Common Read: Empathetic Poetry by Richard St. John


– Well good afternoon and thank you for being here with us today, as we finish up our three
weeks of Common Read events. Today is the 27th and and
final event of the Common Read. We’re very excited, to
have you all here today to share this very special day with us. We have two wonderful
things going on today that you will experience. The first is that we have a poet with us, Mr. Richard St. John, and we also will be celebrating the winners of our poetry contest. So, without further adieu let me introduce Mr. Richard St. John. He’s received degrees in English,
from Princeton University where he graduated Summa Cum Laude, and the University of Virginia. In 2002 he completed a
mid-career Loeb Fellowship at Harvard University. His first book of poems, The
Pure Inconstancy of Grace was published in 2005 by
Truman State University Press, and it was the first runner up for the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry. His long poem, Shrine,
appeared as a chapbook in 2011. His newest collection, Each Perfected Name was released in January 2015, also from Truman State University Press. He lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he has worked in the field
of neighborhood development and non-profit management,
and also created an arts based civic
engagement program called Conversations for Common Wealth. He has belatedly moved into
the digital age with a website, and it’s www.richardstjohnpoet.com, in case you’d like to check out future readings and projects. Please join me in welcoming,
Mr. Richard St. John. (audience applauding) – Thank you Susan. Well, I’ve been asked to make a few connections between poetry and the good work that you’ve been doing, exploring empathy through the Common Read activities you’ve been doing, and also to read a few of my poems, and Susan asked me to read,
especially from my first book. In the spirit of full disclosure, I wanna start by just
talking to you a little bit about my own perspective on poetry, and by poetry I’m including fiction, and all imaginative literature as well so I’m not trying to be narrow about this. That’s just to give you one
person’s aesthetic perspective. There are a whole lot of
ways of looking at poetry, and I certainly don’t
wanna limit them here, but you can look at it as play,
inventiveness, cleverness, is the poet doing something
innovative stylistically, that’s one way of looking at it. You can look at poetry in terms of beauty, the sound of the language,
formal composition, and I really wanna put in a
good word for that perspective, because I’ve had the
experience of sometimes, you can start to love a poem
even before you really know what it might be about, or
what it might be meaning. In fact I had a wonderful
8th grade teacher, who was the person who first
introduced me to poetry, and he brought in this poem to class by E.E. Cummings, and the poem started, “Anyone lived in a pretty how town “with up so floating many bells down” and there was a refrain. “Sun “moon “stars “rain” and I didn’t have a clue
what any of that was about, but I did sense that there
was something important and kind of mysterious, afoot. So the way that I find most
useful to look at poetry, the one that resonates most for me and that I wanna talk with you just a little bit about today, is to think of poetry as a
way of telling the truth. A particular kind of truth. I look at this as being a spectrum. On the one end, you’ve
got math and science, and that gives you one
certain kind of truth, a lot of important information
about the physical world, and on the other end you’ve got poetry which gives you a much,
much messier kind of truth, the truth of lived human experience. And that can be emotional,
intellectual, cultural, all mixed up together. What does it feel like
to be alive, as a person, not as an equation or
a science experiment? So let me give you an example. Let’s say you wanna build a table. You’re gonna wanna start with blueprints, and some precise measurements, and that puts you on the
science/math end of the spectrum. But, poetry gives you a
different kind of truth. It gives you the truth of what’s it like to experience a table, so what’s it like to run your hand across
the rough grain of a table, and maybe not any table, but
maybe it’s the beloved table that you grew up with as a child, and now you’ve gotta sell it
in order to pay for groceries. Poetry is… Science and math put you in the
zone of looking for answers, and solving problems. Poetry is about experiencing, and in the course of experiencing you’re likely to run up against questions, the deep human questions of being alive. Poetry of course is partly made up, but even the imaginative life grows out of the soil of
the poet’s lived experience. Sometimes the critics
will say, poets tell lies, but when they make something up, it’s in the service of
telling a deeper truth, and telling it more
effectively to a reader. There’s a wonderful poem
by a guy, William Matthews. Before he died he taught at SUNY New York, and it’s about giving a
poetry reading at West Point. During the poetry
