I Don’t Know What I’d Do If I Couldn’t Speak My Mind
Adel Fougnies on performing in the Mexican War Streets
Above: Some of the many writers who read at “I Don’t Know What I’d Do If I Couldn’t Speak My Mind.” Photos: Henry Reese.
On September 15th, Monterey Street in Pittsburgh’s Mexican War Streets neighborhood became a stage for thirty-two writers. Over the course of six hours audience members were delighted with a variety of poetic styles and topics. The reading, called “I Don’t Know What I’d Do If I Couldn’t Speak My Mind,” is held every year in conjunction with the Mexican War Streets House and Garden Tour. The idea for an open sign-up event originated four years ago at the headquarters of City of Asylum/Pittsburgh (COAP). Adel Fougnies, a former teacher at Rogers Middle School for the Creative and Performing Arts, volunteered to run the event.
This year she sat down with Sampsonia Way to talk about how the event started, the ways it has changed, and where the name came from.
Why was this annual event created?
This event started four years ago. There was a meeting at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh about reengaging and promoting the Mexican War Streets. That’s why it’s always on the day of the Mexican War Street House and Garden Tour. Sandy Kniess, Henry Reese, and Gwendolyn Moorer, all board members of City of Asylum, were there. So the idea for this event jumped out during the meeting, and I volunteered to organize it. I just said “Oh I think I can do that.” I was pretty excited about it, and I had still some very good connections at Pittsburgh School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA).
How did it get its name?
The title “I Don’t Know What I’d Do If I Couldn’t Speak My Mind” came from a 6th grader at CAPA. Her class visited City of Asylum/Pittsburgh and heard the story of its first writer-in-residence, the Chinese poet Huang Xiang. The student was amazed and appalled that somebody would be put in prison, would have their job taken, and would be in peril for something they said or wrote. That is when she said the quote that we chose to use for the event. I think people really react to the quote, and, as a teacher, I have always wanted students to understand that hearing your own voice and having people react to it is powerful for everyone.
What’s the selection process for performers?
I send out an announcement, and writers sign up and come to read. There’s actually not a selection process. I don’t read people’s poetry, I don’t set myself up as a judge of who can read or not read and I think that is inherent in how we structured this. I’m not a judge, I’m a coordinator. I just give people a space. The writers are asked to work in a time frame of ten minutes. A few writers this year read one long piece and others choose a number of shorter poems that fit the time limit.
How do the writers know about the event?
Word of mouth is definitely important. People kept sending more and more writers my way. There is this one gentleman that kept sending me writers, Bob Wilecki. He’s involved with so many writers and would always contact me and say, “Another poet is interested if you have space.”
What part of this year’s event impressed you the most?
One of the writers this year was legally blind, and he read a poem about being told he was losing his eyesight at a very young age. I didn’t know that’s what he was going to read, and I had never met him. He contacted me out of the blue and said he’d like to participate, and it was a very powerful piece for everybody to hear.
So in the past four years, how have you seen the event grow or change?
What really hit me this year, as far as changing, is that we have developed such a good reputation. The first year it took from the first of August to two days before the event on September16th to get enough writers signed up. This year it took less than two weeks. I actually had a waiting list of performers, which has never happened before. So that’s how it’s changed. People really want to be here, and it makes my job more about organization and outreach than about pulling teeth to get people to come. Next year I think the Alphabet Reading Garden will be a huge asset for the event.
So, do you feel this event is achieving the goal you set four years ago? Do you feel it is engaging and promoting the Mexican War Streets’ community?
Yes. That’s why it was created, to let people know that we’re here and what we do. Because of “I Don’t Know What I’d Do If I Couldn’t Speak My Mind,” Writers in the Garden, and the Jazz Poetry Concert people from other neighborhoods know that they can enjoy themselves on the Northside, and the Northsiders also feel like part of a literary community.
Next year we would like to add a sign board at the event so the people attending the House Tour will be invited to join us. That has always been the goal, but we think that without an invitation, people are nervous about taking a seat. Being in the garden next year will be much more inviting, and with a posted invitation, people will feel more comfortable joining the group. We have a number of audience members that have been with us all four years, and the event has developed an excellent reputation in the writing community.