Saturday, October 16, 2010
This time last Saturday, I was sitting beside my sister Deborah in a church in Newark, NJ.
I can’t remember the last time we were in a church together (probably for a wedding or a funeral.) And we’ve never been to Newark together—much less to visit a church. But there we were, attending the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. Sitting in the Trinity & St. Philip’s Cathedral. And listening to Kay Ryan, the 2010 U.S. Poet Laureate, talk about her craft.
It was a pivotal moment in a long weekend of pivotal moments. The festival lasted three and a half days, and we made it through two before agreeing we were on overload. But what an amazing experience it turned out to be—one I wasn't really prepared for.
I went because it’s something Deborah has wanted to do for a long time. I don’t write poetry or read much of it, so I knew pretty much nothing about the myriad of “stars” that would be there. But I love my sister and we don’t spend near enough time together. So when she discovered that the festival had been relocated from Sussex County to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, I didn't think twice about springing for the four-day pass.
The event kicked off with a group reading featuring 24 of the poets in attendance—a perfect preview of what was to come. She and I took notes and later that night mapped out our strategy for the days ahead. The workshops and readings were many and the choices tough, but by the time we said, “Uncle!” on Saturday night, our creative “wells” were brimming. So much so that only now am I able to begin to sift through the thoughts and ideas that bombarded my brain. And the emotions that stirred my heart.
If I had thought about it in advance, I might have realized it had the potential to be overwhelming. I mean seriously—when you bring together dozens of the best poets in the country and give them the chance to share their love of language with thousands of adoring fans, how could the outcome be less than stellar? Each reading—whether it featured two people or ten—was a pyrotechnic display of the power and glory of words. Funny, insightful, delicious, rhythmic, sweet, obtuse, touching, exquisite, fierce. Driving home at the end of each day, my mind whirled with one-line inspirations (“Learn to be susceptible to distractions”; “Strike while the iron is iron.") And my heart ached from being put so thoroughly through its paces.
Instead, I'd focused solely on the gift of spending three wonderful days with my sister with no one else around. And we made the most of it. She summed it up beautifully in an email: “…every time together is a snapshot of where we are in our lives—our worries, our triumphs, our struggles and our joys –and talking helps me ‘hear’ where I am…” Several times during the weekend I felt blessed to have this special bond with her. Once, sitting in the grand main hall at NJPAC, I turned to look at her and tears welled in my eyes. I told her how grateful I was to be asked to share in the experience. But what I was really thinking was thank god we survived the miseries of childhood with our spirits intact. And have the courage to be living authentic lives.
Late last Saturday afternoon, we went to a second church to listen in on a slightly off-kilter conversation between poets Sharon Olds (heartfelt and loopy) and Billy Collins (ironic and brilliant). The sanctuary was a funky blend of grooved wood, stained glass and Gothic-inspired pewter chandeliers that lent a medieval air to the proceedings. In the back of the pew in front of us, a folded envelope was stuffed into a small wooden slot. I pulled it out and read the words printed in elegant script: “Love Offering.” Instantly I thought, “That’s what I’ve given Deborah by being here.” In the next moment I realized that was what she’d given me. Amen.