Clarinda Harris: Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Clarinda Harris is one of our featured poets in the Summer 2017 issue. She has graciously allowed us to reprint her poem here. 

Clarinda Harris

Sorcerer’s Apprentice

“I asked for water, boy; you’ve brought me beer.”

—Attributed to Mrs. Siddons, ca. 1850

Here comes my man playing man-servant,
bringing me a pretty wineglass full of milk.
the third so far. I’d asked for a glass of water
to drink at my computer, pretending to write,
unable to escape from email. “You’re so sweet,
sweetheart; just put it in the fridge for now.”
No water but more and more whited wine
glasses will be on their way. I think of the buckets
of water the sorcerer’s apprentice set in motion.
I remember the flood. I forget what stopped it.
I remember the famous Shakespearean actress
who lilted iambic pentameter even in a pub.
I forget how to make any rhythm of my own
In the din of glass on glass on glass on glass.

BIO:

As well as being the longtime publisher of BrickHouse Books, Inc., Maryland’s oldest literary press, Clarinda Harriss is a professor emerita of Towson University. Her published books include two academic books (one of which is a co-authored translation of the medieval poem “The Pearl”), five poetry collections, and one short story collection. She also co-edited with poet Moira Egan Hot Sonnets; An Anthology.

NOTE: If you enjoyed this poem, please check out LPR’s Summer Issue 2017. Order copies here (Note that annual subscriptions are available online as well.)

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Peter Marcus: Black Light for Etheridge Knight

Peter Marcus is one of our featured poets in the Winter 2017 issue. He has graciously allowed us to reprint his poem here. 

Peter Marcus

Black Light for Etheridge Knight
after Terrance Hayes

Count those living a locked-up life who sleep with one
eye open, always open. Black is the horse running from
the fires. Ka-toum Ka-toum, Ka-toum. Ka-toum. Black are
the horses galloping in silhouette across the stone-white
face of the moon. This song in which the dream-god said,
I will give you two hands that cut with the skill of Kara Walker.
The dead you left behind on Korean fields. The near dead
you lived among in wintertime on Midwestern city streets.
Those kept temporarily warm by Pluto’s snowy light.
The cemeteries of the heart one carries like an ancient vision.
Who among us is not less than their history of grief?
Who’s never drowned in the wine of their own blood?
Who’s not been beset with a vision of America without
its prisons, shelters, slums? I too lost faith in the systems;
sustained only by friendship, family, forgiveness, art. How
you sung the talking drum, the kindness drum. Bearded bard
of Memphis, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh. King of cobalt. King
of indigo. Ka-toum. Ka-toum, Ka-toum. Ever shadowed by
a racial blues: its horses, her tender hands. That primordial
blue where the stars still yearn to feel themselves scatter.

BIO:

Peter Marcus has poems upcoming in Miramar, Slipstream, and Prairie Schooner and in Broken Atoms in Our Hands, an anthology on nuclear war and disaster. He will be attending an upcoming residency fellowship at PLAYA (Oregon) in May 2017. He has published one book, Dark Square (Pleasure Boat Studio: A Literary Press imprint, 2012).

 NOTE: If you enjoyed this poem, please check out LPR’s Winter Issue 2017. Order this issue. (Note that annual subscriptions are available online as well.)
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Kyle Graber: Reading Comes First

The LPR staff is pleased to welcome our new poetry reader and my friend, Kyle Graber. I met Kyle my sophomore year of college, and amidst many of our similar interests, we found that poetry provided us with a common bond.  Over the years, I’ve asked him to edit many of my poems, and here he shares his trials and errors of writing poetry in college. We look forward to his insight and input on the LPR team. Welcome, Kyle.

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To forgive, or merely to make sense of our younger selves from the perspective of our currently occupied selves, can be very hard work. When we stumble upon an impressive, but inept drawing from childhood, we laugh, maybe even get a little sentimental. But I challenge anyone to revisit a poem written at age eighteen, three years later, and try to find that kind of inability adorable. For most people, the experience will be disturbing and maybe a little embarrassing.

