Saturday, April 16, 2011

Back to the Future

Last Saturday, we drove down to Bloomington for dinner to celebrate my nephew’s twenty-first birthday. Afterward, Steve, Kate, Heidi, Jake and I walked up Kirkwood Street toward campus. It was a beautiful spring evening, dusk. There were people everywhere, threading in and out of restaurants, eating ice cream, gathering for a street dance, playing hackey-sack in what used to be People's Park.

We crossed University Avenue and Heidi and Jake took off running through the gates, up the brick path. “This is so awesome,” they kept saying.

Jake to Heidi as some kids passed, laughing and talking: “This could be us.”

We went to the Student Union and showed them where Steve and I met on the very first day of my freshman year, then walked past Beck Chapel, where we were married.

There, they spotted colored lights near the Fine Arts Building and took off running again. An installation, an erector-set-like tower, was casting the changing lights on the side of the limestone building, and some students were lying on the sidewalk, feet against the building, looking up. So we did, too. Something shifted and it felt as if we were standing, the side of the building flat, in front of us, and the one square window, high up, like a black hole you could step into.

From there, we walked back toward town, past the Sigma Chi house, where a bunch of guys and girls were going up the sidewalk, inside.

It felt magical and strange to be with our grandchildren in that place where we started. Walking up the same sidewalk on so many Saturday nights so long ago, we couldn’t possibly have imagined it.

Not those particular beautiful, beloved grandchildren, not that particular spring night.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Poem in Your Pocket Day

Yesterday was “Poem in Your Pocket Day." I tried to trump up some excitement about going downtown to hand out poems on downtown—but, in the end, it was me, wandering around the Circle and over to the State House at lunchtime, a beautiful day, with a handful of poems.

Approaching people, I said, “It’s National Poetry in Your Pocket Day, part of the celebration of National Poetry Month. Here’s a poem by an Indiana poet from the Writers’ Center of Indiana.”

I gave a poem to a policeman, who took it with a smile; to a young clerk in a shoe store at Circle Center Mall, who turned out to be a journalism major who missed writing and was delighted to hear that the Writers’ Center existed. I dropped poems on the tables of people eating at outside cafes, handed them (or tried) to Men in Suits and down-and-outs at a bus stop. I handed them to legislators and lobbyists near the statehouse, adding, “Please support the arts!”

There was a guy on the street handing out flyers for a jewelry store. I took one, gave him a poem in return. A barista at Starbucks, a visual artist, said poetry often inspired his work and he took a bunch of the poems to hand out himself.

High point: handing poems to two businessmen in Starbucks and walking past a while later to see one guy, now sitting by himself, reading his. It was this one, by Norman Minnick, a poem I particularly love.

While You Work

While you sit at your desk
water striders dance upon the surface of a pond,
high, thin clouds stretch across the sky,
and acres of tall grass, reticent after a long dry summer,
practice nothing but grace.

Low point: I walked up beside a stout gray-haired woman, did my spiel, poem in hand. She took it (no eye contact), folded it in half without looking at it, and put it in the trash. “Bad karma,” I said in a cheerful voice, as she crossed in front of me to enter a building.

Most amusing: “It’s National Poem in Your Pocket Day, I said to a receptionist.” She looked confused. “Comb?” she asked. “No, no, poem,” I said. We laughed.

“I’d much rather have a poem,” she said—and happily took the one I offered.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Impossible Questions

Richard Russo read at Butler last night: three parts of an essay and two novel excerpts that were connected to the material he explored in it. He talked about writing the same kind of scene all the time, sometimes inadvertently repeating a description or turn of phase in his stories and novels. How there were a few things you looked at all your life, in different ways, trying to capture the essence of them but never quite succeeding—or at least it didn’t feel like you’d succeeded. All true, from my own experience.

But the most interesting thing he said was in response to a question a student asked. He was reading Russo’s collection of short stories in his English class and observed that all of the stories set characters in situations that seemed impossible to deal with. “What’s that about for you?” he asked.

“Science has answers,” Russo said. " A story can’t be interesting if the problem it posed didn’t seem impossible to solve. If a story has only two possible outcomes—what the character clearly should do and what he clearly shouldn’t do—it’s boring."

