[prose#18] Lin-Manuel Miranda is a Poet


Today was a long sort of a day. It’s fall here in Oregon, supposedly, but the sun is bright and the temperatures in the low 80s. I’m never eager for summer to flee with the memories of cloudless days and lazy walks down my small town streets, but at the same time, this strange weather messes with my mind and heart. Usually when it’s nearly October here, the trees start to change and the air starts to bite. But not quite this year. While the trees are beginning to erupt into flame, the warmth of the outside air confuses my body, this physical flesh that is invisibly grounded in the tides and the spinning of the earth. My bones know when the outside world isn’t as it usually is, and that knowledge of my body affects my entire being and mindset – especially mindset. The rain can wait, but the heat can leave. For once, I’m ready to leave summer behind for the next season. Part of growing up means accepting and even welcoming the changes this world brings us.

This week I’ve had to deal with lots of other grown-up things. I’ve had lots of appointments, trying to finally get my medical insurance going. I got a cavity filled, I have an eye doctor appointment tomorrow. When I sit in the waiting room, I feel like a child again, except my mother isn’t there, reading a magazine and answering the hard questions for me. And dear Hugo, my red car, had his own medical appointment with the mechanic the other day, always stressful when you’re single and work and have no public transportation. I thought he was better, but today his “check engine” light — which I paid a handful to get rid of — told me he’s not. Meetings, appointments, cleaning, cooking, all of these adult-ish activities pull me down. I want to revert back to that child who, after going to the doctor with Mom, is rewarded with a cookie and a hug, both of which are a necessary gift.

Today, I did a lot of driving, a lot of thinking about art, and a lot of panicking. I had the chance to talk to a writer today, a woman who is doing it, making it as someone who writes books for a living. Somehow, these meetings rarely encourage me. I learn so much about the process of publishing and writing, but instead of being thankful for the inside look, I let the information stress me out, wear me down. I leave thinking I’m incapable and unable, because it seems impossible that I could possibly do as this writer does. And then, spending time on the college campus I so recently left, I felt old and heavy with life. I walked past the 18-, 19-year-olds, studying for exams and going on late night Taco Bell runs, and I was going home to do the dishes and organize my bills. Disconnect was the word of the night.

Getting in my car for the seven-minute drive home, my iPod lit up as I put it into its dock. I knew I needed melody, for the silence would demolish me. The finale to the musical In the Heights came up. In the Heights took Broadway by storm in 2008, the unconventional telling of the way of life in the Washington Heights area of New York City. A lower-income neighborhood mainly populated by Hispanic immigrants, they fight to escape the poverty and maintain the community, to gain personal power without losing their heritage. The story is mostly told through rap/R&B songs, with some boleros, salsas, and traditional Broadway ballads thrown in for good measure.

The musical is the creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda. He started writing the show in college, a way of processing his own life, community, and heritage. After college, he began an eight-year process of work-shopping the show, making ends meet with odd jobs, composing on the subway, before — finally and against all odds — the show opened on Broadway, winning multiple Tony Awards and a Grammy. Miranda played Usnavi, the main character, because Usnavi was him. And he did so with such pain and pride, the lyrics flowing off of his tongue with ease.

Miranda is not a singer. He has good pitch, a good ear for music, but his voice cannot hold a candle to other Broadway leading men, not to mention even those in his show’s ensemble. But it didn’t really matter because they were his words, and he loved them as they came out of his mouth. They are embedded within him. This is most obvious in the rapping he does within the songs, created and performed in a beautiful poetic style that pays attention to the sound of words and the pattern they are put in. The man is a poet.

As I listened to the resolution of this musical, the final song where Usnavi reconciles his dreams with his reality, his hopes with his fears, his desires with his needs, I began to cry. Yes, it had been a terribly long day, filled with frustrating moments and grown-up stressors. But I cried because Usnavi found a home and chose his own life, and Miranda found a home and chose his own life. And he created a brilliant piece of theater that discusses socioeconomic disparities and racial tensions and rising property values alongside community life and new love and lasting friendships. Not only that, he believed in his work enough to work on it for eight years. Eight. He worked it to the bone, so much so that only one of the original songs made it from the beginning to the end of the process and saw the Broadway stage. Miranda believed he had something to tell the world, that his story was worthwhile and should be fought for. And because no one else would fight for it, he fought himself. And in 2008, he found himself rapping his Tony Award acceptance speech.

I don’t think I have the vision, the strength, the passion to go that far for that long. But Miranda did not give up, and seeing that man’s joy and love for the art he created, I know he must say it is worth it. I want my art to be worth it. I want to love what I am doing so much that I will fight for it for years. My poetry is not able to be rapped, it doesn’t ebb and flow with the movement of language, but it has its own rhythm. I just have to solidify it, be prepared to make it better, and believe in it and myself. Lin-Manuel Miranda is a poet, and his poetry made me cry. I want to move people that way. Maybe then, real life – the muggy weather and endless appointments – won’t matter so much.

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