Monday, December 12, 2005

Richard Cambridge: Interview with a poet in the theatre of politics.

I first met Richard Cambridge when we were contributors to an anthology I co-edited with Don DiVecchio and Richard Wilhelm,
“City of Poets: 18 Boston Voices.” Richard Cambridge is the co-founder of “Singing With The Enemy,” a poetry theatre group of artists and activists that addresses controversial themes on the American political landscape. His poetry has been published in such journals as the: “Paterson Literary Review,” “Heartland Journal,” and the “Asheville Poetry Review.” He has won the “Allen Ginsberg Poetry Prize,” and he curates the “Poet’s Theatre” at Club Passim in Harvard Square. I interviewed him on my program “Poet to Poet/Writer to Writer,” on Somerville Community Access TV.

Doug Holder: You are very much a political poet. How do you respond to critics who say political poetry is often no more than polemic dressed up as poetry?

Richard Cambridge: I always come from the point of view of esthetics. It’s got to be a work of art. I use the tools of poets to fashion something that addresses something that bothers me in society. I really use poetry as a tool to serve something that’s bothering me politically. I pull poetry out of the tool box. But a lot of things pop up for me that have nothing to do with politics.

DH: Can you talk about the “Poet’s Theatre” at the “Club Passim” in Harvard Square, Cambridge, that you revived?

RC: When Club Passim went into receivership and had to be reformulated; Tim Mason, a friend and a booking agent for the Club, called and asked me if I wanted to do a ‘Poet’s Theatre” there. I had been doing poetry theatre before then on the local scene. So I jumped at the chance. I really enjoyed doing it. Back when “Passim” was “Club 47” they has a “Poets’ Theatre,” and it was very political. They were really enmeshed with the issues of the day: Civil Rights, Vietnam, etc… It faded out. I started it up again in 1995.

I always looked at poets as something other than someone doing a feature or poem. I came from the performance-poet tradition. But I wanted to move towards something larger. I tried to find people in the community who were folk singers, dancers, and comedians to help me put together poetry theatre. Our first feature was the poet Sebastian Lockwood.

DH; In a poem you wrote “The Life of a Man,” you deal with your struggle with the significance of poetry in a world that needs a litany of injustices addressed. Have you resolved this conflict?

RC: I don’t know if it is resolvable. It became a life-long struggle. Hey…you might not achieve what you want in your generation. In fact… Thomas Merton said you may make things worse by your activism, but you really have to focus on the goodness of what you are trying to do or else you will become bitter.

DH: How are you different now at age 56, then say at 30?

RC: Things still spark me. I feel I’ve done my part. If something bothers me, I will spend some time working through it. I still get angry, but I am more measured how I deal with things.

DH: How do you reconcile your left-of-center politics with your work as a real estate broker?

RC: It is a real contradiction. There is a real temptation to make all that money that there is out there to be made. But it is difficult. Something always comes up that does test who you are. I had to evict 4 or 5 people in 25 years. I try to help people to find jobs to pay their rent. I have employed people myself to help them. I have worked to keep rent control; even though other brokers thought I was crazy. My poetry is supported by my work.

Doug Holder

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