So, the big five year anniversary of the worst September event in my often unavoidably wild-ass history came to a quiet close in a peaceful, if not restorative way. It was a busy month, filled with more social events attended in less physical pain and fatigue than I had experienced since the incident. Yes, less pain and fatigue; not none, most unfortunately. Both still plague me daily, but as I move toward year six of this godforsaken condition, I’m driving past the lows, rusted and rickety, low on air but not out of gas, yet. (Okay, so that illustrates how to overwork a metaphor. Still.)
As exciting as my first 5K Color Run was and as amazed as I was by our friends’ luxurious new backyard architecture and landscaping , I have to say that one event in particular helped me more than any other to move past the ridiculously petty personal training debacle. And wouldn’t I know, it would take poetry.
Yet, exhausted from traveling, the schedule changes, and an extended stay taking care of my parents after my dad tripped on my mom’s oxygen cable, fell, and broke his shoulder, we really had to motivate ourselves to leave the house that first Saturday past the five year marker. Quite likely, the opportunity to attend a reading at a new art co-op was the only thing that could persuade us. Two of my former colleagues would be reading that evening, one from her newly published first novel, Three Cubic Feet. Its author, Lania Knight, a recent hire before I retired last spring, had encouraged me to attend. I appreciated her enterprise, and wanted to support this event. She and I only enjoyed a happenstance rapport, running into each other at work mostly when we used the ladies restroom…it seemed almost like a sign. I think one day we even mentioned synchronicity, as we spoke briefly about Julia Cameron. I liked Lania, because I sympathized with the displacement she must be feeling coming to a new environment. I came to like her even more when we spoke at length about writing at a celebration for another colleague’s first book publication, Letitia Moffitt’s Sidewalk Dancing . Lania has worked hard to feel at home in east central Illinois, and by organizing this night of music and poetry in Champaign, she brought a strong offer along with her. Lania started her blog, where she often writes about her dreams, long before I had the guts to leap into my own, stumbler.
When we arrived, Lania had just started reading, so she didn’t see us enter. The co-op had a modern, Frank Lloyd Wright appeal to it, so we stood upstairs by the angles and tree branch sculptures for the remainder of her reading. The feeling one gets hearing a friend read her own published words is beyond magical. You understand the time, the discipline, the commitment, the passion, the talent. You appreciate the courage. Lania was reading some dialogue from her book, and listening to her pacing alone made all my troubles melt away. She hit every cadence, the way only a polished reader and conscientious writer can. She projected and annunciated her voice in a way as not to forsake pitch and meter. You could tell she was a fast reader slowing her pace for audience comprehension–the lost art of oral interpretation. I was so pleased in that moment to know to the bone of her success. The fact alone that in Three Cubic Feet, Lania writes in a voice completely foreign to her own, the voice of a homosexual teenage male, and does so persuasively, makes her a queen of the craft. I tried managing voice once in high school, and very nearly never had the guts to do it again. My stern, WWII vet English teacher scrawled across the top of my front paper with the only hand he had left, “Don’t ever write in a voice not your own.”
I couldn’t even pull off the voice of a female southern sharecropper — obviously one reason Lania’s published and I’m not. It’s just not an easy thing for a writer to get right. You have to have an ear. You have to be a confident writer. You have to do your research, as Lania did. I can’t wait to read Lania’s book, and maybe even write a review of it here on my blog.
Next to read that equinox evening was a new poet for me, John Palen. While he set up we took the opportunity to join the larger crowd downstairs, where we were warmly welcomed by other former colleagues, Letitia Moffitt, Melissa Ames, and Roxane Gay. It was surprising how good it felt to see each one of them, to celebrate enthusiastically the shared recognitions. Surely, the only thing better than hearing a friend read is gathering together in a room full of other writers to listen together. It’s like family…like the Ben & Jerry’s of all discourse, uniting us in a linguistic kind of bliss that’s better than ice cream. No matter what our differences, we put all our competitiveness aside, and just bask in the beauty of our shared interest, our attention and perception–our discipline, which is sacred to each of us.
I was so excited, I didn’t think I could pay attention to John Palen. But he surprised me. We loved his work. He had one poem about his daughter’s birthday that is one of those *POW* poems you never forget. That’s the thing about most poetry — plan to be surprised. Emily Dickinson is famous for having said it best, ““If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” ― Emily Dickinson, Selected Letters. I always enjoyed reciting those lines to students. They would look at me as if I was one. weird. woman.
Both Lania’s and John’s readings were so pleasantly crisp and engaging, it’s hard to imagine even for me that anything could get better. But then it was my writing rockstar’s turn, Roxane Gay. I’m telling you, no writer has excited me as much as she does since Carolyn Forche’. Now, they are two very different writers. Roxane’s not even a poet, like Carolyn is; but to be fair, Carolyn’s not hilarious, like Roxane is. Roxane does not have a problem with this, and I would say that neither does Carolyn. Both women are incredibly gifted writers; they know their place and serve it masterfully–and even better, both have been exceptionally kind to me. Roxane was to read after the break, and knowing Roxane as I do, I sensed that maybe she might be a little tense. I decided to approach her to see if I might loosen her up a little. Sure enough, the first thing she said when I sat down beside her was, “I hate reading.” I am laughing as I type this, because really, the lady is hilarious. She is also very tender-hearted and endearing, and she realized my offer was genuine. She could have been standoffish, given the circumstances, but she embraced the comfort I tried to bring, and we had a good chuckle that really did seem to help…and given what I’d been through that week, it helped me, too. She took the mic with smiles and jest, and was off to do her magic. She didn’t read one of her many funny pieces on pop culture, or the guy who put his sock feet on her cocktail table. She read “There Can Be No You Or We” from her novel, AYITI. Tonight was about sexual tension–a Roxane Gay specialty. You listen to her read her bold writing, and you think, “No wonder she’s a little nervous.” The issue is not that she is uncomfortable with the pen or keyboard, the issue is that she knows she is going where you typically hide.
The evening concluded with the songwriting and music of Jeff Arrigo. I had never heard Jeff perform before, but I can tell you now the biggest mistake we made was not picking up a copy of his CD, Gideon. Rich thought I got it and I thought he did, and when we realized neither had, we both sighed in collective disappointment. We’re planning on seeing him again, for sure. Such vocal power, range, versatility had me thinking Bob Dylan, Harry Chapin, Van Morrison, and to my deepest delight, “John Prine, Jr.” I really can pay no higher praise than to say that Jeff’s performance in some way reminded me of one of my most favorite performers, the great American troubadour, my sir and musical muse, John Prine. Since Jeff and Lania are married, I kept beaming at the thought of having two such gifted and hard working people in town. I don’t know what I would do without the kinds of gifts they bring. I would never want to live a life without art, and sometimes the only thing that gets me through this illness is dragging myself out of bed to reaffirm life with the likes of artists like these.
Click the link below Jeff’s photo to see him performing.
© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved.