On the evening of November 12, an empty stage with a Twitter feed projection as background, set the scene for a sequence of speakers to inform the NYC Mayor-Elect, Bill de Blasio, of their hopes and dreams for the future of this great city. They were a particularly articulate bunch. No surprise, since they were all members of PEN (an organization of poets, essayist and novelists, plus a few publishers), which fights for freedom of expression worldwide. Each writer stepped up to the open microphone with prepared remarks that adhered to the request not to exceed three minutes. I was one of two children's book authors in the mix. It was amazing to see what could be summed up in a few words by people who are master wordsmiths.
Literary novelist Masha Hamilton summed up the vibrancy at the heart of New York's cultural community:
This community of creators is being threatened by the increasing unaffordability of the city, which will discourage ambitious, talented young people to come here and pay their "starving artist" dues. Money is not what drives us. As NY State poet, Marie Howe said, "A poem is uncommodifiable... You can carry it in your heart."
This city has been a hub for fresh ideas, for risk-taking in the arts, for finding new authentic ways to express the human experience as it is being played out at this moment. That energy, unmediated, is part of what draws many of us to the city, and makes us identify as New Yorkers, wherever we came from. It also filters out to other parts of the country and it is the poets and novelists, and essayists and lyricists, moviemakers and music makers who must ultimately reach beyond the surface and discern the layers of what is happening to us now. I'd even go so far as to say it is part of their job description, in threatening moments, to help dream of the future.
And what about public education? De Blasio looks like he will do something about restoring effective neighborhood schools but some of us, including me, were there to make him aware of the contribution we writers can make to education. Fellow children's author Selene Castrovilla made this cri de coeur:
And she proposed a city-wide creative writing and book club program to span all grades with author participation.
We need to instill the audacity to create! Our youth have become passive and idle through video games, iTunes, TV shows and more. Creating stories and poems equates to creating truths -- our own truth, not someone else's version of it.
I was there to beat the drum for the incorporation of high-quality nonfiction into classroom reading, instead of mandating boring, flatly-written material as staple fare. Personally, I would like to be a part of the conversation about the future of NYC education once De Blasio appoints the new chancellor of education. Hopefully this will be someone who knows a thing or two about education instead of someone from the business community who thinks educating children is like running a manufacturing plant.
If there were members of De Blasio's transition team present to hear us, I didn't meet them. However, every speaker was videotaped and presumably someone will review the tape so that this #TalkingTransition, #penspeakout is not an exercise akin to whistling in the wind.