question and answer period somebody shouts down at him, one of the cadets shouts at him and says, “Why are your poems so hard? “Why don’t you just say what you mean?” And clearly that’s the person who’s looking for solutions and answers, he’s on the math-end of the spectrum. And Matthews in the poem says to him, “I try to write as well as I can, “what it feels like to be human.” And later on he says, “I don’t
want my poems to be hard, “unless the truth is,
if there is a truth.” And I think he says, if there is a truth, because when you’re dealing
with complex human experience there’s not one truth, there’s a whole lot of different truths that
people are experiencing. So if poetry doesn’t give us facts, and answers, what good is it for? Is it something that’s just soft and optional, kind of a luxury? Well I’m thinking that
you might of experienced something a little bit like that when you’ve been exploring empathy. Nobody’s really against empathy, but people say, well, it’s just so soft. I mean really, aren’t people
just all in it for themselves? Or they might say, oh, empathy, or poetry, that’s really inefficient. Let’s not get all touchy feely about this, it’s gonna slow us down, it’s not gonna contribute
immediately to the bottom line. Well, I hate it, when
people say stuff like that, when they say, poetry’s soft,
or poetry’s ineffective, because I think of it as
vital equipment for living, and that’s a phrase from the
literary critic Kenneth Burke. When I say equipment for living I don’t mean something like a
home appliance or a blender. I mean something that we carry with us, and that helps us move through the world and become more excellently human. I’m gonna share with you three ways that I think of poetry as being useful equipment for living, and this is where I think
we’re gonna really see the connections between
poetry and empathy. How poetry really can
help us cultivate empathy and help call it forth from us. So the first way, is that poetry distills and captures complex human experience. Robert Frost the poet once said, “Poetry is a way of helping us remember “things that it would
impoverish us to forget.” Poetry captures experience in a poem, so that we can share it,
we can re-experience it, not as a slogan or a bumper sticker, but in all of it’s depth and nuance, as real, felt whole. I wanna share an example, a little poem by a wonderful African-American
poet, Ross Gay. He teaches at the University
of Indiana at Bloomington, and this is a poem in
which he’s with his mother who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. It’s a very short poem,
it comes at you quickly so you need to be kind of alert here. Alzheimer’s. “She stood in her doorway “asking my name again. “Something she would never remember. “A breeze, loose some cherry blossoms, “petals, flipping through her open arms, “as she whispered, look
what God has done.” “Look, what God has done.” Think of the complexity that’s
in just those eight lines. There’s this little poignant
scene of a son with his mother, there’s the sense of how
both beauty and tragedy come into our lives all mixed up together. Then the poem moves beyond that
and raises the question of, well, what’s God’s responsibility
or non-responsibility for both the good things and bad things that come to us in life,
and then I think in the poem there’s also a little
bit of Ross Gay’s respect for his mother’s deep, religious faith, but also a note his own
ambivalence about it. So, here’s a second way I think that poetry is equipment for living. Because it holds complex human experience, it’s an opportunity to study what I’m gonna call comparative humanity, and that can work both ways. You read a poem, and
it can give you a sense of the deep commonalities
that we all share as people. You can sense that, my story
is important, it’s valuable, it’s unique, but it’s also
part of a larger story, the story that’s shared
by the poet and the poem. Or, your root can experience a poem and it can show some
experience you haven’t had and highlight what I’ll call
illuminating differences. I wanna read a little section from a poem by the Greek poet Homer,
who’s credited with writing the two, big, epic poems,
The Iliad and the Odyssey. They’re about the long
war between the Greeks and the Trojans, and Troy
was once also called Ilium, so that’s how you get
the title, The Iliad. Anyhow, this is a Greek poem, it’s told from the Greek perspective. The Greeks win, they burn down Troy, and the story follows the Greek fighters as they travel back home after the war. But it’s poetry, and it’s not propaganda. So in this astonishing leap of empathy, Homer makes the most admirable, the most attractive
character in the whole poem, at least to my mind, not a Greek, but the best Trojan fighter, Hector. And the Iliad ends not
with the big Greek victory, but with this deep note of respect for Hector’s funeral rites when he gets buried after he’s killed. Well there’s a long distance
between us and the Greeks, between their rural,
communal, pre-industrial, pre-scientific, pre-printing press, yes, even pre-internet world, and ours, so we have to exert great care when we try and read across
culture and that length of time. It’s a little like when you’re trying to empathize with somebody. You need to listen to them, and try and understand
where they’re coming from, and not just jump to some false assumption that they look at the
