‘Carrboro Arts And Innovation’ Plan Raises Hopes and Questions

Carrboro Alderwoman Bethany Chaney says the idea of co-locating Kidzu Children’s Museum and the ArtsCenter is intriguing: “It’s a great concept.”

But she’s got some concerns about the plan.

“We potentially could be looking at a $4.5 million dollar investment in this property and that’s a lot of money for a building that’s essentially custom-built for two organizations that haven’t yet proven long-term sustainability,” says Chaney. “It’s a big risk so we need to hear from the public as to whether they think the potential benefits are worth that risk.”

Here’s how the deal might work: the ArtsCenter owns its building in the middle of the 300 East Main development. The Center is proposing a land swap with East Main Partners that would allow the Hampton Inn to build a second hotel on the site of the current ArtsCenter.

In return, the gravel lot at the corner of Main and Roberson would be donated to the Town by East Main Partners. Carrboro would construct an $11 million dollar facility to be leased to Kidzu and the ArtsCenter, with the town and the nonprofits splitting the cost.

You can read the full proposal here.

Phil Szostak is an architect, ArtsCenter board member and a leading proponent of the plan.

“We’re trying to put a project together for downtown Carrboro that will not require any additional taxes or use of any new city funds to fund the project,” says Szostak. “The project now is proposed to be 50-50 public-private partnership where our partnership would require The ArtsCenter and Kidzu and other partners to raise half the money before the project is started.”

Szostak is also the developer of the Durham Performing Arts Center. He says the Arts and Innovation Center can do for Carrboro what the DPAC has done for downtown Durham.

But Chaney notes Carrboro is a long way from the Bull City.

“I think it’s an entirely different scenario and Durham’s a much larger municipality, so that building can support a lot of different kinds of programming and at a higher price-point that what this building could support.”

Both Kidzu and the ArtsCenter are popular nonprofits looking to expand.

Kidzu has operated at a series of locations in Chapel Hill since opening in 2006. It is temporarily located at University Mall, where the museum expects to serve more than 100,000 visitors in the next year.

Last year more than 93,000 people participated in programs at The ArtsCenter but Szostak says the aging facility can’t support the growth of the organization.

“It’s very hard for us to expand. That building was originally done in 1987. We were meeting a demand then and we didn’t really have a lot of space to meet future demand. Now, 25 to 30 years later, we have a huge demand that we cannot meet. To go up in place would be almost impossible for us without shutting the ArtsCenter down for a year.”

And both groups say the Arts and Innovation Center would be a great fit for Carrboro.

“What we would really like the citizens of Carrboro to understand is there won’t be one penny that comes out of their personal pocket to make this center happen,” says Kidzu Executive Director Pam Wall. “It will generate a good deal of economic development and money coming into the Town of Carrboro because the folks that visit this center will go out to eat, they will be shopping and purchasing gifts and things like that. There’s a good amount of economic development that this center will create.”

But Alderwoman Chaney worries the plan wraps up too many complicated issues into one package.

“The proposal itself that we’ve been asked to consider bundles two really big decisions that need to be separated. Those are whether there should be a second hotel in downtown Carrboro and whether the town should invest in a building that would accommodate the ArtsCenter and Kidzu and potentially other nonprofit arts organizations.”

That second hotel is a key part of the co-location plan, as it’s envisioned to be the source of new revenues for the town.

“It’s really hard to separate the two, if in fact we are looking at the taxes generated by the hotel to be one of the funding sources,” says Szostac. “We don’t have to do that, but we can certainly make the case that if the ArtsCenter does not move, that hotel does not get built.”

Szostak estimates it could bring in as much as $550,000 in taxes to Orange County each year, enough to cover the debt service the town would need to pay to finance construction.

The question of whether Carrboro needs a second hotel is just one aspect Chaney would like to see fully explored when the concept comes up for a public hearing later this month.

