By Gabrielle Matthews
The gilded interior of Gaston Hall filled with the sounds of subdued chatter on March 30th, 2009, as the expectant audience waited for the program to begin. This was the beginning of “Cry Havoc! Poetry of War and Remembrance 1968-2008,” the 2009 Lannan Literary Symposium and Festival
In 1968 the Vietnam war was ongoing—but that same year saw Seymour Hirsh break the story of the massacre at My Lai, which helped spur the outcry against the war, and eventually helped lead to the withdrawal of American troops.
“In 2008, it’s natural to come up with 40 years after 1968—there have been dozens, if not hundreds of commemorations around the world,” said Professor Henry Schwarz
, Director of the Lannan Symposium, which is one of those commemorations. The first night of the symposium saw a tribute to Fr. Daniel Berrigan, SJ by Georgetown’s Program on Justice and Peace. Fr. Berrigan was given the award of Honorary Peacemaker by the program in recognition of his ongoing work with pacifists and war resistors. He was jailed several times for his efforts in the Vietnam era, one of which included carrying the files of young draftees out of a war office and burning them with homemade napalm—a devastating incendiary substance used in the Vietnam war, amongst others.
“The good is to be done because it is good,” rang the words of Fr. Berrigan, spoken by Professor Carolyn Forché
, who accepted the award on his behalf. Other speakers that evening included Seymour Hirsh, renowned independent journalist and Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now!
: both leaders in efforts to expand independent media in the US.
“In order to truly participate in democracy, we need to have independent and accurate media,” said Schwarz. “Information is the backbone of decision-making, and both Amy Goodman and Seymour Hirsh are pioneers in the field of independent journalism. We’re thrilled to welcome them to Georgetown to open the festival.”
“We have to wrest it back,” Amy Goodman said of media. “We need a fourth estate, not a ‘for the state’!” she exclaimed to resounding applause from the audience. The opening panel was an energetic beginning to what proved to be a moving collection of poetry symposiums over the following two days.
“There is no question that art in general, and poetry in particular, has an ability to engage people around issues of justice in ways that discursive academic writing cannot,” said Professor Mark Lance
, who in addition to his work as the Director of the Program on Justice and Peace
is also a professor of Philosophy
at Georgetown. “Poetry seems to have a special ability to engage us emotionally in ways that are indicative of very serious moral truths.”
And these moral truths are ones that Georgetown professors explore in their own research. Professor Carolyn Forché, who consulted with Schwarz on the selection of poets for the event, and who read her own poetry and moderated at the panels, is a poet of war and witness herself. She invited poets who were both younger and older, who fought in Vietnam or in the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, or who are civilian witnesses of war.
“War has had a relation to poetry from the earliest Gilgamesh epic to the present, and the way in which warfare has entered the poetic imagination has evolved over the centuries,” said Forché. “We’re interested in the way in which contemporary poets are marked by wars of their time, whether they are soldiers or civilians.”
Forché’s work on war and witness is taking a new dimension. An award winning poet—she has a Yale Younger Poets Award and a Los Angeles Times Book Award amongst others—at the moment she is also completing a memoir of her own war experiences. This book will examine how she became a poet, her role as a writer and a witness, and “ideas about the intersection of ethics and poetics.” She is also working on another book of poems and another of essays that will address the intersection of poetry and human rights. Professor Forché has been a human rights activist for 30 years, as well as a poet and a scholar of holocaust literature. She is also pleased to be teaching at Georgetown.
“I was of course very happy to come to Georgetown. This university has long been associated with concern for social justice and human rights,” she explained. Her mentor, Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, who was assassinated in the March of 1980, was given a peace award by Georgetown. “I believe that peace award, bestowed upon him by Georgetown University, probably kept him alive longer than he would have been allowed to live without that kind of attention, and without that international support. So, I was so grateful to Georgetown at that time, years ago, and I know the history of Georgetown’s commitment, and I’m very proud to be here, and be part of that.”
Schwarz, one of the founders of the Program on Justice and Peace at Georgetown, is a literary theorist and professor of English who publishes regularly on post-colonial and cultural studies. His academic career took him from Duke University to India, where he studied social justice and Budhan street theater
with the prominent activist Mahasweta Devi. Schwarz has just completed a book and a documentary film
about Budhan theater. Like Devi, Schwarz sees culture as a tool for social justice, and sees his role as helping make art like poetry and literature an instrument of change.
“Although my work has primarily been about social justice in India, I see opportunities to work in the US as well,” said Schwarz. “We are in a time of war, and there must be more attention given to the suffering of both civilians and soldiers. Poetry is an excellent medium for transmitting emotion, and in grouping these particular poets for the Lannan Symposium, I hope we are bringing greater awareness to how poetry and suffering are integrated.”
This work brings greater awareness through culture to the devastation of war—as with the Lannan Symposium this year. The event brought together Iraqi civilian poets and American soldiers, a British journalist and poet as well as a Cambodian poet who chants in Khmer. While unarguably the symposium was moving and disturbing, the frequent glimpses of beauty and hope were especially poignant.
“A culture is not just created by catastrophes, but about its affirmations of life,” said Khaled Mattawa, a poet and translator of exiled Iraqi poet Saadi Yousef, in a panel on Tuesday, March 31st. Such glimpses of hope served to not only bring greater awareness and engagement with the culture surrounding war, but to cement Georgetown’s dedication to justice.
“Georgetown has a strong ethical commitment as a university to do the right thing in the community and the world,” said Schwarz. “And just as we ask our students to be ethical citizens, we urge the university to take principled positions, pressing issues of the day, and this symposium combines the Jesuit mission in education and citizenship.”
Professors Henry Schwarz, Carolyn Forché and Mark McMorris talk about their work on the 2009 Lannan Literary Symposium and Festival. Poets from the event read their compositions on war, witness and remembrance.