world the same way you do, but I’m gonna read a
passage from a translation by Richmond Lattimore,
that I think does show not only the empathy that
Homer has for his enemies, the Trojans, but also
the deep commonalities that we share as human beings. Here’s the scene. Hector knows in his heart
that the Greeks are gonna win, that he’s gonna die, that his wife is probably gonna get
carried off into captivity, but he still has to go
out on the battlefield and preserve his honor, and
also fight to try and delay all those bad things from happening. After talking with his wife, oh, he’s standing there
in all his battle gear and he’s got a bronze helmet
on and this horsehair plume over the helmet, and after he
talks to his wife for awhile he turns and picks up his young son. I’ll read this little bit from Homer. “So speaking, glorious Hector
held out his arms to his baby, “who shrank back to his
fair girdled nurse’s bosom “screaming and frightened at
the aspect of his own father, “terrified, as he saw the bronze, “and the crest with his horsehair “nodding dreadfully as he thought “from the peak of the helmet. “Then, his beloved father, laughed out, “in his honored mother, and at once, “glorious Hector, lifted
from his head the helmet “and laid it, in all it’s
shining on the ground. “Then, taking up his dear son, “he tossed him about in
his arms and kissed him, “and lifted his voice in prayer to Zeus “and the other immortals. “‘Zeus, and you other immortals, “‘grant that this boy, who is my son, “‘maybe as I am, preeminent
among the Trojans, “‘great in strength, as am I, “‘and rule strongly over Ilium. “‘And someday, let them say of him, “‘he is better by far, than his father.'” Well, any father might
say something like that about his son, or feel something
like that about his son. And so I think the poem captures
these deep commonalities across culture and time,
not as an extraction, but as a real experience that we can share and experience ourselves. But as a study of comparative humanity, kind of a window onto
other people’s experience, poems can also, sometimes
at the same time, also highlight illuminating difference. I’m gonna read a poem by
probably my favorite living poet, a guy, Frank X. Gaspar,
and most of his poems are about his very wide
ranging religious reading. But this poem is about surfing. Gaspar grew up in a working
class Portuguese fishing family in Provincetown Massachusetts. Now he teaches and lives
in Long Beach, California, and the opening of this poem
gives a little bit of a feel for what it’s like where he lives, because he describes driving
in his jeep to the beach. I think the opening of the poem also gives a little bit of a feel for the
settling in you do mentally, before you have to face the really demanding mental focus of surfing. This poem is called, and
again it’s Frank X. Gaspar, it’s called Hurricane
Douglas, Hurricane Elida. “Here they come again,
those Pacific hurricanes. “And here I go, in the old white jeep, “sandy and musty, “with boards and wetsuits and damp towels, “down the boulevard, “down the bougainvillea and the jacaranda. “The red lights and the green lights, “the Shell station, and
the Union 66 station. “The 7-eleven, Anita’s Escrows, “Pacific Coast Medical Group, “Tiny Naylor’s restaurant,
the Los Altos YMCA, “houses and houses behind
their honey suckled walls, “and rows of palm trees “curving up to the muddy sky. “A left turn on the highway, “and watch the rivers in
their concrete bunkers, “glassy now, “because the wind has
not shifted onshore yet. “Good. “And then turn down toward the pier “and wedge into a parking space, “and then down the sand, “and there they are again, “rolling in like box cars, “swell after swell, “angling off the bar under the pier. “Half again over my head, “and then, for the first time ever, “the thought that I am too old, “too weak, too short of breath. “This is fear. “How comely and appealing it is. “How it slows me, “pulling on my wet suit and fins, “waxing the board. “How it makes my pragmatic heart, “so ready, knocking against my ribs, “in a way that I can hear it “all the way up in my head. “But bang, bang, go the breakers, “and in I go again, “and dig in with my arms, “and get stuck inside a big set, “pulling and pulling, and getting nowhere, “duck diving under the white water, “heaving a breath into
myself when I come up, “digging again to take back
the distance I’ve already lost, “digging and breathing “like there’s no turning back “because, after all, there isn’t now. “And this is where I prefer to leave it, “this plain, small poem, “digging and breathing, “like it wants to avoid some classic fate “or some failure of will, “or some defect of character. “Bragging, into all the
noise and commotion, “all the rips and undertow, “that there will be a last time “but this is not it.” Perhaps some of you have been surfing, I gather that you can
surf at Rockaway Beach or maybe some other places in Queens. I haven’t, so for me this
poem gives a little window onto some illuminating difference, a sense of what it’s like to
surf in a way that’s far deeper than the air-brushed movie images you get, of somebody who’s just riding gloriously along the crest of a wave. But even if you have been surfing, Gaspar invites us into another
illuminating difference, because he doesn’t give
