As some of you know, I make my living, in part, by interviewing artists and arts workers about their work. I am always gratified when someone says, “Oh, that’s a hard question,” while being grateful that I don’t actually have to answer it. But I thought it was time I turned the tables on myself, so I asked a couple of my friends if they would interview me. Here’s the first one—five questions from Philippa PB Hughes, who is the founder of The Pink Line Project, a DC Arts Commissioner, a radio host, a surfer, an all-around arts champion and connector, and a friend who inspires me every day. You can read my interview with Philippa from when we first met here.
PPBH: Has writing poetry ever saved you? How?
PB: Has a poem ever stopped me from doing something stupid or throwing myself off a cliff I had no business being on in the first place? No. But has writing poetry save me over the long-term? Yes. With each poem I write I learn a little bit more about myself. Why I both crave being touched and hate being touched. The ways I’ve learned to hide and the reasons I want to hide in the first place. What I want romantic love to be and what I believe it actually is. Who God is to me. There is a certain amount of disdain that is attached to the idea of poetry as therapy, yet the writing of poetry has always functioned therapeutically for me even if the poems didn’t seem so on the surface. I can’t say I always know what the poem is teaching me in the moment—I purposely try to clear space for my unconscious self to do the writing as she is way smarter and whole and closer to God and better able to allow his wisdom to come out and play when I write—but eventually, sometimes years later and only after someone else has commented on a certain poem, my brain catches up with my spirit’s wisdom. What I’ve been learning lately, for example, is how much of a political creature I am. Having for years prided myself on not reading the newspaper, it turns out that I actually have a great deal to say on our country’s approach to terrorism, to race, to the political world. I am surprised by the me I meet in my poems all the time. Though I feel I should add that the poems aren’t always factually autobiographical, they do always truthfully represent my world as I experience it.
PPBH. Has your poetry saved someone else? How?
PB: When I was on a fellowship in Provincetown I did a reading at a small space in another town on the lower Cape. (I don’t remember which one exactly.) It had been a frustrating day as my work had been savaged by a three-name poet who didn’t care that the project I was working on was a way to fracture narrative. I left my 10-minute conference with her bruised, battered, and—I realized later—unable to write for the rest of my time there. If I remember correctly, it was an audience of mostly women, mostly older women. (I had just turned 30 at the time, and I believe there were a lot of forty-somethings and up in the audience.) I read a poem called “The Two Jemimas,” which was a blues inspired by a story quilt by the artist Faith Ringgold. The gist of the poem was that a woman had lost a great deal of weight—as I had just done—but in doing so she’d also lost her sense of self and was floundering. After the reading, a woman I didn’t know came up to me and asked if the poem had been published because she needed to share it with a friend. It was a relatively brand new poem, so I just gave her my reading copy. That was the first time I was aware that my work mattered whether or not it got the stamp of approval from other poets. That I wasn’t writing for other poets, but for other women. I don’t know if I can say that that poem saved that woman or her friend, but it said something that she needed to hear, which is the beginning, I think, of salvation.
PPBH. Why does poetry matter?
PB: Poetry, like all art, is about having a voice. It’s about being heard—whether you are the person making the work or the person recognizing what it is you want to say in the work of someone else. I don’t know if there’s any single more important human desire than to be heard. I’ve been thinking a lot about why people turn away from God or deny His existence, when it seems clear that as children we’re born with a knowledge of him. I think it’s because we don’t feel heard by him. Words are power, and whether your words are actual words—as with writers—or you work in a gestural language as painters and visual artists do, words matter. Creating matters. It’s when we’re closest to God.
PPBH: What is the best idea you ever had?
PB: I’d like to say learning to read but I guess I can’t really claim that that was my idea, can I? That was someone else’s idea in a school in Trinidad a long long time ago. This is a hard one; it feels like too many of my decisions/actions are interconnected for me to really pinpoint the one idea that was the best of the bunch. So here are some great ideas I’ve had: to take Maureen Seaton’s poetry workshop in 1996 although I didn’t apply till the very last day of the application period and had to send my application by Fed-Ex; after graduate school, to not take a job unless it was at the Library of Congress or the NEA because I was tired of working for companies whose mission I didn’t care about; to be proactive about starting relationships with people I feel simpatico with; to become best friends with my sister; to rekindle my relationship with God; to fall in love with myself; to stop living here (in the DC area) as if I was about to move any minute and to consciously put down roots here.
PPBH. Is it possible to teach optimism?
