Jazz! Poetry! Jazz Poetry 2015!

Instead of my normal #FridayReads post, I thought I’d do a run-down of one of my favorite annual Pittsburgh events: City of Asylum Pittsburgh’s Jazz Poetry Concert.

This is a concert that gathers some of the top jazz musicians and top poets and writers from around the world and brings them together for a unique collaboration.

I always, always, always come away from this event with a new favorite band or musician and writers that I can no longer live without.

The Vijay Iyer Trio played this year, and let me tell you, I am smitten. Head over heels falling in love.

Here’s why:

I know, right?

And then we had the poetry. This year COA went above and beyond and combined not only music and words, but graphics and sign language as well. Amanda Fadigan performed a Heather McHugh poem in ASL, and it was beautiful.

Like this:

For the first time, I believe, the event featured a graphic novelist. Seeing the actual panels of the graphic novel while the author read in her native language and someone else read the translation was a multi-layered experience. I’d love to watch that reading again so I can parse more meaning from it.

That’s another thing about Jazz Poetry. You get to hear literature in many languages (and this year, see one in sign language!). Hearing the original, what it sounds like, is a different kind of music, and one I enjoy greatly.

And then, of course, there’s the finale:

A gift from the New Zealand sky

“The Milky Way” by andyspictures

The first time I touched the universe, I stood outside the Paparoa Marae near the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand, surrounded by dozens of people I barely knew. I was thirteen and almost ten thousand miles from home on a three-week trip with People to People Student Ambassadors. After our traditional Maori dinner of meats and vegetables slow-cooked by heated river rocks in the ground, I looked up at the sky.

The milky way, clear as the sun during the day, spread out in gentle waves above me, and I am sure that every single star visible to the naked human eye from the Southern Hemisphere burned its mark on my soul. I felt like I must be looking at a photograph from the Hubble Space Telescope, because I couldn’t believe something so beautiful, so expansive, so true, surrounded me.

My world stood on the edge of change. In a few days, I would experience my first kiss under those same stars. In three weeks, I would return to the United States and start high school. In two months, the World Trade Center would fall and my country would launch a war that would, in many ways, define my adolescence.

Left alone, I would have been happy to sit outside in the cool winter air, staring up at those points of light. The longer I looked, the more individual stars became clear, each one a gift from the night. In return, I gave something to the night that I still cannot put into words, something beyond words.

I didn’t understand the significance of that exchange right then, but from that moment on I tried to get back to that feeling of complete connection with the universe. I wanted to feel like I was a part of something, like I mattered, like my words mattered.

I mostly failed for the next seven years. Things seemed to disconnect all around me: in domestic politics, environmental degradation, an ongoing war that echoed Vietnam, the angst and endless existential crises of teenagehood, a failing belief in the religion I’d grown up with. It took another trip across an ocean for me to find that feeling again in its purest state.

On that second trip I finally understood the gift, the wisdom the stars meant to give me: You do not need to travel across an ocean to touch the universe. You simply have to be open, and it is easier to be open when you have crossed an ocean, don’t know anyone, and are worn down and ragged from travel and jet lag. But if you know your walls are there, you can choose to take them down, and the stars will reveal themselves to you wherever you stand.

 

On Star Wars and generosity

I’ve always felt that Star Wars fans were one big family, but the weekend I just spent at Star Wars Celebration Anaheim reinforced that in a big way.

So many people went out of their way to be kind to me, and not for any particular reason. They did it just because.

Here are a few examples:

  • I missed getting my badge for the Droid Hunt (a game that ends in a raffle and lots of prizes), so a member of the 501st Legion gave me hers.
  • Some people I was in line with gave me a few pins (this happened twice).
  • The folks at Del Rey Star Wars found me a pin I had missed.
  • A tattoo artist was unable to do any work for me, so she gave me one of her prints instead.
  • An author signed extra books for me as a thank you for purchasing his titles (as opposed to just getting the free handouts they had).
  • Another author thanked me just for waiting in (a very short) line to get his autograph!

On Saturday we were packed into the exhibit hall like sardines, but I never saw anyone get pushy or impatient. Everyone I bumped into apologized to me before I had a chance to apologize to them.

Over the course of the weekend I spoke with people from all over the world about their travels, their favorite convention moments, and Star Wars in general—the thing that brought all of us together.

This was a convention in the truest sense of the word. We gathered for the same purpose: To share our love for a story that has crossed generations, bridged the gap between cultures, and taught us that we are all connected.