A Place At The Campfire
by Dennis Fritzinger
Campfires are democratic places—anybody can step up and make a fool of themselves—for a while. At least they are one of the few remaining purely acoustic spaces—unamplified human voice, guitar, drum, didjeridoo, harmonica. Pre-electric.
Camp songs, ghost stories, and now poetry.
Poetry? Well, why not?
Poems can tell a story or carry a message, uplift, inspire, entertain—all things you might want to experience at your next campfire.
Campfires are of more than one mind, and often there’s an inner ring trying to listen to somebody while the outer rings are being noisy and cutting up—sometimes deliberately, sometimes not. Often there’ll be noisy “Shush”es in return as the crowd strains to hear a favorite performer or to respect a new one. Usually everybody settles down and the night’s entertainment has begun.
At an Earth First! campfire there’s a rare chance for musicians to sing songs to a community of people whose actions inspire them to write their songs in the first place. These traveling performers who play to new crowds all the time only get one time a year to play to this crowd. So there’s an amped up sense of the performance space.
There’s crowd desire for favorite performers like Matthew, Darryl, Dana, Robert Hoyt, Peg. These people have a leg up. They also know how to interact with the crowd—they know a lot of faces in it, if maybe not everyone.
But too often they aren’t there, for whatever reason. And there’s the small fact that they’re professionals—this is what they do for a living. So playing at a campfire might be like work to them—I’m not saying it is.
So the time isn’t right, or Dana is too busy, so someone starts drumming. Or playing a bagpipe. But usually it’s drumming. The drum beats play against the chaotic conversation, the collection of moods galloping off in all directions, and start to organize them. Gradually it gets louder, more frenzied. Until the drummer gets tired—but by then he’s done his job.
Everyone’s alert now, not tired, focused. Someone sees Dennis. Or Danny. Or Anne. A name is shouted. A call for a poem is heard. Sometimes the musician—Anne, or Spring, maybe—simply opens a guitar case and takes out a guitar, starts playing and singing. The crowd is rapt now—all ears (well most, anyway), all eyes focused. Still, there are always some side conversations, background noise.
While the fare at Earth First! campfires is usually music, there’s occasionally a story thrown in—by Mitch or Michael or someone—and there’s always announcements—who’s in jail, who got out of jail, who could use our support, what ecosystem is being trashed and could use our support. Then, when the moon rises, there’s a howl, and then a chorus of howls from the assembled crew.
In recent years I’ve seen poetry step into this performance space as more poets show up or some of the effort of fighting for this ecosystem or that provides compost and the scraggly, weedy plant you didn’t know puts out beautiful flowers. (Before rose the flower there was rose the bush, and all its sharp thorns.) Of course, this wasn’t exactly new—even at Earth First! campfires.
I remember the ol’ redheaded woodpecker himself (Bill Oliver will tell you who I mean) reading several poems before a flickering campfire light, hunkered down, expressing his feelings—his inner rage, his tender joy—in beautifully crafted language, enjoying himself.
These campfire moments have been special, and lately there’ve been more of them as poetry—and poets—have gained more respect. Earth First! poetry, especially, can give the humor, surprise, and musicality that entertains us while at the same time (or between times) express the positive vision that brought us all together in the first place and keeps us together.
Poetry has earned a place at the campfire.
Date: July 5, 2011