The Twin Cities area is host to a plethora of independent bookstores, author appearances and book signings, workshops and book festivals. It’s an inspiring area for readers and writers to live and work. I was reminded of that this past weekend when I heard poet Naomi Shihab Nye read from her work and share her stories at St. Catherine University in St. Paul on Friday night, and learned from her in a Saturday morning writers workshop at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis.
These events acquainted me with just what a generous and kind human being Nye is. Her poetry is famous for how it reaches across different cultures. The reading on Friday night was packed with people, so much so that they ran out of Nye’s books for sale. Once the books were all sold, the organizers offered book plates for Nye to sign so people could still have her signature in a book somehow. How wonderful, I thought, that they sold every single book there. While the books were being sold out, there were musicians who played Middle Eastern music, rich sensuous notes that felt welcoming and exotic. Once Nye came to the podium, everyone in the room was captivated. Her humor, her warmth, and her ego-less way of presenting herself made us all feel like we were in the room with our very talented best friend. I might have fallen in love, just a little. My husband, who is a scientist and reads a wide variety of things that, somehow, don’t include poetry, accompanied me willingly, even going so far as to talk about the event when we went out for pub grub afterwards. Those of you whose partners don’t share your love of poetry will recognize how significant that is. Before we went to the reading, I read Nye’s poem, Famous, aloud to Mick and he liked what he heard. It was amusing, then, that the same poem was one of the ones she shared that night.
The Saturday morning workshop found me sitting between a corporate lawyer who said he began using poetry at the start of his team meetings at work, and children’s book author and illustrator Lauren Stringer. A pastor was also sitting at our table, along with two older women who were very quiet. As I looked around the room, there were all kinds of people from all kinds of positions who gave up sleeping in or going to the gym or having donuts or whatever people do on Saturday mornings to be here to gain some wisdom and share their stories. And they came in spite of wintery weather that sheathed our roads in a thin veneer of ice. They came in spite of cold fingers and cold car seats and cold bus stops. They came even though they had kids and weekend work and other tasks. They came even though they were tired and could have used a few more hours of sleep. One of the most powerful portions of that morning was when Nye invited participants to come to the microphone and read something from one of the exercises we did. A few brave souls did so and their snippets, written in the moment, raw and unedited, demonstrated that we all have important stories to share that reach out to others in unexpected ways. The very last reader cried at the microphone because her piece shared part of the story of her mother, who is dying.
I was surprised at what came out of my own pen, too. I’ll share one exercise here, in its unedited roughness:
For my 21-year-old daughter who’s in college
When I say I’m worried about you,
it’s really about me
needing to play the mother,
missing your daily presence.
When I say are you sure
I mean that I want you
to be happy. No regrets
that will make you bitter
or make you second guess
When I say I love you
I mean exactly that.
There is no other way to say that so clearly,
so well. I love you,
all of you, just as you are.
Did I read that aloud? No, I didn’t get my courage up in time to do so, which is one of my many flaws. I have never, and probably will never, be someone who is comfortable in front of an audience with my voice audible. I am far more comfortable with the written word, with the slight distance that speaking on a page offers. But the words remain the important part in whatever form they are offered. For that I am grateful, just as I am grateful for these opportunities that living in a literary city provides.
In this particular time in the history of the United States, many of us are hungry for ways to make just these kinds of connections, the ones that demonstrate paths to peace as well as creative expression. Just this one event used spaces in facilities that honor different denominations of Christianity and welcomed Middle Eastern sensibilities to blend in, opened the doors to anyone who wanted to hear Nye or learn from her. I went for my own growth as a poet and emerged as a citizen who benefits from the reminder that this world is a shared place, beloved and fought for by many, many cultures. And we all have a voice, however we choose to use it.