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"It should not be a unique thing to be an artist."

Alice Lovelace talks about
community-based art

Tulsa, Oklahoma

Alice Lovelace during a performance.
The following interview was recently recorded during the radio show StudioTulsa, on the FM radio station KWGS in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Alice Lovelace was in town to give a live performance of her work. The interview was conducted by Rich Foster and the producer of StudioTulsa is P. Casey Morgan. Reprinted with permission.

StudioTulsa: I'm Rich Fisher. Alice Lovelace is a folk poet, performance writer and arts activist and educator. She's published four collections of poetry. Her most recent is Remembering My Birth, published by Horizons Press. She's best known for her work, though, as a performance poet. She's performed her one-woman shows in a variety of venues across the country from New York's Dance Theater Workshop, to her hometown Atlanta's 7-Stages. She's also been deeply involved in the national arts and education and community-based art movements.

Alice Lovelace, we welcome you to StudioTulsa, thanks very much for joining us.

Alice Lovelace: It's my pleasure to be here.

StudioTulsa: Would you begin by reading a poem for us?

Alice Lovelace: I'd love to. Since people in Tulsa don't know me and this is sort of like an introduction, I'll read a poem from my latest collection, the book is called Remembering My Birth, this poem is called I'm the One.

I'm the one
Descendant from
Earthy stock
Daughter to women who
Made fire
fetched water
suckled babes
cooked meals
while pounding clothes
clean ...
with unyielding
hard edged truths

I'm the one

Taught to change diapers
At five wash dishes
At six at eight to bake
By ten to mop and
Wax on my knees
Till I escaped to marry
The first boy who kissed me
Thereby gaining an intimate
Of a very private

I'm the one
Child of worker stock
Daughter to men
Who toiled for others
Hammerin' railroad ties
Pickin' cotton
Forgin' steel
Making the way
Smooth ...
For those who came after

I'm the one
A red bone girl
Reared on a northern
Shoulder of neglect
Treated me like a nigger
while calling me one
Knew I was destined to
destined to go home
Forward myself South ... Home

Now these days, well this daughter
Labours with metaphors
Struggles with meter
Sings hallelujah
Between the
Of her people. Now
Like the women before me and
Everafter ...
Still Pounding

(at the truth?)

I'm the one.

StudioTulsa: Nice poem indeed. This collection, Remembering My Birth, there are poems dedicated to your mother, your father, is that what the collection is about for the most part?

Alice Lovelace: Well for the most part it's about remembering the roots of where I came from. And when I identify myself, I am an oral folk poet. A lot of that is about understanding the roots of things. One does not come into being without those who came before. Paying homage to the roots.

So the book is in part about the things that I think have fortified me in my work, the people. There's a poem in there to Ben Linder who was a poet friend who belonged to an organization that I belong to working around nuclear disarmament. When the struggle in Nicaragua jumped off, he went to Nicaragua to assist them in building and maintining electrical power for the people around the area of Estale. Ben Linder was killed there and after visiting his grave in Nicaragua I wrote a poem for Ben. It's for people who paid the price - so that I could be here.

StudioTulsa: You mentioned at the top that you were an oral poet. I'm struck by the power in your performance. There are few poets who have that power. Where does it come from with you?

Alice Lovelace: I truly am an oral poet. It's how I came to poetry and for many years it was the only way that I knew it. It was a struggle for me to actually be even to begin to print a poem. I resisted a long time because I didn't think it did it honor. Because once it's set on paper, then it's sort of concrete. People expect it to be that way all the time, and a poem ought to be free to shape itself around the audience, around the event, the time of day, the particular mood that I'm in (laughs). To deny a poem the right to live every time, to be new every time it's spoken ... to me, I couldn't fathom it. So I ultimately did publish them, but I still maintain that this is an oral tradition. Poetry is to be heard. It's for the ear, not for the eye.

StudioTulsa: I was struck my that statement in your forward to the book. I never heard a writer say they were afraid of the permanence of the printed page, for which most writers are striving.

Alice Lovelace: To me it's death (laughs). It's like the end of the poem. All those people who see it, I can't say, ', no, I changed my mind. that line actually ought to,.. you know, be this way, it actually ought to come after, this stanza. And when you're reading it in front of children you really ought to switch it around this way...' I feel that it's so much less once it's on the page.

In the poem you read for us, you took a few liberties here and there.

Alice Lovelace: I take a lot of liberties.

StudioTulsa: They belong to you, I guess you can change them any way you want to.

