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Christopher Luna performs with Tyler Burba by Nathan Tompkins

Christopher Luna performs with Tyler Burba by Nathan Tompkins

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

An Infinite Number of Possibilities: Wendell Pierce at Wordstock 2015

I attended Wordstock for the first time on November 7. Although crowded and wet, it was a great experience. I'm not sure whether the venue has enough space for this event, but it looks like it will remain at the Portland Art Museum in 2016. 

One of the presenters I was looking forward to was Wendell Pierce. I enjoyed his work on The Wire and Treme. However, I was not prepared for how inspiring his talk would be. Pierce was there to promote his memoir, The Wind in the Reeds, which tells the story of a production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot put on by Pierce and others in Louisiana's Pontchartrain Park after Katrina. Pierce was raised in this area, and his parents were among those who lost everything in the hurricane. 



Pierce's conversation with OPB's Think Out Loud host Dave Miller focused on the power of art to change lives, and the role that artists play in society. Pierce felt that he had a responsibility to respond to the tragedy in some way, and he also felt obligated to rebuild his hometown. If you'd like to hear their conversation, visit: Wendell Pierce Talks About Acting, Art, and New Orleans

Pierce told us that he had learned that "there are those who do not have your best interests at heart," and warned us to "be aware that there are those who will try to strip you of your humanity." When he returned to Pontchartrain after the storm, what he found reminded him of "nuclear winter." His instinct was "to respond as an artist." Pierce made the point that art is both "practical" and "tangible."   
I was very moved by Pierce's talk. I was struck by how much of what he said matched statements that I make to my creative writing students and fellow writers who attend the Ghost Town Poetry Open Mic. Moments like these serve as reminders to stay on the path, and to continue to do The Work, no matter how many might try to dissuade you. 

After hearing him speak, and deliver a beautiful reading from the book, I wanted to buy a copy of his memoir. I headed upstairs to the book fair. The book was sold out before I reached the top of the stairs. Although I was disappointed, I was fortunate enough to run into Pierce in the men's room. I thanked him for inspiring me, and we had a short conversation about poetry. I told him that I worked with jazz musicians, and that I spent a lot of time talking to the writers in my community about art's usefulness, its many practical applications. He told me that he admired poets, and that he had been talking to his friend Yusef Komunyakaa about how the relationship between poets and their words resembled the jazz musician's approach to notes. Pierce pointed out that although we have a "finite number of words" at our disposal, there are an "infinite number of possibilities" that can be created with them. Later Pierce said that poetry is "sublime and beautiful, raw and painful, ugly, dangerous." 

Later that evening, after Wordstock had ended, Wendell Pierce hosted a screening of Les Blank's 1978 film Always for Pleasure at the Northwest Film Center. Blank's film documents New Orleans as Pierce remembers it, a New Orleans that no longer exists. Pierce introduced the film, and remained afterward for a conversation with local writer and filmmaker David Walker. (David was my editor when I freelanced for the film section of the Willamette Week. He has since moved on from that publication, but I have enjoyed his comic book update of Ernest Tidyman's Shaft.) I learned more about the effort that Pierce has put into rebuilding New Orleans and helping young people in Baltimore. 

Pierce talked about the greedy developers who do not care about rebuilding New Orleans, and who have made it very difficult for the poor folks in that city to retain their homes and their culture.
He told us that Bunk, the beloved character he played on David Simon's The Wire, was based on a  real detective. Pierce met the man, and though at first Pierce did not know how the real Bunk felt about the actor who was playing a version of him, he eventually received his blessing.       

I am so grateful to Wendell Pierce for his devotion to his art and for his generosity of spirit. I want to thank him for taking a few moments to talk to me, and for reminding me to continue believing in myself and The Work. 

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