Friday, April 10, 2015

National Poetry Month—Jeff Epton—Always Jewish, Lately Palestinian

Jeff Epton

I discovered Jeff Epton after I posted the first installment of this National Poetry Month series, the one about imprisoned eco-poet and activist Marius Mason.  A Facebook friend suggested that I check him out.  Like both of us he had connections to the Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobblies.  So I checked him out and was indeed impressed and a little sad that I had not discovered him on my own.  But that is why I hope alert readers like yourselves will be my talent scouts.

I ask Jeff for a tad of biographical info and he sent this along.

Jeff Epton has changed careers numerous times over 45+ years of something like adulthood. He has worked as a cab driver, cook, deckhand, laborer, carpenter, peace and justice activist, elected official, journalist, freelance writer, and newspaper and magazine publisher. He has been a dues-paying member of the National Maritime Union, Seafarers’ International Union, Carpenters and Millwrights, and the Industrial Workers of the World. He is a poet, now, and mostly out of the workforce, to the vast relief of the many organizations who once employed him.
To expand on that a little, Epton grew up on Chicago’s South Side. 
He was the son of Bernie Epton, a Republican State Representative.  Turns out I knew Bernie slightly—he rented the IWW the hall above his North side insurance for a couple of conventions and a special event or two.  

Bernie Epton and his wife campaign for Mayor of Chicago in 1983.  Note Democrats for Epton posters.
Bernie was an old-style liberal Republican—a long extinct species—who had been active in the Civil Rights Movement.  Via a bizarre set of circumstances, he ended up being the helpless and hopeless Chicago Republican Party’s sacrificial lamb candidate for Mayor in 1983.  Then Harold Washington made his surprise upset of incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne with Richie Daley the spoiler in a three-way race.  Many Chicago white Democratic powerbrokers, led by Fast Eddie Vrdolyak and Ed Burke put their patronage army ward organizations behind Epton and big money poured into the campaign.  The campaign quickly got away from Epton who became a figurehead for a stop-the-N*gger campaign, under the ominous slogan Before it’s too late.  It almost worked.  Epton came within 3.3% of beating Washington who was saved by a massive and nearly unanimous Black turnout, support from more than 60% of Latino voters, and a 13% sliver of progressive white voters like me.  Epton was embittered by the experience and particularly for being tarred personally as a racist.
Bernie died three years later—and shortly after Harold Washington himself—of a heart attack while visiting Jeff in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  By that time Jeff had entered politics himself as a popular socialist member of the City Council there.  Jeff would later write lovingly about his father and about his heroic service as a World War II Army Air Force bomber Navigator in Europe.
Jeff’s varied and colorful career was always punctuated with labor, peace, civil rights, social justice, and environmental activism no matter what he was doing. That included, in addition to his six years on the city council, seven years with the American Friends Service Committee, ten years in publishing with the Dayton Voice and the national socialist magazine In These Times, a couple of years with the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project, sprinkled with stints as a freelance writer and organizer.  He eventually found himself in Washington, DC where he lives, as he put it, mostly retired with his wife Marrianne.

Although Epton mostly privately wrote poetry for years, he began to self-identify, perhaps a tad too sheepishly, as a poet with the publication of his book Wild Once and Captured in 2012.
The book is both supple and varied in theme and style.  Of course there are echoes of a life of activism.  But there is also deep examination of what it means to be Jewish including myth making re-imaginations of the Biblical story of Jezebel and her fate.  There are also poignant and deeply personal reflections on love, loss, grief, triumphant life, and what it means to be as poet, as in the final verses of The Unfolding:

Bold, careless as the unscarred,
we were fountains of endless beauty,
showering gifts on a fortunate few,
never wishing to be wise.

because what would be the point?
Never wishing to be wise
because what would be
the point?

Epton also posts on two blogs—poetry at Outdoor Poetry Season and essays and stories at In and Out.
Here is the poem that caught my attention.

Always Jewish, Lately Palestinian

I am Jewish because the love of others made me so.

I am Jewish because I grew up on the south side of Chicago where even my public school seemed Jewish.
I am Jewish because my grandfather was oh, so Jewish;
I felt it then, I feel it now.
I am Jewish because in my grandmother’s kitchen nothing would rise,
but of everything there was plenty.
I am Jewish because angry Irish boys felt my Jewish nose at the end of their Catholic fist.
I am Jewish because the South Shore Country Club would not let us in
(though Marx also warned us against joining clubs that would have us).
I am Jewish because my Dad once slugged a guy who cussed a Jewish pitcher for the White Sox.

I am Jewish because the Jewish god is not diminished by my disbelief.
I am Jewish because Emma Goldman and Hannah Arendt were Jewish,
and so was Karl Marx and so was Groucho and Jesus, too, for that matter.
I am Jewish because of the Maccabees and Masada and crusader violence
and Spanish inquisitors and Cossack pogroms
and the ghetto and the death camps
and because I also planted trees in Israel.
I am Jewish because Jewish workers fight in labor struggles and because Jewish people resist racism and because, like all the world’s poor, poor Jews endure.
I am Jewish because we are commanded to remember when we were slaves in Egypt,
and I do.
I am Jewish because being Jewish means never using violence against another
except when life, itself, is directly threatened;
that principle must never be compromised.

I am Jewish because I am a child of Abraham;
Palestinians, therefore, are my brothers and sisters.
We are all children of Abraham.
I am Palestinian because Jews, too, have been homeless.
I am Palestinian because we have a future together or none, at all.
I am Palestinian because Palestinian yearning is so like Jewish yearning.
I am Palestinian because Jews have been uplifted by the love of Palestinians.
I am Palestinian because Jews have been uplifted by the love of Palestinians.
I am Palestinian because peace in Arabic and in Hebrew bestows the same gift.
Although Sarah and Hagar are our separate birth mothers,
I am Palestinian because we all live in the embrace of one mother,
and will return to her.

If you summon one of us for cruel judgment, there will be no telling us apart.
—Jeff Epton

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