Scott Ball / Rivard Report
After eight years and 32 editions, with a total of 252 featured speakers, the organizers of PechaKucha San Antonio are still having no trouble finding interesting locals to present.
“Absolutely not, we have too many people to choose from,” said Vicki Yuan, chair of the eight-member, all-volunteer organizing committee. Yuan spoke with the Rivard Report via phone Wednesday afternoon as she prepared to stage the event for the first time at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.
Co-hosts Randy Beamer, News 4 San Antonio’s weeknight anchor, and Troy Peters, conductor and music director of the Youth Orchestras of San Antonio (YOSA), took turns introducing the speakers to an enthusiastic and vocal crowd of 750, who had lined up outside the Tobin Center long before the event's 6:30 p.m. opening.
“It’s amazing, because we never run out of interesting people,” Yuan said of the committee’s selection process, which gathers a group of new speakers for each event to talk about their life and work in a timed, strictly-formatted style. For the PechaKucha “20 x 20” form, a speaker shows 20 image slides, and talks about each for 20 seconds, for a presentation totaling six minutes and 40 seconds.
A main goal of the events is to focus on a diversity of San Antonians who are shaping their city, Yuan said, and “to promote interaction in the community and celebrate people doing cool things.”
One of those people is much-honored poet Naomi Shihab Nye, who just achieved the distinction of having the “Most Popular Contemporary Poem in 2018” on Poets.org, the online arm of the Academy of American Poets. During the year, Nye’s poem Kindness received more than 250,000 views, according to the Academy, which coincidentally announced the distinction the same day as her PechaKucha presentation.
Though Nye’s poem did not feature in her talk, titled “The Holy Land of Human Beings” in honor of her Palestinian father’s birthplace of Jerusalem, the audience got “20 poems for the price of admission,” as Peters said afterward, recalling the poetic language she had used.
“Every human being comes from so many somewheres,” Nye had said in citing her own litany of literary influences, as well as that of her father and American mother, who fell in love despite vastly different upbringings.
Earlier, as the first speaker of the evening, Rivard Report Publisher and Editor Robert Rivard introduced the theme of family with his talk, titled “A Tale of Two Families.”
Using salty language and humor, Rivard began with a black-and-white image of his seemingly traditional American family. A palpable silence in the auditorium greeted his revelation that his mother, a nurse, abused prescription drugs and her family in equal measure, particularly the “black sheep” child Rivard, whom he said she openly berated as “a big mistake.”
He went on to detail his accomplishments as a newsman in New York, Central America, and San Antonio, with special attention on a second family he adopted after the tragic murder of a colleague. That family, and his own wife and two children in San Antonio, give him much pride and focus, he said.
Prodded by Beamer after his talk, Rivard said he planned to write more about his difficult early life. But asked by Beamer what he feels his biggest accomplishment has been, Rivard said “family,” enthusiastically and without hesitation.
Family also figured in Alex Paredes’ relocation to San Antonio, where he followed his brother to enroll in business school. Paredes soon realized he should pursue his then-secret desire to become a professional cook. After a formative experience in Austin and a subsequent San Antonio pop-up called Gallotoro, Paredes opened the now highly publicized Carnitas Lonja on Roosevelt Avenue.
Prior to the event Paredes said, perhaps surprisingly to an audience of locals, “What I’ve found from cooking here in San Antonio is, not a lot of people here know what traditional Mexican food is.” He identified his purpose as moving diners beyond tacos, rice, and beans to a more authentic version of traditional cooking from Michoacán, where he was raised, and which has “the best food in Mexico,” he said.
Pharm Table Chef Elizabeth Johnson drew upon a more ancient notion of family in telling the story of how she developed her vision to “heal through food.”
“Here’s the big picture: I actually believe that food is living anthropology,” she said, speaking of what can be learned when “listening to food,” of the stories and "DNA" it contains from its origins in prehistory to arriving on the table.
“If this food could talk, or better yet, if we would listen to food, it would nourish us, heal us, prevent disease, and create a road map of longevity for both humanity and the planet,” Johnson said, to rousing applause.
Johnson said her initial vision began as a sort of dream, arriving during a meditation session. Dreams also figured as a theme for several of the evening’s other speakers. Justin Parr said, “As a kid, I dreamed that one day I would have an art studio in an old office building in a bustling downtown area,” in telling the story of how he became an artist, gallery owner, and glass maker.
Though Peters was perplexed by Parr’s much sought-after glass marbles, Parr described them as “a tiny glass sphere with a whole world in it.”
A dream also formed the foundation of Ruby City, the new David Adjaye-designed structure built to house the art collection of Linda Pace.
In speaking of Pace's influence, artist Kelly O’Connor once helped turn Pace’s basic crayon drawings into sculptures. Ruby City, too, began life as a crayon drawing, depicting an almost Disney-like palace, far different from the angular version Adjaye and Pace eventually settled upon. As O’Connor – now head of collections and communications for the Linda Pace Foundation – readies for the January opening of Ruby City, she thanked her various families: Pace colleagues, college cohort, fellow crossfitters, and “biological family.”
In closing the evening, Peters asked Nye about poet William Stafford, whom she had cited as a major influence. “I felt there was something in his way of looking at the world, which included everyone,” she said.
“Writers feel part of a family of voices,” Nye said in comparing the role of a poet in society to that of a musician in an orchestra.
Earlier in the day, Rivard wrote an email to his staff about the recognition Nye had received from the Academy of American poets. “This is a wonderful honor on the very day of her PechaKucha presentation,” he said. “I hope our readers will love [her poem] as others obviously have done.”
In that spirit, here is Nye’s poem Kindness, reprinted in full with permission of the author and Far Corner Books:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
To see more of Nye’s poems, visit Poets.org.