us a young person surfing which is what you usually think about, but he shows us an older
person taking these risks and he invites you into his head, his heart, and into his fear too. So this also a poem
about fear and courage. How do we accept our own
mortality and our own limitations, but also how do we carry on with courage, as a person, as a poet, or as we face any kind of difficulties in life. And that maybe gets us back to Hector, and the battlefield, and courage there, and those deep commonalities again. Whether it’s deep commonalities
or illuminating difference, poetry helps us enter into
somebody else’s experience and that’s what empathy is all about. Before I read some of my own poems I wanna mention a third way that poetry works as equipment for living. And this surely relates to empathy, and as the poetry calls
forth things from us, and it evokes things from
us, feelings and actions, when the Greek philosopher Plato tried to imagine his ideal Republic, he didn’t want any poets in it. But, he didn’t kick the poets out because they were too
soft and ineffective, he kicked them out because he thought they would be too effective. He thought that they would get people all worked up emotionally,
and start acting in ways that didn’t fit into his
neat, rational universe. Well I would keep the
poets in the Republic because I don’t believe we’re
such dupes of what we read, that when we encounter
human experience in a poem, we can decide, what stance
do we wanna take to it? Do we wanna embrace it,
and carry it with us? Do we want to distance ourselves from it and say, okay, that’s real experience but it’s not something I wanna do, or do we just wanna
ask questions about it? So I’m gonna read a very short
poem by Naomi Shihab Nye. She is Arab-American,
she lives in San Antonio, and I’ve often used this poem at the start of community meetings, or board meetings, because it really does
evoke and call forth a kind of spirit of
empathy and generosity. This poem’s called Red Brocade. And again, this is by Naomi Shihab Nye. “The Arabs used to say, “when a stranger appears at your door, “feed him for three days “before asking who he is, “where he’s come from, “where he’s headed. “That way, he’ll have strength “enough to answer. “Or by then, you’ll be “such good friends “you don’t care. “Let’s go back to that. “Rice? “Pine nuts? “Here, take the red brocade pillow. “My child will serve water “to your horse. “No, I was not busy when you came! “I was not preparing to be busy. “That’s the armor everyone put on “to pretend they had a purpose “in the world. “I refuse to be claimed. “Your plate is waiting. “We will snip fresh mint “into your tea.” So, in that spirit I hope
of generosity on your part, I’m gonna read some of my poems. They’re not about empathy, but I’ll try and make some connections with empathy along the way. Gonna start with a poem about truth-telling and reconciliation. It’s kind of a ghost
story involving my father. It’s set on Halloween, so there are a number of
family stories in the poem. There’s a story my father told, about on Halloween he was out in his car and a car was seen at
the scene of a crime, and it looked just like their car, and then there are two stories in the poem where neither my father nor I
really told quite the truth. It was a gray area. One was about a mysterious
automobile accident that might of been alcohol related, and the other is when
I left a little toy saw that had a real blade
on it in our back yard, and later on our dog came
back with a hurt paw. But October 31st is not just Halloween, it’s also All Saints Eve, and that’s the date that Martin Luther, not Martin Luther King but Martin Luther, nailed his 95 Theses to the
door of Wittenberg Cathedral, started the Protestant
Reformation, and he did that, protesting in part about what
he called, false indulgences. That was a thing where
you would pay the church in order to receive forgiveness,
so that your relatives didn’t have to spend as
much time in purgatory. It was a money making scheme, like selling them relics
of saints to make money. The poem starts with two
epigraphs about that, but I think it does suggest
one thing about empathy, and that is the need to
make ourselves vulnerable. To admit that darkness in ourselves, and to give up on the stories
that we either project onto other people or carry along with us. The poem’s All Saints Eve, and
here are the two epigraphs. The first one’s from Johann Tetzel, who was one of the guys
who would sell indulgences. “Listen to the voices of
your dear dead relatives “and friends, beseeching you and saying, “‘Pity us, pity us. “‘We are in dire torment, “‘from which you can
redeem us for a pittance.'” And the second’s from Martin Luther. “Indulgences are pernicious
because they induce complacency. “Man must first cry out that
there is no health in him. “He must be consumed with horror. “This is the pain of purgatory. “I do not know where it is located, “but I do know it can be
experienced in this life.” All Saints Eve. This is the night the dead are out. I am searching the streets of Blawnox, past the boarded machine shops and the darkened marble works. I am looking for a gray Chevrolet. The car my father talked about to say why we must always tell the truth. He had cruised with friends one Halloween and a gray car just like theirs was seen speeding from a robbery. Police had come while he was gone. His mother had to know for sure that he was innocent. My headlights catch some
