Art, community, Creativity, Poetry, spirit, Writing

Hearing Voices

[no title: p. 304] 1970 by Tom Phillips born 1937

Surely it is not art. She pulls her phone from her pocket and steps to the stage. Her first time. Tapping the screen, she balances it on the ancient music stand. Grips the mic with both hands. Through ums and mumbles, she describes a man who called it love before the girl learned the proper name for abuse.

Surely this is not poetry, nowhere close to art.

Art you know. You saw Gipsy Kings at the Barns and walked Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors at the Hirshhorn. You can recite Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” by heart.

You know art.

Surely this falls short. Yet…

Do you know what happens when we start to write? When we start to write, we start to hear language in everything. The way the runoff ripples up against the edge of the culvert. The slough of rust, the ice crack. We start to discern voices under the language and silence there too, a silence far brighter and thirstier than any rising tide.

When we start to write, we also hear the revolt. The increasing volume of their insistence that we rein in our babble. Their preference for a tailored product. Less ruffle and fray. Tighter stitches. Cleaner lines. They’ll suggest that we take a class. Learn to revise. Maybe pursue a more suitable pastime.

But we’ve begun to hear language in everything, and we cannot unhear it. Now we sway to the cadence of the sun running its fingertips along the broken edge of the sidewalk. We can’t unhear it because it’s the sound of our native tongue giving lyrics to the song the roots make as they fan out under all the asphalt and rebar and sewer lines and borders, that song an echo tuned to our ear, and our voice to its resounding chord.

So we write. We write and write and write. We write as if praying it into the light. While we try to name what surges up from that place, it remains stunted and incomplete until it’s been received. Until it’s made its way into an open ear or accepting heart, it’s just fragment, a gestating thing unhatched.

So we are drawn to places where we can speak aloud the new, ancient language we hear in everything now, in the hopes that someone may recognize the dialect.

Dog-eared journal at wobbly tables. Local beer, pots of tea, low light. The open mic. One by one, poets under construction creep in, tapping courage and need. We – they – pluck up some strand of their experience. Twine it around what has blown across their path this week or slouched from the alleyway of their childhood. The broken lock. The chicken wire. The wooden spoon. The lullaby. Around that piece of debris they weave a pattern. Deck it in rhinestones, splash it with rhyme. They lift it up, showing us their precious patchwork, a thing we might have stepped right over, and undoubtedly have.

We get to create a singular kind of welcome. At the cafe where I read at Monday night open mics, an invitation built right into the design calls voices from the back corners to take center stage. At other tucked away bars and coffee shops, buildings that our very own neighbors bought and furnished and lit. Where they feed us dishes they’ve simmered in the riches of the world.

We do not come for production and polish. We come to nourish a deep hunger. To engage in the kind of conversation we wish we were having everywhere else. Anywhere else. We show up to grow and sustain these spaces of art and spirit.

In them, we practice venturing to the edge of that clanging gorge where the beat pulls us to our source. We take hold of the others who show up there, steady each other, step a little closer to that pulse from which we all emerge and to which we all return, one way or another.

So yes, it falls short of art, the way she fixes her gaze on the tiny screen balanced on a tilting music stand. The little girl in her choosing vertigo as she attempts this climb to her full height, naming betrayal a decade too late.

The falling short belongs exactly here where all of us gathered to give creation a dark, warm incubator can break her fall. We crack open along her seams. We hear the voice unfurl its wet wing. Press against gravity. Lift towards the growing light.


Image: ‘[no title: p. 304]’, Tom Phillips, 1970. From A Humument.

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