Episode 62: Poetry as Social Activism

On September 28, Kasie and Rex invited local poet John Starino into the studio. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Poetry as Social Activism 


  • Get to know John Starino
  • The Utah Phillips opportunity
  • Poetry for Social Good
  • The poetry underground here in Columbia
abstract blur book book pages
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com 

Segment 1

John Starino and I first met at the Columbia Writers Alliance in 2012 when I had just moved here and was looking for organizations to support my writing ambition.


Performance Poet and Author, John M. Starino, is a member of the Columbia Writers Alliance. By his association with independent authors, who support and workshop together, he has, over the last three years, been able to participate in the SC Book Festival, Mind Gravy Poetry, Art Meets Life, and Words & Wine. He was the longtime host of Phoenix Tongue Open Mic at The Red Tub in West Columbia — an alias? “Sildag”? Tell us more about that evolution, how you emerged as a poet, to use Tim Conroy’s verb.

It is actually two words of which I have taken the first three letters of each word. This is my Poetry Slam competition handle.  Sil comes from Silver and Dag comes from Dagger, thus the capitalization of the D. In Sci-Fi/Fantasy circles the Silver Daggers were the heroes of author Katharine Kerr’s Deverry Cycle. (ref http://deverry.com/?page_id=22) This appears this way SilDag.

John’s most recent book of poetry, Full Circle(2018), and his earlier poetry, They Are Only Spoons(2014) are available along with his established works Onion Season Pt. 1(2012) and Onion Season Pt. 2 (2013). He draws inspiration from life experience.

He recites his poetry in free verse form as a storyteller who understands life’s delicate nature as well as intricacies found within familial relationships. He is looking forward to an active book signing season at coffee shops, bookstores and open mics, both locally and regionally.

What he’s been up to lately:

Sunday September 1, John gave a Labor Day Talk at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia collected from the words of Unitarian Utah Phillips. Phillips had two Albums created

1) The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere and

2) Fellow Workers with a collaborative effort from Ani DiFranco.

Using what he was able to transcribe primarily from Fellow Workers, John gave his talk speaking to the creation of laws that protect workers.

We’ll share the last few minutes of this talk:

…..Now I would like to add the words from Rev. Robinson sermon of July 7th, a UU Celebration of the 4th. Rev Robinson spoke of our fourth principle, A free and responsible search for truth and meaning, It is this principle which has guided Utah Phillips as a Unitarian to speak to problems and plight of workers throughout his years and how eventually we come to have a Labor Day celebration which grew out of commemorating the Pullman Strike and other activist workers rights movements across the United States. I would like to leave you with Utah’s story of the Blood and Roses Strike of 1912. And I would like to know how many among you have had family members work in the textile mills here in South Carolina and elsewhere and how this story, in a way, relates to your own family history? Utah begins like this:

“Lawrence Mass. 19 hundred and 12 So I got the oldest living Wobbly, Mae Porter  garment worker in NYC.

1912 was the time of Great Lawrence Textile Strike. Huge mills, huge looms they built in Lawrence and Lowell….and the other cities all over New England. Young women came down from family farms of New Hampshire and Vermont and Maine to work at those new giant mills. All the young women from the low country in Europe or from France came over as contract labor. Good enough to sweat their lives at the loom not good enough for the citizens. Some of those women were dying at the average age of 26 from the dust and heat of the loom.

They struck, issues were wages, hours and conditions of course.

Joe Ator huge organizer. He spoke all the languages of Lawrence, 17 of them. 20,000 struck workers and said ‘Fellow Workers’ the workers with their hands in their pockets have more power than the combined power of bosses. Bosses could not put their hands there. Well the strikers won a hard hard bitter strike, but they won.

In January, there was no way to feed the kids no food. Found sympathizers all over New England and as far south as New York. They sent the kids on the trains. Mothers and children were beaten by the militia and by the police on the way to the train station. But they won.”

Now here is an impetus of this talk today, as Utah explains to us, “I never had to work underground in Pennsylvania at the age of 12 in a coal mine. My sister never had to work at the age of 8 or 9 at the looms in Lawrence Mass. None of us had to do that. Why do we have 8 hour days? Why do we have those mine safety laws? Why do we have those laws up in the sweat shop? Were they benevolent gifts from an enlightened management. No, They were fought for, bled for, died for by people a lot like us. They died not on the battlefield to fight another dumb bosses war. They died on the picket line so they could give all of us a better future. A young woman carrying a picket sign which read, ‘We want bread yes, but we want roses too.’ This became known as the Bread and Roses Strike.”

The Anarchy of the love of these Fellow Workers have given us rules and regulations which we have in place today.  We now strive for a stronger living wage, health care, and a sustainable life in this the Home of The Brave for Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Utah Phillips learned he had heart disease in 2004, and health problems forced him to retire from touring in 2007. Bruce Duncan Phillips, the itinerant folk singer, songwriter, storyteller and social activist who jokingly called himself U.

Utah Phillips, “the Golden Voice of the Great Southwest,” died on Friday May 23, 2008  at his home in Nevada City, Calif. He was 73. And in the words of Joe Hill, “He never died,” said he, “He never died” said he.

Segment 2

John says he’s not writing volumes of poetry. “I am writing for reading new poetry for occasions or writing a talk based on a topic.”

The poem John shared during UUCC’s Green Team Climate Awareness Service on September 22nd:

Monsters Among Us

Now here is a story of GPGP

Not the GDP, Gross Domestic Product

Though what I will tell you about is pretty gross.

You have realized after all the Nuclear blasting on the Bikini Atoll,

Gave birth to Godzilla, well supposedly.

Godzilla is not real, I know but you saw her on the Big Screen.

And I don’t know what kind of monster will be born out


And it is growing because of me and you. So what is this

New island which floats about double the size of Texas

Between Hawaii and California? It is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Which was first learned about in the 70’s and is still being studied

Today. Though these are more like floating coffins which deteriorate

Into microplastics from wind, sun and water. Where does this stream

Of plastic come from? Our rivers are the immediate source for plastic

Floats and currents bring it to this particular location.

And it keeps growing, confusing sea turtles for one that they are eating food.

Laysan albatross chicks from Kure Atoll and Oahu Island

Have around 45% of their wet mass composed from surface waters of the GPGP.

Are there forces at hand to clean up this debris? Stay posted and see.

Maybe the next mega monster which will be in movies will be a giant squid with a body

Made of bubble wrap from boxes discarded and tentacles comprised of

Purified water bottles held together by soda can

Wrapping. Or in the next adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby, he will have miniscule

Microplastic levels from the bottom of soda and water containers which

His mother ingested while Gavin Rossdale’s Bush new soundtrack Plastichead

Is heard in the background when this baby is born.

So know you feed this monster’s patch by discarding those plastic bottles

By the side of the road.  And how about this as

The real title of this poem:

The Monsters Among Us Are Us.


Segment 3

Let’s talk about the role of the writer and poet in social change.

Let’s talk about how cadence and verse can affect a crowd.

Let’s talk about how the emotions we’re feeling from confusion and anger to sorrow and grief are unleashed in the written and spoken word via poetry.

We’ve visited with Cassie Premo Steele, Al Black, and Tim Conroy. These are John’s contemporaries here in Columbia, S.C. Let’s talk about the poetry community and how it is thriving. What are some resources supporting poets?

Of course Chris Errol Maw’s Words & Wine event is one and Al’s Mind Gravy weekly get together at Cool Beans is another.

How is the library supporting poets? What about Tapp’s Art Center? The Columbia Museum of Art? Are any of these outlets particularly supportive?

What are some places eager poetry listeners could check out to get their fix?

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