Made for a Time Like This- Pop Up Poetry in Grand Rapids Airport

I didn't know it at the time, but I began practicing for my debut airport poetry reading in my bathrobe during the two weeks leading up to my trip to Michigan for the Festival of Faith and Writing.  One Sunday morning I turned on the radio while I shuffled through the kitchen, making coffee, putting away clean dishes, preparing breakfast.  I still listen to the actual radio at particular times for particular shows.  On Being comes on at 7am, so I am most familiar with the second halves of that show. I caught the tail end of Naomi Shihab Nye's interview with Krista Tippet and was inspired by her practice of waking her teenage son by reading poetry aloud.  That seemed like a gentler practice than yelling and shaking my children awake.  I thought I would give it a try.

So, that Monday I opened the bedroom doors, stood in the hall and began to read to an audience of four sleeping figures. In the ensuing weeks, the words of Mary Oliver, Jean Toomer, Nikki Giovanni, Killian McDonnell, Ogden Nash, Anne Sexton, Denis Levertov, Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman and Joy Harjo (to name a few) would pull my children out of dreaming and into the light of each new day. (And when that didn't work I would revert to my old ways, pull off their covers and shout TIME TO GET OUT OF BED!)     

In that empty hall of our old Georgia farmhouse, I read as if I was on stage, a homegrown habit that had been passed on to me by my mother and grandmothers. My mother read aloud to my siblings and me with such powerful expression and she learned it from her mother who cultivated the habit of reading aloud with her four children in their Ohio farmhouse.  My mother tells me that tedious chores like ironing and butter churning were softened by the promise of a book that one of the siblings would be tasked to read aloud.  They would take turns passing the hours by passing the book and the iron. Readings and recitations were also expected from my father's mother who would sometime plan living room programs for which grandchildren like me were expected to prepare and perform.  My nana sat like a queen in her chair as I refined my elocution skills before her watchful and encouraging eyes.

So, it was not without some sense of inner preparation and natural inclination that the idea of putting on a spontaneous poetry reading in the middle of a snowed-in airport moved rapidly from idea to reality.  I came to Grand Rapids for the first time to attend a gathering of people who still have faith in the power of reading and writing.  Filled with inspiration and encouragement I was ready to hurry home to start writing again.  I overheard a few people talking writer-talk and guessed that they were festival attendees but I thought- "I'll be on the plane soon, no need to keep chatting it up with new folks." A blanket of snow and steady freezing rain made all my fellow festival goers captives among an airport full of weary and frustrated travelers.  Every announcement pushed us further toward despair as our scheduled flights moved from one to three to nine hours delayed and even to complete cancellation.  On my flight to Michigan, I told the woman beside me that I was going to a writing festival and she gave me an amused and puzzled look and asked if it would be outside - the word "festival" perhaps conjuring a sense of word-shaped balloons and stilt walking poets dancing in a mosh pit of words.  "It's a writer's conference," I told her, "But, I do hope it will be fun."  And there were parts of it that were fun- meeting new people, reconnecting with old friends, listening to inspiring talks and readings, meeting editors face to face- accomplishing more in 4 days than a years worth of e-mails could have done.  But there were also parts that were disappointing- program designs that rarely accessed or invited the collective wisdom in the room, shop talk about the business end of writing that made me strain my ears to hear how "faith" fit into any of it.

The gate for my return flight to Atlanta was A-4 (HONESTLY no joke! more on this later) and I was about to pull into myself and settle into my seat by the cold white view of our grounded plane, when my friend Britney, who I met four years ago at a workshop at the Collegeville Institute, called out my name.  Before long I was shaking hands, getting business cards, and talking shop with fellow stranded travelers as if the airport were the last event of the festival.  "Someone should host a reading," someone said. I had just met at least two people who were brave enough to introduce themselves as poets, surely they would join me.  Inspired by Kwame Alexander's talk about saying yes, I jumped up and said, "Yes!  Let's do it!"

Word spread quickly through the Twitterverse as the idea of a pop-up poetry reading became reality. We picked a time, 1:30 pm.  We picked a gate, A-6.  We, well some of us, got some lunch and beer. And then we started making our selections.

