Celebrate more than you want to be celebrated.
Recently, I received some wonderful news: My full-length poetry manuscript, The Understudy’s Handbook, won the Jean Feldman Poetry Award from Washington Writers Publishing House and will be published Oct. 15, 2020.
When I got the call, I was driving to visit two dear friends for our weekly “Sci-Fi and Supper” gathering, where we cook a meal and watch a television show in the comfort of a small rowhome in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood.
We were either finishing a season of “The Expanse” or just beginning the new “Star Trek Picard” and, as such, I mostly had phasers and spaceflight on my mind when the phone rang.
I hesitated to answer. I was driving, the number had a Michigan area code (a state I’ve never set foot in), and it was almost 7:30 p.m. Everything about the circumstances signaled spam.
I’m not sure what prompted me, but I did answer without pulling over, and with the gruff curtness of, “I’m not interested!” on the tip of my tongue.
And then I got the news.
And then I pulled over.
The earliest poems in that manuscript are about seven years old, written just after I attended my first Cave Canem retreat. Something about the moment when I heard the news felt biblical, like the tangled mess of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel.
But once the details had been explained and the zenith of my joy had waned slightly, I began to think about all the times friends, colleagues, and writers I admire had received publication news. I thought about the ways I did and did not celebrate with them.
One of the friends whose house I was on my way to visit had won a prestigious literary award the year prior. My praise was loud and sustained on the internet and in person, akin to the way I’ve geeked out about favorite cartoons and comics.
I wanted that friend to know how deep my enthusiasm went for the success, to feel loved and supported, though surely my gestures would’ve been hollow without having already demonstrated love and support through private acts: the alfredo sauce made from scratch. The genuine interest in another’s passions (WWE). The listening.
Above all else, the listening.
For other folks, I celebrated their successes in silence, in reverence, though that hardly seems a celebration at all. But it strikes me that the listening was the same, and that reverence unperformed isn’t any less reverential.
It reminded me of the moments when I’ve heard poets say, “Every poem is a prayer,” and I wanted so desperately to ask, “What does it mean to pray?”
I wonder if they’d have had an answer beyond tautology. It is what it is, I guess.
And so when I think about what the great Lucille Clifton meant when she said, “People wish to be poets more than they wish to write poetry, and that's a mistake. One should wish to celebrate more than one wishes to be celebrated,” I return to the verbs like a pilgrim full of questions.
What does it mean to celebrate?
Isn’t that question at the heart of all things nerdy, all things poetic, all things spiritual?