U. S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo says, “If you do not answer the noise and urgency of your gifts, they will turn on you. Or drag you down with their immense sadness at being abandoned.”
Gifts are strange things. They come to us out of nowhere. Surprise and fill us with pleasure. There is power in unwrapping a gift. Beneath the bows and paper, in the darkness of the unopened box, anything could exist. A box of chocolates. Music box. Book. Tickets to Walt Disney World. Words.
Yes, words. Because I’m a poet, I have always believed words are gifts. Think of the word “cleave.” It can mean to “divide or split as if by a cutting blow.” But it can also mean to “adhere firmly and closely . . . unwaveringly.” In one word, there is both separation and connection, loss and love. That’s a remarkable gift.
Back in January of this year, I received an email about a grant program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts called the Big Read.
The NEA Big Read involves organizations creating programming centered around the themes and ideas of one book. Part of that programming involves giving away copies of the chosen book to community members. A gift of words.
One of the options for the 2021-2022 NEA Big Read cycle was U. S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo’s poetry collection “An American Sunrise.” Filled with cleaving (the removal history of Harjo’s people from their homelands) and cleaving (love poems for Harjo’s mother and husband and children), the book spoke to my artistic gifts.
So, I set about writing an NEA Big Read grant. I pulled together partnering organizations, contacted artists and writers, planned events—keynote addresses, poetry workshops, art exhibits, and a chapbook contest. I dreamed big. It was like writing a detailed, twenty-page letter to Santa Claus and dropping it in the mailbox.
The dream was simple in concept: to build bridges. I wanted to highlight the history, culture, and contributions of indigenous peoples. Through Joy Harjo’s words, I hoped to create a dialogue across the Upper Peninsula and bring people together. Using poetry as a vehicle, my NEA Big Read dream would hopefully be a catalyst for cultural understanding and change.
This dream was a gift to me.
A noisy, urgent gift, as Joy Harjo says. And I followed Harjo’s advice: I didn’t ignore that gift.
Several months after sending off my “letter to Santa,” I received an email one morning from Arts Midwest, the organization that administers the Big Read program for the National Endowment for the Arts. That email had one word in its subject line: “Congratulations.” I sat in my office for a few moments, feeling a lot like a kid on Christmas morning, knowing that my dream had become reality.
As I sit writing this article, I’m approaching the final weeks of programming for the NEA Big Read at Peter White Public Library. Over the past month, I’ve heard the Teal Lake Singers Drum Circle perform. Listened to poets and scholars and teachers of Anishinaabemowin. Soon, I will have the opportunity to speak personally with Joy Harjo, listen to her read her poetry, ask her questions.
However, the path to my NEA Big Read dream hasn’t been without its share of struggles, personal and professional. Sickness occurred. Scheduled speakers became unavailable. Loved ones passed. Events needed to be rescheduled or completely reinvented at the last minute. Big dreams are like that. They rearrange themselves like waves rearrange a shoreline.
But dreaming big is important.
Paying attention to your gifts (no matter what they are) isn’t just important. It’s necessary and life-sustaining. Sharing those gifts and dreams with others can be a powerful force for good in the world at large.
One of the events of the NEA Big Read was a three-day poetry chapbook writing competition. Participants were given a list of eighty writing prompts to spark their creativity. One of the writing prompts was this:
Make a list of things you want to do today. Let your imagination run wild with the list, accomplishing impossible things.
Try it right now. Make that list. Dream big. Dream impossible. Use your gifts. Make the world a better place.
Martin Achatz is a husband/father/teacher/poet/dreamer who lives in Ishpeming. He is a two-time U.P. Poet Laureate and teaches in NMU’s English Department. He also serves as the Adult Programming Coordinator for Peter White Public Library, where he recently organized and ran the NEA Big Read.
Excerpted from the Winter 2021-22 issue of Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine. Copyright 2021, Empowering Lightworks, LLC. All rights reserved.