crumpled candy wrappers in the weeds. A cracked mask flares up white. I hear the starlings
gathered in the trusswork of the darkened bridge. And there it is, or may be, pulled beneath the underpass. The car door sticks, but opens. The dash gives everything
an eerie underlight. I can’t quite make him out, slouched there, opposite. We sit in silence and I smell, in memory, or now? His smell, his smoky
clothes, a tinge of alcohol. I think of how one time he came home late, his nose bandaged, a nasty gash above one eye. He said that he’d been looking at the moon. My mother didn’t say a thing. I went out in my pajamas and stared at the crumpled fender. The pale illuminated skin
on everything, my hand, the frayed upholstery, is like the moon as seen from childhood. The moon across night snow. Imagined. Buried by neglect, beneath that snow: my saw blade with a plastic handle. But real that afternoon:
a little line of blood, our hobbling dog that
yelped and bit it’s paw. My father bandaged it. “Cut by an icicle”, he’d
assumed, and maybe he was right. Still, I found the saw
in the snow melt, lying on long grass, speckled
with what looked like rust. What has he come to say, this night of bones and false indulgences? We sit, a dark congruence,
illuminated only by the glow of the stilled speedometer. The mute O of the other gauges. Distance. Fuel. O, what is there to hide from one another? What is there to fear? We have said nothing. But we have shared, at least, a truth we know, this gray relic by the bridge abutment. The latch catches as I slide out. And taking the benediction of the dashboard lights, we
leave by our separate doors. This next poem, is written
for a good friend of mine in community development,
whose son was killed in a drive-by shooting while
he was quite innocently coming home from his job at the hospital. The poem’s called The Darkened Mosaic, and it starts with an epigraph
from the poet W.B. Yeats. Yeats wrote a famous poem, in which he’s looking at these saints in a gold mosaic from Byzantium and in his poem he says to them: “O sages standing in God’s holy fire “As in the gold mosaic of a wall.” This poem, my poem, touches on
empathy in a couple of ways. One of course, my feeling for my friend and her son, which was a
good deal more motivating than any kind of abstract
love of humanity, but it’s also a poem about
doing the right thing, like acting from compassion and empathy even when it doesn’t seem like it’s gonna make any difference. We may not know the truth, of how do we fix our broken world, but perhaps we can embody
that truth in our actions. So, this poem’s called
The Darkened Mosaic, for Rhonda Brandon, and her son LaRue. Here’s the epigraph. I am happy, and I think,
full of an energy, of an energy I had despaired of. It seems to me that I
have found what I wanted. When I try to put all in a phrase, I say, “Man can embody truth,
but he cannot know it.” W.B. Yeats, in a letter
two weeks before his death. The night I learned your son was shot, I went past the boarded monastery, up steep Pius street, past the crooked graying teeth of houses on their Appalachian lots past the parents joking
on the wooden stoops to the little asphalt
playground at the top with the city, stretching out beneath. A woman swept her walk. Kids scuffled hockey sticks
and chased the fading puck across the pavement less
by sight than sound. A girl spun her younger
brother on the twirl-a-round. And on the swings, two boys arched their backs and stretched, reaching their shoe tips up, toward the twisted X’s
of the fence-top mesh. On the hillside steps,
some older kids hung out. The noise of radios marked out a space for them to talk and watch the city lights come on. How could they play or swing or sit? How could that woman keep on sweeping, in the face of it? Not just your son, but the whole city it seems, undone. Kids smash the street lights trash collections down
to every other week, still she sweeps although it does no good. She’s only moving grit
from place to place, knocking a pebble lose and scuffing the rusted reinforcement rods exposed beneath, like bones in an x-ray scan. Or, watching her sweep like cords, across the back of her extended hand. Maybe your son was just was the small gray knuckle of a stone somewhere in the
crumbling urban aggregate. After all, what had he really done at 22? A medical supply technician steady at the hospital affectionate to his fiancee and you. And yet that woman bent to her broom in the coming dark in accord, with mysteries beyond effect. A structure, or a
ripeness running through. Her sweeping and the swinging up and out and the children, spinning like the constellations
on the twirl-about all make a motion. And the motion with the
structure brings unseen, a burnishing. And with this burnishing the stones become a sprawled mosaic. Every burnished stone alight
among the city lights, spread out below. The pale, peach vapor lamps in rose, along the highways. The moving glimmer of a bus. The bluer streetlights coming on and lights of houses, every light a room, each
