Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Art of Risking

(photos by Syreeta McFadden. full album is available here.)

-Samantha Thornhill

Risk is a topic artists often talk, discuss. When poets look over each others poems and give constructive thoughts, the question often comes: what is this poem risking?

What do poets risk by making our private thoughts public? By committing experiences, afflictions, lies, and shames to paper? What do we risk to gain? What do we risk to know? What do we risk to change? What do we risk to reveal? What do we risk to risk?

This risk business can become all very abstract.

I believe that every poem is a risk of some sort. Even if the risk is spending precious time on something that sucks.

We were five poets strong on this bustling Saturday in New York City. Any one of us could have been doing many other things. We risk time.

I had to tear myself away from my novel, which was actually going well for once. I risk momentum.

Joining us for the first time, Ngoma rolled out of bed and flew straight downtown to meet us. He risks a growling stomach.

This September 11, I was on my way to the Bowery Poetry Club to do a taping of the Illiad. I was to be Helen of Troy. I hopped the 6 where a veteran for peace was speaking against war, which inevitably means speaking against this country's policies.

Standing not far from him, a stalwart American, much younger in years, began shouting, dubbed him anti-American. By the time I exited the train, the two men had come to blows.

And all I could think about was PUP. We risk getting beat up.

I believe greatly in risk. Tangible risk. Risk you can rub between your fingers and smear on a wall. Risk that changes climates, not just weather.

I think to the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, who, after his poems incited revolt and got him arrested in 1938, was tortured, placed knee deep in shit on the warship where his trial was held. To survive that stench he sang at the top of his lungs every love poem he knew.

He risked everything.

Now here I was on the train listening to Adam our resident songbird, blessing our ears with:

If you all right say yeah. Yeah. If you all right say yeah. Yeah...

Though his heart may have been racing like this train, his face showed no fear. I was so inspired by his willingness to bear that burden of being first today. That risk. I never take for granted all of the work a poet must do to meet at the Ghandi statue. To swipe that card and stand clear of the closing doors. To see all of these people peacefully reading, dreaming inside their I-Pods, carrying on conversations. Then to interrupt all of that. To be so bombastic in this belief that this lump in the throat is so crucial that it must bogard the silences between us.

As Adam launched into his piece, I thought. What will I risk?

And so, I had to pull out my ode to twins.

Yes, boobs.

It is a discussion of the body. My body. Its wild ways. And toward the end, I cupped my breasts in the middle of this train car and I felt no fear. Because of this, I know I am freer today than I was yesterday. I risk nothing.

Ngoma was a crazy man! I will ride the train with this brother anytime. He filled the potentially awkward silences with his singing, swinging around, and pushing his pelvis into the pole as he made love to Nefertiti inside the imagination of his poem. He was so incredibly free.

Jon will stun the air with a poem in the voice of the black woman he once overheard on a bus in Queens, then turn around with his white boy litany, a self portrait that juxtaposes how he sees himself with how others see him-- through the prism, race.

And Marcy. Ever since the earthquake hit her mother country, this poem has been coming. It begins with a mournful song. Once people realized the poem was about Haiti they paid extra close attention. I could hear the tears rising up in her throat and wondered if she would make it. Gut wrenching, her line about Haitians worshipping a white Jesus, only to find their own faces white with dust.

Afterwards I told her that I had never heard that piece. Her response: I've never done it before.


On one of our rides a stranger was moved to take center stage and start free styling, making us all clap and rejoice. In that brief moment between not knowing and knowing, I thought he was one of us. And he was.

Some physicists believe when you drop a stone into a pond, the ripples last forever.
These are probably the same physicists who believe that every moment lasts an infinity.
And in the physics of words, I believe both of these theories to be true.

In her poem, "One Art", Elizabeth Bishop instructs us to lose something every day.

I would like to replace lose with risk.


  1. This was the perfect post to read before going to work on a Monday morning.

  2. Risk.. very interesting indeed. Exceptional blog entry! Thanks for penning it and for continuing to take risks. Gangsta! lol =o)

  3. ...In her poem, "One Art", Elizabeth Bishop instructs us to lose something every day.

    I would like to replace lose with risk

    ...say WORD!!!

  4. Beautiful Samantha! I'm reminded of how in recent years, developers are 'required' to incorporate 'public art' into their projects....So, where's the risk? I see none, only the return on compusory art: nil. Why? No heart! Nothing risked... Sure; it's pretty, at times. But without the heart - the risk-what are the chances the work or 'investment' will be meaningful? Unlikely...unless of course it's commissioned without constraint. When your group is pounding the street (subways) it's art in it's truest light: Cathartic, for the artist or those present (often the case for me, my risk: tears in public) or both...thanks for risking: Everything, all of you!

  5. Yes, yes, yes!!!! So excited to board the train/bear the risk with y'all, soon. xoxo