He said he knows he has a good story idea when he asks himself what he’d do in the same situation and thinks, “I have no idea.”

I love that. It’s not the cleverness or intricacy of a plot that creates tension, but the sense that the problem it poses seems impossible to solve—and, in fact, is impossible to solve, like any human problem that really matters. You keep reading to find out whether/how the characters will make the best of it or whether/how it will destroy them.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Conversation about Etheridge Knight

The African American poet Etheridge Knight was raised Indianapolis and for the most part made his home here after an eight-year stint in prison in the 1960’s. He discovered poetry while incarcerated, publishing his first collection, Poems from Prison, a year before his 1968 release. According to, “The book was a success, and Knight soon joined such poets as Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti, and Sonia Sanchez (to whom he was once married) in what came to be called the Black Arts Movement.

“This movement, according to the poet and critic Larry Neal, was 'radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community. Black Arts is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. As such, it envisions art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America.' Knight embraced these ideals in his own work and in 1970 edited a collection entitled Black Voices From Prison.”

His sister, Eunice Knight-Bowens, established the Etheridge Knight Festival of the Arts after his death in 1991 to celebrate his life and work and to encourage people, young and old, to choose words as a way of expressing themselves and changing the world they live in.

Last weekend, the Writers’ Center co-sponsored the EK Festival’s “The House that Etheridge Built” as part of our “Be a Better Writer” craft lecture series. The program featured four African poets who never knew the poet Etheridge Knight, but were profoundly influenced by his work and his life. Dwayne Betts, Randall Horton, Marcus Jackson, and John Murillo read their own work and Etheridge’s, reflecting along the way about what might be called Knight’s literary family tree.

The night before the festival, we hosted a “conversation” at the Writers’ Center and invited people who’d known Etheridge to talk with the visiting poets about their personal relationships with Knight. He was a mentor to African American poets Michael L.L. Collins and Sonny Bates. Saundra Jo Holiday only met him once, when her college creative writing class visited him in his apartment. She’d been having difficulty in the class, nobody seemed to be able to relate to her poems at all, and she was about to give up on writing. She was shy, sat down on a couch while others in the class clustered around EK. But he left them and came and sat beside her and said, “We are an aural people.”

“As if he knew I was struggling,” she said. “It changed my life.”

Kittrell Andis talked about going to a poetry reading at the Hummingbird Café in the 70’s and being blown away by Etheridge Kight who “said” his poems, who “knew how to take up the space.” Later that evening, he read a poem of his own and Knight came up to him afterward and said he should come back. He did—and developed a close relationship with Knight over the years.

I never met EK myself. I might have; he was in and out of Indianapolis a lot in the years after I started writing. He read around town, hung out at the Hummingbird Café and the Chatterbox, gave his legendary Free People Poetry Workshops. But I was put off by how people were in awe of his prison creds, thrilled by his outrageous behavior. He drank to excess, did drugs, conned people out of money. Fairly regularly, he’d show up drunk or stoned or worse at readings that people had gone to a lot of trouble to put together for him—if he showed up at all.

Why would I want to know somebody like that?

Growing up in a household with an alcoholic father had scared me away from drinking or drugs —or anything likely to make me lose control. It gave me a nasty little puritan streak that I am sorry to say still occasionally plagues me.

But over the years, I’ve come to love Etheridge Knight’s poetry, its honesty and originality, its depth of intelligence and compassion. I understand that he wrote them to save his life—and they did save his life. Listening to Friday night’s conversation, I understood something else about him. Writers—the best ones, the ones with promise—are people who don’t really fit anywhere, solitary in their pursuit of words. EK recognized them, embraced them, and made himself the community that each one needed. He was the guy at the reading who said, “Come back;” the mentor who said, “Be your own self.” the one who saw right through you. He was your friend, your literary father, your own lost dad. He was the poem slid under the prison door.

I wish I’d had the courage show up at a Free People’s Poetry Workshop when I was just beginning. Who knows how completely or subtly different my work might have been for it.