At the Museum of Modern Art, the teens marched downstairs in twos and threes. Their tables were stacked with supplies: pencils and pens, Moleskine notebooks, and a copy of Letters to a Young Artist by Anna Deavere Smith. They had chosen to spend Friday night at the museum as part of Art Underground: a new series of workshops. I was honored to be invited as a guest teacher. For two hours, we moved through the stages of writing a narrative poem: from rough draft to final edit. Between writing sessions, we read from Smith's wonderful essays about forging a creative life. Most of all, I loved hearing the teens read from their own work.
--Making out with a boy in Prospect Park ("It's kind of inappropriate," the writer told me. But she was brave enough to write something meaningful and true).
--Trapped in the back seat, listening to Mom and Dad argue, looking out the window, quietly suffocating under the "new car smell."
--Playing with a bunch of neighborhood kids outside the smoke-belching factories...a stray dog with a sagging belly that is "never full."
--Standing in line at Comic-Con, waiting for Stan Lee's autograph (and finally giving up).
zombie graphic novel by a teen at MoMA
As Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue" oozed through the speakers, we read our poems out loud. I was blown away by their talent...and their honesty.
In the last letter that I shared from Smith's book, she quotes the jazz genius. He always spoke at a murmur. He moved slowly and took his time. He was the epitome of cool.
Don't try fake it, the book advises. In other words, an artist shouldn't be concerned about other people's judgement. Listening to the teens and their brave work, I was reminded of one line:
Never be cool.