James Ragan, a Phi Beta Kappa member who formerly directed the University of Southern California Master of Professional Writing program and an internationally recognized poet, playwright, screenwriter, and essayist. He is the subject of the Arina Films documentary, Flowers and Roots, the 2016 Platinum Prize winner at the Houston International Film Festival.
Ragan’s books of poetry, which have been translated into 15 languages, include The Hunger Wall, Too Long a Solitude, and The World Shouldering I. He has read for seven heads of state including Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel and South Korean Prime Minister Young-Hoon Kang and for audiences at the United Nations and Carnegie Hall. In 1985, he was one of four poets, including Seamus Heaney, Bob Dylan and Robert Bly, invited to perform for Mikhail Gorbachev at the First International Poetry Festival in Moscow.
Additionally, Ragan worked on the iconic films The Godfather, directed by fellow member Francis Ford Coppola, and The Deer Hunter, and was recently a script collaborator on foreign films Dom (The House), winner of seven European Academy Awards and Clownwise, winner of eight Czech Lion nominations.
What do you hope the documentary about you, Flowers and Roots, James Ragan, An Ambassador of the Arts, inspires in audiences?
I write to break down borders. My sensibility has always been global, to find expression through my poetry, plays, and films to bring individuals and worlds, seemingly apart, closer in understanding. The cafes I write in are my libraries—from Paris to Prague to New York to Los Angeles. I write to live out loud and through the expansive reach of art, hope to achieve community through a common language.
My goal is to inspire the universal hope that we can all freely celebrate our “roots” and the cultural gifts we bring to a country born out of an assimilation of many cultures, races, and religions. Each of us has the potential and power to exact these choices.
Your work is heavily based in activism through the use of language. What aspects of language make it such a powerful tool for change?
Two words guide my use of language in pursuing my activism in taking on oppression in the world—truth and passion. And I add a third word—compassion—without which the other two cannot be achieved.
What was the best advice you were given and who gave it to you?
Due to my family’s level of poverty, I played three sports in high school out of necessity in order to earn a college sports scholarship. I subsequently received numerous recognitions as co-captain of both my high school and college basketball and baseball teams. Both my father and mother gave me life-long advice, “Don’t let your pride get so high, the fall will be so great.”
As a child of immigrants, how did your parents’ experience and your own journeys shape your personal narrative?
As one of 13 children from an immigrant family, I am always fond of saying, “we were so poor, they just forgot to tell us.” My parents taught me an openness and respect toward all cultures and nations and a strong sense of optimism, even though they themselves suffered under totalitarian rule and foreign invasions.
They gifted me with my first language of Slovak (English came later), which allowed me to learn other languages more easily as I travelled and engaged the world. I annually visited my family villages in then Czechoslovakia where I began my dissident writings against Soviet occupation.
As a published American poet, playwright, screenwriter, and USC professor, I met newly-elected Czech President Vaclav Havel in Los Angeles. Acknowledging my banned activism against Communism, Havel extended his hand, saying, “We are colleagues,” and invited me to return to the Czech Republic to serve as Distinguished Visiting Professor of Poetry and Film at Charles University. I’m still teaching there 23 summers later.
My impulse has always been to move the minds of kings (world leaders) through my poetry, and this has come to pass, with the humbling experience of being a child of immigrants and reading for seven international heads of state.
What advice do you have for others?
It’s a danger for Americans to take freedom of speech for granted—a freedom many societies in the world don’t have. At a time when journalists have been denigrated as enemies of the American people, it’s important to use our freedom and the power of words to stand up and speak out against demagoguery, racism, sexism, and all forms of social and political oppression that threaten our civil rights.
Why do you think Phi Beta Kappa and an arts & sciences education are important in today’s society?
At a time when funds are being cut from NEH, NEA, and Public Broadcasting programs as well as from high school arts funding and children after-school programs, Phi Beta Kappa’s focus on promoting and supporting education in the arts and sciences is more important than ever.
In my poetry and plays, I explore the signs that point to the dangers of our current breeding of a post-book reading generation. My belief is that a deeply rooted respect for education and the arts has always provided the moral compass and foundation necessary for any nation to thrive and survive.