When I look back at the poems I wrote as an 18-year-old freshman, I’m acutely aware of how different a person and, invariably, a writer I was. For example, I used to write much more than I read, much more. Sometimes I’d even watch people recite their poems on Youtube and call that reading. I also took no issue with length — excepting the work of others –which might be indicative of a belief that everything and anything that I wrote was fundamentally pretty good. Naturally, I wasn’t big on revision, though one can name any number of admirable writers who’d claim not to be either. But what really matters is, from then to now, I didn’t possess anything you could call doubt.

It wasn’t until late in my freshman year that I was introduced to a little emotion called shame. Along with a friend, I attended my first poetry workshop — which, as it turned out, was a casual one, facilitated by a senior, Noah. As a kind of parody of fraternal initiation, Noah joked that “the new kid” would be the first person work- shopped in the group. (But then, how much of a joke could it have really been, seeing as I was, in fact, made to go first?) I read my poem and received a couple comments of timid praise. Then, it was Noah’s turn. He spoke disinterestedly and proceeded to all but instruct me to re-think my personality, publically, no less. There was even a point, toward the end, when my work actually got him reflecting on his younger self.

“Y’know, ha-ha, when I was a freshman, I remember, I thought I was really smart,” Noah said, not quite looking at me, “like, really smart, but then I kind of realized, actually, ha-ha, I didn’t know shit.” Here he gave his most expansive laugh of all. “Anyway, thanks for sharing your stuff, uh, Kyle?”

“Yeah, Kyle,” I said.

What’s funny is that, aside from being a senior, Noah didn’t even have any intimidating credentials. He was just a guy who was openly unappreciative of my work. But since I had a hot streak of confidence, I suppose it’s true that no one had yet challenged me so directly. This might explain why I took it as hard as I did, allowing doubt, for the first time in years, to seize the higher ground. I didn’t produce any writing for a long time.

When I tried to, it always came out as unbearably self-conscious. Every poem I wrote was about how I was struggling to write an unselfconscious poem. Although, amidst all the turbulence, I stumbled into a genuinely fulfilling relationship with books. It was a novelty, really, to read a book just for the purpose of enjoyment. I’d previously conceived of reading to be a type of necessary training for writing, but it was around this time that I understood reading as a pleasure unto itself. Memorable books from that time are Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and Mary Oliver’s A Thousand Mornings, to name a couple. Both writers nurtured in me this kind of poetic value of focusing on the small things, even if, and especially when, what you really want to say is something big.

Looking back on what I’ve learned, it’s the reading- comes-first mentality that I’m most grateful for developing. When I ask myself now, What’s more important to me, writing or reading? the question is at least tougher than it used to be. To enjoy a book, without constantly having to worry about my own writing, instills a kind of modesty that ultimately works in my favor when the time finally comes to write.

If I have any advice for a young writer who’s about to enter their first workshop, it might be this: Prepare to be fractured. Or, even better, perhaps: Don’t prepare. Don’t prepare at all.

Bio: Kyle Graber was born and raised in New York City and is currently studying psychology and English at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.

Citing the Coelacanth: How Research Feeds the Poetic Process

Whitney Gratton

Whitney Gratton

At some point or another, most writers have heard the phrase “write what you know.” Lately, I’ve found another inspiring mantra to be “know what you write.” In other words, look at the act of writing as an investigation, whether its into a topic, idea, event, person, or worldview. The end result may not be certainty—to me, the unknown and uncertain have an important place in both the reading and writing of poetry. But the act of immersing myself in a subject has become a useful and delightful part of my writing process.

My sestina “Mother,” which relates a story of an octopus’ reproductive cycle, is the first in what would become a series of poems focused on sea creatures. One of my motivations in writing this poem was that I had recently come across a science article describing the surprising reproductive habits of the female octopus, and I felt compelled to share what I felt was a rather remarkable story of how the mother cares for and ultimately dies for her offspring.

Because communicating this fact-based story was a main goal of the poem, I prepared for writing by gathering all the information I could about the octopus’s life cycle from online journals and articles, podcasts, and videos. In doing so, I realized to my delight that not only was doing all this background research personally fascinating but researching a subject provided a useful framework within which to find inspiration and enter the state of wonder and continued contemplation that helps propel poems into being.