Alice Lovelace: I also want people to take them. One of the greatest compliments that individuals can make... When people tell me, 'Oh, you know I had to do a reading, and I decided I was going to do your poem,' I always say, 'I hope you did something that I've never done with it before. I hope you did something so it wasn't my poem when you did it, it was your poem.'

StudioTulsa: That's fascinating. Let me ask you about your work, we got a sense of this when you were talking about Ben Linder. Your work in restoring arts to the central role in the community - the community-based arts movement. I wanted to paraphrase something you wrote. "It's returning the arts to the people's art rather than the people in the art.s" Tell us about that work.

Alice Lovelace: This is going to sound really strange coming from an artist, I guess. I think the role of artists in today's society, where we are poised at this point, is to essentially put ourselves out of work. It should not be a unique thing to be an artist. It should be as commonplace as someone saying 'oh yeah I work at the post office.' 'Oh yeah, I'm a secretary.' People should just as routinely say 'oh yeah, I dance, I write poems, and I paint.' I think that's what the people's art is about. Rather than the personalities in the arts.

I don't particularly care for the star system of art. I very much resist trying to be labelled as a star. It's not what I strive for. And it's certainly not how I see myself. I see myself in community with people. And if by my voice being raised, it encourages another individual to raise their voice - that's the job to make a doorway for other people to enter.

StudioTulsa: Do you think the way we present the arts today is a roadblock, a stumbling block, an obstacle to people geting involved in the arts?

Alice Lovelace: I think on many levels it is. Regional theater definitely. I think a lot of pop theater. The fact that what most cities receive as theater are third and fourth rate companies coming out of New York bringing plays that have been popularized there, but which have no connection to the lives or the struggles, identity, or the heritage, or the history of the people that they are to entertain. That's the only problem that I truly see. That's the art that tends to get the most recognition. And makes the most money. Whereas art that comes authentically from the people is truly undervalued. In the same cities where people will pay forty dollars to go see a regional theater company production of a fourth rate thing coming off of New York, -- they will not support a theater company that's on the other side of town, or five blocks away or around the corner. I think that's where we have done ourselves an injustice.

StudioTulsa: Doesn't it go back to the age-old proverb of the artist is never recognized in his home town?

Alice Lovelace: Yeah, that's what they tell me in Atlanta too (laughs). I guess it is. I guess because in your hometown you have so much invested. You are a part of making change. Art is so powerful and not that it is some great grand truth, but it stimulates critical thinking, it stimulates critical reflection. It stimulates those things which force people to examine not only where they are, but how they came to be there, which then has the possibilities of making people move forward in new directions. I think that's what people in power fear most about community-based arts movements. The more people become involved the more empowered they become. To create their own history.

StudioTulsa: Why is it that cities ... and probably Atlanta is no exception ... in Tulsa we have this feeling that if it's from somewhere else it is better. Why is that?

Alice Lovelace: I think it's not really that they feel it's better. I think they feel that if it's from somewhere else it's safer. You're less likely to hear the mayor's name thrown in somewhere, or less likely to hear references to local issues and local problems, and less likely to have to confront those things that could make the funders, those invisible people, nervous. I think it's safer, not better.

StudioTulsa: Let me ask you about the power of poetry. In certain societies poetry has had an enormous impact on social awareness and really being a conscience. I think of Russia, the great Russian poets, who profoundly impacted the Russian intelligensia - I think it laid the groundwork for what we've seen in the last few years. World War I poets, Wilfred Owen, and ..., they impacted foreign policy. Their descriptions of the horrors of World War I, I think really set that society into a pacifist mode. Why is that poetry doesn't play a role like that in our country? And can it?

Alice Lovelace: Can it? -- that's interesting. Why doesn't it? Because I don't think the arts at all play a role like that in our culture. Our culture, that's the United States of America culture I am referencing, is built on a star system. Someone must be at the top. There's only limited space at the top. They call it competition, but it eliminates. Even if you're better, but your P.R. (public relations) is not as good, then you are reduced.

This is the way culture in this country has evolved. And mostly because it has borrowed, and still replicates with it's money, the models of western Europe -- the big opera, the main theater, that there was only one master. That thinking has certainly reverberated throughout how we think of the arts here in America. The people with the most power to determine those paths are guided by that vision of art. That western vision of art.

