Friday, April 9, 2010

Returning the Blood to Words

At almost every AWP Conference (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) there is a moment, a panel, a writer who reminds you of why you became a writer in the first place.  The annual conference is in Denver this year, and Martín Espada, the master poet, was the man for me this year.  Last year it was Marie Ponsot.

Espada: “Writers should return the blood to words.”

Espada said so many things on his panel, “Justice, Community, and the Republic of Poetry,” with Tara Betts and David Mura.  But that sentence encapsulates his ideas about writers fighting the deadness of language used by politicians and even the deadness of perspective given our busy and often compromised lives.

Espada read and sang in a way only poets do, to uplift the literary sprits, to call us to the social mission of writing, to dethrone the accepted, to criticize the unjust, to delve roughly and humorously into ourselves too, lest we forget that not only is the world the issue, but also the self.

Years ago I had a similar reaction the first time I heard Curbstone’s Alexander Taylor speak at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center.  Sandy, who died in December of 2007, may he rest in peace, invigorated me and gave me purpose.  I write to change the world, to prod myself, to seek answers to questions often unasked, to lead the good life as Aristotle may have envisioned, which is hard and unrelenting.  And I try to do this with good stories that engage the reader.  Philosophy in literature, some have called it.  So hearing Sandy, just like hearing Martín, captured my soul.

I dropped everything, even the panels I am missing as I type this, to write this entry.  This is what great writers do: they cause you to act.  They don’t just entertain you (although they have to do that if they are storytellers), but they prompt you to do, to change your perspective, to ask yourself tough questions, to believe in a just republic and imagine the impossible.

Martín Espada and Sandy Taylor were great friends.  I also remember hearing Martín speak about reading poetry to Sandy as he lay in the hospital during his final hours.  I knew Sandy, since I had been briefly on the Curbstone Board.  But I do not know Martín except from afar.  I am lucky to have paid attention to their words.

I have been pondering why it is that poets, recently, have been the ones inspiring me.  It is their exceptional use of language, and their thinking beyond the norm and the staid.  This poetic thinking I believe is deeply philosophical.  These writers seem to pose the question of ‘seeing’ without assuming what it means, or what it has meant, or what it can mean.  ‘Seeing’ for these poets is a new act with every poem.

During breaks, I am finishing Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” and have already received recommendations from poet-friends on what to read next.  It has been a great conference so far.  But now I need the solitude and quiet that beckon me even in a crowd.