Committing Poetry in Time of War

Submitted by Bill St. Clair on Mon, 20 Dec 2004 10:04:53 GMT
by Bill Nevins
[received via email on 18 December, 2004]

In March, 2003, days before the US war on Iraq began, I was suspended from my job as Humanities teacher and sponsor of the Rio Rancho (New Mexico) High School performance poetry (slam) team. This action followed a written demand by the RRHS "military liaison" counselor Bill Nevins that the principal take action in response to poetry read publicly by at least one of the student team poets, (who had read out a poem, "Revolution X" which mildly satirized the US administration). The "military liaison" declared that whoever was responsible for the reading of that poem should be "horsewhipped" in an email memo to the principal, and warned of further action.

At the same time that I was suspended from my jobs, students were being called in by school authorities and required to "explain" their poems, some of which were being "investigated for obscenity and incitement to violence".

Under such pressure, and lacking their faculty sponsor, the student poetry team went out of existence. It has never been restored. According to students, there was no teacher at the school who was not "afraid" to take on sponsorship.

The school administration enforced a strict pre-censorship policy towards all public statements and literary readings at the school, going so far as to cancel a performance by some of New Mexico's most respected multi-cultural literary figures.

Following student statements of protest to the media, I also spoke to the media about my own concerns about these policies and actions. I expressed concern that students excercising creative expression "with decorum" were being discouraged and silenced.

Soon after, I was informed by the school district that my contract would not be renewed and my teaching job was ended. I was never permitted to return to the school, and the poetry team died.

There was an outpouring of public support for me and for the defense of creativity, literacy and free expression in NM schools. Benefit poetry and music concerts took place, with dozens of prominent performers onstage, in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, New York City and New Orleans in late 2003 and on into 2004.

In September 2003, National Lawyers Guild attorney Eric Sirotkin filed a lawsuit in my defense against the Rio Rancho School District. Extraordinary facts were uncovered in the legal discovery process of this lawsuit concerning the chilling of free speech in New Mexico's largest school district.

In August, 2004, while we were preparing to go to trial, the Rio Rancho School District settled the case by paying $205,000 to myself and my lawyer.

I have continued to teach in New Mexico alternative public secondary schools and in New Mexico postsecondary colleges. I have continued to encourage creative expression by my students.

Meanwhile, my son has continued throughout this time to serve the United States as a soldier in combat in Afghanistan and in Iraq. He has achieved high recognition for his service, and I am very proud of him.

A documentary film about the case, Word!--Committing Poetry in Time of War, is in preparation and will be released in early 2005.

I have helped to found the Poetic Justice Institute for the purpose of encouraging freedom of speech and creativity nationally. More concerts are planned for Los Angeles and elsewhere.

In August, 2004, I was honored with a Courageous Resisters Award given to me at New York University by the recording star and author Steve Earle before a very large audience.

I continue to write.

I would be happy to hear from anyone having any questions on this matter, and I would welcome poetry to be posted on our website at

In freedom,
Bill Nevins
bill_nevins at yahoo dot com

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