I once heard Margaret Atwood describe the process of writing poetry in a way that has stuck with me. She said that poets spend a lot of time doing what looks like absolutely nothing. But what they’re actually doing is creating a space inside themselves into which the poem can come. I’ve started looking at research as a way to intentionally contribute to this incubation process and invite the poem to come, like leaving out a trail of breadcrumbs to coax a shy animal closer. For instance, for my poem “Coelacanth,” I was initially captivated by the idea that this species of fish could live for millions of years unbeknownst to scientists and decided to try to write a poem about it. I began reading what I could find about it—its discovery, habitat, and behavior—in an attempt to simulate the often-haphazard process of incubating various facts and ideas in the back of the mind.

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The coelacanth.

Incubation aside, this background research serves a few more straightforward purposes. One happy result is that it tends to turn up new or unexpected language that might not find its way into my work otherwise. The term “Lazarus taxon,” used to describe a species like the coelacanth that is rediscovered or reappears in the fossil record after seeming to have died out, ended up being an important element in the resulting poem.

Perhaps the word I spent the longest trying to find was in the line “If he sees me at all, I’ll be the lantern fish’s / last sight.” I knew I wanted to highlight the coelacanth’s seeming invisibility and the idea of seen vs. unseen using an organism that it would prey on.  Originally I had chosen “amphipod,” an order of small crustaceans, as a general and scientific-sounding example of the unfortunate prey. Eventually, I thought perhaps it distracted from the language of the rest of the poem, and I looked for alternate options. Fortunately for me, the coelacanth is an opportunistic eater, feeding on whatever it can find as it drifts, including the more linguistically approachable lantern fish, which ultimately won the place of honor.

Though the envisioning of the coelacanth’s perspective is imaginative, I wanted the details of the poem to be accurate and serve the subject by being true to the reality of the species and the events of its discovery. In this way, background research served both as a source of inspiration for the poem’s content and as a sort of fact checking at various points along the way in the poem’s evolution. I admit I feel a little uneasy even calling what I do “research,” as it’s a somewhat informal and unofficial process. The main rule I have for myself is that each important fact I include needs to be verifiable by at least two different sources – preferably, ones with established credibility like news outlets, museums, and science journals or magazines.

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Stamp commemorating the coelacanth’s 1938 discovery by Western scientists.

In some cases my initial knowledge gathering has taken the form of library books—from a popular science book on the biology and social history of eels to an image-rich coffee table tome showcasing little-known creatures of the deep. A more immediate method—and admittedly the most common for me—is meandering through the Internet, always evaluating the sources as I go. Although I lean most heavily on sites by well-recognized authorities, I enjoy the occasions on which I end up on a site with no apparent attachment to an organization that appears to have been created and maintained solely out of an individual’s passion for a sometimes very specific and obscure subject. One such page that I came across while delving into the coelacanth was part of an entire site dedicated to postage stamps from around the globe featuring this particular fish.  Another I kept coming back to contained a wealth of information on all aspects of the coelacanth, but I was unable to track down much about the site owner aside from his first and last name.  Expertise aside, the thoroughness and diligent passion he displayed for the fish only compelled me to read on with increased fascination.

I was thinking again about research as I read about photographer John Yoder’s experience capturing the night sky at the world’s largest astronomical project in the Atacama Desert. He says, “Do we photographers go witness such things to take pictures, or do we take pictures in order to experience such things?” I’m beginning to think that as important as research can be in informing a poem, there may be even more value in the poem’s potential to give my ongoing explorations meaning and serve as a way in which they can be shared.  I can only hope that one of my poems will move the reader to continue—or begin—his or her own exploration.

A Safe Space for Students: The Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House

As a sophomore at the University of Maryland, I joined the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House, a living-learning program that puts students interested in creative writing in one dormitory and conducts workshops and classes in the same building. The people I met there, staff and students alike, not only dramatically improved my writing but catalyzed a mental revolution in how I thought about language and art, all while fostering close friendships (in New York I still live with two of my friends that I met through Writers’ House).

