What We Talk About When We Talk About Curating “The Unexpected”

on Apr 15, 2015 in This is PUP! | 0 comments

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What we now know about spaces is that they carry a resonance beyond perceptibility. What we also now know about public spaces is that we are in an ever changing dialogue with them. Perhaps we’ve learned that we must respect the air between us in those spaces. It seems the body remembers what we’ve tried to logic our way out of remembering: our interconnectedness that transcends time and thought. We try to honor and respect the spaces we inhabit and respect the spaces between us and if we show honor spaces the spaces bend and shrink between us. We become one.

What I can tell you is that the Hawaiian people are cognizant of their relationship to space. I suppose that all island people show a particular depth of knowing the sacredness of space – at any point in time, land can shake and fissure, water can swallow you whole, air can snap spines and crack backs of bodies — the Hawaiian people, the native Hawaiian people– are deeply connected to land and sea. There is a reverence and a full bodied embrace of living. In a terrible and sorrowful world surrounded by opulent beauty, island people do not take life for granted. They recognize how temporary this all is. They risk delight. They face the unexpected.

We think about the space between ourselves and others and the spaces we invite ourselves into with this practice of curating “the unexpected”. We try to manifest magic. We try to create something akin to magic. Serendipity first appeared as a word in 1754 and originates from Horace Walpole, who in a letter to Horace Mann, remarked that in the fairy tale of “The Three Princes of Serendip”, the brothers “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of”, thus creating space for a new feeling, serendipity. Serendib, an ancient name of an old island that we now know as Sri Lanka.

Marvelous. A charmed experienced. The ephemeral. Serendipity.

While we are living in a tremendously connected world, we still struggle to discern the difference between what is real and unreal in our interactions with people. We hold these moments of truth and honesty with tight fists, and squirrel them away to feed us in hungrier times.

It was Jon who insisted that Audre Lorde’s “A Litany for Survival” appear in our spontaneous performances. Lorde’s words are prayer, comfort and promise:

“for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours… “

Perhaps that invocation is what lead him to craft his own poem, investigating his relationships to spaces physical and personal, in his poem “The Shoreline”,

“I am talking to the air with my entire body, and if I was
waiting for the perfect time to say HowDoYouDo?
If I was waiting for a flow chart to say
Trust is a risk like poetry; for a sign to spark
in the back of all these dreams that said, Jon,
let it ride; to hit send until I already
had a transcript of the reply——”

And on a rainy April Sunday night in a Montreal ATM vestibule, Jon recites these words and leans into the space, crowded with local folk and travelers, scattered like an archipelago, each an island but inseparable for this moment, the air bends, the space contracts and we are once again, pangea.

In this work, the idea that feeds us as writers and performers is to animate poems so that they become a lived artistic experience. I suppose it’s fair to say that we seek to awaken our unsuspecting audiences, the sleeping giants within our bodies that forgotten to feel and connect with the world, with space, with people around us. The moments are key. There’s a risk in reaching out into a space hoping that the air will yield to your offering. We’ve seen this magic unfold twelvefold. Every space is unique.

Centering my body in the archway of an old, empty and shuttered church, a small gathering of locals shivered with a chilled Montreal wind on a Sunday night. I offer an old memory as poem, of a gay black man carefree and dancing, before the world shook and fissured beneath our feet:

“I still see him dancing
as I see him now in the helicopter,
surveying the wreck,
the smoldering heap of concrete,
charred steel, wires twisted and gnarled veins,
the shattered spine
of those magnificent buildings.”

How is that we got here so far past the beauty/of watching a body flail and sway in light? Time equal parts kind and cruel, yet the beauty of memory as poem is the opportunity relive an old story anew. When spoken out loud, we shift the public space, a new memory is born and communities are formed.


We are sensitive to the energy in the spaces where we share poems. We listen to them and we listen to the people who share those spaces. Magic is chemistry; a collection of unlikely ingredients–light, sound, wall color, concrete, pavement, trees, pigeons, water fountains, a child’s insatiable joy, subway pole, motion, toasting pint glasses— these elements with the alchemy of voice, song, breath, page, dance, bass, squat, didgeridoo, violin, is how we make honey. We are listening more than we are simply speaking a poem into empty public spaces between bodies. We understand that we are entering, quite briefly, a relationship —a marriage— in that ephemeral connection we risk our vulnerability and hop at the end of the poems blooming from our bodies that everyone comes out loved, seen, and awake.

We’re standing outside of the bagel shop in one of the oldest parts of Montreal, and Elana is singing a love song as poem to Nina Simone, who’s life in many ways instructs us in the marriage between art and activism, risk and vulnerability, the very seat of our humanity.

“Tireless quest for a justice you could hold in your hands
no more window washing
no more ‘go slow’
and those pirates still ain’t paid you your royalties yet.
not belonging anyplace
not America
not Africa
not the Caribbean
even your fruit bearing garden in the south of France
too small to hold that fireball rage.”

I should note here that we aim to charm public spaces, the air between ourselves and strangers. In these moments we use song is a kind of permission and an opening. Elana many times charmed the air, collapsing all the spaces that separate us from strangers with a voice that delights and comforts. Blossom on the tree, you know how I feel… It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life… and I’m feeling good.

Could it stand to reason that our conception and understanding of art stems from recognizing our relationship to air and space between objects and bodies? Art can breath. Art can be a lived thing, yes. We know that we are able to understand worlds, ideas and images by adjusting our physical selves in relationship. We must make space for art in the world. We believe that we can make space for poems in the world, we believe that it’s critical to make space for poems spoken out loud in the world. Jack Gilbert instructs us to “risk delight” in his poem “A Brief Defense”:

“If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.”

We wonder aloud sometimes how good can manifest into action with a simple kind word. Beauty may enjoy our steady gaze but sometimes, she requires us to name the ways we witness her grace and acknowledge her humanity.

When we enter the local pub to begin our litcrawl at the end of the ACAQ Symposium, we were a little uncertain about how to make space to invite drinkers and late Sunday revelers into the ephemeral world of Poets in Unexpected Places. We understand the kind holy that exist in a semi public space where people take time to connect with their friends and neighbors in our busy and wildly complex world. Whatever intimacies of between strangers in shared spaces that exist, we do not wish to annoy or rankle, but only to encourage and nurture a willing listener in the passing chance of meeting poem and reflection. We are deliberately practicing a kind of serendipity, if such a thing can be true. Though I never read the Three Princes of Serendip, I’d wager that those bonhommes were consciously creating opportunities for discoveries and bridges between known and unknown worlds. I’d wager that their chance meetings were able to proceed in part because their eyes and hearts were open; they believed in a something akin to magic. Poetry can be that unlocking, that kind of magic that butterflies in the belly, spills out in song, blooms with the right ordering of words to render emotion, the imperceptible into a body that occupies space, awaken some faint memory. It is Samantha who takes the opening spot to charm the air, the room, the beer and whiskey drinkers in this bar on a Sunday night in Montreal.

“Now everywhere
I go I see the people I love in the faces of strangers, clinging to this story of this
preacher and his wife
the way her body clung to that truck. At that moment I understood the paradox
of the human struggle;
sometimes, the same thing that slowly kills us is exactly the thing keeping us alive.”

It is the warm timbre of her voice that awakens a sleepy yet attentive crowd, the air bends, and space collapses. We watch this alchemical process unfold. Beauty nods, ears open, the air bends, the space between us shrinks. The crowd is moved. The unexpected embraced.

Syreeta McFadden is a co-curator of Poets in Unexpected Places.

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