Art, Jobs and Hope

On a beautiful night last week on UNLV’s campus, a poet read from his collection We Are Starved in the Greenspun Hall Auditorium. It was moving. Joshua Kryah, a former Schaeffer Fellow at UNLV, read a selection that captured grotesque images—dead children, tumors, car accidents, slaughtered animals.

Yet somehow, in between poems, he managed to joke about the very darkness of his own work: “I wish I could say there was relief coming,” he quipped to the audience, “but there’s not. It’s all like this.”

We laughed at the brutal honesty of it. And then we sank back into our seats to listen to more unbearably austere poems that tinkered with the theme of hunger. Hunger for love, hunger for death, hunger for an explanation.

Next door, in the UNLV Bookstore, a paperback titled Job Hunting Made Easy (McGraw Hill, 1996) dominated a display shelf. It was well-thumbed, its cover tattered, but it hadn’t been purchased—who can afford to buy a job-hunting book when they don’t have a job?

Las Vegas’ unemployment rate was reported last week at 14.2 percent—up for the fourth month in a row. Nevada’s jobless rate for August came in at 13.4 percent, also up a notch. Las Vegas home values had dropped 60 percent since their 2006 peak, and on Sept. 17 Business Insider ranked us the most miserable city in America.

In the midst of such a week, We Are Starved was cathartic. At one point, Kryah, who recently moved to Virginia, explained why he used the image of a sepulcher in a poem: He was intrigued by the notion of something so grand and ornate on the outside nonetheless holding dead things inside.

When a city as glittery as ours is stricken with misfortune, it comes with a sense of poetic justice, or even schadenfreude: Las Vegas, a place recklessly known for taking other people’s money, is hungry now.

“Most Miserable” is quite a distinction in a nation slogging through plentiful economic misery. After all, the competition is intense, as the media makes clear each day: In The New York Times, Ivy League graduates complain that they had to work in call centers. On the website of The New Yorker, a journalist writes that more Americans live in poverty today than at any time since 1959. The Atlantic maps out disappearance of the middle class, and Las Vegas is tagged for its disastrous real estate market.

And yet, it really was a beautiful night in this little part of the Most Miserable City in America. The night sky above UNLV gave the faintest hint of fall. People gathered and chatted and laughed outside, and inside, the auditorium. When Kryah finished reading from We Are Starving, we applauded. We were fulfilled. We were grateful for the way in which the grotesque and austere can somehow leave us inspired. Determined, even.