Haiku Covers and Holiday Cheese

I’m gushing right now with enthusiasm after reading an email from a poet whose chapbook I may get to help design and print! It’s a collection of the most lovely urban haikus and I as soon as I read them as an e-chapbook on my phone I could envision carving this luscious woodblock for the cover, maybe two colors and essentially illustrating the title haiku. Then I second guessed myself, and after much backspacing and retyping, I tentatively sent a reply asking somewhat sheepishly what he thought of doing something “fairly literal,” trained by years in art school never to come at something head on. His reply sent me out of my chair to dance around my chilly room: “Your cover idea is spot on. A handsome woodcut cover of [chapbook title shortened] sounds perfect! In response to your “fairly literal” comment, the thing about haiku is that they are first and foremost exactly what they are. The title poem is literally about [chapbook title extended] That image, though, simple and straight forward as it is, opens up a whole world of ideas, stories, and settings that are unique to each person who reads it. The poem sets a concrete image/setting and the rest is all filled in by the reader and their life experiences, which is something so darn cool about these little poems.”

Sorry for editing out the gem of his first poem, but you’ll just have to wait for the forthcoming edition! I haven’t been so jazzed about a project since I was being graded on them. :P

I think part of my hesitation towards the idea of an honest illustration ties into this culture of cynical irony which I sometimes encounter in the art world, and elsewhere. Perhaps we feel too heavily the postmodern sigh of everything having been “already done,” but it’s almost as if to simply make work about beautiful things is automatically trite or cheesy. But I want to argue that activities like painting oats in a field in late summer are not automatically cliche, unless you refer to them as “amber waves of grain.”

This line of thought comes partly in reaction to yesterday evening’s activities, attending a womens’ advent dinner in the church basement. After a dinner provided by the women’s bible study (mostly meat dishes), a program followed in which various sentimental holiday stories were told (memorized and dramatized) by a speaker, with a carol in unison following each tale. Now, it’s true that these pieces were of the variety I have previously received in email forwards, and which seem to thrive in religious environments; the saccharine grocery store scene in which a little girl sees a little boy without shoes and foregoes a purchase to help him, or something along those lines. But most of the women seemed to follow the stories earnestly, laughing at the appropriate times, and tracing the graph of emotion with their expressions. One woman, however, the daughter of a sunday school teacher who just moved back from out west, not-so-subtly snickered through the whole thing.

I don’t entirely know how to react to this genre myself. It’s easy to mock, and perhaps deserves it to a degree. I think sometimes affluent white Christians have a tendency to stick to “heartwarming” stories of chance encounters in which they do nice deeds (one story featured a woman asking a strangers for directions to “a street where poor people live” and ultimately catching a cab to Harlem so that she could drop off a baby dress she bought in a department store on Christmas Eve.) instead of engaging daily in the real mess of life side by side with neighbors who don’t have a “comfortable lifestyle.” We may make a gift-giving trip once a year, but still keep real poverty a cab drive away from our own lives.

Other stories, though, which might be written off as equally cheesy, celebrate the tenderness of a child learning to make sacrifices and finding joy in serving others. And those are things I want to affirm, those are moments which may be worth repeating. I cried during one of the stories. But there the tears were mixed with anger and embarrassment because I felt emotionally manipulated. Perhaps there are better ways to talk about meaningful holiday observance than with these stories which seem designed more to make us “feel inspired,” rather than animating us to action.

Last Thursday, the night before I left for a weekend trip to St. Louis, I found out that the first friend I made here, Rob, had broken his leg two weeks ago and had been in the hospital for over a week and I hadn’t known because of missing church. (Thanksgiving with family one week, then work the next.) Rob and his wife Nancy are my closest friends in the church and I had no idea! I felt awful, especially as we don’t simply see one another Sunday to Sunday, but have shared meals and shopping trips throughout the week on several occasions. Well, I wrote him a card that night, since visiting hours were over, and determined to visit him the Tuesday after I returned, my day off. I called Nancy to make sure he was still awake and headed over. She was there crocheting, I could see her nestled into the armchair through the window as I walked up to the rehabilitation center. The three of us chatted and caught up for two hours before my stomach called me away to dinner. Before I left, Nancy began searching for her keys so she could walk out with me to her car to get a suitcase to pack him up (he was finally going home the next day). The keys were nowhere to be found. Walking out to the car, we saw them in the ignition, though she’d manually locked the doors.

I had the pleasure of driving Nancy back to Ohio and then out to the rehab center in West Virginia again, and was tickled pink that I finally had a way to serve the friends who had so welcomed me, feeding me so many times and taking me to Sam’s and to the local farm market for produce and cider.

This is the part where a religious forward would probably insist that the reason I hadn’t found out until so late is that I would have been unlikely to go visiting on the last night in the hospital if I had already had a chance to stop by, and then wouldn’t have been there to help retrieve the second set of keys, but I don’t know about all of that. I just know that for me there was joy in getting to spend that hour reciprocating some of the love shown to me, and I wish you that kind of joy this December.