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‘Ambassador of the Arts’ Views Poetry as Activism
By Amelia Heymann
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – In 1985, James Ragan and three other poets from Western countries were invited to perform before 10,000 Russians at the first International Poetry Festival in Moscow.
“I still remember how I’m thinking the audience is looking at the stage and they’re saying ‘Oh, my God, there’s Bob Dylan. Oh, my God, that’s Seamus Heaney, Robert Bly … Who the hell is that?’ That was me – the ‘who the hell is that?’” Ragan said.
Ragan managed to make himself stand out by speaking Russian. He told the audience in their native tongue that his parents were born in Czechoslovakia and that his translator, who was born in Siberia, was “my brother.”
“The place went crazy. ‘The American is speaking Russian to us!’” Ragan said. “I could have whispered my poem after that.”
Ragan is back on center stage in a new documentary, ““Flowers and Roots, James Ragan, An Ambassador of the Arts.” The film, which explores how Ragan’s poetry and writing provided an outlet for his social activism, was featured on Sunday, the last day of the weeklong Richmond International Film Festival.
When the documentary producers first approached Ragan in 2014, he had no idea why they wanted to make a movie about him. After all, he is not a household name, even though Ragan has read his poetry for seven heads of state, published nine books and had several internationally produced plays.
“It was amazing how they were looking in at me, and seeing this as all being spectacular, whereas I was looking out and saying, ‘We were supposed to be doing this back in the ’60s and ’70s – we didn’t see it as spectacular,’” Ragan said. “And they immediately liked that response.”
The movie navigates the Cold War era through Ragan’s own life. Born into a Czechoslovakian immigrant family in Philadelphia as one of 13 children, Ragan said that growing up speaking Slovakian got him into a lot of physical fights.
“As I learned English, I learned to fight less,” Ragan said. “I had a huge respect for the language, and a huge respect for the arts. I just loved that you could win fights with words and not fists.”
When Ragan grew older, his personal experiences continued to shape his use of language and art as a means of addressing issues. In college, Ragan received multiple bones spurs in his legs from playing basketball. The doctor treating him gave him radiation therapy to heal the spurs, but ending up giving Ragan an overdose that caused cancer.
Rather than simply writing about the pain his cancer caused him, Ragan used his pain to discuss “the cancers of the world,” such as the injustices that triggered the civil rights movement and communism.
To this day, Ragan uses his work to reflect “the truth of the times” – for example, in the poem “The Dumbing Down Finale,” which will debut in an upcoming book. In the poem, he explores his belief that American society is devolving with the increase of social media, reality TV and “alternative facts.” Ragan fears that a lack of respect for education and the arts will destroy America.
Despite his harsh commentary on society, Ragan calls himself an optimist. From seeing young people protesting as their counterparts did in the 1960s and ’70s, to seeing Americans treating each other kindly, Ragan believes there is hope for the moral foundation and future of the country.
“I’ve seen beautiful things happen with people who wouldn’t normally want to help that neighbor and they do,” Ragan said. “Recently someone had leveled the headstones in a Jewish cemetery, and the Muslims came to help the backup, as well as Protestant and other religions.”
Ragan has often used his work to speak out about communism, and his writings were banned in one country. When he was studying under a Fulbright scholarship in Slovakia, the U.S. Embassy asked him to distribute 10 copies of Newsweek and Times magazine at one of his candlelight readings. Ragan said the people in attendance were eager to receive the publications and were “grabbing at the truth.”
“Journalists have also played a very important part in that history, and especially now we need that,” Ragan said. “To see these people that had very much so been the victim of propaganda and also oppression, that one moment of truth I was giving them through a poem on the stage or through these magazines brought a great sense of responsibility to me, of what I could do. The power of language, the power words.”
Ragan said Americans sometimes take freedom of speech for granted – a freedom many people in the world don’t have. He thinks it’s important to use this freedom to stand up and speak out.
People must make “a moral decision to stand up or lay down,” Ragan said. “And I’ve never been one not to stand up.”