Book Review: Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps

book2-07-480x480My experience of my heritage is curiously American, curiously Jewish. My paternal great grandparents immigrated from Ukraine. I don’t know when, or if my grandfather was born yet, or if my paternal grandmother’s parents were also from Ukraine, or what my family’s name was before their passage through Ellis Island. In fact, I don’t think anyone knows what my family’s name was before. More than Jewish — an identity which my grandfather kept private and my father kept hardly at all by the time I was born — I saw them as big men in suits talking big business and 1950s New York zeitgeist, which is to say, I saw them as American.

But my father also loved to talk about and cook “Jewish peasant food,” reminiscing at holidays about his celebrations as a child of a big orthodox Jewish family, a big Baltimore Jewish community. But I had to ask my father to enroll me in Hebrew school when I was eleven so that I could be bar mitzvahed. I had picked up on this significant religious and cultural tradition from an American television show, “Hey Arnold!” It was also the age at which I first found the word “kike” and the age I can first remember my friends making anti-Semitic jokes. I don’t know if they learned their prejudice from a television show.

“Jews have been targets of genocide throughout history, but the Jews who were able to escape were often upper class and better able to assimilate,” Aaron Samuels said to me over the phone. I called him to discuss the sociopolitical aspects of his book, Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps. “We see this in Egypt, Babylonia, Persia, Russia, and so on.  Assimilation was a survival tactic, but not all Jews had access to it. Today Jews of color represent a counter-narrative to that assimilation.  But we need to remember that Jews have always been a multiracial group, since the beginning of our people.”

What’s most exciting to me about Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps is the strength of its counter narrative. It documents in beautiful and powerful verse Samuels’ navigation of his socially constructed identity and his personal experience of self as they mutually evolve from his childhood into his future. He writes his Judaism, his blackness, his masculinity, his sexuality.

Samuels’ book is in the Jewish tradition of midrash, the active construction of communal identity through retelling and reinterpreting stories. “What Really Happened on Mt. Moriah” is a harrowing retelling of the binding of Isaac that reroutes the Jewish abolition of human sacrifice through a collection of servants rather than a patriarchal sage. Samuels recasts the ten plagues and expands the stories of Moses’ exile from Egypt. But what feels most crucial is how he applies this technique of retelling to his own experience.

Sometimes it’s within one poem, like the winding repetition over locks of hair in “Which Keeps Me” or embedded in the structure of the poem as in “Covered In Grass”, which borrows from Tyehimba Jess’ contrapuntal technique. Some figures and events surface in several poems. Samuels’ repeated examinations of his brother, Jacob, and adoption of his voice in some poems fashions a powerful lens on family, culture, and the making of race. In “Tashlikh”, Samuels mythologizes his brother:

I imagined him a fourteen year old boy with cornrows. I imagined him skinny and fragile and guilty, and willing to jump into any sludge puddle to avoid his brother’s disappointement.

But we all saw a squid titan, a Moses of sorts, presenting the ram’s horn to his people like commandments, standing in a puddle of bread crumbs, happy to have something to blow about.

Reading poems with this much power loaded in the language and so much emotional candor makes me feel powerful myself. Aaron’s ability to take traditions like the dozens and midrash and unify them in one poetic language illustrates modernity in Judaism and historicity of black peoples, subverting common oppressive narratives. For many years I have been unsure in how to navigate my own Jewish identity, which has felt swallowed up by assimilation. Aaron’s defiance in the face of literary biases that devalue black expression, in the face of personal struggle between communities with which he identifies, in the face of a society bent on dehumanizing him and using him to dehumanize others, and his courage in closely studying himself and the world around him, empowers him and empowers me.

Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps by Aaron Levy Samuels is published by Write Bloody Publishing and can be purchased through their webstore.

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.