Writers’ House also afforded opportunities to explore other aspects of writing by providing support for programs like a regular open-mic night (the previously mentioned TerPoets) and a literary journal, and taking on the roles of performer or editor also expanded my view of the literary word. The woman who continually protects and develops this magical space is Johnna Schmidt, who recently led her students to the 2014 Split This Rock Poetry Festival. Johnna talks about this experience:

Priya is in my office, explaining that she regrets not being more involved in the Jimenez-Porter Writers’ House. She wishes she had more time, she’s been overcommitted. And it’s true that I have had almost no contact with her. I tell her (a) the door is open, and (b) she owes me nothing. When I look up her record after our meeting I see she is a BIO SCI: PHNB major and I don’t even know what that means, other than that she must have a skill set much more lucrative than mine. This is how it is with college students these days. Having gone through K-12 with the emphasis so firmly set on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math for those of you who have somehow been spared the acronym), many of them reach college starving for artistic or literary engagement but remain too busy putting together their resumes to be able to carve out the room in their schedules for something so unnecessary as art. After all, it won’t lead to a real career, right? And their parents, who are probably sacrificing quite a bit to foot the bill for college, are firm on this point:  You better major in the sciences, business, or technology.

And here am I, teaching poetry and fiction writing at University of Maryland, insisting that such a pursuit is worth your time. I suggest to Priya that she might want to attend the field trip to Split This Rock. I’m only being practical; I have purchased 20 student passes to Split This Rock and am trying to make sure they get used.

A few weeks later Priya is on the Shuttle-UM bus to the metro, surrounded by 19 other students. She is reading Natalie Diaz’ book of poems When My Brother Was an Aztec. We are on the way to meet Natalie and I’ve offered my copy around. I love watching the students read and write. Their attentive bodies. They way everything stops and they become so focused. It’s almost like they enter a different world. I suppose they do.

Natalie Diaz reading at Split This Rock Poetry Festival. (Photo courtesy of Split This Rock.)

Natalie Diaz reading at Split This Rock Poetry Festival. (Photo courtesy of Split This Rock.)

Downtown, in the conference room at the Institute of Policy Studies, Natalie Diaz is suggesting that we need to explode our language. She suggests we crack things open. She confesses that she has tried to write sestinas several times but hasn’t figured out how to break the form yet. She says if we use the word “apple” we need to be aware not only of the etymology of the word but also the mythology, the aphorisms, common usages, and associations. “Apple” is carrying all of that and more to the reader. She finally suggests that we only really know things when they are broken. How many times have we heard some version of “I didn’t know how much I used my right index finger until I broke it.” Even with family members who die or become very ill, we understand their place in the family better when they are absent. It strikes me now that we seem incapable of fully understanding the interconnectedness of things while they are fully functioning.

All of us are listening intently. Priya  keeps asking questions, even after our time with Natalie is supposed to be over. It’s turning into a tete-a-tete between Priya and Natalie. I’m sorry I have to cut them off and let everyone go. Natalie offers that anyone who has additional questions for her can email her.

(Photo courtesy of Split This Rock.)

(Photo courtesy of Split This Rock.)

Waiting for me at my office on Monday is a thank you note from Priya for giving her the opportunity to attend Split This Rock over the weekend. She’s had several conversations with writers she admires over the weekend, and she uses the words “incredible” and “awesome.”  But my favorite phrase is this one: “this festival was one of my first exposures to spoken word/slam poetry, and I’ve completely fallen in love with it.”  She also asks for Natalie’s email address.

Is there any better pursuit for a college student than to fall in love?  Reason tells us yes, there are better pursuits, skills to learn, career enhancements, work to be done. But, dear reader, who I am assuming to be middle-aged like myself, do you remember your body, back before it was broken, when you were 18, 19, 20 years old?  The body will not be denied ecstasy. Do you remember the urgency of youth, how we pursued things so impatiently, how passionately we loved and believed? I have no doubt that Priya has experienced a turning point. That she’s coming away from the festival with more interesting thoughts than ever and perhaps a new set of antennae with which to gauge the changing environment.

Perhaps it has always been this way, the vitality of the arts spilling into our lives and making converts of us one by one, when we all had more practical uses planned for our time. Art the inevitable interruption; in the face of something really great we drop our Excel spreadsheets. All the parents and administrators in world pushing on the younger generation can’t stop them from falling in love.

My feelings mirror Priya’s. Not only do I feel incredibly grateful for the program that Johnna has shaped, but Split This Rock in particular is an incredibly charged and thrilling way to experience language. It was at the 2012 Split This Rock Poetry Festival that I was first blown away by the DC Youth Slam Team and first learned about June Jordan. At Split This Rock I stood on the steps of the Supreme Court and delivered one line of poetry in a cento of protest. I went home feeling like language and reality were more closely bound together than ever, and that we were all engaged in building that language, that reality. If you haven’t been to the poetry festival yet, be sure to go in future years. Thanks also to Sarah Browning and her staff.

