Pub or Perish, the Arkansas Times’-sponsored rowdy stepchild of the Arkansas Literary Festival, with its informal structure (read: tipsy audience) and focus on local talent (read: tipsy, local talent), has become a rite of passage for Arkansas poets. I took the stage for the first time in 2009, then watched over the years as writers like Randi M. Romo, Chris James, Crystal C. Mercer and Justin Booth earned infamy in the River Market district before leaving their mark on the larger literary world. In 2015, I was asked to host, and with hosting came the responsibility of curating the lineup. That’s how Karen Hayes came into my life.
The first email came on Thursday, March 26, 2015: “Justin Booth told me that you might consider me for Pub or Perish. I’m interested. I am not young, beautiful, or particularly interesting, but I’m writing. A lot. I’ve read a few times at open mic nights. I like being able to see whether or not people get my stuff. In my previous life, I was married to Little Rock musician Bob Hayes. Bob had Alzheimer’s and died in September. He went fast. I’m sending you a mixed bag of my work because … WTF … I’m a mixed bag. I really appreciate your consideration. – Karen Hayes”
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Here’s a little secret about my life as a publisher and organizer of literary events. Every now and then, when folks send me work to consider, I don’t read it. That’s because, every now and then, there’s a story that precedes or accompanies it, or a reputation, or some celestial whisper that I can’t quite decipher that makes my body feel electric. When I read Karen’s email, I felt that electricity. I didn’t read her poems. This woman had a story. I said yes.
Karen went first that night. She was a small-framed woman standing in front of a room full of strangers. There was a set of poems in her hands, but her eyes locked on each one of us and never broke away. I learned later that her years with Bob taught her about working a crowd, and she was certainly working the crowd, but there was something more. We were witnessing both a shedding and a healing. On that stage, Karen was taking off the clothes of her “previous life” and putting on, one leg at a time, her new identity as a poet. Here was Karen Hayes, in those new threads, performing poems from memory about her experience with Alzheimer’s. About walking through it as a wife. About walking out of it as a widow. About walking away from it as a survivor. That night, Karen broke our hearts into a million little pieces, and then, through the tears (ours, not hers), she made us laugh.
There have been very few times in my publishing life that I’ve offered someone a contract for a book on the spot. Before I introduced the second Pub or Perish reader I did just that. I could tell she was surprised, unsure of herself and her new, shaky legs. But more than anything, I could tell she was the real deal. As everyone was leaving the bar, I made a formal pitch. “You could help a lot of people,” I told her.
The next email came the following Wednesday, April 29, 2015.
“Howdy. I am thinking. Shit-oh-dear, I have a lot to think about. On your offer to publish me. Something you said hooked me in a way nothing else would: You could help a lot of people with this. I have been a frequent flyer at an Alzheimer’s Arkansas support group since October 2011. The idea of a support group is so not-me. But I went. I learned, I loved, and was loved. I owe.
“When I think of myself as a writer, I think of a person who has been given a gift of time. I didn’t want my marriage to end this way, but the end of my marriage is not the end of my life. I’m 61. I have health and no ties. I’m not broke. I don’t want or need much. I’ve never written the way I have the past nine months. Daily. Everywhere. Scratching on envelopes and legal pads. Sitting at the computer as soon as I get up, with a nasty mouth and hair that scares the cat. Running on a gravel road and writing poetry, one voice memo at a time. Crazy shit.
“When I think of myself as a writer, I don’t picture myself signing books at WordsWorth, or sitting on a panel at a festival, or reading a review declaring me an amazing voice. Not that I would kick any of that out of bed. What I see is a little movie in the not-too-distant future. I have a small book with my heart in it. I’m handing it to people who helped me. Those who did for me, for us, at support group, daycare, the dementia unit, the nursing home, hospice. People who continue to do for people like us. I see myself handing my little heart of a book to people who have been where I have been, or are about to go there.
“That’s where I see myself starting. I don’t know what happens next.”
What happened next: Karen wasn’t ready to publish. She wanted to wait, to perfect her poems, to get her hands dirty and throw herself into poetry. She began showing up at poetry readings. Formal, academic events next to tenured professors and major award winners. Spoken-word competitions next to poets who could rattle the windows with the bass of their voices. Saturday morning roundtable discussions with people who wrote poems purely as a hobby and didn’t care about book deals or prize money. Better than anyone I’ve ever met, Karen built bridges between these worlds.
She set up her 1971 Olivetti manual typewriter and wrote poetry on demand for people on the street, at arts festivals, at LGBTQ pride events, at any event that would have her. She remained true to her early vision and became director of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project-Arkansas and Poetry for Life. She steered poetry projects with the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System, the Arkansas Arts Council and Alzheimer’s Arkansas. She received the Aging Mind Fellowship from the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow. She led workshops and performed her poetry all over the state. She was my go-to person anytime I put together a poetry event, because no matter the audience, Karen would win them over. “Think you don’t like poetry?” I’d ask before introducing her. “Just wait. This woman will prove you wrong.” Once I even witnessed her giving a near lap dance to former Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola while performing her signature piece, “Hot.” Karen always thought I was doing her a favor by including her. She was doing me the favor. Every audience loved her.
The last time I heard from Karen was in a text message on Friday, Jan. 25. She wrote, “Y’all have been on my mind … I want to talk to you about the possibilities for a book of my Alzheimer’s poems.” My arms, again, were electric. Karen was finally ready. It was time to make that book together.
Six days later, on Jan. 31, Karen died. There’s so much more I could say. There’s so much more so many of us could say. I have a grocery bag full of Karen’s poems next to me right now, trusted to me by her estate and her friends. There will be a book, and the Arkansas poetry community will champion it as if it were our own. We will make sure she’s never forgotten because she changed this world for the better. I have been lucky. I have traveled this country on the strength and power of poetry. I’ve met the most amazing, talented people, but I’ve never met anyone else with the strength and power of Karen Hayes. She was, quite simply, the best of us.
By Karen Hayes
A stray guitar pick hidden in the couch
surprised me when I cleaned the house last week.
It must have slipped away close to the end.
You never lost a pick, but there it was.
Guitars rest easy in their cases now.
I know they’ll fight me for my winter clothes.
They own the closet, still I slip inside,
take two more shirts of yours to give away.
I do not dust the pictures in your shrine:
The Bayou Room, The Stardust, Cajun’s Wharf.
The origami dollar bills from tips
are now undone. I can’t keep everything.
The stained glass blue guitar is moving south,
its lovely twin a ghost upon the wall.
The real guitar sleeps mutely in the dark.
I cannot say the same is true of me.