Travis Laurence Naught read the following speech as part of the Spokane, Washington, Writers Resist event (one of over 100 held nationally) this past Sunday, January 15, 2017, cosponsored by PEN America. More info about this initiative is available at www.writersresist.org.
It is an honor, as an author who frequently enjoys playing with the extended limits of “free speech” in my poetics and daily life, to be asked to add a few minutes to this day. I will spare the sensibilities of those who would rather not encounter some extreme examples from my work, but that is a personal choice. The fact is, at a literary event, I could quite legally recite the entire text of my poetry memoir, The Virgin Journals.
It was deemed too vulgar for use as curriculum after only one quarter in the Disabilities Studies program at Eastern Washington University. I was told, some months later, that the department chair overseeing curriculum choices had written a different book, more educationally driven, and it was to be the next text for the class mine was evicted from. After seething at the mouth for a few minutes, it actually made me proud: I get to play the part of “the banned” in an historical play that’s been going on as long as humans have been writing.
Politics are fun. The last 250 years or so, our United States of America has been a stalwart of shifting rules and regulations based on a seemingly simple principle put down as the First Amendment. In a 1993 Yale Law Journal article, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens commented in regards to usage of the word “the” in the phrase “the freedom of speech.” My God, I love democracy.
And what of wartime conversation? Courts during World War I ruled citizens could be found guilty of verbally communicating, and via written or otherwise conveyed text, plans that would lead to an attack on our country’s individuals, properties, or land. Naturally. Makes sense. Sort of lays the ground work for another recent patriotic law.
Yet we all have this freedom. We are artists; even those of you who may not adopt the title willingly. We frame our words as fiction and can get away with ANYTHING, unless someone else feels impinged upon. Ask the librarians who have had to pull copies of American classics by Mark Twain, George Orwell, Judy Blume, Stephen King, Allen Ginsberg, and even our hometown favorite Sherman Alexie (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian).
In a recent conversation with YA author Trent Reedy, this library business came into question. Most of the problems parents have with his books are the “foul” language contained. Reedy said, “If they want to pull my book because it doesn’t work in their community, fine. I’m not going to tell them how to raise their kids.” This statement was because the majority of complaints he receives about his books, that include realistic gun violence, have been focused on a couple uses of words like “shit.”
Shit! No wonder The Virgin Journals was kicked out of a college classroom.
But it could be worse. If so many projections are true, it will likely get worse. We cannot let it get worse. We have to use safeties set up for our benefit, including my personal safety net, as a poet primarily of the 1956 Supreme Court ruling in favor of Ferlinghetti’s release of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. And I know the Supreme Court is currently up for grabs, and a nervous point of conversation, but let’s continue our part by bombarding the world with realities of the past and hope people of influence start listening so we can build a more vibrant future.
We cannot become the oligarchy of the Soviet Union that sanctioned the 1952 Night of the Murdered Poets. 13 “defendants” were tried, found guilty, and executed for attempting to “topple, undermine, or weaken the Soviet Union.” Counted among them were several Jewish literary poets and writers who were simply calling for appropriate recognition as an important minority group. News of their fates was not shared with the media or their family members for months.
We cannot withdraw our individual voices, as I very nearly did today out of fear that simply being on a list of resistant voices might eventually lead to problems for me. We have to stay together for the promotion of art and the legality of people on every side to use whatever language they deem necessary in that art, for whatever purpose it is intended.