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The Poetry Bomb: A Weapon of Mass Discussion

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Between April-June of 2010, S.A. Griffin drove his 1995 Ford Econoline van 11,000 miles in five weeks, loaded with a repurposed bomb stuffed with over 1,000 poems, on a mission to teach us how to disagree. "War, the art, artifact and artifice of war were created to invent and enforce agreements," he says. "Hopefully by transforming this piece I have created something that will inspire disagreements. The democratic process depends upon disagreement in order to function. By definition all agreement can only happen as a result of disagreement. As a nation, as a people and as a government, if we do not learn to disagree immediately, we are lost."

He read almost nightly in different cities around the country, lifting off during National Poetry Month from Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Venice on his "Poetry Bomb Couch Surfing Across America Tour of Words." He got the idea to stuff a bomb shortly after 9/11. For years, he combed the Internet, surplus stores and junkyards looking for an old bomb that he could repurpose with poetry instead of gunpowder to promote dialogue. He never found one. About the time he gave up on the idea he tried one last late night search on Craigslist for "bomb." Four choices came up and he responded to the first. A man from Huntington Beach had an old bomb that he sold to Griffin for $100. He said that he wanted to meet the person who would want the old bomb, hoping that they would do something "artistic" with it. Little did he know, Griffin had some grand plans.

First, he had to clean it up and redecorate it -- transforming it into his vision. Griffin describes the process: "The Poetry Bomb is a 100-pound MK4 former Vietnam era (1970) U.S. military practice bomb bearing the bumps, scars and twisted fins as proof. The object is just over seven feet tall. Over the process of six months, the inert ordinance was opened up, gutted, reassembled. A 12-inch curved polyurethane window (was) installed, painted by One Day Auto Body, detailed like a chopped street rod by legendary Atwater-based artist Skratch and then filled with poetry from around the world." During the course of his five-week tour, he would bring "The Poetry Bomb" to each venue and read poems from inside of the bomb.

Poetry Bomb tail | Photo: Courtesy of S.A. Griffin.
Poetry Bomb tail. | Photo: Courtesy of S.A. Griffin.

Holding over 1000 poems, the poets are from all walks of life. Famous and unknown, all religious backgrounds, they range in age from 3-93. "The Poetry Bomb" tour stretched 27 events over 35 days playing to coffeehouses, libraries, backyard barbecues, art galleries and street festivals. Locations like the Church of Beethoven in New Mexico received him warmly with pastries, coffee and a large crowd- ready to engage in dialogue and poetry. At the Chopin Theatre in Chicago the poets wrote a play around their idea of "The Poetry Bomb." Griffin was asked to pare down his regular 45-minute set to 10- minutes as a part of the whole; a chorus of several poet-performers each adding their voice to the play. For Griffin's part in this he performed Gregory Corso's poetic masterpiece, "Bomb." Everywhere he went people had their own idea about what "The Poetry Bomb" meant, or what it was.

The most common misconception is that it was meant to be a peace bomb. He felt that peace was only part of the story. "Peace is a narrow part of the whole, he says. "As a poetry bomb, all things become possible, poetry reflecting the whole range of experiences and ideas, not just one point of view." Ultimately he says that "The Poetry Bomb" is a "weapon of mass discussion."

"The Poetry Bomb's name is Elsie, so named after my own personal angel and savior, my paternal grandmother Elsie Emerson," he explains. "My Grandmother Elsie believed in me and inspired me to do something with my life besides make trouble. I wouldn't be here without her." Griffin's unifying intention with "The Poetry Bomb" stems from both honoring his grandmother's legacy as well as using poetry as a tool to promote deeper conversation during these chaotic times.

Poem by Kaliman Ruba. | Courtesy of S.A. Griffin.
Poem by Kaliman Ruba. | Courtesy of S.A. Griffin.

Griffin is further empowered in this because he knows a thing or two about personal struggles and fighting. "I come from a deeply dysfunctional lower class background textured by poverty, alcoholism, violence and abuse," he recalls. "I was a very difficult child, sent home regularly for fighting." Growing up in the San Francisco East Bay, he attended eight different grade schools living primarily in and around the Easter Hill projects of Richmond, where his father was from. He voluntarily entered the USAF soon after graduating from Castro Valley High School in the fall of 1972. After four years in the military, Griffin returned to the East Bay for two years of college on the G.I. Bill. He migrated from the infamous Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco to Los Angeles in September of 1978, armed with a scholarship to attend the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Workshop, just as the punk bomb was exploding across the country and the world. It's no hesitation to say poetry and the arts saved his life.

Griffin quickly fell in with L.A.'s emerging punk rock community of poets, musicians, filmmakers and painters. He became involved with several poetry reading series, small press zines and other avant-garde art performance scenes that flourished in the 1980s; like the Water Espresso Gallery in Hollywood and underground poetry zine "Shattersheet." Spearheading collectives like "The Lost Tribe" and "Carma Bums," Griffin has been shepherding poets and artists ever since. "The 80s were an electric, symbiotic period as all the arts bumped up against one another, performance and performance art happening everywhere it could land." His work and persona embodied a blend of The Beat Generation, punk rock and science fiction. Writer Wanda Coleman named him L.A.'s best performance poet for The LA Weekly in 1989.

Poem by Dick Dayton | Courtesy of S.A. Griffin.
Poem by Dick Dayton. | Courtesy of S.A. Griffin.

Griffin's set with "The Poetry Bomb" is mostly poems by others, an engaging set of poems incorporating dead and living heroes and longtime poet friends. He explains, "Many of my friends are, and have been, some of my greatest teachers. People like Tony Scibella, The Carma Bums, Wanda Coleman, Laurel Ann Bogen, Harry Northup, and Ellyn Maybe." Celebrating the communion offered through poetry, Griffin energetically shares poem after poem working the crowd into a gentle frenzy. "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley, one of his favorite all time poems that he says turned his life around at 13 and set him on the path, was performed at every venue throughout the tour, "Henley's poem spoke directly to me, telling me that I could be whoever and whatever I wished to be, regardless of my circumstance." The last stanza punctuates the empowering poem:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.

Another poet he always read was his close friend, the late Scott Wannberg. Before he passed a few years ago, they had done hundreds of poetry events together over 25 years. Wannberg was known for kinetic verse that was only matched by his physical size. He was about 6'3" and weighed well over 300 pounds. "He really was the true genius of our crowd." Griffin shines when he reads one of Wannberg's poems or any of the others he pulls from inside the bomb. Another empowering poem that he would read at every event was "Como Tú (Like You)" by Salvadoran poet and journalist Roque Dalton which incorporates the famous line, "poetry, like bread, is for everyone," reflecting his love for the power of poetry, culminating in a language event that is multi-lingual like the world we live in.

In this era of gun control, school shootings, the fiscal cliff and an acrimonious congress, the timing couldn't be better for The Poetry Bomb. The symbol of a bomb packed with poetry is loaded in more ways than one. Griffin's been approached several times recently about more events. He's also been asked to tour internationally. He knows dialogue is more important now than ever before. He laments, "the idea of The Poetry Bomb is to promote civil discourse. Our country no longer knows how to disagree with each other. The point to the project and the object were one in the same- to inspire disagreements. For me, poetry is the best possible model for disagreement."

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