By Dan Vera
Sometimes things connect in ways one could never expect and you’re reminded how delight walks on the thinnest of filaments in our lives. I received a letter from a dear friend, Mark Clinard, in Atlanta. He’d attended a reading of gay poets organized by Franklin Abbott and had been moved in particular by the work of one poet. And knowing my love of poetry, he sent me two poems in an envelope. This is how I came to know of C. Cleo Creech. Upon reading the two poems I knew what had so captivated my friend Here was a writer of directness and power.
I got a hold of Cleo to see about publishing his work in White Crane. But when I chatted with Creech, he told me of his latest project — a collection of poets responding to the killings of LGBT people by the U.S.-supported Iraqi government. This work is alive and so current that you may be forgiven for not knowing the subject at hand. The repression has received scant attention in U.S. media.
I had a chance to speak to Cleo about his writing and the heavy cost of doing the vital work of bearing witness:
Dan: I wanted to talk to you about the Green Zone project. Can you tell me how the project came about?
Cleo: Well the first I heard about it was a column in the Advocate a few months ago. There has been only very spotty coverage on the issue. It was taking about the recent Fatwa or religious edict issued by the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. When asked what the punishment should be for gays and lesbians. He stated that they should be executed and killed in the “worst possible way.” That edict just opened the floodgates to allow Islamic fundamentalists to openly execute gays and lesbians and they have the protection of law under the new constitution.
Dan: Have there been specific cases reported in the media?
Cleo: Several, but mainly in international and UK media. A transvestite was stoned to death in a public square. A gay man was shot by a mob that came through his gym. There are stories of men being lured into rendezvous via chat-rooms only to be met with death squads, the list goes on and on. The most unsettling for me though, have been the execution of children. One 14 year-old boy who was merely trying to raise money for his starving family was accused of male prostitution and executed on his family’s doorstep by police. Recently an 11-year old boy who was kidnapped by crime gangs and forced into prostitution was similarly executed by police. The stories go on and on.
Dan: Al-Sistani is the leading Shiite cleric in Iraq.
Cleo: Right and actually the man who the Bush Administration has held up as a great leader in Iraq, and one of the main people the U.S. Government has chosen to work with, the British Government as well. He has his own security force, the Badr Brigade, which enforces Islamic/Sharia law, and it is now taking over the security and police forces in Iraq.
Dan: Can you say a bit about the relationship of Sharia Islamic law to the U.S.-supported Iraqi government?
Cleo: Well, in forming a new Iraqi government, the United States was under such pressure to get a government in place and appear to be making progress. They made a major concession from a secular constitution to a Sharia-based constitution. At the time it was presented as “not that big a deal.” However, some red flags were raised immediately.
Dan: What red flags exactly?
Cleo: Howard Dean, to his credit, immediately pointed out that women’s rights had just been knocked back generations, and all the voting rights and equality of women were gone over night. He was slammed at the time for raining on the parade.
Dan: What’s your role as a poet in all of this?
Cleo: Well as a poet, or any artist, you have to feel that your craft has a chance to change people’s minds. To make them feel and empathize for people. Even to make a difference and change the world. I’ve always believed that what the essay is to reason and logic, the poem is for feeling and understanding.
Dan: I love that. But you’re in Atlanta. Whose minds are you trying to change?
Cleo: Hmm… good question. Atlanta isn’t really a hot bed of international rights. However don’t forget we’ve produced two Nobel peace-prize winners in MLK and Jimmy Carter. I myself come from a very rural fundamentalist (Baptist) background. I knew people that were active members in the Klan and my hometown had the last standing KKK billboard in the country. So in a sense, we’re not all that far from what’s happening in Iraq. This was one of those instances where I just had to ask myself, “what can I do about this?” And as a poet, I’ve done what I do. There’s a great synergy between political action and arts.
This is just an excerpt from this fantastic interview in White Crane. We are reader-supported and need you to subscribe to keep this conversation going. So to read more from this wonderful issue SUBSCRIBE to White Crane. Thanks!
C. Cleo Creech was born in North Carolina to Conservative Baptist tobacco farmers in 1959. He led a very sheltered life until he went to college and became the biggest partying frat boy on campus overnight. After leaving Wake Forest he moved to Atlanta GA, the gay capital of the South. He did all the basic wham things, worked tables, bartended. He went back to school for a BFA in ceramics and printmaking. He has been writing poetry for about 10 years now and is very active in the spoken word scene in Atlanta. He is also an active volunteer in everything from politics to tree planting. He has been HIV positive for 20+ years – which has heavily influenced his writing and activism. He lives in the East Atlanta enclave, with his cat Ava, named after Ava Gardner, the only famous person ever to come from his hometown. He has a bit of a mixed family pedigree in literature with an ancestor, (William Creech), who was the poet Robert Burns’ Scottish editor and publisher and another ancestor (William Creech) the compiler of the first Baptist Hymnal. He is hoping to fall somewhere in between.