No Doubt About It: Le Hinton Picked for Best American Poetry

Le Hinton‘s poem, “No Doubt About It (I Gotta Get Another Hat),” originally appeared in our Winter 2013 Doubt issue, but now has had the distinction of being picked up for the 2014 edition of Best American Poetry. We immediately contacted Le, eager to share more about the story of his poem and the rest of his work with our community in the wake of this momentous achievement. Make sure to give his poem a listen and a read to get the most out of his comments (and because it’s great poetry!). Here’s Le in his own words:

Let’s make this clear. Chris Toll was one of the most creative and gifted poets I’ve ever met. When I found out that he passed away, I cried. If life is meant to be an exquisite sculpture that ages and acquires a lovely patina which enhances its beauty, Chris’s death was like a micro-fracture at its base, the realization that nothing is ever perfect. Some things in life are fundamentally unfair, absolutely wrong. Chris’s death in 2012 is one of those things. As I sat in the audience at Chris’s memorial service, I decided I’d do something I rarely do: write a poem as elegy. There were three keys to my creating “No Doubt About It (I Gotta Get Another Hat).”

In an interview, one of my favorite poets, Dean Young, was quoted as saying: “A straight line, a linear progression, is a fiction and not even a very convincing one. There is no such thing as discontinuity because there is nothing that doesn’t belong, that doesn’t vibrate in this web of connection. Now is always unprecedented and sudden.” This thought is almost always in my fingertips as I begin to write a poem, and it was in this case. There isn’t a linear narrative that runs through the poem.

The second idea that I considered important was that I didn’t want to write an ordinary elegy using a traditional form. Chris was so very unique, so I decided to write about him by using an element of his writing. In some of his poems Chris illuminates words, meanings and moods by taking them apart. In my favorite poem of his, “The Abyss Has No Biographer,” he writes:

How long can I stay
at the inn in innocent?
Love is so hard
and it’s all we came to do.

I wanted to use that technique in my poem for him.

The third aspect of this poem is uncertainty. When someone passes away, especially suddenly, what we feel most acutely is uncertainty, not just about life, but about everything. We question each choice we’ve made and will make, at least for a time. In the poem, I wanted some of the disregarded choices to remain visible. In the poem there are strikeouts that reinforce the uncertainty that is stated by the words.

Non-linear thinking, deconstruction of individual words and a somewhat unconventional visual look  are the three techniques that I wanted to focus on in creating an elegy for Chris.

Kind poetry colleagues tell me that I have a broad range of styles within the poetry I write. More honestly, I’m all over the place. I write in free verse for the most part and don’t often write in forms. However, when I attempt to write a poem, I usually look for some kind of organizing principle. It may be an extended metaphor or an overarching mood, however, often it is something about how the poem looks on the page. I am constantly searching for a different way to place emotion and/or intellect on an empty white space. A few years ago, I wanted to write about gun violence. Other than the title, “You Do the Math,” it was written only with numbers. I find some of the work by Mary Szybist a revelation. In her latest book, Incarnadine, one poem is written as a starburst. Another is written as a diagrammed sentence. Poems such as these fascinate me. “No Doubt About It, (I Gotta Get Another Hat)” lives in that neighborhood of visual variations that I sometimes attempt.

Once the poem was finished, I didn’t intend to submit it anywhere for publication, however, I was reminded that Little Patuxent Review’s reading period was ongoing and the theme was Doubt. I certainly was aware of the proximity of Little Patuxent Review to Chris’s world in Baltimore. Submitting the poem here seemed to be almost destined. When the poem was accepted for publication in the Winter Issue 2013, I was more than thrilled. Being published in Little Patuxent Review was no small accomplishment. It was another step up. The poem’s publication was somewhat of a validation of the kind of poetry that I had begun writing in 2006: poetry that is less narrative, more image driven, more concerned with the architecture of the piece on the page.

