It was September 11, 2002 and I was in Derry or London Derry, Northern Ireland-depending on your political/historical point of view; attempting to negotiate an impossible balance between sleep deprivation (resulting from the pre-dawn reading of a dozen international journals and our own USA Today) and the adrenaline rush I experienced while trying to separate my own personal politics from the narrowly perceived American point of view on that side of the Atlantic.
Nobody I knew back home in the States would ever confuse me with being a supporter of George Bush or his politics of war, yet the callers into Radio Foyle, BBC are anxious for me to explain "Why America is hungry to make war with Iraq," "Why we feel the need to rule the world," and "Why we dared to act surprised when the tragedy occurred" a year prior. My colleague and I squirmed in our seats, passed notes back and forth, and attempted to disarm the listeners and redirect the conversation back to the documentary film we were there to promote. The task proved to be almost impossible, but made for a great or as the Irish say, "brilliant" morning chat.
As a poet I continue to find the details of the event and the sheer weight of the numbers involved still too surreal to write about, too heavy an issue to sum up. The part of my soul that speaks with visual art tried in vain to erase the images that are now etched into all our corneas by CNN and other national media coverage. I had so much to say and think about what wasn't being said and thought, that I chose to produce a documentary called KY2NYC: Art/life & 9.11 (It was suggested that while in the UK we drop the KY part of the title due to very strong connotations of sexual improprieties).
We had spent a week in NYC interviewing artists and arts administrators in pursuit of my theory that the importance of art rose like a phoenix from the ashes of the World Trade Centers. Not only were most of the non-violent responses to the attack rendered most powerfully via visual art, music, and dance, but the actual nature of artistic expression was also providing the beginnings of much needed healing for all of those affected, all of which was confirmed after visiting the makeshift shrine surrounding the church across from the site and witnessing the thousands of childrens' art projects, Japanese paper cranes, and poems from all over the world attached to the fence.
The final product, which featured commentary by trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis, NPR's Robert Siegel, NYC firemen, and many others, had its world premiere in Lexington's Kentucky Theater on the 4th of July, 2002. It received minor media coverage and was rushed to bed. Now, two months later, the filmmaker David Flores, and I were more than 3,800 miles away hawking the film and reopening the conversation to a less sympathetic audience than our Governor's School for the Arts family and friends.
In that last year I had not once considered how the rest of the world was interpreting what I had considered a particularly American tragedy. Nor had I considered how poorly our national media shared news, international events, and opinions from the rest of the world. I discovered that the myopia, the selfishness, the arrogance that had created the ugly American persona was as bitter and sobering as coffee and even more difficult a stain to remove when it was attached to you during an interview abroad.
I sugar-and-cream coated my responses by sharing statistics like the President's then-declining approval ratings and under-reported news of anti-war rallies, and pro-Palestinian statehood movements that existed even in Kentucky, but I was unable to unstick myself from the perception that I was just an extension of the George Bush-driven America that was represented in the foreign press.
Once I was able to drop a few personal references in my responses like "as an African American who has felt victimized by the same government I represent..." the verbal assault started to weaken. And when we finally were able to share that our film focused on using the arts to heal in the aftermath of tragedy, we seemed to strike a chord with our listeners. I talked passionately about touring the site of the Bloody Sunday riots and witnessing up-close the powerful multi-storied political murals that decorated the Bogside, and how I knew that this community also understood the power of art and the culture of oppression.
I didn't admit that I was surprised, but pleased to learn that Black America's own national anthem, James Weldon Johnson's "Life Every Voice and Sing" had been used as a rally song by the IRA or that the warm, free-flowing Guinness was the color of my mother, but I allowed myself a private smile when it crossed my mind. When I reminded myself that my own family tree stretched back to a redheaded great grandmother O'Conner, I was finally able to release the remainder of my tension and stare into the ceramic mug in front of me.
I can think of a less stressful way to jumpstart a morning than to wake up halfway across the world, talking into a microphone to strangers about politics and war, not art, but I've learned that it's not until I'm challenged that I know what my opinions really are. During my first trip across the pond, to a country where almost everything has been politicized, every new encounter reminded me that all artists are political, whether we want to admit it or not. And the world suddenly seemed very round and small, as the mocha leprechaun stared back at me from the surface of my morning coffee.
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