room, an individual. I try to picture it a wall of inlaid fire the whole perfected city. But something else appears. More like a human face, like his or yours. Just gonna read three more poems here. This next poem is, a poem that sounds like a religious story. The first part is taken from
the legend of St. Julian and the second part’s kind of made up. But the poem really explores a mystery of giving and receiving. How intertwined they are
and why we can’t often tell the difference between one or the other. And in terms of empathy,
I think that reminds us that we can do a lot of damage, if we try too hard to be saints and try and rescue people and save people. That when we’re moved to action we need to recognize that
we’re also receiving something. That we’re in a relationship
and the other person has gifts to give to us too, and that our hearts are being enlarged. This poem is called The
Sainthood of St. Julian. In the traditional version, young Julian is given everything. Richly tooled books, saddles, horses, hounds, falcon, title to the estate. The boy turns vicious. Caught himself by the lust of the hunt, treasuring the majestic
stance of an eight point buck, crumpled to it’s knees. The paralyzed look of peasants, scattering like chaff in a field before his coming hooves. By accident, he kills his parents and afterwards, he gives up all, walks barefoot 50 years. We see him in the end, health broken leaning on his wizened staff. It’s December. Almost dark. He’s waiting on the river bank for the ferry. This is not death, just a real river bank and a real wooden boat, far out of sight, out of hearing. He waits. The wind cuts through his thin cloak. From nowhere, in the ebbing light a figure appears. A leper, with open sores on his face and forearms. In a whisper, curled with sour breath he asks to share the cloak. Then, for the warmth of Julian’s embrace. And last, for a kiss, full, on those corroded lips. It is the Christ that Julian kisses, and the two ascend. In another account every detail is the same except that Julian waiting by the river lets fall his staff, tries to warm his hands against his rigid body. He recalls his dead parents. His childhood friends, lost, through viciousness, through time. Even God has left him. He almost believes he
would give it all up. His prayer, his penitence, for a warm fire some good wine. From nowhere the leper comes. With nothing, even a shawl to share. And sitting by the barefoot, hunched old man, gives Julian that
welcome, scrofulous kiss. So, empathy can take the form of course of care for an individual, but it can also be more systemic, as Martin Luther King put it, “Justice is love, when it’s correcting “that which revolts against love.” It can be an act of empathy to live into the larger callings
that we face in life. I’m gonna read a poem
called L’Anima Semplicetta written for a young girl, Ebony Patterson from a low income
neighborhood in Pittsburgh, and she was killed
accidentally by a school mate, but unlike the situation
in The Darkened Mosaic, I didn’t know her personally. I don’t wanna give you the feeling that Pittsburgh is a scary place. It’s a very safe city, but I was working in community development so I was feeling these things keenly. You don’t need to know this, but it deepens your
experience of this poem, if you have a little bit of background from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Everybody knows that Dante, pretty much, everybody knows that
Dante and this guy Virgil go down the nine circles of hell, but they also travel
together up the seven steps or terraces of Purgatory Mount, and there was one step or terrace for each of the seven deadly sins. On the smoky terrace of wrath, they get into a little
discussion with another character about L’Anima Semplicetta,
the simple soul. And the fourth step or
terrace, where in this poem the poet is told to sit, was
the terrace of love defective. Insufficient love. The poem also alludes to the
calling of the prophet Isaiah. He was a reluctant prophet. He said, “I’m a person of unclean lips, “and I live among a
people of unclean lips.” So in the story, an angel
takes a burning coal from the altar and touches it
to his lips to purify them, before sending him out to
speak to his fellow citizens. L’Anima Semplicetta. Dear Mr. St. John, thank you for thinking of me, I am fine though I have no
words to say how it is here. You ask what you should do. Set down your poem about the
man who’s blinded by the smoke, while climbing up the Mount of Purgatory and about the simple soul. Take back the bullet from my brain. Pick up my school books and my hat from the pavement. Follow the stray shot back. When you get to Marshall,
take the gun from his hand. And recollect the smoke. Tell him I’ll come sometime, to lose the knot of anger from his neck. But you must keep on
walking, to my school. Climb up its seven stone steps and on the fourth step sit, and weigh the flattened
bullet in your hand. It is such a light, slight
thing, and it is not. It is all the weight, of our whole world. It is what we make. Now, do something that
will not make sense. Touch it, to your lips,
this cold, dark coal, then set it just beneath your tongue. Of course it leaves a bitter taste. Let it dissolve. Let it become your bones. Let it cloud your brain. Let it impair your speech, and let your tongue at