What should I read to a group of people from children to old folks?  Hmm, the poem I'm working on about pinatas and lynchings nope, the one about Andersonville prison and starlings, nah, the one about horse racing and starvation, man maybe I need to lighten up on the poetry front, don't I have anything that isn't about death? There's is a reason my poems are mostly sad, because we live in a world of total depravity.  One of my favorite poems of late has been Micah Bournes' Made for A Time Like This .   I pull my children out of peaceful slumber and send them to school and out into this wounded world with hope and terror in my chest.  At the same time, I want to improve my ability to cultivate joy in my heart and the people around me, even while carrying the weight of past and current events. 

Finally, I remembered this little poem I wrote when I was 8 months pregnant and waddled to the corner store to buy dish soap during a blizzard during the winter of endless snow in Philadelphia.  I offered to open the show with it. Nathan Irons Roberts of The Salt Collective offered to be the announcer.  He stood in the middle of the terminal and announced that we would be starting our scheduled poetry reading.  Then I took the floor and read my snowy poem for a snowy day:

Pilgrimage to the Corner Store or Winter Ode to Joy 

Gleaming bottle on the shelf-
a remedy to heal myself.
Ultra concentrated Joy
One yellow lemon scented squirt
is all I need to banish dirt
or rather dried and crusting grits
milky pools and bacon bits

I clutch and pay and leave the store
to face the snow outside the door.

The two block walk feels like a mile
At myself, I have to smile
Huddled, waddling
through knee deep snow
that has not ceased to fall and blow
to frost my glasses, freeze my nose,
                as steadily I trudge toward  home
On my snowy path, I plod
and utter silent thanks to God
who knows and grants his children’s wishes
I now have soap to wash the dishes.

 Anya Silver jumped up after me and followed it with an ode to her washing machine. And we were off.  Each poet jumping up and building on the other.  Poems on domesticity led to poems on loss and migration, love, grief, dead and distant parents.  I also found and read my other poem that isn't too heavy- Father's Day Manicures.

And we were all so shiny in that terminal, all smiles, laughter and clapping hands.  I watched a passing traveler pull out his earbuds and stand still. We all had nowhere to go.  He had time to listen.

Thus, the Grand Rapids Pop Up Poetry Collective featuring Aline Mello, Jennifer Fueston, Seana Scottt, Josina Guess, Anya Silver, Cameron Lawrence and Britney Winn Lee made history as the only scheduled and on-time event in the Gerald Ford International Airport that day.

Soon questions showed up on twitter, did we read Naomi Shihab Nye's poem Gate A-4.  No, we didn't read that poem. We all read our own original poems from books and phones and computer screens.  We were seasoned and green. My friend Britney Win Lee read the only poem she had written in a very long time and got an invitation from an editor in the crowd to submit a proposal to turn it into children's book!  (She can remember to thank the Grand Rapids Pop Up Poetry Collective.You're welcome.)

What started as a daily practice of breaking morning silence with poetry became a daring public experiment in community building.  Though Naomi Shihab Nye's poem was not read aloud, it was embodied. Maybe we were made fore a time like this.  A collection of stranded writers gave an offering of joy to that cold and frustrating day.  In the closing words of Gate A-4:
This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.


  1. I love this! I would love to be roused from sleep each morning with a poetry reading. The pop up poetry reading was the best part of my day. Thanks for being a part of it!

    1. Thanks Diana, that airport time really was a highlight of the week for me. I was so glad to have more time to talk with you and hear about your upcoming book!

  2. Inspiring as usual Josina!!! I love the connection between home and public reading!

  3. Josina, I too was stranded in GR overnight (Sunday) but palatially ensconced in a comfortable hotel bed, reading about this pop up poetry event at the airport. It was such a delight to see from afar via Twitter. Your post here is a wonderful wrap up of the event.
    Also, the last line of your poem made me smile.
    Perhaps our paths crossed mid-session somewhere at the Festival; indeed, maybe they will at the n e x t #FFW.

    1. Glad it brought you joy from afar. Yes, I hope, Lord willing, to be at the next FFW. It was such a delight!


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