Asheville: An unexpected draught of life

by dixie

Asheville is an achingly hip, craft beer soaked, delightfully southern town nestled in the heart of the first mountains I ever loved. I’d been there as a kid, travelling with a youth choir, but I was curious to see what I would make of the place as a grownup.

Tulips at Biltmore Estate, Asheville's primary tourist attraction.

Tulips at Biltmore Estate, Asheville’s primary tourist attraction.

I noticed instantly that people seemed genuinely friendly, in stark contrast to the icy standoffishness I experienced in Beaufort. Here the slow drawls carried actual warmth. It’s possible I was just in a better mood, smiling more and more comfortable in the mountainous South than I was in the Spanish-moss-draped costal South. Whatever the reason, it was lovely from beginning to end.

I didn’t have a plan for Asheville other than to turn up and see what I could find. I learned over and over again during the month of flying that if I expected things to work out okay, even if I didn’t have a specific plan for how that was going to happen, they would usually work out. In Asheville this happened through that fantastic genuine friendliness: I found a good pub in town, ended up in conversation with a schoolteacher couple, and was invited to a poetry slam.

This poetry slam thing deserves some explanation.

Imagine the stereotype of beat poets in smokey cafes, rooms full of achingly hip people focused on one speaker (possibly at a microphone, certainly in a spotlight) who holds forth in a string of rhythmic words on something they feel strongly about. The audience might click their fingers to show approval at a particularly pithy turn of phrase. Now imagine it in the modern day, on stages and in schools. It’s gotten some press as an opportunity to get at-risk kids into something that isn’t dangerous. Grownups do it too “Dear Straight People”, and the results can be pithy (“Dear shitty parents of the kids I teach”) and lovely (“To the boys who may one day date my daughter”)and touching (“My grandmother never taught me to pray”). One of the teachers I met was running a high school poetry slam competition that night.

I was incuriated, so I went along and was briefly called upon to judge. I spent an evening listening to teenagers bleed words and feelings onto the stage. I listened to kids outline ideas and complex issues that I didn’t even figure out for myself until I was much older (if at all). And I watched impressed as their peers in the audience were receptive, kind, and supportive through each soul-baring performance.

I flew out the next day after a brief and dramatic dash through Biltmore Estate to find and send postcards, but as far as intensity-per-time of experiences goes Asheville stood up well. Slam poets pack a lot of life into three minutes of carefully crafted words, so an evening of it was a heady mix. I realized that speaking out, which those kids were doing, does two things. The first is that it makes you feel a lot better, but the second is that it lets other people know they’re not alone.