Thank you Toni Morrison… and Trapeta B. Mayson

Trapeta B. Mayson, Philadelphia's Poet Laureate, speaking about Toni Morrison at The Rosenbach
Trapeta B. Mayson

This past Tuesday, I attended my first Rosenbach lunchtime talk. The Rosenbach museum and library is one of Pennsylvania’s hidden treasures, though it is open to the public and is now affiliated with the Free Library of Philadelphia. The elegant Delancey Street double townhouse contains a remarkable collection of rare books and documents originally assembled by the Rosenbach brothers, famous dealers in books, manuscripts and art. It’s also the site of frequent public discussions, readings and lectures that fill the intimate rooms with interested and interesting people from near and far – such as the monthly lunchtime talks.

I didn’t know what to expect, except that the topic was one of my favorite authors – Toni Morrison – and the speaker would be Philadelphia’s Poet Laureate Trapeta B. Mayson. I was sure that it would be a hour well spent. Besides, I needed to get away from my writing for a bit. I’d been struggling with the first draft of my new novel’s second chapter, and the more I fought the words – the more I wrote, edited and deleted – the more frustrated (and, yes, self-doubting) I was becoming. Perhaps, I had finally bitten off more than I could chew with this ambitious project.

"I never asked Tolstoy to write for me." Toni Morrison

Throughout the hour, Trapeta interspersed Morrison quotes and her own poems, a weave of words and ideas that illuminated the ideas she shared, until they shimmered with energy and life that could not be denied. She spoke particularly to the artists and writers in the audience, sharing the spirit of Morrison’s work that had helped her. As Trapeta said to one young writer in the audience, “You have to believe in your story; your truth has value, has worth.” By the end of her talk, my eyes were filled with unwept tears, as I realized that Toni’s and Trapeta’s words were exactly what I needed to hear.

But the core was a discussion of Morrison’s themes — race, class and gender — which have inspired Trapeta and so many other women as they/we struggle to find our voices. Yes, Morrison’s work was specifically black, and therefore resonates vibrantly for black women. Just as Tolstoy’s Russian stories speak to Russians, and Faulkner’s to Southerners. But it’s in its very specificity that Morrison’s raw, honest eloquence sings to me, a fellow woman, a fellow human being and artist, as it does for anyone who listens.

"...f you are free, you need to free someone else..." - Toni Morrison

Similarly, Trapeta’s poetry was intimate, personal and powerful. I was so impressed with both her poetry and her readings that today I bought her CD This Is How We Get Through which she recorded with composer/musician Monette Sudler. At the bottom of this post is a sample poem from the CD — “Say Her Name” — the celebration of womanhood that she read at the close of the hour. Please take a moment to listen to it. Then consider buying the physical CD or the download rights, not only because her poetry is worth listening to over and over again, but because we need to support our poets.

Thank you Trapeta for being an inspiration just when I needed it, reminding me that I must give myself permission to stumble and even periodically fail on the rocky path toward my vision. The hour I spent with you and Toni Morrison gave me the jump-start I needed to push through a difficult chapter in my book. Not that it’s easy writing; this novel is ambitious, the most difficult project I’ve ever attempted. And that’s precisely why I feel compelled to do it, to reach further than I ever have before. I think Toni Morrison would have understood, as Trapeta Mayson most likely does, and I guess every writer who ever came before or will come after me. It’s that reaching, and that letting go, that love of language and joy of sculpting it so it captures a moment of our soul, of our shared humanity, that’s the marrow of our work and our lifelong purpose.

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