Recently Pioneer Melissa, in one of her thoughtful posts about writing and creativity, reminded me that a decade ago, after seeing a poem I'd written about making a panel for the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, a teacher in North Carolina wrote reqesting my participation in a unit in which her seventh-grade students were studying "the parallels in quilting and the writing process." I made a note to myself in Melissa's comments suggesting I share this story in the blog. I have a feeling this will be my longest post thus far; consider yourself warned.
In my 20s I belonged to the Fancy Club, an unorthodox social group of which anyone could be a member, where I found many of my dearest friends (including the poet who urged me to attend graduate school in creative writing). The Fancy Club sponsored three themed parties that recurred annually: Pajama Party, the Serendipity Ball and Continuous Cocktails. While this is not the place to detail their delights, ephemera from these events figure into the story.
One autumn evening we met for a planning dinner at Richard's house, and I discovered his artistic pursuits extended beyond the culinary. As soon as I saw the turquoise velvet he'd embellished with paint, I knew I wanted to create from it a dress for the next Serendipity Ball. A year later, I had my dress, and Richard had died from AIDS. I wore the dress in his honor among his friends, sharing its origin and raising a glass to his sprit we felt was with us.
That was November 1986. The NAMES Project began in 1987. An unaware precursor, I had honored a life with needle and thread before the accumulation of 3' x 6' panels had begun -- panels that now number more than 44,000, too many to be displayed simultaneously in one place. Not long after, I wrote a poem entitled "The Painted Dress," an elegy that acknowledged the catharsis that can come via creativity. And then I volunteered for a NAMES Project display that came to my grad school in 1991. I'd attended a local panel dedication ceremony the prior year, and even visited the Project's San Francisco headquarters, my attention grabbed by this unique use of the stitched medium -- not to mention my growing concern about the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
As the week-long display continued and I spent hours getting to know those hundred or so individuals honored in words and pictures and fabric and thread, I realized that I wanted to join its contributors by turning the painted dress into a quilt panel. Securing the approval of my fellow Fancy Clubbers, I got to work. I attached the dress to another piece of taffeta, and used its buttons to "tie" the layers together. I included the ephemera mentioned above -- pins, invitations -- and incorporated the Fancy Club's martini emblem. Finally, I also attached a copy of my poem. I drove to Washington to dedicate the panel at another display so Damien, an FC friend and founder, could join me.
Here's Richard's panel sewn into a larger NAMES Project square. Here's Damien's; he died three years later. When I attended the last full display of the entire Quilt on the DC Mall in 1996, I took the second section of the revised poem and pinned it to the panel. I hope it made it into the Archives. At least it was published, twice, in a small literary journal and in a tiny AIDS-related anthology. I think the teacher read it in the former, when attending a creativity conference in the city where the journal was published. She must've used the contributor notes to contact me at the university where I was an adjunct instructor teaching composition.
I received her letter of request just as I was leaving to attend the 1992 Virginia Festival of American Film. My brother, who lived in Charlottesville at the time, worked for a video production company there, so we prepared a videotaped response to the teacher, in which I affirmed that writing and quilting share many similarities, and provided some details about Richard and the poem. I wasn't actually much of a quilter myself at that point, but I've always sewn, and as a writer (and an adult) the metaphoric connections were obvious to me. And I had a battered quilt in my car for a swell visual prop to relieve me from being a talking head.
I cherish the thank-you notes I received from the seventh graders. What writer doesn't want to hear, I could really see what you were saying like a picture you painted in my head and You have a way of writing that makes it neat to read? What poet isn't at least somewhat pleased by Your poem is the only one in the world I like? Ever the student, I love reading, If I had to grade you on you poem, dress, and quilt as well a bravory you would get an A+. And to the extent that I felt like an AIDS educator, I was heartened by this: I admire you from the way you still treated Richard as a person even though he had AIDS. She also sent me their essays, which contain more jewels than I can reprint here. I'm so curious as to where these kids are now. Eleven years after seventh grade, they are making their way in the world. Are there writers among them still?
I knit now more than I write, or at least more than I write poems. I write for my job, and I write this blog (and another about my daughter). Most of my energy is devoted to raising the Wee One in this most formative time of her young life. The urge to create remains, and I pull out the needles. One of my fellow poets and dear friends calls each finished object a "knitty poem." I love her for that.
A final PS: The Quilt came to their city, and the students got to visit the display. My packet from the teacher included some of their reaction comments, transcribed. One student was prompted to pen a letter to the editor of the local paper, noting that the media's focus on grief neglected to acknowledge the educational value of the NAMES Project. As much as I wished to join them at the display, I was in the midst of semester-end grading frenzy. So I sent a substitute. And the teacher also wrote how much she enjoyed meeting my mother.