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What the Words Mean

April 10, 2010

We are privileged.

We choose our food, we sleep well enough, we argue over our affections for celebrities.

We have no set identity here—this is not aimed at any one specific nation, individual, corporation, lifestyle, couple, readers/ship. But you are reading this. And you can click away to any barely conceivable image, article, or instruction manual from here.

Our excessive freedom is filled with organic frozen dinners and diseased bodies frozen for future cures; it is characterized by lateral advances in consumer technology (the newest airbag versus carbon-reducing engines), and quantum leaps in entertainment (Avatar in 3-D).

When Catherine first asked me to be part of dirtcakes I was thrilled and filled with self-doubt. What did I know of global hunger? I’ve attended my share of rallies, but I don’t consider myself an activist. How was I qualified to review poetry submissions based on themes like Hunger, Gender Equality, AIDS?

One morning shortly after, my two-year-old woke up at 4 a.m. “Daddy, I’m hungry,” he said. I got him some milk and he was back asleep, unconcerned with food again until breakfast. If I am lucky, whenever any of my children or grandchildren come to me and say, “I am hungry,” or “I am cold,” or “I am sick,” I will have access to what they need.

This is not true everywhere. And that is easy enough to say. But what does it actually mean? Often we are too distracted by our own thicket of concerns to see much past. But when confronted with stark, unashamed need, many might run back to the shelter of that insulating entertainment that contributes to a material imbalance visible—when we look—the world over—often just down the block. Like seeing an entire city drowned or toppled, or being overrun by homeless children on the sidewalk of a developing nation, the immense scale can be depressing. The lack of access to recourse seemingly built into our culture fills us with helplessness and scares us back to where we feel comfortable. Consequently, these concepts can come with impenetrable preconceptions.

Somewhere in the middle then—somewhere in what the words mean all the time, not just when they are at their extremes—maybe that is how I can contribute here. Because these words are with us everyday in a multitude of contexts, but they are often already associated with an idea or goal. The words are pre-packaged, wrapped in what we expect, sustenance-less—McWords.

This is not just a disservice to language but to our existence, as it is largely through language that life acquires value, finds and sharpens meaning, informs and inspires others to feel and act. If the words we use and read are all ready completely defined then they are meaningless. So it is my hope that dirtcakes presents a multiplicity of representations of the themes—hunger, gender, disease—so that we might re-read these words, re-understand their meanings, so that they might resonate through us. If there was a genuine way to be part of this journal, I thought, this was it.

Similar to the question I asked myself, Catherine was posed with a set of questions that would later lead to this journal. She was asked how she could justify funding poetry when bellies remain empty. How could something so self-indulgent as art seek attention over homeless and hunger?

This is a false dilemma. The two are not in competition.

We cannot always be where the neediest mouths and hands open. We cannot undo catastrophe. As much as we might like to, we cannot force penthouse-dwelling suit types to the look at the ground-level effects of their practices, nor should we scapegoat. But if we can, we should try to show others our and other perspectives. This is the foundation of writing and art. From cave walls to the big screen, whether conscious or unconscious, writers and artists attempt to capture a subjective moment and make it relatable to others so it might be more understood. The more of these moments circulating, the better.

That is, we cannot be everywhere all the time for everyone. But we can devote ourselves to activities that promote empathy.
-Joshua Jennings Wood

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