(He Was One Of Our International Patrons @ Society of Young Nigerian Writers (SYNW).
MICHAEL Rothenberg is an American poet, songwriter, editor, artist, and environmentalist. In 2011, Rothenberg and his partner Terri Carrion co-founded 100 Thousand Poets for Change. 100 Thousand Poets for Change is a global poetry and arts movement with an emphasis on peace, justice, sustainability and education. In this Interview with Wole Adedoyin, he shared with him full details about his movement, 100 Thousand Poets for Change (100TPFC) and his writing career.
The story of world poetry has been told to date through 100tpc – Michael Rothenberg – Co-founder, 100 TPFC
Tell us about 100 Thousand Poets for Change
100 Thousand Poets for Change was initially conceived by myself and Terri Carrion in March, 2011, as a worldwide set of events to take place simultaneously on September 24, 2011. Literary event organizers volunteered to host associated events in their own cities or schools. On September 13, 2011, the city of Santa Rosa, California, declared September 24, 2011, to be “100 Thousand Poets for Change Day,” and Stanford University offered to archive all documentation and audiovisual records of the event posted on the 100TPC website.
Ultimately, 700 events in 550 cities in 95 countries took place on September 24 of 2011 in conjunction with 100TPC, and the event was described by Stanford University as “the largest poetry event in history.” Considering the series of events to be a success, myself and co-founder Terri Carrion decided to pursue non-profit status for 100 Thousand Poets for Change and establish an annual event in September of each year.
In 2018, 100 Thousand Poets for Change added a literacy initiative, “Read A Poem To A Child.” A .pdf of children’s poetry collected by Florida State University Libraries was made available as a free download. The poems in the .pdf were selected from The John MacKay Shaw Collection, which consists of books, works of art, manuscripts, catalogs and ephemera related to childhood. The collection includes bibliographies, biographies, literature, poetry, and criticism. Over 2,000 individuals and organizations permitted in this initiative.
Although the worldwide 100TPC event is scheduled for the last Saturday of September each year, it currently takes place year-round. “Read A Poem To A Child” runs for the week up to and including the global day to allow for school participation.
Tell us about Terri Carrión, co-founder of 100TPC. What is her role in all this?
MR: The creation of 100TPC was a true collaboration with Terri Carrion. The creation of the movement would have beenimpossible without her. Terri has been a key force in formulating the ideas of the movement and defining our mission. Terri works actively on social mediareaching out to new organizers. Terri also maintains the website facilitating documentation and posting news of events, also expanding the poster gallery which is one of the most inspirational features of the website. The logo design we have all become familiar with is Terri’s creation. Also, important to note that Terri is bi-lingual, her first language is Spanish, and she has made it possible for 100TPC to communicate with Spanish-speaking literary communities in the early years of our creation; and along with Pilar Rodriguez Aranda, one of our earliest organizers in Mexico, Terri has initiated communications with organizers in Central and South America. You really should interview Terri.
What actually led to the establishment of the movement?
MR: Things were pretty depressing around the world. We had two wars going on and a heartbreaking oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. I grew up in Florida, on the Gulf Coast. I spent most of my formative years there, around the Everglades, so it really hurt me. I had this sense of personal death. Terri and I were doing many benefit readings for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. We helped organize poetry and music events around Northern California and Los Angeles but the overall response to that was very weak. I thought everyone’s attention would turn to the Gulf Coast oil disaster, so I was extremely depressed when the national response was just as weak and the whole country did not rise in protest of the policies that led to this disaster. Then, Fukishima. It seemed the message was clear but still everyone went back to doing whatever they were doing. Business as usual. There was the Arab Spring; there was Madison. There were some good things happening, signs of hope, but I was really feeling down. Did we need more major disasters to prove that things had to change? I mean, the Gulf oil disaster was the worst environmental disaster in the history of the United States, where was the outrage? I was saying to someone on Facebook, “there ought to be 100 thousand poets for change,” and the person said, “that’s a good idea.” It was almost like a challenge. Oh yeah, right. It’s a good idea. The chance of getting poets engaged really seemed hopeless. But I said to myself, okay one more challenge. I’m gonna put down the gauntlet. I set up an event page on Facebook and it read, “Do you want to join other poets around the USA and across the planet in a demonstration/celebration of poetry to promote serious social, environmental, and political change? And I invited all my Facebook friends. I honest to God didn’t think anybody was going to respond. But they did.
100 Thousand Poets for Change, what kind of a change are we talking about?
MR: The first order of change is for poets, writers, musicians, artists, activists to get together to create and perform, educate and demonstrate, simultaneously, with other communities around the world. This will change how we see our local community and the global community. We have all become incredibly alienated in recent years. We hardly know our neighbors down the street let alone our creative allies who live and share our concerns in other countries. We need to feel this kind of global solidarity. It will be empowering.
