Of young poets, of war,
of APS censorship of human, civil rights

War, fear, and authoritarian instincts are causing something grotesque to happen in the Albuquerque Public Schools. APS seems to be almost routinely suspending high school teachers for anti- war sentiments held by students and on signs in their classrooms, including two Highland High history teachers.

One teacher, Bill Nevins at Rio Rancho High, was suspended for encouraging his creative writing class to participate in poetry slams at Barnes and Nobel Book Store in which some anti- war poetry was performed, including some by his students.

APS's actions are overwhelmingly repugnant to First Amendment guarantees of free speech, deeply offensive to Constitutional protections of minority points of view, and just generally disgusting when it comes using censorship as an “educational” tool of social control.

Nevins who coaches the school's poetry slam team was punished for allowing his students writers to say what was on their minds, the ultimate and first American freedom. Do I smell the stink of Joe McCarthy lurking around somewhere taking names?

What are these young poets to think when their teacher is suspended and taken from them because he showed them the light of the First Amendment? I know one thing they'll think —that it's dangerous in America to write what a person honestly feels and believes. And if that's truly the case, then this is no longer an America of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

This is all miserably reminiscent of the l950s, a time of right wing political correctness that seems preposterous even today. In Los Angeles, for instance, the House Un-American Activities Committee in l951, was the closest thing we've ever had to a Soviet-like purge in the United States. Colleges and universities in the LA area were attacked. Many of their poets and other faculty who expressed “liberal” social concerns were accused of Un-Americanism, interrogated, blacklisted, and hounded from their jobs as suspected leftists. Some never taught again.

These weren't terrorists, or communists, they were liberals, representative of one half of the American political spectrum.

Institutions of public education which frown on free speech by young writers are ethically and Constitutionally bankrupt. They remind me of TV evangelists who accuse Muslims of being devils. They're the same breed which holds that anyone who opposes their government, also opposes their country. This, of course, is utter hogwash. The right to oppose your government's actions is at the heart of a free society. And if we no longer allow that, then we are no longer free.

Poetry has always been a trouble to authoritarians. Poets are, by their nature and their art, candid about their points of view. And, thank heavens, they will speak their minds whether their so-called schools permit them to or not.

I hope all students on Bill Nevins' as-good-as-dismantled poetry slam team dedicate themselves to never pulling their punches as poets, never cringing, never falsifying their true feelings out of the fear of censorship and official disapproval.

It's a tough road, being poetically honest in public. But in America, our schools, if no where else, should be bastions of poetic courage and candor.

In writing against the Vietnam War in the l960s, the great American poet Denise Levertov made it clear, according to the “Portable Sixties Reader” edited by Ann Charters, that “her writing against the Vietnam War was meant as a personal statement, not as propaganda for the antiwar movment.”

Levertov wrote, “I think there is no abrupt separation between so-called political poetry and so-called private poetry in an artist, who is in both cases writing out of her own inner life.” She also asserted “the peace movement in this country is not an ideology, is not a monolithic organization with a party line, which a person enters and gives up his own conscience....”

How can a teacher be suspended for providing a context in which students can write from their hearts and consciences? Isn't that what education is for in a free society, to learn about the world, your place within it, and what you think and feel about it? I'm stunned that free speech, and free conscience, are held in such low regard by school officials. Education is not about censorship, nor is it about the edicts of the thought police.

V.B. Price is an Albuquerque free-lance writer, author, editor and commentator.
April 1, 2003