Culture Vulture: Lifting Every Voice – Occupy UAG Open Mic @ Upstate Artists Guild, 1/18/12

Pete Yahnke's "Hold Fast" and "Up Rising"  @ UAG, Albany

Pete Yahnke's "Hold Fast" and "Up Rising"

By J Hunter
Photographs by J Hunter

One of the many problems hands-free cell phone technology has caused is you’re not sure if a crazy/angry person is just trying to talk to someone over a bad connection. So as I huddled with poet/peace activist Dan Wilcox and several other souls inside the entranceway to the building that houses Upstate Artists Guild, I didn’t know the short-haired, middle-aged, bespectacled, yelling guy storming up the other side of Lark Street was actually pissed about something until he stopped and started yelling at us!

“SHUT THAT FUCKING PLACE DOWN,” he bellowed, shaking his fist at us from behind a parked car. “THEY CAN’T CENSOR ME! HAVE YOU SEEN THAT SHIT? THAT’S NOT ART! I’M A PROFESSIONAL ILLUSTRATOR…” The man had much more to say, but he started walking up the street again, so we missed the rest of his rant.

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It was good that the man moved on – not because it would have been fun to get in a fight with him (verbal or otherwise), but because this night was supposed to have a more thought-out focus: Wilcox had conceived of this event not only as a fundraiser for UAG, which is still in a tenuous financial position; he was also looking for people willing to offer literary reactions to Occupy Albany and the Occupy movement as a whole. For Wilcox, that meant poetry, something he’s been a champion of in the Capital Region for three decades.

“This town has more poetry readings per capita than anywhere else,” he informed the other folks who braved the vicious cold whipping down Lark Street. Not only did he list Open Mics currently being held everywhere from the Social Justice Center (where Wilcox holds court on the third Thursday of every month) and Caffe Lena to downtown bars like Valentine’s and McGeary’s. We also got a fascinating mini-history of poetry in the region, beginning with the readings the late Tom Nattall set up at the late, great QE2. When it comes to his craft, Wilcox is a big believer in this area. “There’s only been one month since 1997 that I didn’t have a place!”

Wilcox brought two of his works to the reading, both political in nature: “What It Really Was…” was an alternate view of what happened in the war in (Iraq/Afghanistan/Libya), while “One Day Longer” was inspired by the chants Wilcox heard while attending rallies and marches at Occupy D.C. His verses were mixed with calls from the marchers themselves (“WHOSE STREETS?” “OUR STREETS!” “WHICH STREETS?” “THESE STREETS!”), and you could hear the adrenaline from those events creep into his voice as it rose, and you couldn’t help but be inspired. This was one of those moments you are supposed to tell your grandkids about around the fire, and even though Wilcox had boiled it all down to a few verses, the flavor of it all went deeply into your mouth.

Vermont transplant Ed Fagen came next. His work “Christmas Owed” didn’t deal directly with Occupy, but it eloquently addressed our current economic climate from the point-of-view of your average one-percenter, whom Fagan skewered with his protagonist’s own greed. John DelSignore didn’t have a poem, but he did have a beat-up Guild acoustic guitar, which he used to play his composition “Don’t You Know.” Even though he insisted, “I’m not really a performer”, del Signore’s obvious familiarity with the blues form helped him deliver a pretty good song that summed up his introduction: “A little revolution is good for the country once in a while.”

It was statuesque redhead Carolee Sherwood (who Wilcox referred to as “my off-line memory bank”) who helped nail the evening for me. Her two pieces – “Apiary”, which talked about the city and all who are surrounded by it, and the anti-war-themed “Boy Leaps from Burning Building” – were quite affecting; she read “Apiary” from her smart phone, which was a pretty cool link between today’s digital world and the ancient analog world of Yeats and Auden and Eliot. But it was the beginning of her introduction to “Boy” that rang a bell for me: “The Occupy movement, for me, is about finding your voice…”

And there it is. Up until Occupy took off, anyone not down with the Dubya/Cheney/Tea Party Patriot line has to have felt like a punching bag these last eleven years. Don’t like the war in (Iraq/Afghanistan/Libya)? “TERRORIST!” Got a problem with bank bail-outs or CEOs floating away on golden parachutes? “SOCIALIST!” Want the one-percent to pay what they used to pay in the Clinton years? “CLASS WARFARE!” That last outburst inspired the best poster I saw at OWS: “They only call it class warfare when we fight back!” That’s what Occupy was, and (hopefully) still is: People finally finding their voices, standing up in droves, and saying, “WE are the people you’ve damaged! We are REAL! We are NOT invisible! And we are NOT going to let you get away with it any more!” And despite Newt’s insistence that Occupy is nothing but dirty hippies who should “take a bath and get a job,” the movement inspired more and more people, from all walks and generations, to step into the light and say, “ENOUGH!”

Which brings me to the art on display at UAG. Only a few pieces directly address Occupy: Pete Yahnke’s “Hold Fast” harkens back to the civil-rights song “WE Shall Not Be Moved”, while “Up Rising” focuses on music as a form of protest, although the bleeding hands that play the drum make a great metaphor for the powerless in this country. Emily Breunig’s brilliant mixed-media/”found object” piece “It’s Simple” is nothing but cardboard and flyers, but you can see someone actually collecting these items as he/she learns more about Occupy and the causes surrounding it. Patrick Gaiter’s “We’re Ruining the Land We Stole” and Heather Blossom Brown’s “A Growing Dilemma” focus on attitudes and after-effects of the crash-and-burn economics of post-9/11, while Lorenz M. Worden’s “Occupied By” series dovetails more with Lee’s “Apiary” than it does the Occupy movement itself.

In any case, Upstate Artist’s Guild was filled Wednesday night with people – either physically, or through their work – who have found (or who are trying to find) their voice in age where the ruling class would prefer they shut up. Which makes me wonder about our screaming friend at the top of this story: Was his problem the media… or the messages?

Dan Wilcox’s report and photographs at Albany Poets

Heather Blossom Brown: "A Growing Dilemma"

Heather Blossom Brown: "A Growing Dilemma"

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