all the worst of times suddenly speak the obvious. Let it never, stop speaking the obvious. Yours, Ebony. I’m gonna end with a
poem from my newest book, and it’s about what I call,
moments of multiplication. When, through human compassion or empathy you get a situation where everybody gets something more and better together than they would on their own. So maybe, let’s imagine
you’re standing at a bus stop and you get into a conversation about something even as
simple as the weather, and maybe you take the risk
of taking the conversation a little bit further, that kind of thing. This poem is set on the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. Riding a Greyhound on the
Pennsylvania Turnpike, reading a newspaper and
then turning to read a play by George Bernard Shaw, about St. Joan, who of course was the young French girl and religious visionary
who became a general and helped the French defeat
the British at Orleans. As we read the newspaper, I think, it often seems like all of our actions come back to haunt us. There’s a fairness to
that, a moral symmetry, and that’s where the poem starts. But there’s also a moment
of grace and transformation and it ends in a different place. It’s called, Reading Shaw’s Play, St. Joan at the Solstice, on a
Greyhound, Heading Home. The year comes round again with it’s own dark fairness. Out on the turnpike, flecks of sleet. Lightning through night
clouds, ghostly, then stark. Echo of thunder. In the tabloid at my seat old scatterings return: flicker of war in the Congo and Sudan, late season hurricanes, tainted meat. All around me, whispered
conversations of the poor. Two rows up, a solitary reading lamp. We’re making good time, but where? The bus outruns it’s
headlights in the dark, sucking diesel fuel. I turn back to Joan of Arc, where the French cause seems lost, too. No one believes in her. But Joan insists: “God speaks to me. “I hear his voice.” “That’s your imagination,” they reply. “Of course,” she says,
“Isn’t that how God speaks?” It’s snow now, giddy, dizzy flakes are multiplying everywhere. They clean the air; like once when I was lost
in abstract speculation, and a good friend asked: “Can’t we cut the crap “and just agree we’re all
together on this bus?” At the service stop we pile out, all of us laughing. Woman in a burka holds her daughter up, who points at the wildering white, amazed. “Jesus, it’s beautiful,” a guy with a Rasta cap and dreadlocks says as he catches a snowflake
on his outstretched hand. The year in it’s fairness
comes round again. Thank you so much for your patience, and especially the people who
are standing up, thank you. (audience applauding) – Thank you so much. Mr. St. John we do appreciate you, reading your poetry to us and
sharing the words of others. Showing us that we can
express sympathy in many ways. Jean Darcy’s students in English 101, they did a photo shoot. I want you to just look
this way for a moment. When we think about Until I say Goodbye, the author goes back to her memories. She finds that it’s so important to take the pictures that
she has, in a closet, in a box, to organize them,
to look at them once again. She chooses to live her
final year of life with joy, by taking trips with her children, but she also wants to remember
these very special times. So Professor Darcy’s students, decided that they would
share cherished photos of meaningful moments that
they never want to forget. Some are of family, some are of friends, I don’t know what that’s of.
(audience mildly laughing) Maybe that’s just a funny moment that someone wants to remember, right? But we can all imagine
why some of these things would be important to those people. Think back yourselves, about
things in your lifetime that were important to you. Bring those things up from your memory, and share them with someone. In your memory they’re
just there and quiet. Bring them back to life,
so share your memories. I’d like to take a moment, to thank the judges
from our poetry contest. And we have two of the with us. One of them is Professor Peter Gray, another is Professor Ben Miller, and another is Professor Jodie Childers, who were really excited to read all the beautiful poetry
that was submitted, and they had a really hard job picking the winners. So we have six finalists, we have, at least three of them with us today. There were supposed to be more, but we have at least three
of them with us today. Before we get to our finalists I would like Professor Childers to come and share some exciting news. – I was so delighted with the poetry that I
read for the contest, and what was interesting to me about it is that it also fits the
theme of our literary journal that we’re creating right now. This is Duende, this is the journal of the Queensborough
Creative Writing Club, and it’s a really beautiful,
high-quality journal, and this all student work. So what we’re going to do
with the contest winners is we’re gonna give you
all the opportunity, all six finalists, to have your work also published in Duende. Be sure to see me after, and you also, as part of everything that you get today you’ll get a free copy of the journal, so you can take a look at it. Thank you.
