This is the actual, for real episode 17.
When Tessa and I first started talking about doing a podcast about a year ago, we talked about getting Ben Balthasser on to do a poetry reading as an example of the kind of thing we could do with a podcast. I met Ben in 2011 when he drove out with some other union organizers to Madison for the protests against Governor Walker’s “Budget Repair Bill”, where we got to spend some time chatting over beers at an east side bar. It wasn’t until nearly a year later that I found out that he was a poet who had written an anthology about American Communists. Ben got set up to do a reading as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival (if I remember), sponsored by Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative. He hit traffic and missed his slot, so when he got to town a friend set up a private reading for folks at an apartment, which really blew me away.
So for this episode, we got in touch with Ben and asked if he would share some of that performance for the podcast. Ben’s poems in the book Dedication (buy it here) are about the experience of Communists in the first half of the twentieth century, the House Un-American Activities Committee trials, and jewish-communist identity among others. As part of his performance, he talks about the interviews he did with old CP members, especially his grandfather, reading HUAC documents, and then relaying his own process as a present-day socialist thinking about this history. Ben performs five poems, including my personal favorite from the collection, “Dedication: For Hy Mozenter and Aaron Isaacson, Buried Books”, talking about the seemingly worldwide phenomenon of communists burying their books in times of trouble.
So the episode is a mix of Ben’s performance, some questions and discussion, which I think makes for a very conversational episode. A large part of this is talking about the unique role of recovering this history in the form of poetry, so listen for that. For folks interested in following up on this theme of, let’s call it, the “subjective experience” of American communists, there are a few books to check out. One is Peggy Dennis’s “Autobiography of An American Communist”, which recounts the view of a jewish immigrant and communist who marries a leading figure in the American party; a second and repeatedly recommended is Robin Kelley’s “Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression”, which is based heavily on interviews with veterans of the time and references from Theodore Draper‘s archive; If I Had A Hammer: The Death of the Old Left and Birth of the New; and lastly Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones.