The Poet Behind the Poem

Looking back at the past year's most significant stories is an early January tradition. On the cultural front, it's surprising how most of these lists are filled with items about brick-and-mortar pr

Jan 4, 2001 at 2:06 pm

Looking back at the past year's most significant stories is an early January tradition. On the cultural front, it's surprising how most of these lists are filled with items about brick-and-mortar projects and arts institutions. The individual person often gets cast aside. It's a trend I didn't want to repeat this time around.

I've written about 19-year-old poet Nina Caporale before. More specifically, I wrote about the controversy surrounding her. At an Aug. 10 closing ceremony for the summer's speak-out program, Artworks Director Tamara Harkavy took away Nina's $500 scholarship for reading her poem, "You Ass." By summer's end, the scholarship was reinstated. Still, questions about the appropriateness of Nina reading "You Ass" remained unanswered.

Others have grown tired of Nina's story.

Personally, I find her treatment by ArtWorks to be the defining arts event of 2000. Nothing says more about Cincinnati's regard for artists and artistic expression than ArtWorks' handling of Nina and her controversial poem.

CityBeat printed "You Ass." A pro-Nina editorial was published. Still, Nina as an emerging artist was never really discussed.

I met Nina for the first time at a Nov. 25 gathering at an Over-the-Rhine coffeehouse. The event was meant to be an opportunity for Nina and her fellow Speak-Out participants to read their poems publicly. Unfortunately, ArtWorks' promise to Nina for a public performance went unfulfilled.

Nina didn't say much at this ArtWorks reunion. Her parents and Harkavy had too much to say. For the most part, Nina remained anonymous.

Amid the controversy, it was surprising to me how little I knew about Nina personally. My thoughts were set on the various issues, accusations and challenges surrounding the controversy. Nina had been pushed aside by the debate, and I felt it was time to put the spotlight on the poet.

I finally had the chance to get to know a little bit about Nina on a recent Saturday afternoon while she was home for her college holiday break. Finally, after writing about the controversy, I had the opportunity to put a human face on the "You Ass" poet.

"I don't think it's a big fuss over nothing," Nina says. "But I'm surprised that people are still interested about keeping the story going. I laugh about it sometimes. It's surprising that such a little thing can cause so much trouble."

Our brief conversation confirmed earlier beliefs. Nina is an emerging artist with great potential. A graduate of Summit Country Day, she returns to Sarah Lawrence College in late January to continue her freshman year. Although Sarah Lawrence awarded Nina a $20,000 scholarship, she takes part in a work-study program in the theater department to help pay the bills. Basically, she's like most college students with little time for leisure.

Nina sees herself as somewhat of a radical. Cincinnati needs more people like her. But she has chosen to go away to school. The question is whether Nina will choose to return to Cincinnati. This town would be lucky to have her.

"I want to feel proud of Cincinnati and the fact that I come from here," Nina says. "Whether I would ever come back to help change Cincinnati, well, I have no idea. I do wonder if ArtWorks can pull itself together and change its thinking about supporting new voices."

I don't know if Nina's treatment will prove to be much of an issue regarding ArtWorks' plans for next year's program. All I can say is that people should think about Nina when they're asked to donate funds. The lesson Nina took with her from Cincinnati is that issues surrounding money and funding often take priority over artistic freedom.

In the arena of local, emerging artists, Nina is a shining star we should never forget. At Sarah Lawrence, she has returned to writing poetry. Reprinted here is one of her recent poems. It offers a chance to see Nina as an artist, not simply the source of Cincinnati's great arts controversy. Enjoy.

CONTACT STEVE RAMOS: [email protected]

I wonder about you.

I wonder

what you see.

What do you greet

when you wake? when you step outside?

What can you view

from the window of your car? from your desk at work?

What does it look like

behind your eyes? within your mind?

I wonder about you.

I wonder what ... you see ...

What is it

you see in me?

I wonder about you.

Do you wonder about me?

— Nina Caporale (7.5.00)