Friday, October 7th, I flew out to Kansas City to read at the Missouri Humanities Council‘s new office at 1800 Baltimore. It was First Friday – an event I ashamedly had never heard of, let alone participated in, but I saw the hashtag proliferating on Twitter and Instagram in cities across the country. First Fridays, in both large metropolitan areas and smaller towns, host events on – you guessed it – the first Friday of every month, featuring art walks displaying physical art in galleries, music, improvisational theater, craftsmanship, and anything else you can imagine, accompanied by food and drink to celebrate.
The Crossroads Art District of Kansas City was nearly impossible to navigate well before 6pm. Frustrated motorists tried to make their way through the streets as pedestrians took over the sidewalks and edged out into the road. Whether crossing with no attention paid to the Don’t Walk warnings (spoken to you in a robotic voice that I may have talked back to after being told to “Wait!” when I was already waiting), or with an apologetic wave as they weaved through cars stuck at an intersection, the streets in the Crossroads were packed with people from all walks of life. Doors were open throughout the district where you could slip in and view a gallery, stand outside and peer through windows, or venture up narrow staircases to find yourself in a restaurant or a theater. It was really a toss of the dice in some places. I saw some great paintings, was invited to learn to code with Code Koalas, and enjoyed some interesting art!improv (improvart?) from BeMused at the Fishtank Performance Studio with a friend.
After arriving at the MHC office, I was met at the door by Lisa Carrico (or re-met, as I think we had been introduced her first week in the position in 2014 during the readings for the third volume of the Proud to Be anthology at the Focal Point in St. Louis), who is the Director of Family & Veterans Programs (and has a degree in zoology – how cool is that?). I had been corresponding with Lisa in regards to participating in this event, and was thrilled to be invited to read my work. I was pleased to meet Mark Livengood, Ph.D., who is the Director of Education and heads the newest Kansas City branch of the charity organization, and also the adorable and enthusiastic Director of Public Relations, Maura Gray, who instantly won me over with a smile and exclaiming, “I love your hair!” Thanks, Maura!
I love it too. It’s purple.
Continuing my evening of meeting delightful people, fellow Veteran (but way more awesome) Gerardo “Tony” Mena read some poetry from his new book as well as his gut-wrenching poem “So I Was A Coffin” which has an accompanying video and commentary on the Poets&Writers website. Passionate about drawing attention to the high rate of suicide among service members, Tony begins all of his readings with the names of men who he had served with who were killed in action or after they returned home. After a quick Q&A, we spoke with audience members, drank a few beers, and it was over too soon. People who didn’t attend the reading itself wandered in and out, checking out what the Missouri Humanities Council has to offer (including awesome free tote bags that Maura used to attract attention to the office) and looking at the Proud to Be books for sale. Now that I’ve had the pleasure of working with the MHC in a closer capacity, I need to write some more upbeat material so the next time a surf band starts playing loudly outside the front door, it won’t be so much of a dramatic contrast my sometimes terribly depressing stories. Luckily for the audience, Tony is charismatic and funny and I’m an awkward nerd, so as long as you have idiots like one of us around, our personalities balance out the heaviness of the work. I mean, right before I read my personal essay “Inconsequential” about my identity struggles, physical issues and mental illness, as well as my experience with sexual assault and rape, I broke a podium (sorry, Mark, but thank you for fixing it – that’s why you have a Ph.D. and I merely have a BA).
Nothing pleases me more than working with an organization like the Missouri Humanities Council for everything that they do, and Southeast Missouri State University Press for putting on this annual writing and photography contest for Veterans (or work about Veterans) and for publishing the anthology. In addition to events like these, the free writing workshops give people the ability to hone their craft whether it’s a hobby or if they’re working toward a bigger project. Surrounded by people who have similar stories, writing workshops for Veterans help them work through their experiences in war and at home and translate that into art, while creating a safe space to express themselves and get constructive feedback on their work. Before I flew out, I was happy to be able to attend the final workshop in a series of four that the MHC put together held at the Kansas City Public Library’s Plaza Branch. I was able to hear what Veterans from Vietnam and the Gulf War were writing, and thoroughly enjoyed taking part in the last workshop – I would love to see finished products whenever the writers complete their works.
If you have the opportunity to attend one of the MHC events, or even your local First Friday event, I highly recommend it. If you’re a Veteran or a writer who would like to conduct an interview or compose a piece about Veterans, be sure to check out SEMO’s University Press website for the anthology’s call for submissions.