Notes on BEAULAH: Perfect Timing and the Art of Collaboration

It has taken a while for me, the poet, to regain my bearings and begin to apply for new fellowships, contests and writing opportunities. I have wanted to be deliberate about it and not just accept every opportunity that came along because I was desperate to be on the scene again. This seems strange to some of my artist friends. After all, isn’t being seen/discussed/anticipated what we all want for our art?

 

Publish or Perish Clock

 

This isn’t a new stance for me. I think it’s always been there in some degree of intensity. Some of the most important awards and appointments of my creative career happened because of timing, or because I, in a moment of reflection, felt ready. It has rarely happened just because the opportunity was there and I wanted to compete for it. One friend used to chastise me all the time and ask why I wasn’t publishing here or speaking there. I didn’t want to. My twenties were a time of heavy craft. I was still discovering who I was as a voice.

 

When I applied to be a fellow for Cave Canem, one of the most dynamic writing organizations for developing craft, it was because I was hanging out at Duke University with my friend Phillip Shabazz and Toi Derricotte came as a guest. I had the pleasure of hanging out with her all day and discussing craft, the arts scene nationally and historically and personal creativity rituals. It was Toi who, close to the end of our day, suggested I apply to Cave Canem. I had heard about this group, but didn’t give it too much thought. This was around the time that the Sojourner Truth poem seemed to be waking me every night from my sleep with something new to say. I applied, was accepted and it changed me.

 

There are many more stories like this one in my own creative history. It seems when I am ready, and when it is time, the Universe just opens up and gives me what I need at the moment. This year, this season of my voice, it was an opportunity to collaborate with artist Debra Wuliger. She completed a series of paintings titled “Coffee Talk,” and wanted to select six poets to write an original poem to correspond with each of the paintings. I applied with a definite end game in mind: new work, a chance to connect with new artists and a chance to be connected, maybe forever, to a piece of visual art.

 

I was thrilled when I got the notice that I was accepted. Then came the tough part: writing. The only parameters Debra gave us were to avoid profanity or sexual language and write a poem that was short enough to fit on a poster print with the painting image. Easy enough. Writing, however, proved to be anything but easy.

 

I had several good starts, and I didn’t like any of them. What made it tough was seeing how much thought and detail seemed to go into Debra’s paintings and trying to match that detail in writing. Then I had a break. I wasn’t really writing to match Debra’s detail as much as I was trying to tell a story. I realized it could be a story that Debra didn’t even realize she was telling. I named the painting “Beaulah,” and the story seemed to just unfold once the subject in the painting had a name.

 

BEAULAH poem-art Collaboration

 

I was obnoxiously late turning in my draft about 10 days after the deadline, but it still was on time for me and the work. We came when we were ready. I was most moved by comments that came from a few audience members when the reading was over. One was the mother of another writer who created a poem for the opening. She wanted to tell me that my poem made her feel its images so deeply. She was quite emotional when she pulled me aside. “Beaulah” went over well. Her arrival in my mind and to this event was perfectly timed. I believe she has more story to tell, but this wonderful collaboration with Debra Wuliger and five other poets (Alice Osborn, Arthur Powers, A. Kat Reece, Karin Wiberg, and Bianca Diaz) will always be the place of her humble, perfectly timed beginning.

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