How to begin to encompass the experience of two days spent in a cosmopolitan city of 20 million? The Airbus, riveted angel of conveyance, drifts over the misty cerrado. When we descend, the city is there repeating itself for mile after mile of blocky white spires, gaseous air, stately European grace and accreted Lego-land geometry. The city’s intensity is cut with thick green parks. The city’s velocity is slowed by a transit workers’ strike, which is fine by me. It’s difficult enough to get my head around this density of human energy. As writers, we are students of patience anyway, and our state department motor pool driver is a dignified professional whose face never strays from calm focus.
We are arts ambassadors, as Alan has dubbed us. After speaking/reading/performing to over a thousand Brazilians in over twenty events in three cities during the past ten days, we feel deeply the diplomacy inherent in art. Art educates empathy.
That’s our arsenal for crossing borders. And we are deeply grateful for the chance to speak about our love of writing and stories and songs, our devotion to craft, our metabolic need to enter the spaces where uncertainty calls us, where words offer a chance to create some order, some breath, some sense that the velocity of living can be slowed, that the songs we feel inside of us can be sung, that the hurt of history can be healed just for these moments that we share, writers and readers and musicians and dancers, this world of art in which borders makes no sense and connection is all.
Our first gig here was at Universidade de São Paulo where we met with students in a couple of evening classes. One student told me he had lived here all of his life, but it was still difficult to get his head around the city’s size. He’ll find an area of the city he’s never seen before and think, I wonder how long this has been here? And someone says 100 years. It’s mind boggling. The other spoke about the disconnect with nature in such a place. He understood the metaphor in my poem “Rope” as saying that we are twined with nature. That there is no going back but we must learn to perceive this elemental twining with nature in our urban lives.
Alison Hawthorne Deming, Professor of Creative Writing and Agnese Nelms Haury Chair of Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona, is author of four poetry books, including Rope (Penguin 2009), and four books of nonfiction, including Writing the Sacred Into the Real and Zoologies(Milkweed 2014). She’s received the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bayer Award in Science Writing and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her poems and prose have been widely anthologized, including in The Norton Book of Nature Writing and Best American Science and Nature Writing.