Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Going home again

I suppose a lot of us who make our art in private feed a fantasy of public acclaim.

Maybe I’m not alone in picturing myself giving the commencement address at my old high school, or maybe showing up on the news in some triumphant way, so that everyone in my hometown would explain how they knew me or repeat that cool thing I said that one time.

Truth is, I haven’t lived in my hometown since 1987, and I don’t know anyone there. It’s strange; as a child, I could enter any business, and I would know three-quarters of the people I saw. But I just visited my hometown over this past weekend, and I didn’t know anyone—not a single person I encountered anywhere, aside from family.

There will never be a triumphal return, and anyway, the fantasy is not a serious one. I had a bad reputation in high school, and it was a frantic, peaceless time for me—marching band, clubs, classes, friends, boyfriends, something going on every night. With my blond hair, I was widely considered “ditzy” or bubble-headed, and I seldom got credit for my intellect. I’ve never missed high school, and those were not, in fact, the best years of my life.

Over the weekend, I traveled to Gallipolis, Ohio, where I grew up. I drove twelve hours one way and landed at my dear mother’s door. Make no mistake, the trip home was worth it; I got to enjoy my mom and two of my three siblings, and I was glad I went.

But on Saturday, I had planned a poetry workshop and reading from my new full-length collection at the French Art Colony, my hometown’s gallery and art space. I had promoted this event heavily online, and the local media, such as they are, were alerted.

And when 10:30 a.m. rolled around and the workshop was to begin, I had to face a grim fact: Nobody had come.

So much for triumphal returns. Mine amounted to sitting in an elegant dining room of this historic home-turned-museum and grading composition papers while I waited for the second event, a 1 p.m. reading. I couldn’t exactly leave; someone might have shown up with an urgent need to become a sonneteer. You can’t, in good conscience, leave someone like that hanging. You just can’t.

My sister Brenda, pretty much the nicest person I know, showed up before both events to arrange little finger foods on trays. Before the workshop-that-wasn’t, she had arranged little brownies on a tray, and when she came back, this time with my brother, Don, the tray was nearly empty, somehow. (Ghosts?) And I was alone.

They didn’t let on how sad this was. Instead, they both put themselves to work, arranging cheese and crackers and other sad things on sad trays for the sad empty room.

And then, wonder of wonders, two people showed up! My Facebook friends, Kelly Sundberg and Shane Stricker, drove almost an hour from Athens, Ohio, home of Ohio University, to Gallipolis, home of … my mom. People who weren’t related to me not only came to the reading, but they made real effort to get there. They acted like it wasn’t sad, and that made it a lot less sad, really.

And then, additional wonder of wonders, another friend showed up. This was John Jackson, a fellow graduate of the Gallia Academy High School Class of 1987. “I’ll bet you’re surprised to see me here,” John said, and I was. I hadn’t seen him in nearly thirty years, and he was never a big poetry person, to my recollection. What’s more, we’re just about as far apart as two people can get, politically speaking, and we vex each other with some regularity on social media. An example: a glance at his Facebook feed reveals posts objecting to political action taken by pro athletes against police violence, and my own page shows full-throated support for their controversial actions and their message. That’s just the difference between John and me, but we continue to like (and tolerate!) each other.

So that was the scene. Around the table with me were my brother and sister, not poetry lovers by nature, but readers and thinkers who are wise to my bullshit and my airs. And there were two extremely talented writers, Kelly and Shane, who know my Facebook persona and are solidly part of the contemporary literary world. And there was John, a smart, soulful guy and a good egg, who came just to support someone he thinks is crazy about half the time.

And there was cheese. Plenty of cheese.

I read more than a dozen poems, and between them, I tried to find things to say that would be illuminating to this mixed group. And we had dialogue between poems. The group was small enough that I heard that occasional comment (“I liked that one,” that kind of thing) and we had little conversations about the work and life in general.

I read one poem, and John, a musician, was reminded of a favorite song of his, by the band Tesla. He recited a verse, and was so moved that he misted up in the telling. (Not into poetry, he’d told me—could have fooled me, John!)

It ended up being kind of beautiful, actually. I’ll treasure the memory of exactly ten hands clapping. They were ten precious hands—as good as a stadium, for my money.

Yesterday, the day after my twelve-hour return trek, I was unloading some things from the trunk of my car just outside my house, and I heard a voice.

“I really liked your poetry reading the other night,” a man said.

I experienced a temporary disconnect. This wasn’t Brenda, Don, Kelly, Shane, or John. But no, the stranger was referring a reading I’d had here in Springfield, Missouri, at Missouri State University. There had been a good-sized crowd, and I didn’t know everyone present. This person must have been in the room.

I thanked him. “That means so much,” I said. And it did. And it still does.

Poetry isn’t the movies. It isn’t arena rock. Lines seldom wend around the block for a poet. But sometimes you connect, in ways you would never predict. And sometimes someone claps—sometimes someone speaks up to let you know you made an impact.

I’ll take it. That’s more than enough glory for me.


  1. Karen,

    this is so beautiful. Touching, real, heartfelt, sad but also uplifting. I misted up reading it. I would love to be at your next poetry reading, but being hundreds of miles away in Canada, of course won't be. But I am thrilled to have been there anyway, through your account. Thank you.

    1. Thank you for this lovely post! Really makes it worthwhile for me.

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you so much, Shana! :) Good luck with your new venture, BTW!

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