“What I do worry about is whether the business model that’s being proposed is really the most appropriate one,” says Chaney. “Is it the most appropriate way to leverage public funding? I think that’s the big question.”

Read Chaney’s full statement on the plan here.

All parties agree that the upcoming public hearing is merely the starting point for discussion.

“Every project should be scrutinized. This is public money and the town fathers really need to take a look at this and get the input from the public,” says Szostac. “Certainly I wouldn’t even suggest doing it without that.”

Kidzu and the ArtsCenter will host a series of public information sessions this week. Carrboro business owners are invited to a session on Tuesday, January 13, from 5:30-7 pm at the ArtsCenter. A session for the general public will be held on Wednesday, January 14, from 5:30-7 pm at the ArtsCenter.

A public hearing on the plan is schedueled for 7:30 on January 20 before the Carrboro Board of Aldermen. You can also submit comments to town leaders online here.


Americana Legends Robin And Linda Williams Play ArtsCenter Friday

They’ve been together for more than 40 years, they’ve been regular guests on “A Prairie Home Companion,” they’ve been covered by Kathy Mattea and Mary Chapin Carpenter and Emmylou Harris and more – and on Friday at 8:00 pm, the singer/songwriters Robin and Linda Williams will take the stage at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro.

WCHL’s Aaron Keck spoke with Robin and Linda on “Aaron in the Afternoon” Wednesday – and played the song “On and On” from their latest album, “Back 40.”


Ticket information for Friday’s show is available at ArtsCenterLive.org. For more on Robin and Linda Williams, click here.


Nonprofits Want Carrboro To Collaborate On Arts Center

A trio of nonprofits wants to partner with Carrboro to build a four-story “Arts & Innovation Center” downtown.

The ArtsCenter and Kidzu are asking the Town of Carrboro to build a 55,000 square foot building across the street from Armadillo Grill to be known as the Carrboro Arts & Innovation Center.

The proposal calls for the lot at the corner of Robeson and Main Streets to be donated to the town, which currently leases the property for parking.

Carrboro would contribute $4.5 million of the $12.1 million construction cost for the building. Some of that money would be generated by a new hotel proposed for the site of the current ArtsCenter. The nonprofits would raise the rest through donations, foundations and grants.

Under the current plan the town would own the building and lease it to the three groups in partnership.

The Board of Aldermen voted 6-1 on Tuesday to hold a public hearing on the plan when meetings resume in January. The hearing is scheduled for January 20, 2015.You can find out more here.


“Not So Normal” Raises Big Money

More than 450 runners turned out in Carrboro on a cloudy but rain-free Sunday morning for the “Not So Normal 5K,” part of a weekend-long event that raised money for dozens of local charities.

Speaking at the finish line, race organizer Jay Radford said he was thrilled by the turnout and the support.

“I’m overwhelmed by the generosity, the kindness, and the support of our community,” he said. “It is simply amazing, the way people have rallied around this event…all the events for the whole weekend.”

The race was the centerpiece of the event, but the “Not So Normal” weekend also included a free concert at University Mall, numerous events on Friday and Saturday, and pre-race dinners on Saturday night hosted by numerous local restaurants. Radford says those dinners alone raised more than $5000.

Designed to benefit multiple charities rather than just one, funds from the “Not So Normal” event will go to support the Carrboro ArtsCenter, NC Children’s Promise, Kidzu Children’s Museum, and dozens more.


Sunday’s 5K Is “Not So Normal”

The Not So Normal 5K is finally here!

After two days of pre-race events around town on Friday and Saturday, the race will take place in Carrboro Sunday morning – with proceeds going to benefit dozens of local charities, especially the ArtsCenter in Carrboro and NC Children’s Promise.

Then at 4:00 pm, the event concludes with a free concert inside University Mall, featuring performances by DSI Comedy, local musicians Ella Bertram and the Buzztown Band, and the Nashville-based band Stereosparks.

