Tonight: Shara McCallum shares her poetry at Oakland's Carnegie Library

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Tonight’s poetry reading by Shara McCallum will be her first in Pittsburgh. Maybe it will be your first, too.

If so, here’s a hint at how to behave: Don’t applaud until the end of the evening.

“You always get applause at the end. It’s decorum,” said Ms. McCallum, who will be appearing at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Oakland. “It’s unlike musical or dance performances, where each piece is an extended length of time and people applaud between pieces.

“In a way, with poetry, it exists between silences. The silence before, and the silence of the line break, and the silence at the end; all of those silences, like in music, they punctuate the language and have value in themselves. I like the idea that there’s that moment of quiet where the poem can be absorbed before you move on to something else.”

So I suppose a standing ovation would simply be out of the question. How rude!

“I think poetry is the closest a person can come to prayer, to coming in contact with something greater than yourself,” she said. “Something that puts me outside of my own consciousness and time.”

According to the background information she shared with us, Ms. McCallum was born in Jamaica, the daughter of Afro-Jamaican and Venezuelan parents, and moved to the United States when she was 9. Much of her poetry is about “the torments and glories of growing up” in Jamaica.

But she didn’t grow up aspiring to become a poet.

“I only imagined myself being a poet for about half of my life,” she said. “I’m 41, and it wasn’t until 20 that I could imagine that I could be a poet. I always loved poetry as a reader, but my first love of art was actually dance, singing and musical theater. That’s what I did through my teens and high school.

“I did not imagine I would do anything but that. Then I made the decision to be something practical, like a doctor or a lawyer. Something that would be respectable for an immigrant to the U.S.”

She started down the road to poetry after being encouraged by a professor of creative writing.

“It was the introduction of a teacher into my life,” she said. “He said, ‘You’re very good at this and you should try this.’ It sounds very hokey and cliched, but I think when you’re a young person trying to imagine yourself in the world, having models and encouragement is essential.”

Part of the challenge was convincing herself that a young Jamaican-American woman would have anything to say that would deserve to be up on the bookshelf next to something by John Keats.

She decided that she did.

“I understood intimately that you have to have some degree of ego to believe that you have something to contribute,” she said. “But, at the same time, I’m incredibly humbled by it.”

Her books of poetry include “This Strange Land,” “Song of Thieves,” and “The Water Between Us,” as well as her latest effort, “The Face of Water: New and Selected Poems,” from which she will be reading tonight. Copies of the book will be on sale for her to sign.

Though tonight marks her first reading in Pittsburgh, she has participated in forums across the state. As director of the Stadler Center for Poetry and a professor of creative writing and literature at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Union County, she appreciates the importance of readings.

“Poetry is an oral art form,” she said. “Reading from the work is your best shot of reaching an audience. It’s a small audience, but they’re interested in your poems nonetheless, and you have an opportunity to connect.

“It’s promotion of the art itself. It’s a chance to see poets and realize that this is a living art. So I honor the art beyond just my own work in it.”

Just remember to hold your applause.

Ms. McCallum appears as part of the Writers LIVE series presented by the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. The free event is at 6 p.m. in the International Poetry Room on the second floor of the main library.

If you’d like to attend, make a quick call to 412-622-8866 for details.

Dan Majors:

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