I was carrying poetry posters by the Kiwi Poets Janet Frame, Frankie McMillan, Tusiata Avia, Chris Knox, and Lawrence Arabia. Then I had some posters by the American, Robert Creeley. Boy, he’s good.
It was a cold Saturday morning at the end of a busy week. Camden, New Jersey, sits five minutes over the Benjamin Franklin Bridge from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Yet, it’s like another world and one that people will tell you has been ignored and then they’ll say that they feel sad for Camden. Most people don’t do much, but oh God they feel sad for Camden. As of now, no Hollywood celebrity has stepped in. People will say that the city has been left to rot: it has an unemployment rate of somewhere around 30-40%, has one of the highest crime rates in America, is full of drugs, high school dropout numbers run to 60%, corruption is rife, and then there are the huge cuts to government and state funding. They’d close the public library, but I’m not sure there is one. There are no movie houses or hotels in Camden. Why would you? Who wants to stay?
Earlier this year about half of the Camden police force was laid off only to be rehired a couple of months later. There was a bit of a furore, but I think it was largely driven by the police themselves and their union. But I guess the state government and the neighbouring state government (Pennsylvania) might have thought that the crime could possibly have crept along that bridge and the interstate if nothing was done. No one likes slime, and criminals are ‘slime,’ right? They ooze. They will move down the interstate if nothing is done. That’s the popular notion. Three of the mayors of Camden have been convicted of felonies in the last two decades. That’s slime. It’s been my experience in life that whilst money definitely doesn’t trickle down, corruption and graft does. It oozes and breathes. The population gets punished because some guy at the top can’t keep a straight face and he is sadistic.
Yes, Camden is some kind of movie of its own accord and is about four times freakier than anything Wes Craven could have come up with. Everything seems to come down on Walt Whitman’s city like a great big hammer. There’s a ceaseless pounding and you can really hear it. But, once upon a time, the city boasted a population of more than 125,000 and now it runs at about 80,000. It had huge ship yards and other major sources of industry thirty or forty years ago.
The Campbell soup people used to manufacture here. It ain’t much, but it’s something to go on. It’s like Christchurch, New Zealand used to have Crown Crystal glass and that gave workers something real to do. All that industry in Camden has gone now and the very sky seems rust like and like no one’s interested. My good mate, the poet Joe Treceno, says that Camden was once a ‘pinnacle’ of American industry. Now, for every wrap of Heroin sold on Broadway, a new building goes up in Shanghai. As Bob Dylan might have put it “people have got a lot of knives and forks and they got to eat something.” Yes, and it’s all a very costly business indeed.
I enjoyed the poster run. I think you can pretty much enjoy anywhere as long as you mind your own business and you call everyone coming your way ‘mate’ or ‘cobber.’ But, you must also look people in the eye and then let them look away first. There are exceptions to these rules of course, but I’ve walked around Medellin, Colombia, at midnight and I’ve got to say the daytime was the dangerous time. That’s when the slamming of civilians seemed to reach a high crescendo. There’s these kinds of little tricky rules and regulations that everyone must live by and which make no sense at all. The ones that make sure the power base stays largely the same over the years and through the lifetimes of successive governments. Charles Dickens wrote of all this stuff and it hasn’t changed much. Hope indeed.
Keep the Faith,