The Art in Sound, the Sound of Art: Susanna Childress’ Campus Reading

By: Kalani Padilla

Before I talk about Susanna Childress and her poetry, I want to dwell for a moment on the venue.

I still take a lot of (undeserved) pride in the 1.5 semesters I endured as a music major. I sympathize with the struggles of friends now braving upper division theory and ear training classes; I criticize this melodic line or that chord, this translation or that key change; I monopolize the Lantern for long study hours and leave highly-trained musicians to use the lounge just outside the bathrooms. Even before non-music majors, I pretend to qualify as an honorary. After finding out Susanna Childress would be reading in the recital hall, I told people they should “come early,” recalling my own memories of the room being full to overflowing with hosts of loving peers, and hordes of procrastinators (trying to get their last three required recital hours all on one night).

The recital hall is a special place, but when I pushed through the door, I immediately started to prickle with past anxieties. I was remembering all the tears I’ve seen shed— all the tears that I’d shed—in that room as a voice student. Though seeing the room filled with people from my new home department made me feel protected, I also felt like a traitor and a coward. So you’re back, I felt the room say, what are you here for? What are you here as?

And yet, I was given, by Susanna Childress’ performance, the audacity to answer both. Childress’s poems, (and the kind voice with which she gave them) were open invitations to each of us to share in her joy and vulnerability. Her confessional and inquisitive writing compels us to identify with all these jagged notions of love, from the viewpoint of child, father, wife, stranger, daughter. These were poems about the physicality of solitude, the familiarity of strangers, the predictability of intimacy. Poems about learning to embrace that which could cut you. Poems about worlds small enough to cradle like a bird. Poems infused with the laughter and tears that inspired them.

And when she sang, when she sang! I feel like we’re so selfish as audiences, to be projecting our own sorry images onto those brave enough to take the stage. But it happens. I closed my eyes and remembered what it was like to give the gift of my voice without the assurance of it being accepted. Speaking with her after her reading, she laughed when she stated that she wasn’t a trained singer, and I marveled to myself about the journey in-between that, and the stack of fully produced albums to her left. Here was Susanna Childress, boldly demonstrating to us that art is loving the things you’ve created so much that you must share them—even when, and especially when it makes you vulnerable.

This morning I listen to a song cascade from the Lantern’s grand piano down to Main Street, with Childress’s Jagged With Love open on my lap. From here I know the quietude, the turbulent grace, and honest longing of art, and that the sound of the heart is equal parts poetry and song.

Kalani Padilla (’19) is a student of English, Theology, and Film & Visual Narrative at Whitworth University. She is also involved in the music program as a singer and Campus Worship leader. Most of all, Kalani is a proud kama’aina, inspired in all things by the people, culture, and Creator of her home in the state of Hawai’i.

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