National Poetry Month: Storytelling

I went to a poetry slam yesterday and mutilated a few high schoolers–as did my fellow spoken word compatriot who was preparing for an event he had coming up on Sunday–and I felt horribly for it.  I felt like a pillaging Viking snatching babies from their cradles.  Or an Egyptian soldier killing one and two year old babies for Pharoah.  It wasn’t even a competition really; more like a landslide victory.

Let me continue by saying that 1) I had absolutely NO idea it was a poetry slam.  I was told it was open mic and that was the only reason I was there.  2) I had no idea the program was put on by a high school English class.  It was held at a place where adult open mics occur all the time.  And 3) I do NOT, under any circumstances, make a habit of annihilating innocence.  Because I think that’s exactly what I did…

I’m not sure what stipulation this particular group had on slam participation, but all the high schoolers who entered were seniors.  We found that out at the end of the slam.  And their instructors didn’t feel one bit guilty about allowing them to parlay with adult poets who had been doing this for years.  They felt it was “good experience for them”.  Even a fellow poet of mine said the same when I told her what happened.  She said, “They need to step their game up.”  And that got me thinking: she’s right.  Because what I saw that night, both in the open mic section and the slam, made me feel these kids hadn’t been taught a thing.  So being the good Samaritan that I am…

1. Poetry gives the author a voice.  Pace matters.
My goodness, these kids who presented, out of nervousness or just academic zeal, read at lightning speed to the point you couldn’t hardly understand a word they said!  No pauses.  No breaks.  No connection with their audience.  Were it not for the title and author citation at the beginning, I would have had no idea what I was hearing.

Slow down.  Poetry is not a novel, or even a short story.  So read slowly.  Pace the words into sentences that make sense; the author has provided punctuation, stanzas, and lines to show you the places you are meant to take a breath.  Use them.  It forces the work to be read in the rhythm the author designed it, regardless of the way the words are organized on the page.

2. Poetry should be about something.  But please, don’t try to be deep.
The pretension in the room nearly stifled me.  We could tell the self-important, “we sit on the grassy knoll and contemplate the state of the world”, “the arts are my life” types the moment we entered the room.  And they reinforced that idea when they got up to the podium to present.  Consider the reason writing, artistry, music, theater, and dance are labeled artforms–because there’s an art to forming them.

These artists–in any genre–have something to say: about life, the world around them, nature, society, politics, love, themselves.  Art is about reflecting what may seem ordinary or common into a medium that is structured in a way that speaks to others.  It’s about placing those thoughts and experiences on a palette that is beautifully edible, digestable, and memorable.  Constructing poetry, or any artform for that matter, in a way that is deliberately complicated–with elevated vocabulary and snarky ideas–doesn’t make me think.  It makes me tune out.  Thereby defeating the central purpose of art: to be heard.

3. Poetry requires authenticity.  Only you could have said what you said that way.
A lot of comparison went on, especially once the slam part started and scores were assigned.  At the end, I heard a lot of “I can’t write like you”, “Your stuff was better than mine”, “I wish I could do that”.  You would be tempted to believe these are compliments to the other poet, but really it’s self-deprecating, and you don’t want to start teetering on that ledge.

Taking into account the first two points: if poetry is about giving the author a voice to say what they need to say about life and experience, who better to say it than that poet?  It’s true that you might not be the first person to write about love; these concepts occur to all of us because it’s experience we’ve all had.  But that heartbreak–or soul-wrenching love story–happened to you.  Nobody else can tell that story except you.  Even the lover you shared it with didn’t experience it the exact same way you did.  Your story matters.  Tell it the way you would tell it, because that’s the part that makes the telling worth listening to.

There will always be someone who can do what you do better.  Let that talent and skill elevate you, not discourage you.

4. Poetry is about connection.  But you are the only audience that matters.
I love to write.  I love to sing.  These are avenues by which I say the things that are meaningful and powerful to me.  And somehow, I’ve said them well enough that I’ve actually managed to get people to listen.  But I don’t write to sell books, and I don’t sing to get a record deal.  I write and sing because it allows for cathartic release, to say what I may not have otherwise.  I say it in a way that makes me feel connected to myself again, so that I get to learn more about me.  And you know what?  Now others know me better too, and they say, “I too have felt the sting of loss.  I too have felt the pain of heartbreak.  I too have been to the mountain.”  And so I have connected with them as well.

Artistry is about building a bridge between people.  Storytelling across varying mediums that allow someone a peek into another’s world so they can say “I’m not alone.”  Artistry is meant to pierce you at your core, to enlighten you, to bring you closer to an understanding of what it means to be human.  Because that is all an artist is striving to depict: their view of humanity.  Sometimes it is penetratingly dark.  At times, full of blinding light.  Either way, you should come away feeling connected to another’s view of the world, whether or not you were deeply affected by it.

This experience with young ones reminded me that I was once them.  I go back to my high school poetry and I can see how I was both pretentious…and then beautifully artful in my honesty.  I keep it all.  I’ve thrown nothing away, even the horrible stuff.  Because it still connects.  It still speaks.  Make sure what you write, sing, play, compose, act, draw/paint/animate does too.  Keep telling stories.  Somebody’s listening.


Poet Feature: Tammy French

Hello all!  I’m so excited!  I’m doing a spotlight interview with Alexia Purdy today!  There’s more on this incredible author come Launch Week next week, but for now, why don’t you head over and check out the interview?  I’m sure you’re going to enjoy it as much as I did.  Alexia has also done a review on The Grim; four out of five stars!  You can read the review here.