PB: I think it’s possible to teach optimism by modeling it, and I hope that’s something I do no matter how dire everything feels. I like to think that if I can continue to laugh about the time I was unable to walk (after being bedridden for a couple of months) and fell stark naked out of my hospital bed while an aide was trying to give me a sponge bath which then meant I had to be lifted back into bed—still stark naked—by a gang of five people, then I am by nature an optimistic person. I think it’s not a question of whether it’s possible to teach optimism, it’s a question of why some people are unwilling to let themselves be optimists. I get that misery is more comfortable because you don’t have to risk anything, but misery is also boring as all hell. I also think you can be both a realist and an optimist. I read something the other day where someone said something to the effect of whether you see the glass as half-empty or half-full, the important thing is to recognize there’s still always water in the glass. And that’s what I think we can teach—how to see the water in the glass.
Reasons why I can’t see my friend Philippa Hughes anymore:
1. At the artist salon she hosted last night, I made contacts with a performance artist who I hope to interview for my day job, an art consultant who I’d like to learn more about, and reconnected with an arts PR person who I’d met briefly several years ago who I think will be a good colleague in organizing some sort of regular meet-up for arts PR folks in DC.
2. After the presentation, when I was talking to Philippa, she reminded me that I’d been talking about starting a magazine for nearly a year, encouraged me that there did need to be a space focused on post-40 “late bloomers,” and offered to start the magazine with me. So today, in between getting my regular work done, I’ve been starting to think about my action plan for getting the magazine started.
3. When I arrived home from the artist salon, although it was nearly my bed time I wrote a list poem/blog post inspired by something the performance artist said and put out a call on Facebook for other poets/writers to join me in a month-long writing marathon on the subject of “place.”
4. I then stayed up until nearly midnight listening to a couple of episodes of the radio show—the Van Gogh Sessions—Philippa does with her good friend Karen Yankosky, which not only made me laugh but reminded me of how important it is to dare.
In other words, after a few hours with Philippa I was inspired and fired up!
I’m joking, of course, about not hanging out with Philippa anymore. But as I was thinking about last night’s burst of creativity, the old adage popped into my head: “You are the company you keep.” In other words, if you want to live a more creative life, if you want to have the courage to dare when you’d rather sit on the blue couch, then you have to hang out with those who are also daring and dreaming.
I’ve been fortunate that throughout my life, I’ve had groups of creative friends around me. In Chicago, it was my writing group—the Divas—most of whom I met because I dared to sign up for a poetry workshop on the very last day that registration was open. In the last couple of years here in DC, I’ve dared to do things like go to artist salons and performance events. I’ve dared to join virtual groups, like the online writing group I do poem-a-day challenges with several times a year. I’ve dared to reach out personally to artists I’ve met professionally and with whom I’ve especially clicked. And when I saw that in January, Philippa and her friend (and now my friend, yay!) Karen were doing a blog-a-day challenge, I invited myself to join them.
I think I’ve written before about the true meaning of networking: it’s not about finding the person who’s going to get you your next job with a big promotion and tons of perks (though that’s always nice). It’s about finding those people who are traveling down the same path as you so you can help each other—with advice, with encouragement, with support, with wisdom.
The older we get, it’s harder to meet those people. In my 40s, it feels so much more intimidating to even say “hello” to someone I don’t know at a gathering. It can be uncomfortable, you can spend time feeling like an outsider, and it can be a little dispiriting if the coffee date with the person you met at that cool event turns out to be a dud, or if you send out e-mails to the folks you met at the event and no one even wants to have coffee. But it’s worth it.
In the poetry world, they say that if you have a folder full of rejection letters, you’re doing it right. It means that you’re engaging, you’re trying, you’re putting your work out there because there’s no chance at all of publication if it just sits in the drawer. I think the same is true when it comes to building a creative community around you. Not every interaction will be a success, but eventually, if you persist, you end up with a friend—and hopefully a group of friends—who inspires you, challenges you, and keeps you going when it feels like the creative well is going dry. Friends who remind you of your goals, your dreams, and will do what they can to help you get to wherever it is you’ve decided to go. And that, I’ve learned, is absolutely worth the risk of rejection.
I went to hear Bill Drayton, CEO/Founder of the Ashoka Foundation, speak the other night. And he said that what’s holding us back from all being change-makers (or artists, or creative people or whatever your particular goal is) is that we just don’t give ourselves permission. So go ahead, give yourself permission to talk to that artist at that party, comment on that blog post, politely barge into that conversation because you know you have something to offer. Go ahead, I dare you!
p.s. IMHO you should sign up for the Pink Line Project mailing list so Philippa can inspire you too.
p.s.p.s. The performance artist from last night is Kathryn Cornelius. I believe she has a couple of shows up right now, and you can learn more on her website.