Brian Buzby of the Buzztown Band stopped by WCHL this week to speak with Aaron Keck on “Aaron in the Afternoon.”

The whole affair has been organized by Jay Radford – a Chapel Hill dad who writes the “Mom in Chapel Hill” blog. For more information, visit NotSoNormal5K.com.


September Fundraiser/Concert Is “Not So Normal”

It’s being billed as “a celebration of community and philanthropy” – and it’s hitting Chapel Hill on the weekend of September 12-14.

It’s the “Not So Normal 5K.” Organized by Jay Radford – a dad who writes the “Mom in Chapel Hill” blog – the event is ‘not so normal’ because it will benefit not just one, but dozens of local charities. Proceeds from the 5K on Sunday, September 14 will benefit the Carrboro ArtsCenter and the NC Children’s Hospital; participants are encouraged to bring book donations for Book Harvest or food donations for TABLE and PORCH - and participants are also encouraged to form teams and solicit sponsors to raise funds for any non-profit in the area. (“Run for what moves you,” says Radford.)

And in keeping with the ‘not so normal’ vibe, the event is not just a 5K – it actually spans the entire weekend, from Friday through Sunday, with comedy shows at DSI Comedy Theater, a Pajama Party at the ArtsCenter, a movie on the lawn at Weaver Street Market, pre-race dinners at restaurants across Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and more.

The weekend culminates with an outdoor concert Sunday night at University Mall, headlined by rising country star Frankie Ballard (whose single “Helluva Life” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart earlier this year) and featuring Nashville-based performers Casey Jamerson and Stereosparks as well as local kids’ entertainers The BuzzTown Band. The concert is being presented by WQDR radio, 94.7 FM – so tickets to the show cost just $9.47.

Organizer Jay Radford spoke with WCHL’s Aaron Keck on “Aaron in the Afternoon.”

Aaron also spoke with the concert headliner, Frankie Ballard…

…as well as Casey Jamerson, who performed on Broadway and in Australia before starting her Nashville career…

…and Storey Condos, the lead singer of Stereosparks.

For a complete schedule of events and ticket information, visit NotSoNormal5K.com.


“10 By 10″ Takes Over The ArtsCenter

“10 By 10 in the Triangle” opened Friday and runs through July 27, with shows Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00. Visit ArtsCenterLive.org for more details.

“What is that guy doing up there on stage?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” says my friend Kit. “But that is one awesome smoking jacket he’s wearing.”

It’s 7:55 on Friday evening and the curtain’s about to go up on the ArtsCenter’s thirteenth annual “10 By 10 in the Triangle” show – an evening of ten short plays, each about ten minutes long, performed by a cast of ten actors with ten different directors. It’s opening night and the place is buzzing. I’ve never seen a “10 By 10” show, but it’s a major event on the ArtsCenter’s yearly calendar: the ten plays were chosen from 750 submissions that came in from around the world, they’ve been working on it for months, and just scanning the audience, it’s obvious it’s kind of a big deal. The room is packed. All the local luminaries are there. Town leaders, theater royalty. Kit and I are sitting next to Lydia Lavelle.

Smoking Jacket Guy is David Berberian, as it turns out – one of the ten actors, already in character as the arrogant master thespian Vincent Van Buren, strutting about the stage, gladhanding the audience members in the pit (one of whom turns out to be a second actor, planted in the front row). The show begins, officially, when Berberian butts in on artistic director Jeri Lynn Schulke’s opening spiel – though not until she proclaims this to be the best “10 By 10” yet.

(My actress friend Amanda is a veteran from previous “10 By 10” shows; she was in the audience with another past-show veteran. “We were like, ‘hey!’” she joked.)

The first play alone features an actor being pulled on stage from the audience, a surprise entrance from outside, a character in disguise as himself, and a hilarious “Shakespeare-off” where the lines may or may not actually be from Shakespeare. (I won’t spoil it.) All that in ten minutes. It’s chaotic, it’s unexpected, and it’s hilarious – a great opening play, and a perfect introduction to a show that (by its nature) is going to be a scattershot grab bag of diverse scenes, styles, emotions, and endings.

