walking West Philadelphia with the incredible documentary photographer, Lori Waselchuk

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Eight years ago I was honored by a Pew Fellowship in the Arts grant. It was a gift of time; it was also a gift of hope. I was working on that odd Schuylkill River book (Flow)—the book no one got, the book no one could label. I was given the chance to keep working on those prose poems/narratives/not fictions and to find them an eventual home (Temple University Press) and then to go out into the world and meet those open-hearted readers who didn't give a whit if the book could not, for the life of itself, conform to a category.

But there are many gifts associated with the Pew, and they continue. Yesterday, all these years later, was the gift of Lori Waselchuk, who won a Pew last year for her incredible photography—work that has shown up in the New York Times, Newsweek, Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. Lori is also the creator of the book Grace Before Dying, which, in the book's words "tells the emotional story of the extraordinary breakthrough in humanity that has helped transform Angola, once one of the most dangerous maximum security prisons in the United States, to one of the least violent..... Waselchuk not only shows a culture of caring and compassion that challenges stereotypes of incarcerated people, but also provides an intimate and personal perspective on what long-term and life sentences signify for those inside." Lori's photographs speak. They humanize.

I met Lori for a long-awaited conversation at the edge of the Penn campus. We had no plan, just an idea about fellowship. I'm working, or should be working, on a book that partly takes place in West Philadelphia (this book also partly takes place in Florence, Italy), and I've been walking that neighborhood each Tuesday before class. Lori happens to live there. Lori happens to actually know things about the puzzle of the place, its great ethnic charms, its upstairs bars, its blue grass, its mosques, its thrift stores, its cats, its park, its schools. I didn't have to do much more but express my curiosity, and we were off for one of the best guided tours in my personal memory. We capped the walking with a meal at Manakeesh. We had stuff to say, and kept on saying it. I found myself with a copy of Lori's book.

By the time I returned to the Penn campus to meet one on one with my fifteen students (and then, later, with Alice Ma, my fellowship student), I was in that exhausted/exhilarated place a mind/body backs into after days of long hours and little sleep. Who better to run into, then, but Greg Djanikian, who leads the creative writing program at Penn and has for quite a while. Greg is beloved. Just last week one of my students was talking about what happens to a poem when Greg reads it out loud. It gets lifted, my student said, into greater meaning. I sensed what a great man Greg was by reading a book of his own poems (So I Will Till the Ground) for review many years ago. Every single conversation since has been affirm-atory.

And so there Greg was, near the campus edge—busy, I'm sure, but perfectly willing to stop and talk, to not steer clear of the vrooooom of my enthusiasms, to let me be me.

I love people like that.

I loved the day.


Melissa Sarno said...

Sounds like such a beautiful day, Beth. I want to go to West Philly! Of course, I also want to know what you ate! : )

Serena said...

Sounds like a great day and a lot of "research" done that didn't seem like research!

Jenny Girl said...

The neighborhoods of Philly are full of hidden gems, each one having it's own distinctive flavor. Lovely post and will be sure to check out her work.

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