Welcome to what’s sure to be an interesting year.
Last week, I planned on writing about the reading and workshop I did at Miriam’s Kitchen, but the New Year and a brush with a virus laid me down.
I love what the name of this nonprofit represents. Miriam was the sister of Moses and Aaron, known for her role in following her baby brother in his basket of reeds down the Nile and negotiating with the Pharaoh’s daughter who adopted him. The relevant part of this story is that Miriam and Aaron weren’t so into their sister-in-law, Tzipporah, perhaps because she was from another tribe. They meet up with Moses and express their dissatisfaction with his choice. (Tzipporah, by the way means “bird,” and some scholars believe she may have been a biblical allusion to the winged Egyptian goddess Isis.) Miriam gets struck down with a leprosy-like disease and is separated from the tribe for seven days. (This is despite Moses’ intervention; God still insisted she be punished.)
So too are homeless people separated from society, until some intervention is made. It was also thanks to Miriam that the Hebrews didn’t die in the desert; wherever she went, a well full of “living waters” followed. I’d like to think that those who live on the margins have an awful lot to share with us.
The experience was powerful, in unpredictable ways. I’ve never been amongst a crowd who kept asking me to read. An old friend used to always say that the first rule of performance is not to torture the audience. In other words, leave them wanting more. Give less of your prepared talk or poetry and allow folks the space to draw their own conclusions, apply your words to their lives.
I’m not much into reading my work aloud. Different reasons. I’m not a spoken word poet so I don’t think listening to my work is particularly riveting. And I’ve got a bit of reading trauma. On June 6th, 2006 — 6/6/6 for those conspiracy lovers among you — I was a featured poet at an open mic, which meant that about a dozen folks signed up and read their stuff first, and then I was supposed to do a 15 minute reading or so, and then another dozen or so folks signed up to read after. (Kind of like a poetry sandwich.) Not a minute into my first poem, I found myself being heckled. The shouting and being told to get off stage continued throughout. The hosts were overwhelmed and not sure what to do. The bright lights meant I couldn’t see anyone, just heard the voices, including some ugly sounding anti-Jewish stuff. As a matter of self-respect, or perhaps stubbornness, I stayed on that stage for about ten minutes, talking directly to the audience about tolerance and respect, and reading my work. When I felt it was time, I went straight from stage to bar, and ordered a scotch. I didn’t read again publicly for about two years.
Now even when I do read, I keep it short. Plus, The Last of My Village has very strong Jewish themes. (In fact some of the poems I read that June night are in the collection.) As an artist, I’m in love with the richness of culture — including my own — but never want to make people feel like that they have to be Jewish to understand my work. (There are of course many subtleties and nuances, which Jews might get immediately — and I believe anyone else can relate to, given delving time.)
At Miriam’s Kitchen, I was careful to pick poems that I thought they’d like and could immediately relate to, without my getting into explanations of what this ritual is all about or that holiday.
Surprisingly, they had requests! And Miriam’s Kitchens writers were largely rapt when I read (except for the guy next to me who suffers the can’t-stop-talking-and-half-of-it-makes-sense disease). They also had great questions about the writing process, as well as how they might eventually share their writing in public settings.
We talked about the healing aspects of telling our stories. How telling them again and again could help you revision them, how the process of revising a piece can help you shift your relationship with your own story, even if you can’t change the facts of your experience. I used my mother’s suicide as an example, since one of the poems I read was about this. You could have heard a proverbial pin drop.
The deputy director, who’s a friend, asked how I felt telling such an intimate story. It hadn’t occurred to me that it was such a personal story — in large part because I refused to let it be taboo, within weeks of it happening. I also strongly felt that of all the people in the world, the writers and writing-lovers in the room had their own stories of trauma and transcendence, and could easily hold my little one along with their own.
The afternoon with them helped me remember that part of the power of writing is the taking of personal stories into the public space, where you get to mix it with images and symbols and metaphors until your story becomes like a myth that can be universally understood, or even followed. We did a couple of writing exercises. More than a few revealed that something in their lives they had thought of previously as tragedy was actually a blessing in disguise, and their stories, a gift to listeners.
Such is power of language. Today, I am struck by the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others by a man whose words remind me of the philosophy of people like Timothy McVeigh and the militias that were prevalent in the mid 1990s. Loughran’s narrative around economics, his disdain for government, his willingness to see people as collateral damage in his fight for justice, and his suicide-by-state actions do more than disgust — they honestly intrigue me. (My friend Mark just reminded me this morning that I loaned him a copy of the Turner Diaries sometime in the mid-1990s; for fun, I read other right-wing titles at the time, including the classic Protocols of the Elders of Zion.)
Does public discourse cause violence and extremism or just tap into sentiments that already exist? (One of my favorite explanations for Americans’ violence remains Michael Moore’s cartoon from the opening of “Bowling for Columbine.”) I am saddened by how smart extremists often are, how young, and wonder how easily it could be me in their positions, were it not for rather small differences in our lives that caused me to listen to certain words, and ignore others. My heart goes out to everyone affected by the violence; I feel heartened by actions that highlight what I believe is the best that exists within each of us, mirrored on the public stage by folks such as Daniel Hernandez. But I am, in a very macabre way, equally drawn to what is written in shadows.
Words reveal so much, and yet can hide worlds. The same words, after all, can mean radically different things to people. McVeigh chose the poem Invictus to be his final statement before being executed on June 11th, 2001. Nelson Mandela recited the same poem repeatedly on Robben Island. Both men drew strength from the poem’s main message of personal power and choice, in the same way that I realized writing often changes us from victims of circumstance to masters of our fates, captain of our souls.
Today, I am left convinced of the power of words, and wishing that I had stronger ones to leave you with.