If you’re looking for a cost-efficient night out, “10 By 10” is the show for you. For one price, you get ten plays. There’s something in it for just about everyone. Will you love every play? Almost certainly not – they’re too diverse for that. But there will be something in it that you will love. By the time we walked out of the theater, two and a half hours later, we’d seen six love stories, two riffs on modern technology, and three takes on the theater itself; we’d seen men and women fly, die and return to life; we’d seen the concealing power of light and the revealing power of darkness; and there may or may not have been a naked guy. (I won’t spoil that either.)

Jeri Lynn Schulke joined me on the Afternoon News earlier this week to talk about the show. Here’s our conversation.

Overall – is it good? Yes. It’s a fun night out. You should definitely go.

How about each individual play?

Well, that’s a little trickier. Short plays do tend to follow a sort of template – like short stories, they tend to focus on particularly intense moments (blind dates, jarring revelations, the confrontation with death) and build toward what James Joyce referred to as an “epiphany,” a sudden overwhelming final realization that changes everything. So you’ll see a lot of recurring themes and patterns in these plays. Still, there’s a lot of room to move within that broad category – and because the plays in “10 By 10” are so diverse, different people will feel differently about each one. (You could tell that much sitting in the theater, where – for reasons we never quite figured out – the right-hand side of the audience was laughing more than the left.)

So it’s only fair that a review of “10 By 10” should incorporate several different perspectives. I compared notes with Kit and Amanda (both seasoned theater folks) – and between the three of us, notwithstanding some differences of opinion, we actually did come to a pretty solid consensus.

Among the ten actors, we kept coming back to two. David Berberian – the aforementioned Smoking Jacket Guy – delivers an especially strong performance; you see him in three wildly different roles and he disappears into each one. Also noteworthy is Caroline Strange, who’s prominently featured in the two best plays of the show (though she’s typecast a bit as an immature millennial in two of her three roles). Beyond that, Lazarus Simmons only has one major role, in a play called “Canyon,” but he makes it count. Page Purgar is also worth noting: she actually has three big roles, but she’s especially terrific paired with Berberian as a Catholic school teacher in a play called “Recess at Our Lady of the Bleeding Heart, Mind, and Spirit.” (“Recess” wasn’t our favorite play, but we generally agreed that it was the best-acted.)

The show is divided into two acts of five plays each. In the first act, the standout is “Canyon,” featuring Strange as a young woman planning to jump off the Grand Canyon (she thinks she can fly) and Simmons and Jillian Lea as a couple trying to stop her. In the second act, it’s “Lost in Thought,” a David Ives-esque piece with Jorge Donoso (also good in four very different roles) as a young man reflecting on a relationship turned sour. (Strange plays the ex-girlfriend; Simmons plays her new squeeze.) Of the ten plays, “Lost in Thought” is the only one that’s not a comedy; it was also easily our favorite, with “Canyon” a close second. They’re extremely well-acted, well-directed by Hope Alexander (“Lost”) and Lori Mahl (“Canyon”) – and remember I mentioned the “epiphany” that often comes at the end of short plays? These two earn their epiphanies. (Trust me, you will remember their last lines.)

As for the other eight: we loved “What the Theatre is All About,” the anarchic opening play with Berberian and Fred Corlett as dueling Master Thespians. We also really enjoyed “Recess,” again mostly for the terrific acting. We liked “Going Viral,” about a teenager (Donoso) who learns that his parents have made him an unwitting YouTube celebrity – but we agreed that it felt more like a sketch than a play. (No epiphany, I guess.) One of us loved “The Interpreter,” about a dating service that live-tweets your blind dates, but the other two were slightly turned off by Strange’s character (the live-tweeter), who came off as a bit shrill. (This is one of her two immature-millennial characters; the other one is in “Canyon,” more chill than shrill, and it’s great.)

