Michael Rothenberg, Guerneville native, was chatting with a friend on Facebook, venting his angst about the current, deplorable state of politics, the environment, the war and the world in general, when he blurted out an idea: a hundred thousand poets standing up for change. His friend told him to go for it. Rothenberg created a Facebook event, a poetry reading with the dual goals of peace and sustainability under the umbrella of change.
Rothenberg, realizing that he had made himself the de facto leader of a movement, set the date for Sept. 24. He left everything else up to the local organizers.
100 Thousand Poets for Change was born.
"Peace and sustainability were the guidelines, and locally, you do what you want," Rothenberg says. "Each event gets to have its own vision; you're getting a global snapshot of the poetry community. I believe that we have this potential to improve the kind of world we live in with poetry."
There is no doubt that the poetry bug has spread voraciously. Rothenberg, though not quite sure why, has certainly inspired the globe. With help from partner and fellow poet Terri Carrion, he's chronicling the events: parades in Montreal, galas in Israel, over 10 events in Mexico City alone. Yvonne de la Vega, a passionate, fast-talking spoken-word artist, has rented out the famed Wadsworth Theater in Los Angeles for her all-day event.
"When I saw the event on Facebook, it just felt right. I knew I had to be involved, and my organizers and I are trying to bring all the diverse communities of Los Angeles together for this event," de la Vega says. "This has never happened in the history of mankind before, the poets have never gathered like this, so we wanted to include everybody. When a poet speaks, he speaks the truth, and though people may not want to hear it, the voice of a poet pierces deeper."
Lisa Vihos, 50, from Sheboygan, Wisc., is planning a smaller event.
"My idea was not to tackle some big political, environmental issue. I wanted people in my town to be more aware of the world around them," Vihos says over the phone while cooking dinner in her kitchen. "We all have the ability to look at the world like poets, and if more people looked at the world with the attention of poets, they would take better care of it."
Of over 650 events in 95 countries worldwide, notable events include a reading across the border in Nogales, Ariz., to Nogales, Mexico, organized by Douglas Steindorff, an ex-marine and poet, to bring more focus to the human side of the current immigration situation. Sarah Browning, part of a group called Split This Rock in Washington, D.C., has brought together poets to read on the lawns of all the embassies of countries where events like 100 Thousand Poets are prohibited, such as China and Iran. Organizers have put together an event in Afghanistan, focusing on peace. Rothenberg himself has been invited to give press conferences in Brussels and Istanbul.
Locally, there are 21 events in the Bay Area alone. At the Sonoma County Book Festival in Santa Rosa, local poet and activist Francisco X. Alarcon has put together a reading in support of the Dream Act. Also in Santa Rosa, the Peace and Justice Center hosts a reading at Gaia's Garden the previous evening. At the Sebastopol Gallery, Sandy Eastoak partners with Hale Thatcher, Shepherd Bliss and others for a reading; former Sonoma County poet laureate Geri Digiorno hosts a "shout-out on the street" in Petaluma; and in Fairfax, a morning poetry gathering takes place at Deer Park.
Rothenberg's initial cry echoes Dickens' immortal opening "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . . . in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received in the superlative degree of comparison only." He seems to want the world to awaken to multiple contradictory views: it is the golden age of gorgeous nature, our planet is doomed; look at the world with the eyes of a poet, no one cares about poetry.
"It's an act of desperation and faith, and I try not to make it more than it is," Rothenberg says. "But at times I can't believe what it is. It's out there, and people are writing. People keep telling me that they're really glad this is happening, and they say they really need it to happen now."
For more, and a full list of events happening around the world, see www.100tpc.org.