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Investigative Poetry

Beat poet Ed Sanders brings his political agenda and poetry to the James River Film Festival.


Beat poet Sanders crafts words not only to appease the poetic muse but to rouse a nation into action. In the '60s, his vocal outpourings against the Vietnam War and support for poetic freedoms got him arrested on more than one occasion. By 1967, he had landed himself on the cover of Life magazine as the face of "New York's Other Culture." Activism and poetry, as well as fiction and nonfiction, form the basis of his unstoppable drive.

"Everyone has to get ready for 60 or 70 years of activism; then they die. It's better than life sucks, then you die. ... Look for what's good, try to promote it, use your mammal mind to agitate for a better situation, not just for rich people, but for everyone."

He drafted his political beliefs in the mid-'70s in a manifesto called "Investigative Poetry," which refers to his ongoing belief about the use of poetry as historical chronicle. A multivolume work, "America: A History in Verse," surveys the events of a given period with an ear toward their syllabic rhythms. International politics, labor history and technological innovations stand alongside notable births and death, delivered with humor, verbal abbreviations, chant and ideograms — not an easy task to do.

"The facts of history aren't euphonic," he says. "Henry Kissinger is not quite a beautiful phrase. ... It's hard to get a pleasing array of sounds on the page that is accurate. It has to be poetic. It has to go beyond prose."

His lyrical words also led to the creation in the '60s of the satirical rock band the Fugs, who drew their initial inspiration from, among other sources, Greek plays, Dadaist poetry, Beat jazz poetry and the civil rights movement. Far from achieving MTV status, this cult band is known for its leftist politics and theatrics. The band, which includes Richmonder Coby Batty, played alongside Andy Warhol, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, and has made several recordings, including one as recently as this January.

Whether accompanied by instruments or standing alone on the page, poetry and politics cannot be separated. An NEA recipient, Sanders notes how Congress has dramatically reduced public funding for the arts.

"Poetry and politics are always kissing," Sanders says. "You can be standoffish and live in your own little world, but sooner or later, political reality will enter your room where you write your sonnets."

His investigative poetics appear in The Woodstock Journal, a biweekly newspaper of poetry and activism that he and his wife operate out of Woodstock, N.Y. Alongside writing by regular columnist and fellow Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, he devotes copy to local news and his ongoing concerns: to stop warfare in space; to block America from behaving like the Roman empire; to get equal access and quality health care for all people; to promote the living-wage movement; and to halt munition manufacturers from arming the world. He promotes another important concern: "To have fun and to write poetry." SSanders comes to Richmond as guest artist for the James River Film Festival. He'll be reading from current work, introducing a Jonas Mekas film about his late friend Allen Ginsberg, "Allen's Last Three Days on Earth as a Spirit," which shows Ginsberg on his deathbed surrounded by friends. He'll be joined by Richmonder and Fugs-mate Coby Batty. April 4, Investigative Poetry, 1 p.m., VCU Library Special Collections, free.

April 5, The Poetry of Allen Ginsberg, 1 p.m., VCU Commons Theater, free.

April 5, Sanders and Coby Batty with selections of Beat films, 9 p.m., Fulton Hill Studios Auditorium, $7, $5 studentsFor more information:

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