Earlier this year Seven Stories Press published If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?, a collection of Kurt Vonnegut’s commencement speeches. In this guest post, New Hampshire Poet Laureate Alice B. Fogel shares with us a commencement speech she gave in which KV figures prominently among the “heroes” who have influenced her life.
Check out Alice’s website at the following link: www.alicebfogel.com
Be sure to read the brief interview at the end of the speech.
COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS: FALL MOUNTAIN REGIONAL HIGH SCHOOL
BY ALICE B. FOGEL
Chapter 1: What I Want to Be When I Grow Up
There was once a little five year old girl playing alone in a sandbox in her back yard. A family party was going on in the girl’s house and no one stopped to wonder about where she was or what she was doing. She kept on digging and shaping the sand into mini-cottages, sticking twigs in the dirt to make trees and gardens, flattening out paths for her alter-ego elf people to walk on. At some point, no one knew exactly when, it began to rain. Finally, someone said, “Where’s Alice?” The story goes that, eventually, Alice was found, still in the sandbox, which was now magically transformed into a mudbox, happily slapping around in the new material. She was completely unperturbed—in fact, she was completely ecstatic—that she’d been forgotten and that she was soaking wet.
That’s pretty much how it was for me for the next thirteen years, right through high school. I was always trying to learn how the world worked, playing with any part of it I could. I especially loved art, all the arts, any art: playing music, drawing and painting, sculpting and sewing, writing poems, writing stories—I was happy, whenever I was making art, as a pig in you-know-what. So when it was time for me to go to college, I decided, of course, to major in criminal justice.
Chapter 2: How Heroes Saved My Life
Grown-ups all seemed so Serious, and clueless about what life was really like. But even as I dreaded the idea of growing up, afraid some strange unknown force would come along and make me lose myself and become like them, it was already happening. I must have sensed that something was afoot, because I started secretly taking notes on my parents and other adults when I was nine, collecting them in a hidden “drawer” I made under my desk. And, as the naturally-born optimist I was, I kept on the look-out for living proof of alternatives. Here is what I found:
First, early on, I discovered the sculptor Alexander Calder. He built giant mobiles of amoeba-shaped metal and weird sculptures of cows made out of bicycle parts. He also made an entire miniature circus world. I saw a little movie of him. Here was a bald, tubby old man with thick fingers and he was PLAYING with his little circus people: attaching them carefully to their trapeze swings or the tight rope, flicking a little bar that sent their paperclippy joints somersaulting, a completely mesmerized kid-look on his face. Here was a grown-up who spent all his time playing as if his life depended on it.
Then, at fifteen, raised on polite old-fashioned novels for kids called “the classics,” I somehow got my hands on the book CAT’S CRADLE, by Kurt Vonnegut. It was a—then—entirely new brand of political science fiction, about (like most science fiction) humanity and the possible destruction of the world. In the author of this brain-blowing book, whose heartfelt satire made me laugh so hard that I literally fell right off the couch, I found a hero, an adult—still alive today [he was when I delivered this]—who recognized the poignant absurdity I intuitively knew, if not entirely understood, of our fate as humans: that we live, we love, we believe, we build castles in the air (or the sand) and make a stupid mess of things, often with the best intentions. And then we die.
Both of these guys were, in their own ways, Very Serious. And you had to laugh. All right, I figured. Maybe I could deal with growing up.
Chapter 3: The Myth and The Truth
There is a myth in our culture that childhood is the brief and only blissful time of total freedom and pure joy. In fact, in some kind of sick inverse equation, the farther one gets from childhood, the more one tends to buy this hooey. The reality is—and yes, as a note-taking emissary from way over the hill, I am here to tell you this—just the opposite is true.
A character in CAT’S CRADLE who wins the Nobel Prize in Science says this in his acceptance speech: “Ladies and Gentlemen. I stand before you now because I never stopped dawdling like an eight-year-old on a spring morning on his way to school.” As an adult, that worked out pretty well for him. But can you imagine the trouble he must have been in every day when he dilly-dallied so long he missed the bus? The exasperated calls from the principal? The teasing from other kids he must have endured? And at the time, as his mother dragged him by the arm back to the “real” world, it probably wouldn’t have helped if he’d said, “But Mom, it’s OK. I’m a genius and in forty years I’m going to win the Nobel Prize.”
