The awful atrocities committed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine's Day stand out as the year's most wrenching national tragedy (so far). But they always say that every cloud has a silver lining, and the political story of the year, without question, has been the stirring response mustered by the survivors of that mass shooting, who rose up with one voice on behalf of their fallen classmates to do what no one really thought would be possible, under any circumstances: effect real, substantive change in the nation's gun laws, in the midst of an epochal election cycle.
There's been a cultural shift, as well, with America's youth motivated and acting to drive policies like never before. These activities are culminating, for the moment, with the March For Our Lives, being held on Saturday, March 24 in Washington, D.C., with satellite rallies scheduled for dozens of other cities around the nation, including right here in Jacksonville. Much like the Women's Marches of the last two years, these promise to be seminal events that further catalyze the so-called Resistance, while galvanizing a whole new generation of activists. Power To The People, and all that.
On the night before the march, there will be a number of poetry readings in the relevant cities, at which writers and laymen will raise their voices in defiance of this disturbing trend toward hyper-violence. These readings are being coordinated by 100 Thousand Poets for Change. The organization, founded eight years ago by Terri Carrion and Michael Rothenberg, runs as many as 500 events every year, in 100 countries around the globe.
Here in Northeast Florida, the locus of their focus is Babs' Lab in Riverside, the latest creative effort from the indispensable Ms. Barbara Colaciello-actress, director, teacher and general facilitator of the city's performing arts scene for two decades now. Colaciello is working in conjunction with the roving poet performers Bards & Brews, whose emcee, Keri Foster, has been hosting spoken-word events around town for five years.
"I've personally been hosting events since 2013," she says, "and so I have had a front seat to the circles of writers that revolve around each other, giving and taking energy and attention, informing and inspiring in turn. From backyard whiskey gatherings, where poems are read from notebooks by firelight, to university programs like those at UNF that inspire students to create their own publications, like Perversion magazine. From the packed-out underground of De Real Ting Cafe to DIY zines crafted with artistic integrity and intention, there's a huge scene in town right now and it's a joy to take in."
Long before becoming a host, she was a fan like all the rest of us, sitting quietly in random places, transfixed by the long list of voices this city has produced. "I've been actively following the poetry scene in Jacksonville since 2008," she says, "when I saw Moses West perform on the second floor of the then-empty Haydon Burns Library at a more lawless ArtWalk, but even before that, I've known that the scene existed, having seen Al Letson perform with David Girard and Larry Knight back when I was just a wee art school baby. I remember being deeply impacted by the interchange of passionate voices moving in and around each other, in and around complex layers of identity and story. Spoken-word developed into a passion of mine and I've made it a goal since to seek out the local events and poets and support in any way that I can, which is easy because there are actually a handful of solid events and writers in town that are active and economically accessible."
When it comes to poetry and spoken-word, of course, Bards & Brews isn't the only game in town. It's just one of several fine organizations running regular events around the city, going back decades, to the days of Alan Justiss, Midnight Expresso and Nicotine Meltdown. "When people come to me to host events and it's up to me to assemble a list of poets," says Foster, "I can think of 15 to 20 people off the top of my head that I know with certainty [are] down for anything.
"The poetry events I've hosted have all been free, and entry to my favorite event in town, The Cypher, is only five dollars, which is, of course, practically free. You can't have a conversation about poetry in Jacksonville without mentioning The Cypher, which has been going on every week for years, acting as an incubation tank for Duval poets who have launched full-blown careers through their art. It's inspiring to see the love in the community, to see dreams realized. I remember watching Ebony Payne's one-woman show with Phase Eight Theater Company last year, tears streaming uncontrollably with joy for her continued success as a monster artist and poet."
While it's taken a little time to get a solid retinue of events back in regular rotation, Foster notes that there is no shortage of talent-old, young and everything in between. "Writers like Tim Gilmore, G.M. Palmer, Andres Rojas, Teri Youmans Grimm, Johnny Masiulewicz, Kathleen Shelton are all indispensable for their participation in the scene and their love for the craft," she says. "And, for every poet I know, I know there's yet still more I don't know, more words tucked away in journals and draft boxes, more writers in town I will come to know."
There's a lengthy list of performers already scheduled, including poet David Girard, whose one-man show is being held there right before the event. Other readers include Ebony Payne, Larry Knight, Tim Gilmore and Johnny Masiulewicz. Events will also be held the same night in Coconut Creek, Miami, Orlando, Pensacola, St. Augustine, Tallahassee, Tampa and Delray/West Palm Beach.
"My goal for Verse Against Violence is straightforward," says Foster. "I want to open and hold space for artistic dissent against the current administration, its white supremacist values, and its prioritization of corporate welfare over that of its tax-paying citizens." With a roster of talent running this deep, it's likely that all those objectives will be achieved. Overall, Verse Against Violence promises to be a very strong start to what should be a game-changing weekend, here and around the country.