There are two plays, “Ten Minute Life” and “This Is Not A Play,” both of which are about the process of writing a ten-minute play; we didn’t much care for either one (too meta!), but we all agreed that “This Is Not A Play” was more successful. (“Ten Minute Life,” our least favorite, tries to build to an epiphany that it doesn’t really earn; it’s too self-referential to be realistically emotional. Two of us actually liked “This Is Not A Play,” but we all agreed it would have been better as a five-minute piece.) We also weren’t sold on “The Wisdom of Pirates,” about a woman who decides to wear an eyepatch; there wasn’t anything inherently wrong with it, but we didn’t buy the epiphany there either. (One of us said, “It thinks it’s smarter than it actually is.”)

And the show closes with a surreal pastiche called “A Streaker Named Desire,” which was really the only one that divided us: one of us liked it, one of us hated it, and one of us liked most of it but didn’t buy the ending. We’ll leave the final judgment up to you.


Carrboro Film Festival: Growth And New Perspectives

CHAPEL HILL – The eighth-annual Carrboro Film was well received this weekend, setting new standards for future film festivals.

Director of the Carrboro Film Festival Nic Beery said this was the biggest year so far.

“This year’s festival was bigger and better than ever. We broke box office records, we had international films, we have short films from around the corner and from around the world, and the audience response was nothing short of breathtaking” Beery said.

Some of the changes to this year’s festival included allowing foreign movies, and movies longer than 20 minutes.

This was also the first year the Carrboro Film Festival was split between two venues, the ArtsCenter and the Century Center. Beery said he was nervous about it, but the turnout ended up great.

“I was nervous about that, but I do believe it was a success. We averaged many more people in the audience for every block than we anticipated” Beery stated.

Although this year the Film Festival included several foreign films and longer movies, Beery said that the majority of the films were still from artists in North Carolina.

“I’d say 60 to 70 percent of the films were made from North Carolina filmmakers, which is awesome, which is a statement to how great our filmmakers are here at home, but it was nice to see films from Spain, and England, and France, and around the country too” Beery said.

Hundreds of artists and filmmakers from across the state submit movies for the festival, but not all of them can make it.  Beery said that as the festival grows, it gets harder selecting which films make it.

“It’s very hard to pick films for the Carrboro Film Festival; this year we got hundreds of films and quite honestly many of us felt there was 30 to 40 hours of film that we just couldn’t show, and it gets harder as the filmmakers kick it up a notch every single year” Beery said.

The Carrboro Film Festival takes place the weekend before Thanksgiving.

For more information on the Film Festival click here.


Carrboro Film Festival: Back & Bigger This Weekend

CARRBORO – The Carrboro Film Festival is back, and this time around, it has triple the entries and has expanded to two days. Event organizers say this weekend will bring the drama in all the right ways.

Jackie Helvey, along with fellow Carrboro Arts Committee member, Nic Beery, organized the town’s first film festival in 2006.

Helvey has watched the event thrive and grow to a 2-day event with submissions from across North Carolina and beyond.

This year marks the first time that international films and feature-length narrative and documentary movies are screened. The lineup this weekend also features another new addition—two free workshops on visual effects and 3D animation

“I think it has encouraged local filmmakers to create more,” Helvey says. “It’s not only that—we’ve gotten international fame. This year, we have a lot of films that are from other countries.”

Click here for the weekend’s schedule of events.

Seventy-three films, a record number for the festival, will be shown in both the Century Center and the ArtsCenter. In total, 198 films were submitted for consideration. Helvey, along with the selection committee, watched each film in order to narrow down the entries.

Helvey says that the recent opening of the Hampton inn, Carrboro’s first hotel, was an incentive for the Board of Aldermen to support the expansion of the festival as it would help accommodate the out-of-town attendees.

