George Wallace - ESSAYS



The political still has plenty of currency in People's Poetry, it seems.

At least, one might fairly conclude so, considering the presence - at the spring 2001 People's Poetry Gathering in New York City - of Romany poets Gregory Kweik and Katja Tanmateos, activist Paul Polansky, and folklorist Carol Silverman.

There, amid the poetry slammers, poetry happening-ers, and poetry of the blues-ists; among the multicultural explorers guiding audiences through Sicilian, Korean, Urdu, Filipino and even Sign Language poetry; was this small cadre of Romany activists doing a bit more than exploring the cosmetic character of Gypsy culture - they were providing an active forum for delineatoin of the Romany experience of discrimination and stereotpying across the centuries, a pattern of oppression which occurred while the Roma were fiercely resisting assimilation and defending their dynamic culture.

To be sure there were other activists around and about at the gathering, sponsored by City Lore and Poets House in collaboration with a host of poetry associations in and around Manhattan. Janine Pomy-Vega, Hettie Jones and others brought poetry from prison, and there were practitioners of Eritrean poetry, for example, known for its affiliations with so called "fighter poets," whose stories were there to be shared.

All well and good for the politically-oriented literati. But it was the Romany poetry and music segment for many which offered up the most clearly multifaceted and politically charged program - multiculturalism which had not forsaken an ascerbic investigation of the socio-political issues of a people.

Author and activist Polansky should be no stranger to those in tune with the activities of cultural activists. Not so long ago he published two powerful books, through the impressive small press house Cross Cultural Communications (CCC), that treated a controversial, compelling historical puzzle - the fate of Gypsies, or Romany People, as they are known, in Eastern Europe during and after World War II. Through oral histories and poetic interpretation, the volumes he published addressed what Polansky contended was a concentration camp at Lety (in what is now the Czech Republic); and the subsequent treatment of the Romany poeple by that Eastern Eurpean country.

For those more interested in the literary aspect of all this, not that the first CCC volume consists of a bilingual group of poems. It was the task of the second volume to provide an explication of the author's pursuit and "discovery" of what he described in austere and hauntingly powerful accounts te "Romany Holocaust."

Specifically, these accounts come in the form of oral histories of the "Lety Holocaust Survivors."

Publication of these volumes is not the first time that Cross Cultural Communications has tackled a controversial subject. While over the years the small press has focussed largely -- and successfully -- on promulgation of books elucidating the poetics of minor and sometimes endangered language groups, CCC has been known to tackle contentious social and historistic topics. Witness in particular its association with the Sicilian Antigruppo, an anti-fascist, anti mafia organizaiton.

In this case, CCC's association with Polansky brought the small press in concert with a man of impressive qualifications. Polansky is a midwesterner who studied journalism and history at Marquette. His studies brought him to Spain, where he became involved in publishing and researching into the history of Eastern Europe. In the past quarter century he has been engaged in a deep study of primary source material in European archives, and in such projects as the creation of a Czech Historical Research Center in Iowa and in Prague. Over the years, he pursued such subjects as the study of Czech emigrant patterns, the history of Czech composer Anton Dvorak, and other similar topics.

It was in the course of these pursuits, notes Polansky, that he began to follow the trail to documents which he later described as bearing on a "Death Camp" for Gypsies during WWII. His assertion was as simple as it was chilling -- that the camp was run by the Czechs, with minimal German oversight. Polansky futher asserted that he had met untoward levels of resistance in his attempt to review documents, get to the bottom of the story of the camp, and examine the subject of Romany treatment in the Czech Republic -- both in memorializing the camp, and in detailing contemporary attitudes and conditions confronting the ethnic minority in that nation.

While stark and uncompromising, his book, Black Silence: Oral Histories of the Lety Holocaust Survivors is a powerfully stated volume. While dark as the subject matter addressed by the author, it is at times as riveting a tale as you might expect to encounter in any of the horror-filled accounts of WWII-era concentration camps.

Meanwhile the poems. Living Through It Twice approaches the subject through a more aesthetic angle -- the original poems, written in Czech and English, of the author. Polansky's work in this volume is at once true to the polemic of the people whose plight he "uncovered" and combines terseness of diction and plain language to make its statements forcefully.

The People's Poetry Gathering was a welcome opportunity to explore Polansky's earned political point of view first-hand.


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