On Weird Al, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Naming Your Heroes
Weird Al has long been on a list I keep of my heroes. I mean, his music is reason enough, right? To this day, I can still recite (with utter GLEE) every word of Amish Paradise as well as his far-lesser-known original song called The Night Santa Went Crazy. (Pure genius. If you don't know what I'm talking about, go listen right now. I'm sorry about the mass shooting imagery, and yet, you're welcome.)
Anyway, I'm a big fan of his music for certain. But that's not the reason he's one of my heroes. It's this: he has a super narrow and specific obsession involving creating alternate lyrics for popular songs. It's the sort of interest that could easily have been a hobby or a side gig. Or even that thing he used to do as a kid before he took a serious job that better matched all the serious adult responsibilities waiting for him. But instead of trying to tune out or shut down his bizarro thing, he embraced it wholeheartedly, slapping "Weird" right in front of his name and turning this funny obsession into a life-long career that has given people (like me! and you, admit it) substantial amounts of unbridled joy. He has spent his adult life getting paid (well!) to write parodies of popular music. Good work if you can get it, right? And did he ever get it. First and foremost by simply allowing himself to pursue his eccentric hobby with abandon.
So I love Weird Al not (solely) because of his music but ultimately because of his example. I, too, have a peculiar collection of obsessions. And if Weird Al can take his oddball hobby and turn it into a handsome career -- well, maybe there's hope for me, too.
Which is why this Tuesday was so momentous for me. I mailed out the first installment of a newly reimagined project I've done a couple of times in years past called Poetry by Post. It is a direct outgrowth of my several fringe obsessions -- with poetry, with literary analysis and the essay, with letterpress printing and the romance of the letter and calligraphy and luscious vintage stamps and the postal service. It is pretty much the most perfect outlet imaginable for my constellation of passions and skills. And after taking a couple of exploratory stabs at this over the past several years, I am finally attempting -- in earnest! -- to make this a financially reliable component of my day job. Thanks, Weird Al, for the inspo.
But there's more! Somehow, he is not the only hero to figure into this story.
The January mailing that I put out yesterday featured a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, who has been a favorite poet of mine since I was fourteen. "Making a Fist" was anthologized in my freshman English textbook, and reading it was just one of those experiences that lodged itself permanently in my brain. It was plainspoken but profound, full of mystery and wonder but still tethered to a tangible, accessible world. The experience of reading that poem led me to pick up Nye's book of selected poems, Words Under the Words,which has had a permanent place on my shelf ever since, dog-eared and overzealously underlined. And from then on, I've simply followed her work in the world with admiration, picking up each new book as it's come out and feeling endlessly grateful for her guiding light.
So when I decided to relaunch Poetry by Post in 2020, I reached out to her agency to see if they could put me in touch with her, and before I knew it, I had an email in my inbox from Nye herself, saying simply "Here I am! Happy to speak with you." It is difficult to articulate the enormity of what this meant to me; it was as though a god appeared in my living room. So yesterday, after I dropped an envelope in the mail directed to San Antonio, Texas, to the home of Naomi Shihab Nye -- an envelope that contained her poem, printed by me, alongside a letter I wrote about it -- I was overcome by emotion.
I just got to work with one of my heroes in a way that was deeply meaningful to me. THAT is good work if you can get it.
And though getting it has been hard-won and will continue to be, working with your heroes is a pretty extraordinary return. I'll take it and run. And while I'm at it, I'll take each and every penny earned from these mailings and thank my lucky stars that I'm getting paid -- at least for this one glorious, shining moment -- to be weird.