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When I sat down to write about Charlottesville last week, I found that I had no words, which doesn’t happen very often for me. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say, though, that I had too many words, too many jumbled phrases, too many tumbled emotions. I couldn’t focus well enough to put them together.That changed Saturday in downtown Denver on the 16th Street Mall. I mentor a young writer and the two of us got together to Write Denver, a collaborative write-the-city project hosted by Lighthouse Writers Workshop, where I sometimes teach in the Young Writers Program.Saturday’s “Word on the Street” event was a prelude to the Big Read, an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts. NEA Big Read supports dynamic community reading programs that broaden our understanding of our world, our communities and ourselves through the effect of sharing a good book, which this year features Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. In this work – which was a finalist for the National Book Award – Rankine explores what it means to be a person of color in America today, laying bare moments of racism that often surface in everyday encounters.Dan Manzanares, Lighthouse Community Programs Coordinator, chalked out two huge blank pages on the center sidewalk and piled up words pasted on wooden blocks. Among “and,” “the,” “I” and “my,” were random words such as “tanks,” “stadiums,” heroes” and “punks.”We dove in.It was an interesting process. My student seemed to put sentences together first, picking up a collection of blocks to position on the sidewalk page. I, on the other hand, found a word that intrigued me, such as “seriousness,” “innocent,” “nostalgia” or “illuminated,” then adding blocks, moving them around, or sometimes tossing them.After about an hour, the two pages in the middle of the 16th Street Mall were nearly full, attracting the attention of passersby. Being who I am, I briefly outlined the project and asked them if they wanted to play. Some did.A tall black man took his time before he laid down blocks that read: “I roared I wish / my kids never know.” A young white couple wrote simply: “All may join / and be.” The man returned a second time, with this: “Instead of ambition / wish life & joy / be on all.”Wow.From my student, this: “We looked different / so life was floodlights / and / they did what they had to.” And, “This just in / the people are / only partially awful.”All this from the blocks we were given.For my part, by zeroing in on a word or two and then building around them, I wrote: “Neighborhood young families / punks and professional heroes wish / days crowd into night.” And this: “Oh, I myself had my cruel / seriousness too illuminated, thinking / innocent touch is enough.”Did I write about Charlottesville? Maybe … the experience of sharing words and thoughts with my student and with strangers – none of whom knew Rankine’s work – was oddly liberating. And uplifting. And illuminating.In the end, I put together this about racism and Nazi flags and Tiki-torch violence: “Some nostalgia makes eager fraternities,” and, “My life wish is me / shutting doors / myself.”
Andrea Doray is a writer who hopes you’ll participate in the Big Read. For more information, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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