By Tatyana Brown
The Tuesday afternoon after Obama was inaugurated for his second term (the same day The Washington Post published your thoughts on Richard Blanco and the state of certain fields of contemporary literature), I taught a poetry workshop in the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in Washington, DC. The participants attended voluntarily, and ranged in age from 14 to 40-something. I had more students present than there was space around the tables set up for us in the Youth Center. Believe it or not, this was convenient, because I also had more students than printed handouts, and the close quarters encouraged everyone to peer over each other’s shoulders, following along as the pieces I’d selected for discussion were read out loud.
I do hope you’ll forgive me, Ms. Petri, for taking what you wrote so personally. It just so happens that — considering what I do and who I am — your words are, in fact, unavoidably personal. In order to write what you did, even though you’ve subsequently walked back some of your article, you must not believe people like me exist.
Context is everything, and so in honor of the late Dr. King (and the holiday celebrating his legacy just the day before) I had prepared to facilitate a discussion focused on what I called “poetry of compassionate resistance.” We read and discussed “Uncle’s First Rabbit” by Lorna Dee Cervantes (a poem that viscerally examines the creation and internal landscape of a violently abusive man) through the lens of a collection of MLK Jr. quotations. After being invited to think critically and speak from the gut, my students (and I do think of them as “mine,” as in “in my care,” if only for the few hours we spent together) got their hands dirty and — rather typically — surprised me with their courage, intuition, and originality. I have studied at this particular poem’s feet for some time now, discussing and analyzing it in too many workshops across the country to count, and even so new meaning was unlocked for me at least twice that afternoon by high school students. The conversation bridged gaps in experience and sophistication, because we were engaging the work of a master — a messenger of meaning that was accessible down to the flavor of her syllables on the page.
When the time came to channel our discussion into our own creativity by writing and sharing rough drafts, I asked that we each pick someone who’d wronged us and write about ourselves from their perspective—specifically with the prompt “What I am Afraid of in You.” And still there were more surprises both in the quality and content of the work presented after a fifteen minute freewrite. One of my students shared a poem she’d written to the mother of her now ex-boyfriend, a woman who’d forbidden her son to speak to this 15 year old girl because she was black and he was not. Two others rattled off histories of sexual assault and another spoke out about surviving incest for the first time. As they read, their bodies shook from the stress of disclosure, seeming to rest easier once their turn had passed. Others brought up bullies, teachers and politicians. Still others did not read, but kept their eyes on the words scribbled in their notebooks and asked to be skipped. One man who’d stayed silent when it was his turn came up to me while I was packing up to leave and said, “I’m going to finish this poem, even though it terrifies me. I promise. Can I send it to you when I’m done?” Everyone applauded one another. As far as I can tell, everyone left thinking, and most left feeling a little braver than they had before. I read your article on the bus back from the library, and the words “Can a poem change anything?” stayed ringing in my head for hours after.
I know I am not writing to you with the authority of a June Jordan or a Patricia Smith, a Joy Harjo or a Yousef Komunyakaa or a Maya Angelou, or any other master of the craft with decades of experience leveraging poetry to shift the cultural ground beneath our feet. For my field, I am a common worker. I read voraciously, write with as much honesty and courage as I can muster, and offer up my devotion to the word as an opportunity to other students that we might learn to listen to one another with a little more compassion. I do not have a degree or a particular academic pedigree to call my own. My qualifications have all been earned through action (which means there must be a field broader than poorly attended readings, anemic graduate programs and unread books for me to act inside of). I am not yet funded by a foundation or grant. So you may think of what I’m capable of accomplishing as poet and activist to be greatly limited. You may see me as illegitimate or unqualified to discuss poetry in abstract terms.