“The Board of Aldermen really understand that is it events like this that bring people to Carrboro, that expose people to Carrboro,” Helvey says.

Documentary filmmaker and UNC graduate Jonathan Michels first submitted work to the festival as a student.

“It has meant a lot coming back to the festival as more of a seasoned documentary filmmaker. It is just a validation of the hard work that has been put into the project,” Michels says.

Michels’ piece this year is about this past summer’s Moral Monday movement, a series of weekly protests in Raleigh against the N.C. General Assembly.

His film is called “It’s Monday and the South is Rising.”

“You’d also have thousands of people showing up to these rallies from all over North Carolina and even surrounding states,” Michels says. “It does mean a lot to people to see a film made about this event. It is also something that they can hand to other people and say, ‘This is what it was like to be at Moral Monday during the summer of 2013.’”

Michels explains the film is meant to be a snap shot of what it was like to experience the Moral Monday protests. Helvey says it is a “piece of history.”

In addition to documentaries, the selected films encompass genres ranging from drama, comedy, animation, student films and experimental pieces.

Click here for ticket information.


Whitman & Me

Beginning Friday and running through May 19, the ArtsCenter in Carrboro is staging the southeastern premiere of “Walt,” a musical play about the life of Walt Whitman–written by one of the poet’s distant relatives, Wm. W. Whitman. Last Saturday, the ArtsCenter held a community reading of Whitman’s classic epic “Song of Myself” on the Weaver Street lawn, featuring more than three dozen readers…


I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I first encountered Whitman as a college senior. I needed a few classes to finish my English major—any would do—and here was this hotshot young professor, William Pannapacker, offering a class called “Walt Whitman’s America.” It met for three hours every Monday evening, and that meant no getting up early for an 8 a.m. class.

Very well.

The first night, with snow on the ground outside and our desks prearranged in a circle, Pannapacker told us we’d be reading “Song of Myself.” Out loud.

We were a bit skeptical. The thing was fifty pages long. Yes, he said, it’s going to take a while. Trust me, though, it’ll be worth it.

I can’t tell you I was instantly hooked. I can’t tell you it moved me to tears. But I can tell you this: when I think back and try to remember what all I learned in college, that snowy January evening is always the first thing that comes to mind…

This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,
This is the common air that bathes the globe.

whitman class

(This picture’s on the class website; that’s me in the Michigan State t-shirt, front row, second from right. I don’t know why I was wearing that shirt to class; I usually wore it to bed.)

Fast-forward to 2005. I’m in grad school, living in New Jersey. By now I’ve got a pretty well-developed read on Whitman: I assign Leaves of Grass to my students, I write papers on him for conferences, I’m even building my dissertation around him. Whitman’s hot stuff, academically speaking: it’s the 150th anniversary of Leaves’ publication, so there’s no shortage of Whitman-themed events. I end up attending one at Walt’s old house in Camden, now a converted museum; we take a field trip to the cemetery where he’s buried, and there’s Pannapacker sitting across from me on the bus. (Whitman scholarship is still a small world.)

Then a couple months later I get a call from a random stranger: they’re organizing a public reading of “Song of Myself,” at the South Street Seaport in Manhattan, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. Would I join?

Very well.

It’s a perfect evening, cloudless and warm; the sun sets behind our backs as we sit facing Brooklyn. It’s the same view Walt described in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” a beautiful poem about timelessness and the ties of experience that bind us all, generations past and yet to come:

It avails not, neither time or place—distance avails not;
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence;
I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is.

Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd;
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d;
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood, yet was hurried;
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships, and the thick-stem’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.

One by one we take our turns. When my time comes I ascend the stage and take my place behind the podium, on the edge of Manhattan, facing the crowd and the pier and America, squinting into the setting sun.

