A Poet’s Journey from the Streets of Oakland to the United Nations

This man with the weatherworn face made me realize that people living in extreme poverty have to make a strong effort to dispel the darkness, especially now that our rights are being systematically stripped away. There’s an urgent need for us to speak up whenever and wherever we can.

by J. Fernandez Rua

 

On October 14, 2012, I boarded a flight to New York City, the city where I grew up, where I wrote my first poem, where I discovered first-hand that there’s real evil in the world, a city that I hadn’t seen in over 30 years.

To my surprise, the Fourth World Movement invited me to read a poem at the United Nations on October 17, the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. The poem that made this trip possible was first published in the November 2011 issue of Street Spirit.

At the time of the invitation, however, about a year later, the poem, entitled “A Real Poem,” had gone through four revisions. Now it was longer, fuller and richer than the original. And even though its essence — its heart — had remained unchanged, I didn’t know how my host would respond to the new version. [To read the full text of J. Fernandez’s newly revised, longer version of “A Real Poem” accompanying this article click here.]

So I arrived in New York in a state of excitement and anxiety. Excited because as a human being and poet who had been marginalized and rejected for so many years, I suddenly discovered that I was being applauded and appreciated for my work. And anxious because although I had read my poems in cafes, universities and even in rowdy bars, where I was almost killed once, I never imagined, not even jokingly, that I would one day read a poem at the United Nations. This is not something a man who has lived in poverty, and who has slept on concrete, would ever consider.

I’m grateful for the support and advocacy of Carol Johnson, the director of St. Mary’s Center in Oakland. She accompanied me on this journey. Without her participation, it wouldn’t have been possible.

After a short, maddening ride on the subway during the morning rush hour, we finally arrived at our destination, a nondescript house in the East Village, the New York headquarters for the Fourth World Movement. This is where I lived for the next three days, and shared a table and ideas with a very special group of men and women who have dedicated themselves to the eradication of poverty in their community by actually practicing the unique principles of the Fourth World Movement. I was deeply moved by their generosity of Spirit.

At last, and not a moment too soon, the reason for my trip arrived. No more time for discussions, rehearsals or visualizations. There I was standing before an assembly of over three hundred people: government officials, NGO representatives and regular people like myself.

I took it all in, and slowly began to read. Soon I was so deep into the reading that the distance between me and the poem disappeared and I was no longer concerned with my surroundings. For eight short minutes, I felt totally at home: free, joyous and fearless.

Carol Johnson, director of St. Mary’s Center, describes her trip to the United Nations with poet J. Fernandez to honor the struggles of poor people in the United States. Photo by Janny Castillo

 

What a difference a poem makes when it’s so strong and true that it must be heard.

And yet, the experience that left its mark, that affected me more than anything else, and that still moves me, was what I heard during a presentation of slides of real people talking about their lives. A man’s weatherworn face appeared on the screen. In a raspy voice, he talked about being homeless in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Then, as though it were an afterthought, he finished his short statement with three seemingly simple words. Three words that moved me to tears, because they were spoken by a man who lived them every day, and heard by a man who also lived them every day for more than half his life. These three words were: “Silence is darkness.”

It has always been easy for me to read a poem on a stage, but to have a conversation — intimate, casual or professional — had always been impossible for me. This inability to express myself, other than through writing, drove me into a dark silence where no one really knew me. For years I lived in that dark place.

Then, one day I found myself at St. Mary’s Center in Oakland where, after three years of therapy — to my joy — the darkness began to lift and dissipate. Now I can have a normal conversation with the world. I’m free at last.

This man with the weatherworn face brought it all back to me. He made me realize that we — the people who have lived, and those who continue to live in extreme poverty — have to make a strong effort to dispel that darkness, especially now that our rights are being systematically stripped away. There’s an urgent need for us to speak up whenever and wherever we can.

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