And yet, I am one of a generation of poets (many of whom are “underground” like me, with a great deal of us rather deliberately studying together and supporting one another) building momentum in our country and across the globe. I have traveled across North America reading in bars, theaters, coffee houses and living rooms; speaking in university classrooms and auditoriums, in front of audiences as unique and diverse as the continent’s landscape itself. I also host and produce poetry shows in San Francisco, and I do what I can to see to it that poems I love by my contemporaries get published. I am young at it, so I’m still finding my footing. But I am well aware that the path I am walking is well worn (albeit not highly trafficked). So my context is one of a member of a long and necessary tradition, one from which I have a great deal more to learn. And though my work isn’t as common as, say, being a newspaper reporter, I am often inundated with people hungry for access to what they know or have an intuitive sense that poetry provides. So it is curious to me that anyone might look at one tiny eddy in this vital and distinctly progressive current I have come to know as my home, and say it’s dead.
I called the revelations I shared with my students that day “typical” on purpose. Even though I often find those I come into contact with through my work to be extraordinary and I frequently consider myself blessed, I am aware that the discipline to which I am apprenticed readily contains bravery and innovation as an everyday occurrence. To some students (myself included), a brilliant poem is news (though perhaps not the kind journalism necessarily limits itself to cataloging): it is proof of another brave soul’s survival, a window into what might be a liberating perspective, and an open invitation to bear witness honestly even when that act seems impossible. I understand that for some reason, your experience has only allowed you to encounter poetry in dry lectures and quaint, forgettable moments of tangential thought. In my work experience, I’ve learned that poetry often invites liberation and clarity into even the most hopeless places.
This is why I have a policy of never walking into a workshop or performance without a list of local resources (shelters and crisis/suicide hotlines) in my back pocket. It’s why the first training I received on the subject of teaching poetry included a brief lecture on “How to Dress When Teaching in Prison” (according to my friend and experienced instructor, Geoff Trenchard, you should wear the same clothes and confidence a fancy lawyer would — both because this will garner respect from the guards and because it will communicate to the incarcerated population that you’re showing up to do something with them that you believe is important). It is why we bother bringing poetry to many of the venues where I perform and teach in the first place. It is also why every teacher I’ve ever had has taught me that sometimes the only thing to say to a student is “thank you.” Some come to poetry because it is romantic and glamorous to fancy oneself a poet. Some come because it is delightful to unravel the winding, hidden signals left in a beautiful poem. Others come because we must. This is when and how the real work begins.
If my experience tells me poetry is still desperately important and constantly inspiring the minute, essential changes needed in order to become free and whole and hopeful, it’s also taught me that our culture is at the brink of a poetic explosion of sorts. I do not know if you’ll believe me, but between the festivals, the packed-to-the-rafters poetry slams/readings you can attend in most major cities, and the climbing number of online journals, blogs and YouTube channels devoted to poetry, the evidence is mounting. There’s an incredible amount of diversity thriving under the umbrella of “poetry,” but it’s all arisen in response to that creative hunger you attribute to the popularity of music and rap. It only takes a hint of research to note the trend, and a moment to realize why it makes such good sense. In an era of rising creativity — one where technology provides a much broader swath of the public with the authority to be published and heard — it is natural that an art form devoted to communicating with the most basic, natural, and universal tools available (language and the human voice) might experience a resurgence in popularity.
Words — while they can be shouted louder over more impressive platforms, or amplified through technology — can only be crafted finer through thought and care and guts. You can throw money at an album or get a contract with a bigger studio, but you cannot buy a better poem. You must write the thing yourself, and then trust the heart of the reader to swallow it whole. Poetry’s vitality does not arise exclusively from its gods and rock stars (although we have them, and they have much to offer), but from the human mind’s capacity for empathy and the desire to create. Good language goes viral — both through repetition and emulation. The emotional foundation comes with it. The result is cross-pollination at an exponential rate, with more people becoming aware of one another’s experiences by the minute. I owe much of my political awareness to the poetry I read, as well as the poets I have come to know and love. There are more people — and more kinds of people — that I simply wouldn’t know or care about if not for poetry than I can count. This is not a coincidence, but rather a function of the medium.