I’d never really noticed the passage they’d given me, buried in the middle as it was; but as I stand there reading it I find myself choking up, and I gaze out into the crowd and I see I’m not alone:

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d’oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depressed head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels,
And I could come every afternoon of my life to look at the farmer’s girl boiling her iron tea-kettle and baking shortcake.

God, I’m choking up reading it now.


Who was—who is—Walt Whitman? Why does he matter? Someone told me once (there’s expert testimony for you) that poetry was a dying art, that the lyrics of popular music had taken over the role it used to play. I scoffed then, but I believe him now: of all the truly staggering words that have been written in the last fifty years, most have been set to a tune. “Kathy’s Song.” “Thunder Road.” There are as many great poets today as there ever were, but now they all have guitars.

So why does Whitman continue to fascinate?

Why am I writing this?

I think if I had to sum it up in a sentence, I’d say this: Whitman fascinates because he simultaneously reminds us of what we are and of what we want to be. There’s a difference between the two, of course, and he sees it and he shakes his head—but it’s a sympathetic shake, one that knows and understands, one that loves us not in spite of the difference but because of it. That difference is part of what makes us human—and part of what makes us American—and Whitman embraces both. In fact for him, the two categories are practically synonymous.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then….I contradict myself;
I am large….I contain multitudes.

That’s the gist of Walt Whitman, if you want to know. It was 1855, the country was falling apart, and here was this hotshot philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, offering what he said was a way to put it all back together again. Emerson was a Romanticist, which means (among other things) he was a cultural nationalist: he believed in the idea of the nation, a people who share a land, a language, a history; and he believed that nations grow unified and strong when they share a distinct national culture—which America, at the time, didn’t really have.

But Emerson was also a Transcendentalist—which means (among other things) he also believed that all people of all nations were connected on a higher level, within something he called the Over-Soul. And he was particularly excited about America: every other nation was limited by a specific land, a specific language, a specific set of long-established traditions; but the new and still-unsettled America wasn’t as bounded, and its increasingly diverse people had little in common besides their mere humanity. So that would be the ‘national’ culture that would unite the country, he suggested: one that was all-encompassing, unbounded, sweeping and diverse, one that—in the name of ‘America’—captured the full scope of humanity, to a degree that no other nation could approach. All that remained was for someone to create it.

Very well.

I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuffed with the stuff that is coarse, and stuffed with the stuff that is fine,
One of the great nations, the nation of many nations—the smallest the same and the largest the same,
A southerner soon as a northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable.

And so along comes Whitman, taking up Emerson’s gauntlet to let the universal Over-Soul speak for the particular nation, creating in the process a yet-unrealized vision of America that continues to inspire and challenge us because it is our unrealized vision too. Walt Whitman’s America is democratic (the President and the prostitute stand side by side); it is working-class and rugged; it is almost indescribably vast (his catalogs of American life famously run on for pages and pages); and it is free. (Whitman’s great innovation: even the verse is free.) We talk about unity and diversity as if they’re opposites; Whitman says they reinforce each other. We talk about freedom and equality as if the one negates the other; Whitman insists they walk hand in hand.

In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barleycorn less,
And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.

That’s why we still love Whitman—politically.

But that’s not what draws us in.


It is time to explain myself…let us stand up.

It’s 2013. I’m in North Carolina. I haven’t taught Whitman in two years. I can’t remember the last time I talked about him, can’t remember the last time I read one of his poems. I can’t remember the last time I read any poems. I’m on a journey here, people.

Then out of the blue I get a call: they’re organizing a community reading of “Song of Myself” on the Weaver Street lawn in Carrboro, in the shadow of the lightning-struck tree.  Would I join?

Very well…

The day is cloudy and unusually cold. I shiver. There are a few dozen people gathered on the lawn, most to read, some just to listen. A young woman leans against a bearded young man as they sit on the ground, following along in a dogeared book. Cars and passersby hum past on the street behind us. The wind hisses through the spring leaves.

I am the poet of the body,
And I am the poet of the soul.

