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.