It isn’t easy to talk a group of teenagers into giving up their Friday night for a school field trip, but when they’re Creative Writing students and when the event is a poetry reading and when the place is the Alabama School of Fine Arts . . . nearly half of them still said yes. Last Friday night, I took about a dozen students to the 14th annual My Favorite Poem reading, which is organized by Jim Reed Books. This was our second year going to the reading, last year’s invitation having come alongside a very kind and generous fundraiser for our school, which had then just burned. The Creative Writing faculty at ASFA have been nothing if not gracious toward us, and that solidarity has meant a lot.
Though it’s only a brief tradition at this point, we went once again to The Pizitz Food Hall for dinner beforehand. It also isn’t easy to find food options for a group of teenagers with varied tastes, but this place does well. The Pizitz, which is on 2nd Avenue North, is a historic building from the 1920s that has been repurposed mainly into apartments, but the ground floor contains a high-end food court with choices ranging from pho and mo-mo to poké or chicken-and-waffles. There’s also a little Birmingham-centric shop that sells shirts, et cetera from the Yellowhammer Print Shop in nearby Glen Iris. This time, at the food hall, I ate a cheeseburger with bacon jam at The Standard, which was delicious— and bought one of their t-shirts, of course, which was printed by Yellowhammer.
After we ate, traffic getting to the reading was a little mucky, since apparently the circus was in town on Friday night. My first idea was that a concert at the BJCC was causing the tie-ups driving in, but a man in the lobby of ASFA told me what was going on. I didn’t doubt it, since I’d just had run-ins with a few clowns who were blocking intersections.
The My Favorite Poem reading is pleasingly atypical for two reasons: first, it features a mixture of writers and people who don’t write, and second, its focus is on sharing the poems we read, not on the poems we write. This year’s reading included poems by folks you’d think would be there – Maya Angelou, Billy Collins, Robert Frost – and some we might not have heard-of yet, classics and new. The event’s founder Irene Latham was one of the readers this year and explained how it all got started through the Favorite Poem Project. My two students read “Famous” by Naomi Shihab Nye and Nick Flynn’s “Cartoon Physics, part 1,” and as is tradition, event organizer Jim Reed ended with Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” a darkly comic and highly lyrical ballad about a Southerner who freezes (almost) to death in the Yukon. On the way out, we were handed copies of ASFA Creative Writing’s literary journal Cadence, which is particularly handsome this time – black-on-black with spot varnish on the journal’s title – and the readers received a hardback copy of Autumnal Heart, poems by Alabama’s Sue Scalf, who passed away last year.
Even though it’s only about ninety miles from our school to theirs, I don’t see the ASFA Creative Writing folks nearly enough. Daily life carries us all from home to work and back home, and writers tend to be kind of solitary anyway. So it was also good to chat with TJ Beitelman and Kwoya Maples about how things are going. For the last few months, I’ve been picking my way through their two new books – TJ’s This is the Story of His Life and Kwoya’s Mend – and took the opportunity while we were there to get those signed. Though the styles and substance of the two books are dissimilar, both are intelligent, well-crafted, and poignant collections. And in addition to being good writers, they’re also good people. These are folks we’re lucky to have here in Alabama.
All that was left after hearing some poems and munching on some Cheetos and cupcakes at the reception was the dreaded nighttime drive home from an out-of-town school field trip. (I can only sigh when I write that.) By 8:30 or 9:00 PM, our school day had lasted more than twelve hours. We’d eaten, done what we came to do, acted silly, and burned off some steam. Now, we were just ready to be back home. Thankfully, the normal people are all at their homes by that hour, so it cleared the road for us abnormal people to make good time.