I entered the almost empty courtyard of Arnold’s, vacant except for a group of nine patrons seated in one of the more cozy corners. The heaters were blowing and lights twinkling. A night of perfection for poetry.
Once a month, Women Writing for (a) Change hosts a poetry reading for which I am a co-creator. The event, our seventh, brings four women to the stage to read original works – voices on the verge I call them, as if I’m going to push them off a cliff and watch their words soar. Along with four women, we routinely host 50-60 guests for dinner or cocktails.
I was a little nervous about the boisterous table of strangers, unsure of where our poetry guests might sit if the room was overbooked. But we welcomed all, one of the tenets held dear. The lead server approached me. “Hey, we got a group from (insert large downtown employer with two initials), but when we took the reservation, we let them know they had to be out by 7 p.m.”
I agreed and turned to setting the stage and tables with flyers and placemats. While I busied myself, I overheard the server again remind the patrons. “Hey, we’ve got this group doing a women’s poetry reading tonight, so if you want more to eat or drink, just remember you have to be gone by seven. Or, you can stay and listen.”
As soon as the server walked away, a few of the khaki pants’ males chuckled. I cringed. Sadly, I also observed the lone female in the group, the lone female who probably worked extra hard to rise above the males or to at least be considered on their level, laugh and snap her fingers, as if at a poetry reading in the 70’s.
This is the year 2015. We cheer, clap, cry, and in some cases, and in some cases call out, new shit. While the co-workers might have been stuck in the 70’s, the art of poetry was not.
Wanting them to feel comfortable, I made my way to their table, offering the same information I would place on the all the tables, “Nothing is Too Small Not to be Wondered About” by Mary Oliver and a flyer about our center.
“Here, in case you want to stay, we love having extra guests. You never know what you might hear that you like.” I stared long at the faces but many put their mugs back in their beers. When I turned away, more chuckles echoed off the walls of brick.
By 7 p.m., the group of mostly white, middle-aged males and one female had vacated their tables, freeing up room for interested guests. A part of me felt disappointed, wanting them to experience the evening for themselves.
That night, the audience heard a young women read a poem about Smarts:
“You know you don’t have to go so try-hard on every test, right?”
Words uttered to me, darting between the crumbling tables of the biology classroom. Words that would have pinched or stung my ears had it not been about the fortieth time they’d confronted me.
Words spoken, if you can believe it, by a boy, a snap-back wearing D-average earning, condescending boy, who was obviously very interested by my test scores.
Words that mock and chastise me because this is not who I am supposed to be, not how I am taught to perform. – M. Basil.
They heard a poet read about Ripley, Ohio where the slaves crossed the river, asking, “Aren’t we all still crossing?” Guests laughed at whether a real poem can utilize “Google” twice in its text.
Had the guests attended the previous month’s event, they would have heard a young millennial come to acceptance with her sexuality and would have felt as one guest later described:
“However, what I completely skipped over in describing was the soul saving feeling of being among a… A womb maybe, kind of a weird but apropos descriptor. I was a stranger and was embraced. The two women you’d introduced me to, pushed the table over and welcomed me without question.
The work that I do is in turns very rewarding and incredibly emotionally draining. Being a mother is equally difficult and awesome. I am a poet and I feel like I lose language everyday. I walked in to Arnold’s that night a lonely woman with a dormant soul. I came seeking entertainment. I left with so much more.”
As a region, we talk about attracting and retaining Millennials, making outsiders feel welcome. Ironically, the poetry reading occurred in the same week Artswave hosted Jamie Bennett, director of ArtsPlace and Tedtalk presenter, who advocates that arts should be positioned as a key economic sector, similar to transportation. Also, he described the importance of arts in creating a greater sense of connection. “The arts are what root us to a place and make us call it home,” Bennett said.
“Artists are the one asset that exists in every community,” Bennett said. “The asset is there and waiting to be activated.”
The Artswave event was attended by many employers, who, as individuals, actively support community arts. But I wonder, are those same values reflected in their own work environments? As a city, most outsiders know Cincinnati by some of its largest employers, P&G, Western Southern and Great American. Are those employers emphasizing the importance of arts in their own cultures? Are the perspectives of those same restaurant patrons the reasons why millenials are reluctant to root themselves here?
Those of us who work in the arts do what we do to provide for voices that have been intimidated or silenced by the behavior of groups or individuals like on that night. We do what we do to overcome the “louder than” voice in the room. We do what we do to break the hold of isolation and connect in community. We do what we do because that lone woman may return to her desk and secretly pull out a stash of old poems written when she too was struggling to find her voice, her path, when she too was challenged in proving she was as smart at the boys.
We will do what we do, until acceptance has been elevated to its own art form.