The truth is, childhood is a long, grueling grope for a shred of self and sense in the mire of confusion over mixed messages from within and without, frustration over how little personal power one has, anger at the lack of choices one is allowed, misunderstandings, dumb mistakes, guilt, regret, directionless rebellion, unfulfilled wishes, crossed boundaries and broken promises.
OK, maybe it’s not THAT bad.
Adulthood, though—now this is worth growing up for. In adulthood, we have the potential to learn skills for making sense of ourselves and each other; we have choices—like, I can be a criminologist or I can be an artist. I can say no if I don’t like you. I can decide if I want a green one or a blue one. I can go to Italy, or to Acworth. I can learn as much as I want about what’s interesting to me and never take another math class in my whole life. I can be a carpenter, a manager, a teacher, a parent—or not. I can dawdle.
Along with—yes—the necessary responsibilities, you have CHOICES. Choices are fun. Every day, they offer a chance, a challenge, to take off onto yet another path.
Chapter 4: What Path?
But how do you know which is the right path to take? The poet Antonio Machado said this: “There is no path. The path is made by walking.”
Call it faith, call it fantasy, or both—like Indiana Jones stepping out into thin air in The Last Crusade: As you direct your foot, there appears the path. Every step will lead you somewhere. Everywhere you look there will be at least something. And look where you are now!
Chapter 5: Then & Now
So by the end of college, I looked around and I saw that I had so many credits NOT in criminal justice that I actually had a double major in (ah!) art and literature. And look where I am now: I have published books, won national awards, taught a variety of arts to people of all ages, including some of you. I’ve made costumes for Broadway plays and Kennedy Center operas. I’ve been asked to give a commencement speech. More importantly: Like that Nobel Prize winner in Vonnegut’s book, I am happy, and having fun. This benefits not only me: Happy people tend to be nicer to everyone else.
It’s been a long journey of cobbled walkways, hedged mazes, imaginary bridges, and paved highways (in my case, not too many of them), but so far, this is the best year of my life. And the thing is, despite my different stage or station in life, the interests and concerns I had in high school are the very same ones that I have now.
I don’t just mean my love of the arts, and of the sciences and education—though these are all true too. Back then, I worried about the wellbeing of my family and friends, and about people fighting other people in a war I didn’t agree with. Back then, I was afraid of making bad mistakes involving others, without being aware beforehand that I might, or knowing afterward how to amend things. I had to forgive others, forgive myself, let others forgive me. Some people I knew didn’t survive those years; the rest of us sometimes wondered why, or how, we did. Some losses, some mistakes, some betrayals, didn’t seem survivable—and yet, somehow, they were.
And are. Because, now, it’s still the same as it was then. We are always who we are, from beginning to end, though so much more than the sum of our parts.
Chapter 6: The News
Today, as it was when I was your age, and will be when you are mine, the news is full of personal tragedy, global violence, racial, gender and sexual prejudice, religious intolerance, injustice. What does it have to do with us? We need to know what path the world is on, whether we want to join it or redirect it. But there are other things we need to know, maybe even more.
The good doctor, William Carlos Williams, also, by the way, a poet, said:
“It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
What could he have meant? What, in mere poetry, could be more important than media reports of war, suppression, or corruption, so that for lack of this “news” we become miserable and even wither away? Since you asked me, a poet, to speak to you today, I’m going to tell you what I think he meant.
For me, because I love poetry, I can take his meaning literally. But since poetry is not everyone’s creative plaything, let’s take Williams’s warning figuratively. He is talking about whatever sublime practice you love and need that awakens YOU to the experience—the suffering, the thrill—of being alive, here, now—and at the same time brings you the peace with which you can better take on that sometimes overwhelming life.
You know what it is. The scientific invention. The junk sculpture. The dismantling of car engines or computers. The spray on your face of powder from a ski slope or of dirt from a diving catch. The structure of a building, a dinosaur, or a story. The composition of a symphony or a souffle. It is the creative act YOU do that slows you down and reminds you who you are, not what you do for a living but what you do to live.
