Hoping to facilitate ‘brave new voices,’ actor and poet S.A. Griffin hosts a Trump-protesting open poetry reading on Inauguration Day

By Bliss Bowen
On the cusp of a new presidential administration, we are also seeing a new era of history unfold — a tectonically consequential political shift that will be rigorously analyzed by historians, and artists, from this point onward.
Never before in modern history has America witnessed such partisan rigidity, nor a leading presidential candidate’s flagrant dismissal of civility and political protocol — and the press — nor such vitriolic discord on all sides of the campaign trail as voters expressed record levels of anger and apathy.

Bullying, misogyny, racism, xenophobia and glibly Orwellian contortions of fact and language have been mainstreamed
in a country that prides itself on principles of equality and fair play. As graphic artist (and creator of the Obama “HOPE” poster) Shepard Fairey recently blogged, “We have taken a very dark
turn as a nation.”

It is against that backdrop that, around the country, writers are gathering and citizen protests are happening Friday
and Saturday (including the official Women’s March in Los Angeles in Downtown L.A. on Saturday morning: womensmarchla.org).
On Friday night, Beyond Baroque hosts “Not Our President: King Con,” an open poetry reading responding to Donald Trump’s inauguration as 45th president of the United States, organized by veteran TV actor and poet S.A. Griffin. (At press time, it was unknown whether Trump’s inauguration will include the traditional poetry reading.)
Rather than stage an evening with established poets, Griffin wants to provide local citizens three to five minutes each to “sing the First Amendment hallelujah chorus,” regardless of whether they’ve performed in public before.
The role of artists, he says, “is to embrace the ordinary, express it in an extraordinary way and elevate the rest of us. Throughout history, great artists and leaders are extraordinary people with a common touch.”

What community feedback have you received?
I’m anticipating quite a few people. I have no idea who’s going to show up. I’m hoping we get some younger people, not just a bunch of old standbys; I’d really like a cross-section of the community. It’s important for people to stand together and be heard and seen. Part of it is strength in numbers; the other part is support. A lot of people are very upset. A lot of people are very afraid. There’s a whole lot going on. As Mr. Trump himself has said, it’s “unpresidented.” [Laughs.] We live in “unpresidented” times.

What’s your response to those who object to “not my president”? Tea Partiers and others were roundly criticized as disrespectful when they similarly rejected President Obama with that phrase.
It’s collective: “Not Our President.” They can believe whatever they want. I get to believe what I want. … Trump [while campaigning] offended everybody, and treated us like an abusive father would treat unwanted children. I think as a country we’ve been very abused.

There’s been a great deal of cynical political gamesmanship …
There’s a tremendous amount of cynicism. It’s been creeping into our culture for quite some time, but I think this election cycle unfortunately has put a very fine point on it.

How can artists counter that cynicism and sidestep the kind of fearmongering deployed throughout the election season?
I’m hoping that the brave new voices will rise up and be heard — artists, musicians, poets, whoever they are. I certainly don’t see myself as one of those people; I’m 63 years old. It’s not that my voice isn’t relevant or vital, but the future belongs, really, to much younger people. I’m just here to hopefully facilitate and encourage people to stand up, be counted and be heard. I think it’s time. It’s certainly not a time to fall under the pressure of fearmongering and the lies. Whatever our democracy is, it’s at stake. There’s millions and millions of people that agree [with Trump], and they have every right to believe what they want. I just don’t agree. The democratic process by definition depends upon disagreement.

Did you hear President Obama talk about that in his farewell address?
Yes. I heard Donald Trump’s “press conference” too. He yelled at the press corps; he called them liars. He’s behaving like a dictator and a despot. If you don’t agree with him, then you’re not a patriot or you’re stupid — whatever label he wants to put on it. The most dangerous thing he’s doing right now is he’s doing everything he can to deny freedom of the press. That should scare the hell out of everybody, whatever side they’re on.

Spirited exchanges are healthy; how do you prevent them from devolving into rants?
Rage is legitimate, but to just scream and yell isn’t going to heal anything. I want people to vent if they need to, but I’m really looking forward to what’s going to happen creatively and intellectually. Where’s “Guernica”? Where’s Picasso? Where are the visionaries who can help the rest of us come together and see what’s happening?
It’ll be fascinating to see what happens on the 20th. I’m expecting a lot of rage, and I’m hoping we’ll get some real heart and soul. I’m hoping the visionaries are going to step up.

S.A. Griffin hosts the “Not Our President: King Con” open reading at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20, at Beyond Baroque, 681 N. Venice Blvd., Venice. Signups begin at 6 p.m. Free. Call (310) 822-3006 or visit beyondbaroque.org for venue information.