(audience applauding) – How exciting. They’re actually going
to be published authors. That’s fabulous. So again, in alphabetical order, because we wanna be as fair as possible, I would like to call up Daniel Agapitos, to read his poem, (audience
applauding) Snow Trek. – Snow Trek. As cozy as one can be safe from the elements but bored with reality I stare out my window and see chores that wait for me. A neighbor hunched over in pain has seen better days. Though he shovels, never does he complain. I do not wonder why since life goes on, whether he needs a cane or even support for his enduring brain. Anyone should relate to this as we grow and older and mature. A trek through the snow means so much more. (audience applauding) – Thank you so much. Another finalist is Juleime Cepeda. (audience applauding) – Thank you, it’s Juleime. Wilt. I held her hand. Her palms were sweating. Tears slid down her cheeks continuously. I focused on the simplicity
of the whitewalls. I dared not to sink eyes with her. She was broken with no repair. Life would go on, but flowers would no
longer flourish the same. The loss of an infant was an earth-shattering experience. I knew the pain all too well. The doctor spoke softly. She nodded distractedly. Her eyes disconnected
from all that was living. I knew no words could comfort this wound so I just held her hand. (audience applauding) – Thank you. Our next finalist is, and I’m not sure if she’s here yet. Rahm? Rahma Hussein? She had class and she was
gonna try and get here, okay. Is Asheka Laurence-Reid here? Ahh! Thank you! That’s it, okay, take a breath. – Flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. We, the children of this earth come into being by birth are at a slow divide at the mercy of our pride. We all depend on each other to survive, yet we walk around with
our Jekyll an Hyde. Turning up noses at the poor and smiling at only those we adore. Rolling eyes at those
who don’t fit the mold, blocking areas to those
crying, hungry and cold. Sealing lips, to speak out for what’s right yet readily curl up fists for a fight. Step away from the mirror where you only see you. Then possibly, this
message can get through. Take a look around and finally see everyone else that is trapped and needing to be free. Someone in pain, broken down and alone a person who’s struggling on their own. And finally, after this
knowledge is impart, maybe consider someone else’s heart. (audience applauding) – Thank you. And, last finalist, Justine Visceglia. (audience applauding) – You feel everything, and you’re terrified. Their eyes tell more stories
than any lips ever could. Your heart cries when they do, and you’re terrified. You burst into flames when they’re angry, and you’re terrified. And when their hand shakes, your heart shakes with them. But when they smile, God when they smile, time stops and there are fire works electricity through your veins a jilt against your caged heart a softness in your chest and you’re not terrified. You feel everything. (audience applauding) – Okay, here’s the moment
we’ve been waiting for. Our three honorable mentions, who will each receive a $25 gift card, I’m gonna say it wrong and
she’s gonna get mad at me! Juleime? Juleime, Cepeda! Come on up! (audience applauding) Congratulations. – Thank you.
– Thank you. The next honorable mention
is Asheka Lawrence-Reid, who will receive a $25 gift card, and she’s not here, we’ll
make sure she gets that. The next honorable mention is, Lovme Blanchard who’s unable to attend, but we’ll make sure she gets that. And now we’re in the home stretch folks. Okay, so third place, receiving a $50 gift
card is Daniel Agapitos. (audience applauding) – Congratulations.
– Thank you. – In second place, is Rahma Hussein. And in first place, is Justine Visceglia. (audience applauding) And she’ll receive a $100 gift card. – Thank you very much.
– Thank you! Let’s hear for our winners,
(audience applauding) and for everyone who submitted
to the poetry contest thank you so much, again
you did wonderful work. This has been an incredible experience, focusing on empathy this semester. I wanna thank all the students and faculty and staff who made donations. We’ve had collections of eye glasses, food and women’s toiletries, we will be collecting
until the end of the month. Is she back? She left. Come over here! Get over here! Asheka right? Asheka you stepped out for a minute. We missed you.
– I’m sorry– – That’s okay but congratulations, you got honorable mention
and a $25 gift card. – Thank you.
– Thank you! I wondered where she went to. So we’ll be doing all collections until the very end of the month. Gentlemen, gentlemen, thank you. Don’t forget to pay it forward, those of you who have
your pay it forward cards. Just thinking about empathy is not enough. We’re asking you to do something positive. Do something positive for someone else. When you see someone who
needs a hand, lend a hand. Maybe someone needs help studying, maybe someone doesn’t have
enough change in their pocket for that cup of coffee
that they really need, or maybe someone just can’t
get on the bus or train because their metra card just won’t work. So think about helping someone else. Try to do something
positive each and every day for someone else, and pay it forward. You can use your pay it forward cards, you can do it on your own. Go to our website,
qcc.cuny.edu/commonread, and at the bottom of the
page you’ll see a tab to pay it forward, click there. You’ll have an opportunity to share what it was like to pay it forward and do something for someone, or if you’re on the receiving
end what did it feel like? I think if we can just think about it, just do something outside of yourself, what a great world we would have. Much better than it is today. There’s too much going
on, too much negativity. Each and every one of us
can make a difference. Each and every one of you
can make a difference. So I wanna thank you all
for coming here today, I wanna congratulate
our winners once again, (audience applauding) and I wanna thank our faculty who have really spent
so much time and effort working together to create
these wonderful events and work with you on what’s
happening in your classrooms. I wanna thank our committee members here for reading your beautiful words, and spending so much
time, hemming and hawing over who should win,
and we wanna thank you for the opportunity for these
authors to be published. Thank you so much and
have a wonderful weekend.

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