And of course there is the political/social change that many of us are talking about these days. There is trouble in the world. Wars, violation of human rights, ecocide, racism, genocide, gender inequality, homelessness, the lack of affordable medical care, police brutality, religious persecution, poverty, censorship, animal cruelty, the list goes on and on.
It appears that transformation towards a more sustainable world is a major concern and could be a global guiding principle for 100 TPC events. Peace also seems to be a common cause. War is not sustainable. There is an increasing sense that we need to move forward and stop moving backwards. But we are trying not to be dogmatic. We hope that together we can develop our ideas of the “change/transformation” we are looking for as a global community, and that each local community group will decide their own specific area of focus for change for their particular event. All we ask is that local communities organize events about change within the guidelines of peace and sustainability.
Can you share with us the structure of 100 Thousand Poets For Change?
MR: 100TPC was founded in Guerneville, California but, most organizational tasks are done by individual organizers of local events. Event organizers in individual cities volunteer to create an event in association with 100TPC. Then we publicize the event through the web site, social media outlets, and conventional press releases. The relationship between most local organizers and the 100TPC headquarters remains informal, conducted primarily through e-mail. Organizers do not become officers or employees of 100TPC. Organizers can communicate with each other through the 100 TPC Organization & Communication Hub, a Facebook group available to 100TPC event organizers, where they are encouraged, but not required, to work together and to learn about each other’s events to help develop event ideas. Local organizers, then, have full control over the style and structure of their events—their only obligation is to register their event with the main 100TPC web site. Some event organizers have free events; others charge an entry fee and donate proceeds to charity that is determined by the local organizer. The Hub is also an important place to make creative contacts for international translation and publication.
Most 100TPC events take place in September. Each year, the last Saturday in September is named “100 Thousand Poets for Change Day” and publicity is focused on that date. Some organizers choose to create 100TPC events on different days throughout the year and 100TPC will register and publicize those events regardless of when they take place.
The concept of “Change” in the name 100 Thousand Poets for Change refers to social change, but is otherwise broadly defined and dependent on the definitions of individual organizers or poets. 100TPC events do not necessarily share political or philosophical orientation. The 100TPC web site describes the “change” as having only to fall “within the guidelines of peace, justice and sustainability.”
As the co-founder and promoter of 100 Thousand Poets For Change, what kinds of obstacles do you face?
MR: First of all, there are a lot of things going on in people’s lives, I understand. We are worried and busy. There’s the economy and jobs. There are activities, organizations and things people are already involved in that take their attention. There is just so much any one of us can do. But what I’m suggesting is that people look at 100TPC as a way of organizing a coalition that has an arts base to it; that pulls all the other local concerns together under one international umbrella. That together we can do what we are already doing but have the impact of community strength.
And some people ask me, “Where is PEN? Where is Poets & Writers and where is the American Academy of Poets? Why aren’t they supporting 100 Thousand Poets for Change in a more aggressive way?” I don’t know how to answer these questions. Everyone can’t do everything. But we do look to our more prominent poetry organizations to connect with this movement. We should be building alliances not empires. Of course, maybe they don’t know about 100TPC. We always need to do more outreach.
What has been the biggest achievement of 100 Thousand Poets For Change (100TPC)?
MR: The very fact that anybody cares about this movement is an empowering achievement. The very fact that we have gathered in global unity is a major achievement. The very fact that your group, Society of Young Nigerian Writers is talking with us about change in an achievement.. We have brought mimes, musicians, painters, photographers, dancers, ecologists, teachers, students from around the world together to share their energies, their creativity, their work, their translations, their books, their visions, their dreams, this is an achievement. Have we changed the world? I think this sharing is change and is a catalyst for expanded awareness that facilitates change. Poets and artists from around the world are getting to now each other like never before and do not have to rely on huge corporate institutions to facilitate exchange. 100TPC is a cultural exchange platform available to everyone, free and unhindered, this is an achievement that I am grateful for, Every time someone writes me and says they want to participate, I am empowered and grateful. Over the years people who didn’t participate in previous years sign up so the community expands. The successful addition of “Read A Poem To A Child” as a 100TPC initiative shows that we are growing and expanding perspectives and functions we had not imagined. We hope Society of Young Nigerian Writers can be a force to lead the way towards expanding perspectives and opening more channels for sharing of creative inspiration.
Why do you think that poetry and change go together?
