Thursday, March 14, 2013

Sapphire at Rutgers University

Last night I saw poet and author Sapphire speak in the College Ave. Student Center of Rutgers.

I'd read Push with my book club years ago, but the language was so stark that I remember it vividly. I haven't read her other fiction (like The Kid: A Novel) or poetry (like American Dreams), but after last night's talk I definitely want to.

The poet spent an hour reading from her work, then answered questions.

The theme for the night was definitely the joy that interrupts sadness. In an introduction to the talk the audience was reminded of a Wordworth quote that appears on the first page of Push:

Of young imagination have kept pure,
Stranger! henceforth be warned; and know that pride,
Howe'er disguised in its own majesty,
Is littleness; that he, who feels contempt
For any living thing, hath faculties
Which he has never used; that thought with him
Is in its infancy. The man whose eye
Is ever on himself doth look on one,
The least of Nature's works, one who might move
The wise man to that scorn which wisdom holds
Unlawful, ever. O be wiser, Thou!
Instructed that true knowledge leads to love.

(From Left Upon a Seat in a Yew-Tree...)

Push was one of the most brutal and heartbreaking reading experiences I've ever had, and even excerpts from The Kid made me a little bit nauseated.

But there are beautiful and tender moments in those pages, too. For Precious Jones, literacy and the ability to write open a new window to the world, and hope comes along with that. In The Kid, that narrator is abused as well an an abuser, but the opportunity to learn more about music and dance is also a chance at a fresh start.

One audience member sneaked a heavy question in at the last minute: How does the author feel about writing  intense and heart-wrenching situations for characters (including but not limited to child abuse, rape, HIV infection, racism and poverty). Does it become spectacle, and exploitation?

I thought Sapphire's answer was beautiful. First of all, we're humans, and we need to express ourselves. So if an artist is compelled to write about characters who suffer and despair, they must be guided by honesty and integrity. These principles keep a work from being exploitative.

Certainly, then, true knowledge leads to love.

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