mind, “Each in His Own Tongue,” seemed to capture Lucas’s poetic perspective on religion. I picked up his tattered copy of One Hundred and One Famous Poems, published in 1924. I read a line from the poem, A haze on the far horizon. Lying in his bed, he recited the second from memory, The infinite, tender sky. I read the third line, and then he responded with the fourth from memory. We went all through the poem in tandem.


The ripe, rich tint of the cornfields,

And the wild geese sailing high—

And all over the upland and lowland

The charm of the goldenrod—

Some of us call it Autumn,

And others call it God.


A day or two later, he asked Amanda to read him the poem “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant, another classic nineteenth-century poem about death.


. . . When thoughts

Of the last bitter hour come like a blight

Over thy spirit, and sad images

Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,

And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,

Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart . . .


As she read, Amanda watched her father close his eyes. She thought he had drifted off to sleep, and she put the book down, too sad to continue. When he opened his eyes a few minutes later, her sister Rosa asked, “Would you like to hear another poem?”

“Not yet,” he said. “Amanda hasn’t finished the one she was reading.”

Rosa finished reading Bryant’s poem.


So live, that when thy summons comes to join

The innumerable caravan, that moves

To that mysterious realm, where each shall take

His chamber in the silent halls of death,

Thou go not, like the quarry slave at night,

Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed

By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave

Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch

About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.


Lucas draped himself in the weave of his favorite poems as he confronted death, as if he could pull them up like a blanket. They kept him warm and clearly helped him approach his death with peace of mind. His amazing mind—“fastened to a dying animal,” as Yeats put it—remained sharp until the end. He didn’t stop reciting and listening to poems until the day before he died. “We should all aspire to his life—and his death,” his nephew Rod McIver said.

As befitted this man, his daughters planned the funeral service to include his grandchildren reading some of his favorite poems, including Shelley’s “The Cloud,” Masefield’s “Sea Fever,” and Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar.” The service closed with his poetry-night stalwarts—Stanley Thompson, David Brown, and Worth Lewellyn—playing his favorite song, “Loch Lomond,” on fiddle and guitar. (“You take the high road and I’ll take the low and I’ll get to Scotland before you . . . ” )

I was left mulling over the lines we had read together from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.


This case of that huge spirit now is cold . . .

And there is nothing left remarkable

                                                   Beneath the visiting moon.                                                                                       


                                                                                              ~Steve Zeitlin


*      *      *


Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to, “By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness. “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.




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