Turning Lemons into Pop-Up Poetry
Out there in the world-wide, there’s a gif of Kristen Wiig playing a tambourine under her raised leg. The caption appropriately reads:
“My friend: Don’t be weird.
Me: *insert Kristen, her tambourine, and her cringe-worthily awkward face*”
Go look it up. Then you’ll have a pretty spot-on glimpse into what it’s like for me to attend a conference for the first time. Except, “my friend” is my wiser inner-voice, pleading; and the picture is the *me* that I just can’t help. I feel quite anxious and clodhoppy in new, social situations–especially ones that pertain to things I am most passionate about. You can imagine, then, that my inaugural experience at the fabled Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College back in April was fertile ground for nerves and twitchy lurking up to more comfortable, seasoned authors, interjecting into conversations with the grace of a baby donkey. *tambourine crash*
But the people! They were warm and generous, excitable and burdened with the call to bear witness to the world around them and to write about their findings. It was as if the whole summit had a pulse. I could hear it in the jarring poems; in the biting, Michigan wind; in the percolating dark, smooth (and free) coffee.
I looked for opportunities to make friends, to make connections, to take rests in the windows when I’d been drinking from the fire-hydrant of newness for too long of a stint. I had conversations with people I’d only met in their pages; I gushed neurotically to my new and dear roommate. And for one of the first times in my seemingly-careerless life, I felt like maybe I was feeding a vocation amidst the stacks of books and in the audiences of panels. I am so grateful for having had the opportunity and for having taken it despite how anxious I can get these days when traveling away from my toddler.
As I took my last uber ride to the airport–and as the roads grew grayer and grayer with frost of a later-than-normal snow storm–I reflected on the long weekend and gave thanks for having finally warmed up and dived in. “No regrets,” I thought, “All is gift. Now let’s get home.” This, of course, would have been a lovely and conclusive sentiment had we not then been snowed into the airport for another ten hours–writers piling up in terminals like tumbled skiers at the end of a lift. The hours rolled on as planes sat still, as we sat still, as chocolate got passed and manuscripts got discussed and book titles got shared and departure times got pushed and pushed.
At some point, half a day into a thousand writers’ surrendering to setting up camp in the Gerald R. Ford Airport, it was announced that there would be a pop-up poetry reading by festival-goers happening just a couple gates down from me. “Oh, I hope this doesn’t annoy people,” I thought before thinking, “I wish I had the nerve to share. What a story that would be: the pop-up poetry reading of gate A-6 where writers made full-life-lemonade out of all those upsetting, frozen lemons.”
As the poets who could confidently call themselves poets held out their phones, taking turns speaking aloud their lines, I inched closer.
A-4 . . .
A-5 . . .
Once the readers had cycled back around to offer second and third pieces, I felt that belly-burn that comes with knowing one might soon miss their chance. Right as the window was closing, Kristen (who had been napping quietly and contained inside of me) shot open her eyes, sprung over to A-6, grabbed that tambourine, and shouted far too loudly, “I have one!”
And I shared the only poem I’d written in ten years which was for my son whom I’d been missing so viscerally in the great FFW Runway Closure of 2018. I looked at no one as I read from an old blog post, wishing I had donned my scarf to hide the neck-splotching and wondering if the folks down at Terminal B could see my shaking hand. My friend Josina, a true poet who is pictured above, beamed from the sidelines sharing so contagiously her confidence which had earlier fueled her own reading. I soaked it up.
When the piece wrapped, I walked away, glad to have worked those chance-taking muscles, just as an Acquisitions Editor approached me.
“Have you ever thought about turning this into a children’s book?” she asked–which is how I ended up being offered my second book contract for a little story about the big feelings of brave boys like my kid whose cheeks I finally kissed at 1 o’clock the next morning.
What do I have to say about this? . . . what luck? . . . what grace? . . . what timing? This unexpected opportunity to have kid literature out in the world is the icing to the real joy which was having been invited into a setting where those called to the written word could connect in order to disrupt monotony, chaos, and disappointment with the sharing of their work. I think I’ll never forget it.
Thank you Festival of Faith and Writing for existing. Thank you new and old friends who took me in. Thank you Pop-Up Poetry Readers of Gate A-6 for being nuts and for being openhanded.
No regrets. All is gift.