Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Poet Molly Lynn Watt: A Poet Who Embraces the Political
By Doug Holder
Molly Lynn Watt is a dyed-in-the-wool Cambridge, Mass. poet and writer. She is a founding member of Cambridge Co-Housing, a progressive educator for peace and justice, as well as the curator for the monthly Fireside Poetry Reading Series. She is the editor of the annual “Bagel Bard Anthology,” a yearly collection put out by a Somerville-based literary group “The Bagel Bards,” and she published a collection of poetry “Shadow People,” (Ibbetson Street) in 2007. Watt, and her husband Daniel Lynn Watt turned excerpts from Daniel’s parents’ letters to each other during the Spanish Civil War into a musical CD and performance piece. I talked with Watt on my Somerville Community Access TV show: “Poet to Poet Writer to Writer.”
Doug Holder: The reviewer Hugh Fox noticed in your poetry that you are lamenting the shortness of life. He feels you are constantly grasping at the “Here and Now.” So are you an advocate of Carpe Diem?
Molly Lynn Watt: I think when you are in your 70’s it is a good idea to be. I am an advocate for “We are here now.” My poetry is a celebration of the here and now. But I also think I have a lament for the people who are no longer with us, the “Shadow People.” (The title of my poetry collection). These are the people who are no longer with us, but haunt us. I have a poem about hearing Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit”. She was a great and tragic person, and unfortunately died from drug abuse. Hearing her sing haunted me. She is a sort of “Shadow Person” in my life. She helped propel me to take some of the stands I’ve taken.
DH: You co-directed the Smoky Mountain North-South Work Camp in Blount County for Highlander Education and Research in Tennessee in 1963. Can you tell us about this, and tell us about your involvement with the Civil Rights Movement?
MW: In 1963 our ideal little family suddenly, who knows for what reason, looked at each other and said “ There must be more to life than this.” We packed everything up, gave up the apartment we were renting, and both my husband and I went off to get a Master’s degree in Community Organization. We went to the Putney Graduate School that became Antioch New England Graduate School in Vermont. Part of our work was traveling through the South, doing a sort of Sociology of the South, and studying the Tennessee Valley Authority. During that time we were in an interracial group, restaurants were closed to us, we were stoned, all kinds of stuff. At that time we saw the Birmingham demonstrations, and the children in the street who were being fire-hosed. I decided that there had to be something better. And so we took on a project of building with volunteers a facility that could be used to train voter registration workers. At that time it was illegal in Blount County for Blacks and Whites to live together, and we were living together. We were arrested, everything was burned. We were lucky to be thrown in jail instead of being lynched. Obviously, that’s what a lot of my poetry is about.
DH: Do you think poetry can have a significant role in political activism?
MW: I hope so. I am using it as my form of activism now. Songs have spurred me on. I guess “Strange Fruit” is a poem that is a song. Poems and songs travel where I can’t.
DH: Some people say political poems are just rants.
MW: One person’s rant is another’s rap. It is very subjective. I read that it is a poet’s job to “crack the truth open.” Elizabeth Alexander did that for me at the inauguration. She showed us the value in repairing a tire, a mother standing with her son waiting for a bus, the way we are in the world. It is our job to repair things including our Democracy. Alexander paid tribute to the people who have gone on before us in the Civil Rights Movement. She in essence said,” People have died for this day.”
DH: You wrote that poetry is an adventure for you—you always carry a little book around when you are on the road. You are ready for action, right?
MW: Life is an adventure. I do some of my writing on the subway. I wrote a poem on the Redline.
DH: Do you revise a lot?
MW: Sometimes things come out whole. Other times I can make 70 or 80 revisions.
DH: You have studied at the William Joiner Institute Writers Workshop at UMass Boston for years now. How has that been for you?
MW: Well, it is a community of writers. I have studied with Fred Marchant, Afaa Michael Weaver, Doug Anderson, Martha Collins and others. I’ve been going 6 or 7 years.
DH: You are very involved with music as well as poetry.
MW: I come from a family that has always been involved with song. My father was a sort of Irish tenor. My mother came from the Appalachian Mountains. In the mountains they still sing songs with Victorian words. When I was in high school I became friends with Pete Seegar. This was in New York State (Hudson Valley) during the time of Blacklisting. So Seegar had time to help kids discover song. He brought the idea to me that song can go where a person can’t. A song can travel without a passport. A song can take ideas with it. You can put a poem to music.
Seegar used to stop by our school. I went to his house once. It was a log cabin. His wife had a red refrigerator. This was in the early 50’s, and I had only seen white ones. I asked her where she got it. She said she went down to the hardware store and bought a can of paint. Both of them took control of shaping their lives. I have tremendous admiration for them. Seegar has crept into my poems. When I was arrested in the South he sent me a hundred dollars to get my car repaired to get home.
DH: You have run a very successful reading series in North Cambridge, the Fireside Reading Series. It has been around for a decade, what’s your secret?
MW: I’m lucky. It has to do with community organizing. Harris Gardner, a poet, told me that I should institute an open mic. That helped a lot. We host poets, we feed them, we treat them well, they are our friends—we are they. It’s a neighborhood. We always invite people to read who are in some way connected to the community.