In January, when I was first notified by Mark Bibbins about the poem’s inclusion in The Best American Poetry 2014, I first thought it might be a joke or online hoax. I don’t have the kind of ego that walks around wondering why the world hasn’t discovered me. When I found out that the poem was chosen by guest editor, Terrance Hayes, whose work I’ve read closely and loved since 2010, I was stunned. I am profoundly grateful to him and series editor, David Lehman, for choosing “No Doubt About It (I Gotta Get Another Hat).” I know that there are thousands of poets in America who write wonderfully creative, intellectually  and emotionally moving poems. I’ve been fortunate and will always remain thankful.

I live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Amish country, part of the larger South Central Pennsylvania area, which includes the cities of Lancaster, Harrisburg, York and Lebanon.

I host a monthly poetry reading series, the Lancaster Poetry Exchange, with help from a marvelously talented poet, Jeff Rath, that’s been running since October 2007. It has the dual purposes of showcasing local poets as well as bringing in poets from outside the area. Maryland poets such as Meredith Davies Hadaway, Virginia Crawford, Pamela Murray Winters and Cliff Lynn have all read for the Exchange.

I am also the publisher and chief editor of a now-yearly poetry journal called Fledgling Rag. Its genesis was my belief that there are talented, creative poets who reside outside the major and minor metropolitan areas of America. I contend that there are great poems being written by poets who are somewhat invisible to the larger world, such as Harrisburg’s Marty Esworthy, York’s Rebecca Gonzalez and Lancaster’s Jeff Rath. Fledgling Rag, in a small way, attempts to make those poets a bit more visible. There is always a strong South Central Pennsylvania presence in each issue, however, we don’t impose any geographical restrictions in deciding which poets are included in each issue. Each issue has one featured poet. The last three featured poets were Marjory Heath Wentworth, the poet laureate of South Carolina, Michael S. Glaser, former Maryland poet laureate, and Yona Harvey, creative writing professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Three of Chris Toll’s poems, including “The Abyss Has No Biographer,” appeared in Issue 10.

There are diverse poets, with different writing styles and subject matter throughout the South Central Pennsylvania area. There are poets of place, poets of  protest, language poets and experimental poets. Quite of few successful and respected poets use poetic forms as a basis for their work. I’m excited by all of it. That is why my own poetry can be so varied. My work and my non-writing activities seek to bring together my internal world, my immediate world and the larger poetry world together. Isn’t that what we’ve come here to do?

Note: Le additionally supports his larger poetry world (or “extended family“) through his publishing endeavor, Iris G. Press. In addition to being the outlet for Le’s aforementioned Fledgling Rag, Iris G. Press has published several books. Have a look at more of Le’s work and the work of his poetry family there. The Doubt issue where “No Doubt About It (I Gotta Get Another Hat)” first appeared can be found here.

Unleashing Monsters: The DC Youth Slam Team

Jonathan Tucker

Jonathan Tucker is a transformative power on this planet. As a freshman, lost and lonely in a large student population at University of Maryland, I found my home at the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House through the open mic series that he co-founded, TerPoets. TerPoets still goes on strong to this day, and Jonathan is still giving the gift of his transformative power. These days one of the recipients of that gift is the DC Youth Slam Team, and they are passing it on. While attending the Split This Rock Poetry Festival in 2012, members of the Team electrified every room they performed in. Seeing them perform was one of the times I’ve most been excited by words. To tell you more about the Team, I give you Jonathan Tucker:

My students wrote a poem about the social norms objectifying women through girls’ Halloween costumes. The video of their “Monster” performance at the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival (BNV) in summer 2013 went viral right before Halloween: over 600,000 views at the time of this writing (Online Editor: Written November 1st, 2013. Now over 1.3 million views as of this posting.) Co-author of the poem, 16-year-old Hannah Halpern summed up the message of the piece:

We decided to write a poem changing the way we see monsters; [to show that] women can be fierce, hot-tempered, or what have you. We connected this to Halloween and how as girls grow older, they are convinced that their costumes must get skimpier and show more skin to be sexy. After brainstorming, we realized that our key point was women should wear what they want. Slut-shaming is not the answer, nor is peer pressuring women and girls to wear sexier outfits if they don’t want to.

