The face of a woman so joyful, she isn’t even thinking about being cool.
It is a quiet night in Brooklyn. We are sitting in the home of Keisha Gaye Anderson for the Calypso Muse Reading Series, which has bounced for twenty years between the living rooms of New York City writers. I have been up since 6:30am and traveled from uptown to far Queens to speak at a youth event, to midtown celebrating my Brooklyn Mama’s PhD program graduation, to here, sleepy-eyed on a comfortable couch awaiting the reading. Picture it: intimate and multigenerational, young and elder writers ranging from age five to sixty. And no one is cool. Which is how I can manage to ease into this space and let it revive my tired eyes and weeping mascara and my rough new poems read off page. No one is cool. So I don’t have to be either.
Tishon @ Calypso Muse
Well, that’s a lie. Everyone was “cool” in their own distinct way, of course, but none seem cloaked in the air of cool that hangs around the shoulders of new Brooklyn in a way that gives our city a bad rap. That cynical sharpness that pushes us to prove our cool in aloofness and pretenses. The word that used to drive my mother up the wall when I overused the adjective as a teen to describe my attraction to something she found juvenile. “Cool?” She’d strain the word out, “What is cool anyway? What does it really mean?” Here, in this living room, cool is warm, is hot, is welcoming, is expansive. Years ago I walked in the woods of Golden Gate Park with my father’s cousin Rick, who has become a dear friend, and he described the word cool being so foreign to him. Back in the day when rock n’ roll and soul was steaming out the speakers, hot is what everyone wanted to be. Cookin’. Sweaty. This makes so much more sense to me artistically, heat as a metaphor for art that stirs a soul up, gets us fired and kickin’ and moving up good inside. Heat brings the molecules to a frenzy. Heat pushes things out of their hiding places.
This January, when my student died of a gun shot to the stomach, writing a poem didn’t seem like an appropriate response. I was stunned, and regardless of the ethics of penning a poem, I was left without the language to sooth this experience through a beautiful-twist of words. In fact, it felt even offensive to transfer this into a poem that I could potentially get accolades for. “Oh, this poem is so affecting.” And then what? Instead of making art out of loss, the urgency of healing those left alive was present- a broken mother and friends, peers who may retaliate.
After the wake, I spoke to my father, standing outside the open mouth of the subway, ready to swallow me in like any ordinary day. “It’s almost amazing,” he reminded me, that more of my students hadn’t fallen to this fate with our current climate. I felt defeated and sad, what would have happened to my student if he hadn’t skipped my poetry class all the time? Could I have, in some small way, helped to save him from this tragedy? It was a selfish thought, a self-aggrandizing thought, but it was an honest thought. The deep grief of experiencing and witnessing loss pushed me to think about what my contribution is to this very broken world. What is my impact? What is the role of art in relationship to all the other dire needs in our communities? Is art ever enough?
On Saturday I had the honor of delivering a presentation on being a DIY artist at the Brecht Forum. I prepared a talk accompanied by PowerPoint of the ten most important lessons I’ve learned as a grassroots artist. Among many tips was the harsh phrasing of number seven: “get a job or stop complaining.” Of course I bolstered that point with poignant notes such as “get one with meaning to you,” and “the work can help fuel your art” and the ever present “peace of mind that comes with a steady check.” And while I believe all of these things are real and true, I also know it’s a hard point to swallow for us artists. We are hungry for time and space to create and we often refuse the idea of working for other people because we are a mix of fiercely independent, burnt out, not so good at dealing with authority and/or dreamily creative. And we tend to like to work at odd hours, which doesn’t help, either. (Mornings still leave me a scrappy cat dragged out of a rainstorm.)
In the film, REACHING FOR THE MOON, a feature about the lush love affair between poet Elizabeth Bishop and Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares, Elizabeth’s character insecurely names her poems as “observations with line breaks.” Who knows if this quote was really said, or if invented to pack a filmic punch, but in either case, it’s a fantastic quote to steal. The film, set in the 1950’s, is referring to the process of attempting poems, of course, but I cannot help but parallel it to 2013. If we put a bunch of tweets together, and broke them by line, does that automatically equal a poem? When do our observations elevate to art- and conversely, are all of our observations arts?
Zim friends – look for me in August! Terrifically excited and thankful. Read the whole Win-Zim newsletter by clicking here, they are doing fantastic things