EDITOR’S NOTE: In honor of national poetry month coming upon us in less than two weeks, here’s an essay on a young poet’s never-ending journey and the lessons learned along the way.
Standing in front of my fourth grade Eng/Lit class, I had only one goal: to recite every line correctly. It was more than just a goal; it was mandatory. Mrs. Garrison would assign us poems that had to be memorized and recited back to her.
I don’t remember the names of the poems or who the poets were. But I remember if you couldn’t pull off the task, you spent your recess on the wall watching your friends have fun. That thought, alone, was torment enough. That was my introduction to poetry.
If you asked me then what I thought of it, I might’ve told you he was no friend of mine. I might’ve also likened him to the kid the teachers never caught picking on his classmates, the kid who got everyone in trouble. I’d learn much later that he was misunderstood and only did what he did for attention. After a few more encounters — in middle school, high school and college — we became friends.
Since our friendship, I’ve published two chapbooks and completed two full-length manuscripts. My work has appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, including Alehouse, Boxcar Poetry Review, Indiana Review, MiPoesias and Rattle. I’ve also received fellowships from VONA (Voices of Our Nation) and Cave Canem, and was recently nominated for both a Best of the Net selection and a Pushcart Prize.
And while I’m a long way from that nervous fourth grader, poetry doesn’t seem to be impressed with that. No matter the accomplishments, it still asks me to prove myself to the craft, or to take it to the next level. In fact, I hadn’t begun to scratch the surface of poetry’s possibilities, including the advocacy it involves, until I started teaching at Charles Hart Middle School in Washington, D.C.
This advocacy, according to poet Martin Espada, involves “speaking on behalf of those without an opportunity to be heard.” Through their poems, the kids at Hart speak on behalf of friends and family members who they see as underdogs.
They speak on behalf of a community that’s been misrepresented in media coverage and with grim statistics that often describe Hart’s location — in the southeast section of D.C. — as a high-crime and high-poverty area. (The median income for area households is $24,905, according to publicschoolreview.com, an online database of schools and their surrounding communities. With 31,688 residents living around Hart, only 10 percent of those 25 years and older have college degrees.)
What I admire about my students is their courage. Even when statistics show they have a tough life ahead of them, they turn to what’s practical for them: poetry. In a July 2007 interview with Bill Moyer, Espada explained what I had yet to learn, but what my students knew all along. “Poetry will help them survive to the extent that poetry helps them maintain their dignity, helps them maintain their sense of self-respect,” the poet said. “They will be better suited to defend themselves in the world.”
To equip them for that, I’ve turned to three contemporary poets. If they were X-Men, Patricia Smith would be Rogue, Tim Seibles would be Iceman and Tony Hoagland would be Beast. Contemporary American Poetry would be the Westchester mansion where they hone their powers for the betterment of humanity. But these three are more than just mere poets; their mutant-like abilities set them apart from others in that camp.
Rogue can absorb psyches and abilities of individuals or several beings at once. In Patricia’s case, she can take several poetic forms — including the villanelle and sestina — and spin them on their heads with the ease of penning prose. As if the sestina wasn’t complicated enough, Patricia effortlessly executes the double sestina challenge.
Every time I read her work, I’m inspired to push myself harder in the craft. “While she writes from the ‘I,’ she writes selflessly so,” according to the Book of Voices, an online library of poetry in spoken word, performance and text.
Just like Rogue, Patricia can also absorb and reflect anyone’s memories, knowledge, talents, personality and physical abilities in her own poems. “The audience is free to step into her shoes as they will, trying on her point of view as her writing slips into the identities of others,” the Website states. Those muscular poems seem to breathe, sing and dance on their own while possessing an “enlightened, worldly political conscience” I wish I could accomplish in my own writing.
Sometimes I catch my poems trying to be as cool as Tim “the Iceman” Seibles. Understanding that cold is slang for hip and fresh, Tim is one of the coldest poets publishing today. When I first read his work in Hurdy Gurdy, it was clear what made him so cold. In his poem, titled “For Brothers Everywhere,” Tim compared the streetballers to “…muscular saxophones/ body-boppin better than jazz.”
Every poem I’ve written since have been failed attempts at trying to master Tim’s cool. “This is not a poetry of a highfalutin violin nor the somber cello,” poet Sandra Cisneros wrote in the blurb for Hurdy Gurdy, “but a melody you heard somewhere that followed you home.” His poems are as slick as the ice slides the Iceman glides over at high speeds.
Tim’s work also has a “streetwise” lyricism that gives his poems a conversational tone. It’s that same lyricism in my own work that puts my poems in conversation with his. My poem, “The Sweet Urge,” was an unsuccessful attempt at mirroring the intensity in some of Tim’s poems.
Another technique I’ve borrowed is one used by both Tim and Tony Hoagland: humor.
“It’s important to weave really substantive issues into poems that have pronounced humor in them,” Tim wrote to me in a December 2006 email. “It catches people off-guard, so they really hear something before they can go into the ‘denial zone.’”
As for Hoagland, his poems have been described as “playful, provocative, and sometimes even a little mean.” Like Beast, he possesses “a super genius intellect.” At the same time, his poems aren’t afraid to do hand-to-hand and acrobatic combat with issues considered taboo. “To me, a good poem threatens the reader a little, crosses over some line of the social contract, or the poetic contract, which sets off alarms,” Hoagland told Miriam Sagan in an interview on Tres Chicas Books Web site.
One such poem that set off alarms among Black writers was “Rap Music”:
…I have a bad suspicion
there’s a lot of dead white people in there
on a street lit by burning police cars
where a black man is striking the head of a white one
again and again with a brick,
then lifting the skull to drink blood from the hole—
I didn’t know how to feel about this poem the first time I read it. I was conflicted; on the one hand, I appreciated the poet’s honesty — what I struggle with in my own work. On the other, I couldn’t help but feel offended at some points in the poem.
But isn’t the poet’s responsibility to be a “rabble rouser”? Hoagland seems to think so. “A really good poem is the poem which breaks through the television screen into the world and reminds the reader that reading or listening is not a safe…experience, but that poetry is about open-heart surgery, being woken up or taken somewhere unexpected and dangerous.”
At Hart, I’m always inspired by my students’ courage to go to those “unexpected and dangerous” places by using what’s practical to them: poetry. It’s what helps them “maintain their dignity” and “sense of self-respect” despite what the news and statistics say about them. They also have what I wish I had in fourth grade: an interaction with poetry that isn’t frustrating and a discovery that the written word is a powerful thing, and that their voices matter.