If politicians want to defund the National Endowment for the Arts, it may be because they are afraid of the power of art. If they are afraid of the power of art, it’s because they recognize the potency of the poet’s words. And if politicians are indeed unnerved by the potency of the poet, then they should indeed be intimidated by Poetic People Power, and the political feats it accomplishes outside the realm of politicians. Each spring, some of the fiercest poets are united in New York City to tackle thorny topics–universal health care, voting, democracy–with the power of the spoken word. With wit and fearlessness, they have systematically challenged the status quo, creating a ripple effect over the last nine years.
Tara Bracco, the founder and producer of Poetic People Power, has a cool demeanor that belies her indestructible energy. She created Poetic People Power–often referred to as P3–in 2003 as “the project I wish existed when I got out of college.” Each year’s show is curated around a single topic. The theme is no accident; each year P3 strives to settle on a timely issue. As Tara says, “We have a track record of choosing topics that help our audience understand what they are hearing or reading about in the media.”
Her dual identities as writer and producer feed each other and fuel her mission to unveil deeply seated thought patterns and educate a hungry public through art. This mission is evident in all manifestations of her work. In addition to her accomplishments as a poet, Tara is also a founder of the Project Solution, a nonprofit which aims to fund several small-scale projects every year, as part of a solution to global problems and to make a tangible difference for a group of people somewhere in the world. Though these two organizations might seem quite different, they both point in the same direction: helping people to envision the world through a different lens and offering them a way to take action and make a difference. They are two sides of her identity, as artist and activist.
May 25, 2011 will mark the ninth annual show for this project that unites activist and artist. The venue–Nuyorican Poets Café–is one that has born many poets. It’s a place that encourages both the audacity of words and the necessary exchange between the poet and the public. It’s fitting that Poetic People Power returns to the place that was forged because “poetry, the vital sign of a new culture, needed to be heard live.” This year’s show, The Revolution Will Be..., tackles themes of protest and revolution via seven returning poets alongside founder Tara Bracco: Erica R. DeLaRosa, Andy Emeritz, Frantz Jerome, Shetal Shah, Jonathan Walton, and Justin Woo.
Never timid, past themes have included environmental issues, water conservation, equal wages, and the reclaiming of patriotism. While these topics can feel polarizing, the range of emotion, tone, subject matter, and style in the poetry invites a kaleidoscopic experience that is representative of both the diversity of the poets and the diversity of the audience. Last year’s show, Price Check: How We Became a Culture of Consumption, exposed our consumerist nature through both side-splitting laughter (a historical treatise given to a debt collector via poet Andy Emeritz) and somber recognition (Ms. Bracco’s indictment of insidious marketing practices toward children). It’s this intertwining of contrast that allows P3 to foster an atmosphere of openness, questioning, and action. With each new production, the theme is informed by the current political and cultural climate along with the collective interests of the P3 poets.
But why a live show? Why not a chapbook? Tara’s own poetry was fomented in legendary performance venues, such as the Bowery Poetry Club, Brecht Forum, and the Knitting Factory. In live performances, the style of each poet is wholly transmitted. For those who might not regularly read poetry or see performance poetry, hearing the reactions of your neighbors to the poems makes the experience much more visceral. Imagine pulling the blinds back and letting sunlight flood a darkened room. That’s what a P3 show is like: all that you might know turned upside down with exuberant abandon.
Each poet reads two selections: one poem from their repertoire and another that has been especially commissioned for that evening by the project. This was a key aspect that Tara established from the beginning: “I began P3 because I felt that emerging poets had limited work opportunities. That’s why I created the commission aspect of the project. I wanted to be able to encourage creative work by new writers by paying them a commissioning fee.”
Oh, yes. Back to that arts funding thing. Funding is indeed important and over the past several years the project has been supported in part by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and the Puffin Foundation, along with generous individual donors. Nonetheless, from the outset, P3 was designed to be a sustainable project. Rather than start out producing multiple shows and then burn out, Tara made the very conscious decision to produce an annual show. As the project has gained momentum over the years, she’s had the opportunity to grow it organically, sending the work to colleges or festivals, where it is easily transferable. This year, selected artists will perform excerpts from the 2009 show (Tapped Out: Words About the Water Crisis) at the Staten Island Art by the Bay Festival. Production values are kept simple in order to emphasize the connection between audience and poet. The aim, always, is to build momentum and to connect with as many people as possible. 2012 will mark P3’s 10th show. To honor the decennial, the goal is to publish an anthology that will serve as an artistic and historical record of how a diverse group of artists responded to the past decade of U.S. history.
Through her work with the Poetic People Power, Tara is systematically curating a diverse response to what’s going on today in America. While live performance helps to animate the poetry, it’s not solely about the performance. Tara explains: “As an activist, I really care about community building. One of the reasons we do a public show instead of just publishing poems online is because it’s important to come together as a community and have a shared experience where we can learn from each other and be inspired by one another.”
She relates a story about her 2006 show (Sick & Tired). Though a year later Michael Moore would release his documentary Sicko, P3 proved more prescient. The show was–as is the custom–multilayered and entertaining but also peeled away the layers of the issues at hand. Following the performance, an audience member related how his family was close to filing bankruptcy due to crippling medical debt. Says Tara, “–and this is why we do these shows. When you can come together in community and give voice to something like that, you reduce isolation and people begin to realize that these aren’t personal problems. They are national issues.”
For P3, the poetry doesn’t exist exclusively on the page or in the theater. Each year, the program includes a “Stay Active” section of the program to provide audience members with access to resources about the topic if they feel inspired to get involved or learn more about an issue after one of the shows. (And they often do.) As host for the performance, Tara contextualizes each poet’s work with carefully chosen facts or statistics about the issue at hand, creating a dynamic interplay between art and life. The aim is to leave everyone with a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of an issue, if not to change our minds, then to hear other voices amid the din of newscasters.
While Tara is no doubt a generous and supportive producer, her vision and commitment to this project resides in her own identity as a poet. She recalls a moment last April, where she performed “My Punk Revolution” at the first-ever Amnesty International Human Rights Art Festival. It was a poem that she had performed before, but this time, the words hit a nerve. As she spoke, listeners were compelled to applaud mid-poem:
And now my friends and I are using poems and music
To challenge the status quo
We’re raising our voices
We’re claiming our own spaces
And we’re moving at paces
That will outshine complacency and lies
Poetic People Power’s ninth annual show, The Revolution Will Be... is May 25 at 7 pm at Nuyorican Poet’s Café located at 236 East 3rd Street (between Avenues B & C). Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at www.nuyorican.org. For further info: www.poeticpeoplepower.com