MR: When I first moved to California from Florida in 1975, I opened a tropical plant nursery and got very involved in the environmental movement. I worked with other organizers to get both Sweeney Ridge and Mori Point included in the national parks system. I served as a planning commissioner in my town as a result of my activism. That didn’t last very long because I wasn’t comfortable working within the system but I was willing to try anything. I had a mentor, Amy Meyer, who worked for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. She taught me a lot about activism. But prior to moving to California, I already believed that being involved in the world was part of my job as a poet. I learned from other poets as I was coming up. When I was in high school Allen Ginsberg was running around protesting war, and obviously I was of that protest generation. I understood from the poets of my day that poets knew all about the world and cared all about the world. This was the language of a great deal of poetry of my day and I never questioned it. Poets have been willing to go to jail for survival of the planet, to end war, to defy censorship, to speak about human rights. This made sense. The very act of creating poetry transforms reality, even when it isn’t overtly political, and therefore by its very transformative nature poetry is change. Michael McClure was very influential to me. His Meat Science Essays opened my eyes immensely to nature and ecology and the multiplicity of expressions possible through poetry. Lawrence Ferlinghetti was outspoken and spoke clearly about the world in an eye-opening way, his voice was for me a clarion call when I was a young man. And I loved the Romantic poets and they were activists, they were engaged poets, there is a tradition of engagement in poetry so 100TPC is part of a tradition.
As poets, we’re supposed to be well read. Reading expands the mind and that expansion is change. We’re supposed to know all about rocks and stars, about nature and culture, about many languages and many countries and peoples and existences. That awareness is change. We’re supposed to know about all of the arts, all kinds of artists, all kinds of schools of artists, not just our own. Awareness of a multi-cultural, multi-generational, global art is change. Poets are supposed to know about many things. Knowing is change. At least that is what I was taught growing up as a poet. For me, this is what it’s about to be a poet. Change is what a poet does. Poets get involved.
Tell us about the archiving project at stanford. What is the significance of that?
MR: One of the goals of this movement is to tell the story of the planet today. How we write, how we create, how we see the world. And what we dream and what we desire. There needs to be a record, a history. Stanford came along and volunteered to archive everything—the blog, the website, everything, through the LOCKSS program. They felt 100TPC was an historical movement and had a history worth saving. They got the Archive Foundation involved. And so all the text, video, audio, posters, comments from individual event location blog pages on the 100TPC is archived.
There is a story of world poetry that has been told to-date through 100TPC. If you sat down and read it all, you might have the most complete record compiled of world poetry ever. Where else will you see 500 cities represented, through poetry, posters, community reflections all in one place? And there is the 100 TPC YouTube Channel where there are hundreds of videos of poetry readings and other events from all around the world, from September 24th, 2011 and beyond, available for viewing! For a historian, for an academic, for a librarian, anybody who is interested in the history of the world, this is huge. I’ve always found the libraries to be very cool. In recent years, Florida State University, where I am the Florida State University Libraries Poet in Residence, has stepped up to expand our archiving capacity and recently put on an exhibit which discussed a lot of what 100TPC is about. The story continues.
What does it require to organize an event for 100 Thousand Poets For Change
100 Thousand Poets for Change will help organize by local region, city, or state, and find individuals in each area who would like to organize their local event.
If you are an organizer for your community this means that first you will consider a location for the event and begin to contact people in your area who want to participate in the event. Participation means contacting the media, posting the event on the web, in calendars, newspapers, etc., reading poems, doing a concert, performing in general, supplying cupcakes and beer (it’s up to you), demonstrating, putting up an information table, inviting guest speakers, musicians, etc., organizing an art exhibit, and documenting the event (this is important, too), and cleaning up, of course.
Organizers and participants will create their own local event as an expression of who they are locally. Do they want a concert or a jam session, candlelight vigil or a circus, a march or a dance, poetry reading in a cafe or on the subway, do they want absolute silence, a group meditation on a main street; it’s up to the local organization.
However, groups should try to hold some part of the event, if not all of it, outdoors, in public view (not required). The point is to be seen and heard, not just stay behind closed walls. It is also important that the event be documented. Photos, audio, videos, poems, journals, paintings! Documentation is crucial. The rest of the 100 Thousand Poets for Change want to hear what you have to say about change and enjoy your creativity too! The documentation will be shared through our 100TPC blog/website where groups can share and announce event information on their own blog page, as well as post photos, videos, poetry, art, and thoughts. But an event doesn’t have to involve tons of people. It can be just you (the organizer) and your pet, on a street corner, with a sign. Just let me know what you are planning!Every effort counts!
Each local organization determines what it wants to focus on, something broad like, peace, sustainability, justice, equality, or more specific causes like Health Care, or Freedom of Speech, Homelessness, or local environmental or social concerns that need attention in your particular area right now, etc. Organizations will then come up with a mission statement that describes who they are and what they think and care about. When the whole event has taken place all the mission statements can be collected from around the world and, I hope, worked together into a grand statement of 100
Thousand Poets for Change. In 2020, organizers from 100TPC have gotten together to discuss compiling a history of 100TPC through the gathering and publishing of essays by participants and organizers, hopefully this book will continue to spread the word of 100TPC and peace, justice and sustainability.
Thank you to Society for Young Nigerian writers for joining with us!