When you encounter people who come from other cultures, even eastern Europe which has a totally different tradition that is not spoken to. Latin America -- when I went ot Nicaragua, on the money there was a picture of Dario. A poet on money -- you know I was impressed. When I got to the airport, the man getting ready to search my bags said 'what are you doing here?' I said 'I'm just a poet' - he said 'Ah, a poet' -- well that was enough - I got free passage through. I thought this was great. Never in the United States. You say you're a poet, and they say 'yeah, but what do you do for your real job.'

Again I think it's about the power of art to move the human spirit to change. It makes you restless. It won't let you stay in the same place. Even if you don't like it. It makes you move on that dislike. It stirs emotion. We seem to be in this country about trying to rob the people of emotion as much as possible.

When I go into schools, which ought to be a haven for learning and thinking and dialogue and debate, you find extreme control. The muting of the voices, and the teacher in monologue rather than in dialogue.

StudioTulsa: Well let me ask you about your work in workshops. What are the important things you try to point out or at least engender in your workshops in creating a community-based arts system.

Alice Lovelace: One of the things I like to talk to people about is that they don't ... People have this concept that as soon as they require just one more skill, 'as soon as I learn this one more thing, then I'll be ready to do it'. I'm very big on trying to get people to understand that they possess all that they need at this moment to move, to make art, to do whatever they wish to do. Whether it's writing a poem or play or whatever. To get them to value what they already possess. Sometimes that means getting them to reflect upon their experiences. And to go back to walk through someof their memories and to try to make connections between what is happening in their lives today and the experiences and the memories that they possess.

A lot of times people to do not see connections between their personal lives and the lives of their country, the lives of their city. The world as it moves. They see themselves in isolation. I think that what makes artists so fantastic is they certainly see themselves in the constellation of life. They take privelige to step and enter anywhere they please. They don't wait for anyone to invite them. This is their privilege. I think this is a privilege of being a citizen of the world that more people ought to take. Valuing what you already possess I think is the greatest part.

StudioTulsa: Would you read one more poem for us?

Alice Lovelace: Yes I would. I'd like to do the title poem. It's interesting because you were talking about how the book came to be and why it got that title. It has a lot to do with this particular poem.

For me the poem has three beginnings. I love to study history and anthropology, archaelogy. When they found the skeleton of Lucy in Hadar, Ethiopia, the human remains 3.75 million years old, I was fascinated and followed her story really closely.

Secondly, I also follow the work of the Leakey family very closely. One of the things that one of the children of the Leakey's, Richard, had begun to theorize because of his work around Lake Turkana in Kenya, was that humanity, rather than springing up in all these separate epochs, actually were all together. They borrowed and shared from one another. Through evolution there was a bringing together of all the different kinds of people who evolved into the homo sapien. For me this is a much gentler and easier version of history to accept.

And the third was, everywhere I would go, no matter where I was, people would walk up to me afterwards and they'd say with a little thing in their voice, 'now tell us now, -- where are you from'. But it was always with this 'you couldn't possibly be an American, you couldn't possibly be from here'. There was the sense that I was always alien, no matter where I went, because of my voice and my forwardness. I just decided that if anybody asked me that I would just tell them, 'well I'm from the beginning, aren't you?'

Remembering My Birth

The fat face of the moon,
swollen with sorrow
sends her regrets
licking the surface of the

River, she separates
mist from fog
salt from sand
(eat the tension in each)

I come, walking between the
waves/balancing my genes
my atoms/resisting
the moon's advances

I will you a tear
(surrender to the sacred sun all else)
cunning night cannot hold me
in the dark cradle of his journey

The fat face of the moon
pregnant with reason laughs
through a thicket of glaciers while
this belly (this belly)
impersonates history

Where are you, Lucy?
(come show yourself)
dance once with me,
once Lucy, before

The sun swallows you and
I must flow with the mist
flood the land
with my sweat

Add the residue
of my tears
my tongue
to this most ancient of waters

This river creeps between
the barnacles of my smile
This river pierces
my fresh ploughed fallows

This fickle carcass, supple (constant)
lugs history in the shifting tracks
of her borders. Nomadic waters
vanquish me in the hard perfection
(of your shadow)

Mighty one, you flex and the
captured moon quakes
(great mother of us all, protect these bones)
testament to your grave arrangements

Tell me where are you from?

(sings) Take me to the waters

Where are you from?

(sings) Take me to the waters

Where are you from?

(sings) Take me to the water
to be baptized

Where are you from?

StudioTulsa: Very, very nice. Alice Lovelace, we thank you for your time today. Thanks.

Alice Lovelace: Thank you for having me.

Published in In Motion Magazine July 21, 1996.