She’s amazing, clearly. As a teaching artist and coach of the DC Youth Slam Team, a program of Split This Rock using poetry to empower teens to speak up about issues of social justice,  I couldn’t be more proud. The overwhelming positive response from feminists around the world via twitter and facebook is sweet. The exponential growth of our online following is dope. The small fame our teenage poets are garnering is not what makes me proud though; it’s the lesson they and half-a-million viewers of their poem are learning that makes me the most proud papa poetry coach.

Poetry matters. Youth voice matters. Combined with passion for social justice issues like challenging the rampant sexism in our world, they are most powerful.  Poetry is not only relevant, real, and important, but it can be fun and entertaining too.

Along with my fellow coaches and teaching artists at Split This Rock, I’ve been teaching this lesson for years. It’s difficult to be convincing when the rest of the world sees poetry as confusing emotional babble from dead white men. To many people, it has no bearing on their lives besides an English class once or twice in grade school and maybe a scene in a movie like Love Jones. But for the teenagers in our programs, often marginalized youth who feel like their voice isn’t heard and doesn’t matter, the empowering lesson learned through poems like this Monster piece, and the response to it, are life-changing. In my humble opinion, helping students learn to value themselves, their thoughts, and creativity is more important than anything the schools test them on.

Spoken word and performance poetry, such as the slam at BNV where that viral video was recorded, changes the way young people experience poetry. It is, just as it began thousands of years ago, a living, breathing art form. It speaks directly to them when teaching artists like myself and other poets from the community visit schools and coach after-school poetry clubs. Yes, we write like all poets, but we also speak directly to the students and perform our poems with a passion and intensity comparable to that of Shakespearean (or hip-hop for that matter) theatre. We encourage everyone to write, not just the talented or advanced students, using whatever language, grammar, or spelling they desire, to express themselves. After all, that is the point, right? We help them tell their stories and use famous works of art (including music, theatre, film, and visual arts) and movements for social justice, to inspire them. We rigorously workshop, revise, and rehearse poems. Then we do something dangerous, silly, and possibly stupid: we compete. Our goal is for every school to have and support a poetry slam team just as they do their sports teams. This might sound crazy, but the passion and poetry of our young people is just as important, if not more so, than their ability to tackle one another.

The DC Youth Slam Team (Photo: Jonathan Tucker)

Poetry slam was invented in the mid-1980’s by Marc Kelly Smith and it turned performance poetry into a sport. The goal was, and is, to gain a larger and wider audience for poetry. The goal has never been to rank, categorize, and demoralize poets, though that can and has unfortunately happened sometimes, just as it does in sports. What’s also happened, as my students on the DC Youth Slam Team have experienced firsthand, is that being a poet on a team has transformed the lives of many people who never would have otherwise thought of themselves as poetic, talented, or valuable. The tragic feeling of losing a poetry slam by one-tenth of a point dissipates quickly. The empowerment created by a room full of people, often your peers, applauding you and your poetry, does not fade as fast. It builds confidence, character, and self-worth. It helps survivors of traumatic and violent experiences process their emotions and strengthen their healing process. For me, as a young poet, it helped me find myself, my voice, and my purpose. As a coach and host of an open mic, it also helps me build community. We came in 2nd place this year, out of 50 teams at BNV, losing to Denver, CO by less than one point. Though we were certainly disappointed that we didn’t claim 1st place and champions of the nation, we’re far more concerned with the world hearing our poetry and the important messages therein.

As a teacher of poetry I’m working to help everybody realize their potential as brilliant, critical-thinking, passionate poets. They may not have known that they wanted to be a poet performing on stages across the world, but something about putting their truth on paper through poetry opened them up to the possibility that they are indeed as great as they imagined, as their teachers told them they were. Indeed, these young poets are monsters; powerful, compassionate, and talented monsters who have survived terrible and surreal experiences and are no longer scared of the blank page or center stage.

You can find more videos of the DC Youth Slam Team’s performances at their Youtube channel. You can learn more about the team and support their work by visiting their website.

Jonathan B. Tucker is a poet, educator, and youth programs coordinator for Split This Rock, where he coaches the DC Youth Slam Team. Two-time winner of the Community Oriented Underground Poet (COUP) Award from the National Underground Spokenword Poetry Awards, JBT is passionate about using poetry as a community organizing tool. His book, I Got the Matches, and other poems are available at jonathanbtucker.com.