Like the weather, the news we get from the creative source is ancient and always new. It reminds you of what you knew instinctively when you were five and still playing in the sandbox: that inspiration—staying connected to your soul—is not a luxury, a whim, a selfish distraction. It is a dire necessity.
If you neglect to get the news from whatever serious, fun play you MUST do, do all alone and conscious enough to both feel and forget your own breathing—you risk complacency or fanaticism; you risk blind consumerism or addiction meant to fill the emptiness; at the very least you risk undefined dissatisfaction and misdirected anger, and loss of control over the direction and meaning of your life.
But if you remember to get the news from creative playing every day of your life, you will never lose the lifeline between yourself and your world. You may become the hero of some child who needs to know how best to grow up—maybe your own. While you may not win the Nobel Prize, you WILL hear the joyful voice of insight, humor, and love. And you will recognize that still, small voice as the one no one can take away from you, the unique one you always had and always will have, no matter what path you are on.
Let’s start walking.
Five Questions with Alice B. Fogel
Q: Do you have a favorite Vonnegut novel:
A: I think Slaughterhouse Five might be my favorite, but Cat’s Cradle was the first, so it holds a special place.
Q: How has Vonnegut influenced your work as a poet?
A: I wouldn’t say Vonnegut influenced my particular style or type of writing so much as my commitment to being a writer and observer of human nature. By virtue of his vision and its unique expression, he gave me permission to believe in my own, no matter how weird it might be. Not that I always do believe in my work, but at least I can pretend that I do.
Q: You wrote that you first discovered Vonnegut when you were fifteen. Do you think his work still have relevance for a fifteen-year old today? If so, what about it speaks to our times?
A: When someone has grown up reading classics in a household where one’s parents were influenced by the straightness of the 1950s, finding Vonnegut was a revelation and an unforeseen door. Times are different, and there is so much coming at us on the ubiquitous web. I don’t know how much impact one author, musician, artist, or thinker can have in the melee. But if a 15-year-old were to sit down in some corner with Cat’s Cradle now, I can’t imagine its message–and its delivery–would not feel relevant.
Q: What does the job of Poet Laureate of New Hampshire entail?
A: The poet laureate position is an ambassadorship–bringing more poetry to more people around the state of New Hampshire. To this end, my personal mission is to dispel the myth of art needing to be “accessible” and instead sneakily plant a seed that might grow into a belief in the beauty and usefulness of what is not immediately understandable. I give talks and readings and workshops in many venues, including libraries, schools, taverns, retirement villages, churches, homes, etc., encouraging people to admit more strangeness and mystery into their lives through poetry. It’s been going well. The vastness of people’s interest in poetry has surprised and cheered me.
Q: If you could meet Kurt Vonnegut, what would you say to him?
A: When I was in my twenties, I worked at the St. Mark’s Bookstore in NYC’s East Village, and I often walked across 8th Street to get back to the West Village where I lived. One day I saw Kurt Vonnegut walking towards me, in his slouchy cardigan and slacks. I wanted so badly to say something to him about how much he’d meant to me. I remember standing there dumbstruck, as he walked toward me lost in his own thoughts, passed by me, and headed on, while I stepped aside, pivoted on the spot, and watched him retreat, as if those few moments were the stretched-out seconds where someone sees her whole life pass by in slow-motion in death scenes. It lasted forever and nothing happened. I wince every time I think about it, but what would I have said? And how intrusive would my idiotic attempts at articulating his impact on my life have been? If I were to meet him again, it would be exactly the same.
Bio: Alice B. Fogel is currently the New Hampshire State Poet Laureate. Her third book, Be That Empty, was a national poetry bestseller, and she is also the author of Strange Terrain, a “how-to” book on learning to appreciate poetry without necessarily “getting” it. Nominated for “Best of the Web” as well as 6 times for the Pushcart, her poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Best American Poetry, Robert Hass’s Poet’s Choice, Spillway, Hotel Amerika, Crazyhorse, and Pleiades, and she has received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and other awards. Another collection, Interval: Poems Based Upon Bach’s Goldberg Variations, won the Nicholas Schaffner Award for Music in Literature and is forthcoming in March 2015.