What is it about Walt Whitman that animates the senses? He tells us that everything, down to the lowliest thing, is a miracle, and we believe him. He insists the slightest perception is the greatest gift; and suddenly everything I hear is amplified, everything I see is brightened, everything I touch is electric.

I mind how we lay in June, such a transparent summer morning;
You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my barestript heart,
And reached till you felt my beard, and reached till you held my feet.

Scholars debate Whitman’s sexuality, but I find the talk hard to believe. Not just because strict categories like “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” are twentieth-century inventions and trying to impose them on our ancestors retroactively is a fool’s errand (though that’s true too). No…I disbelieve it because I see in Whitman a man of such aching passion, such acute perception and feeling, that even the slightest touch would make him combust. That’s why his mere words still elevate our senses, hundreds of miles away and ever so many generations hence. I feel his pain.

You villain touch! what are you doing? …my breath is tight in its throat;
Unclench your floodgates! you are too much for me.

Blind loving wrestling touch! Sheathed hooded sharptoothed touch!
Did it make you ache so leaving me?

I can barely hear the readers on the lawn. The footsteps of passersby are too loud. The thoughts of the young woman and the bearded man. The wind hissing through the spring leaves.


Back in 2001, sitting in class on a Monday evening, I wrote a poem about Walt Whitman. It was a parody of “Song of Myself”—and a pretty good one too—inspired by the story that Whitman had become a household name, late in life, by endorsing dozens of products.

I market myself,
And what I produce you shall purchase,
For every dollar belonging to you as good belongs to me…

The thing about Walt Whitman: he wasn’t perfect. He was an opportunist. He wrote glowing reviews of his own work and had them published anonymously in journals and magazines. He could be a bit of a racist. He worked closely with the writer John L. O’Sullivan—you know him; he coined the phrase “Manifest Destiny”—and that wonderfully all-inclusive expansiveness that makes him the poet of the Over-Soul also makes him the poet of colonialism too. (That strange democratic brand of American colonialism—turning its conquests into new states, rather than subordinate colonies—but still, colonialism nonetheless.)

Wider and wider they spread, expanding and always expanding,
Outward and outward and forever outward.

But therein lies the gravity. Whitman is human: bad as well as good, wicked as well as holy. There is no human, and nothing that is human, that falls outside his embrace; and there is no human and nothing that is human that he does not demand us to embrace as well.

Take an octagon and add another side to it, then another, then another. Eventually there’ll be so many sides that you can’t tell one from the other; more and more it’ll come to look like a perfect circle. So it is with Whitman. So it is with humanity.

Not long ago, the great Sherman Alexie was watching Native American boys playing basketball on a reservation, all sweat and rippling sinews, and suddenly found himself envisioning Walt Whitman in the middle, watching without touching, overwhelmed with the sight and the sound and the smell and the sensibility:

Basketball is like this for Walt Whitman. He watches these Indian boys
as if they were the last bodies on earth. Every body is brown!
Walt Whitman shakes because he believes in God.
Walt Whitman dreams of the Indian boy who will defend him,
trapping him in the corner, all flailing arms and legs
and legendary stomach muscles…

God, there is beauty in every body. Walt Whitman stands
at center court while the Indian boys run from basket to basket.
Walt Whitman cannot tell the difference between
offense and defense. He does not care if he touches the ball.
Half of the Indian boys wear t-shirts damp with sweat
and the other half are bareback, skin slick and shiny.
There is no place like this. Walt Whitman smiles.
Walt Whitman shakes. This game belongs to him.

That is Walt Whitman, ladies and gentlemen. Standing in the middle of a basketball court, motionless yet moving. Sitting in a classroom on a Monday night, gazing out the window at the snow. Staring into the sun on a Manhattan pier, feeling the breeze from the distant ocean. Leaning against the bark of the lightning-struck tree, listening to the wind whistling in the leaves.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop some where waiting for you