While I’m away, I’m allowing a feature poet to man the fort.  I suggested some of my fans and followers send me poetry this month in honor of National Poetry Month with the promise I would post some of what I’ve received.  A Facebook fan, Tammy French, sent me a brilliant piece titled “The Struggle”.  Enjoy!

The Struggle Drawing
Keith Burnette

The Struggle

Neurotic & weak
Unstable & tormented
Scared & ashamed
Loved but haunted by the past
Does she even have the courage or strength to
Claw her way up yet again?
Fingers & pride both bloodied & broken
A spirit that is bruised & battered
Will she struggle through it & survive to see better days?
Uncertainty & fear is what she faces
Dark days engulf her completely, along with ever-darker nights
                                                                                                      Will she make it?


As promised, here’s another poem for you.  It’s titled “Secret”.

You look at me with expectancy
Behind deep, penetrating eyes
But with those eyes you can’t see
Everything I’m fighting to hide
You can’t know what I’ve been through
Can’t possibly know how hard I’ve tried
To rectify those past relationships
My tears hidden behind a wall of pride
I know it’s not your fault, you see
What those others have done to me
But it’s because of them that I can’t give you
What you’re asking of me
I have a secret, buried deep within me
One I’ve kept inside for so long
“I’m afraid, I’m afraid, I’m afraid,” I whisper
A cadence that ripples like a song
I would love to hold your hand when you reach out for mine
But intimacy, it frightens me, and that can only heal with time
Yours is a love truly blessed; I won’t deny that fact
But I can’t partake, my heart shudders like an earthquake
And what’s left of me is bottled up tight and compact
It’s not fair to you to lead you on
To allow you to believe I’m healed
When deep inside I just always want to cry
And putting you through that is not a fair deal
You say I should let you decide for yourself
That it’s your choice to stay or go
But I’m deciding for you, I implore you
The pain is too deep for you to really know
You’re great, really you are, and I appreciate your concern
But I’m still too scared, still too nervous
About allowing myself to love or yearn
There are so many things I can’t bear to tell you
So many hurts I harbor close
I wish it could be, but it just can’t, you see
So for your own sake, let’s please just let this go

Sitting Here

I’m a little late today, but cut me some slack–it’s Monday! 🙂  I’ve got a new one for you.  This one is titled “Sitting Here”.

Sad by Susan Richards
Oct 2004
Sitting Here
This is not but a game to you
Juggling beating hearts
Like a jester at court
We are all little toys to you
Discarded playthings
Left on a shelf to rot
I am nothing if not destroyed by you
A fleeting thought
Long forgotten among chaos and ruin
And yet here I sit–
Knowing–but refusing to accept
That what you are and what you seem
Are two very different concepts
Still–I believe
In love eternal–
Not yours–as it has proven so
And still–I sit here
Content to smile with happy grace
And pretend the pain can’t be read on my face
Knowing the end has come and cannot erase
The lie I bought and must now replace

Except your face–
It makes me smile

The Unseen

Okay, so I pulled a winner out of my hat…sort of.  This piece is titled “The Unseen”.

The Unseen
If I scream in a crowded room
“Dead Angel” by Soccolich (2010)
Did I ever make a sound?
I float in and out of your consciousness,
Barely audible above the din and chaos
Gripping you by the throat.
I try to assist, but you don’t see me
You can’t hear me–I am invisible to you
Many waters cannot quench love
But I wish the rivers could drown it
So that I may fly on the wings of drunkenness
As you have for so many years
Maybe those rivers could drown me too
and emptiness could be peaceful solitude
Lying here–NUMB
I shout directly in your ear
But I am not present to you.
So silently I am knocked about
As you attempt to slay the demons among you.
Cut deep in my gut, my heart dead in my hands
I lie with these blackened souls
White wings, still–fluttering no more

"I, Too" and Langston Hughes

Okay, so I’m struggling this month to write anything good.  Don’t judge me haha!  To try to keep my inspiration flowing, I’ve been reading some of the work of my favorite poets.  Langston Hughes, of course, led the Harlem Renaissance with his startling forwardness and thunderous tone.  In 1925, he wrote “I, Too” which was recited by Denzel Washington in his directorial debut The Great Debaters (2007), another favorite movie of mine.  I had heard the poem prior to it being used in the film, but it never resonated with me the way it did after Mr. Tolson recited it.

I’m going to share both with you today, mostly because they move me.  I hope you are moved the same way.

I, Too

By Langston Hughes 1902–1967
I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.
Source: The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (Vintage Books, 2004).


This poem is titled “Sorrow”.  It’s the first decent prose I’ve come up with this month.  I’ve been told I can be morbid so those who are faint of heart–you were warned…

Sorrow–I welcome him like an old friend
He helps rebuild this wall I need desperately to mend
In my solitude it is only to my ears his whispers lend
Their speech and broken promises to no particular end

Behind this wall there is nothing with which to contend

Broken hearts and raging bears eventually descend

Into the bowels of emptiness that slowly bend
Into the stream of forgetfulness, never to be seen again

He envelops me with numbness
Dazzles me with pain
A hero to my shattered Heart does Sorrow become again
Champion of my darkest thoughts
Torturer of the slain
Sorrow rescues me from Love
Equipping me with disdain

Heart–like Mind–are always afraid
Afraid that Love will seek us out
and carry Us to open plains
Sorrow, ever-present challenger, can always keep at bay
The demons that seek to ravage our stores
and leave Us blind to pain.

Sorrow will always let me cry–

Never yielding to remember Love.