Many citizens say they feel we are in troubled political times, and they may be asking themselves: “What can I do to make a difference?”
When a bunch of writers ask themselves this question, the answer arises: with words. Words work. Words matter.
Many cities across the country hosted an event on Sunday, Jan. 15, called Writers Resist, in which writers banded together to share inspiring readings (see: http://www.writersresist.org). The Philadelphia event, organized by local writers Stephanie Feldman, Alicia Askenase, and Nathaniel Popkin, took place in the auditorium of the National Museum of American Jewish History, which donated the space.
After a welcome from Askenase and a performance of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” by Joey Sweeney, a parade of more than thirty writers graced the stage, each presenting a carefully chosen reading. The organizers worked together to find appropriate selections, as Popkin explains: “The three of us assembled the readings, created a rhythmic order, a potent mix of periods and types of writing. In some cases, the writers chose texts they particularly liked and felt strongly about reading. Those integrated seamlessly into the list we’d already created … and we kept working on the readings right up to Saturday.”
Popkin also spoke about his goals for the event: “One is the need to stand up to protect First Amendment rights. Writers in every society have particular responsibility, and historically are the observers, documenters, dreamers … ” He continues: “But the second reason for doing the event was to unite the disparate cells of the Philly literary community with a common purpose. My sense of Philly is that we have an incredibly rich community of writers, but it isn’t visible and it’s fragmented.”
Writers participating in the event represented a wide range of genres and backgrounds. Readings included poems, excerpts from political speeches and novels, and letters, all presented with passion by readers who wanted to share words that mattered to them, words that they hoped would inspire the SRO crowd in the hall.
It was fascinating to hear political words from generations past in the context of today’s situation, from FDR’s 1939 acceptance speech for renomination (delivered in Philadelphia at Franklin Field), to words delivered at the 1876 National Woman Suffrage Association (also in Philadelphia), to Angelina Grimke’s speech at the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women in 1838. Poets from Jameson Fitzpatrick to Allen Ginsberg to Langston Hughes were represented, along with writer Beth Kephart’s poetic reading of the lyrics from Bruce Springsteen’s song “Further On (Up the Road).” I was extremely moved by an excerpt from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, read by writer and Penn professor Herman Beavers.
Organizers were pleased with the results. Feldman said, “Yesterday reminded me how important it is for us – writers, readers, citizens – to come together in the same room. I think we all needed to feel that camaraderie, and the enduring American spirit the readings express. If nothing more were to come, that would be a worthwhile end in itself. But there is more to come. We've received an outpouring of enthusiasm. Philadelphia writers want to work together to counter attacks on the press, the vote, and vulnerable members of our American community.”
“Yesterday’s event exactly hit my expectations: tone, tenor, energy, good-will, and the words and voices that brought them to life seemed to carry extra poignance, extra meaning when arranged next to each other,” Popkin said. “My sense in reading comments on Facebook and from what people told me after: people were struck by the humility and humanity of writers reading other people’s work. They were both inspired and frustrated that we’ve been fighting these fights as long as we have, and they were reminded, with the extraordinary beauty and grace of the texts, that writers matter, that writing matters, that it gives shape to our greatest hopes as human beings.”
A follow-up meeting is planned for Feb. 5. Information: writersresistphl.tumblr.com. For more comments on and responses to the Jan. 15 event, check #writersresistPHL on Twitter.
Lynn Rosen is the Inquirer books blogger and co-owner of the Open Book Bookstore in Elkins Park. Share comments, favorite books, and suggestions with her at email@example.com.