And so the question I believe most worth asking is not, “Is poetry dead?” but rather, “Why treat poetry like it is dead already?” or “What biases must you have to imagine that poetry’s relevancy might be past?” In addition to asking that more generally, I earnestly want to pose this inquiry to you directly: What made you limit your definition of “poetry” to MFA programs and half-empty readings? Why is that the only poetry you see?
I think, if we dig in beyond what’s comfortable and obvious, we’ll have to admit that banishing “real” poetry to a locked room in the ivory tower allows us to tame it and control its naturally transgressive and radical spirit. Declaring poetry to be irrelevantly elevated lets us pretend we don’t hear the voices speaking much, much closer to the ground.
When, after another workshop on my tour, Rob from the Durham Correctional Center in North Carolina asked me to look at a poem he wrote about what it felt like to be incarcerated, I held my breath as I read due to the sheer, heartbreaking simplicity of it. The language was sparse and cutting, less technical execution than emotional accuracy. He said it exactly right. A knot formed just below my throat as I felt his loneliness, his remorse and sorrow, land in my own body. How can I tell you here what passed between us then, as I looked up from the page and into his eyes — as he knew I understood even a fraction of his experience? How can I remember that and not be overwhelmed by all poetry has left to teach us?
After all, poetry is the most basic instrument of communication left for the oppressed. It has never been the exclusive dominion of the rich and well-pedigreed, but rather the medium through which genius erupts despite limitations of means and attention. Inside the context in which I met him, a man like Rob will never have the ability to record his experiences with a video camera, nor the budget or materials with which to make the movies you seem to argue have displaced poetry from its seat as a high art. But he has a voice — one that has the power to enrich and inspire. When everything has been taken from you (or perhaps you were never permitted to have basic human rights and privileges in the first place), and the only reliable resource or medium available is your own mind, you build a bridge with words. If we are to ever fully appreciate and understand one another (and I am speaking about the entire human race — a goal which might not be attainable, but that we should aim for nonetheless), how can we afford to do anything but construct and climb across such bridges?
You want to know if poetry is useful anymore, if it “changes anything” to mold and study language with particular devotion and grace. You want to know if this art form to which I have unequivocally dedicated my entire being has been reduced to a parlor trick in the hands of the privileged few or a vestigial organ in the body of human creativity — if it is “too harsh” to call the labor of my life, the fruit I am sure I will never fully taste (because its ripening is in the hands of those who read and listen one generation ahead of me at least) a boring and lost cause. You are asking about where I live — one citizen in a global city, listening to my neighbors and the guiding voices of my people with equal urgency. Here is what I know: Bring your attention to the grit of this world, and you will find the very-much-alive heart of poetry beating with vigor inside your own chest. As long as there is something worth remembering (be it great or terrible) and someone who needs to be heard, there will be poets. Until language melts into an unintelligible blur inside every human mind, until every person on the planet forgets that the tongue is a muscle that can be trained into a ferocious dancer and there is vital sound even in that which goes unspoken, we will pass poetry among us like a lungfull of air underwater. We will use it to breathe, to heal, to allow ourselves what is sometimes the only margin of connection and hope we have in a world of shame and terror. We will write and speak and listen. We will perpetuate our tradition even if we must scratch it with shards of stone into our cell walls or whisper it in coded lullabies to the unborn.
And here’s the most beautiful part of it all, Ms. Petri: If you want it, this is an invitation to see what you’ve been missing. You’re more than welcome to join the living, thriving tradition of poetry in America. I personally will welcome you to my reading series or any workshop I facilitate for the public with open arms. You just don’t get to tell me — or anybody else, for that matter — how relevant this art is to the world today. Nobody gets to do that. The poets (and the ever-growing audiences) speak for themselves.
Tatyana Brown is the founding Captain of The Lit Slam, a monthly live-audience curated literary journal. She has toured North America as a poet, read poems to teenagers on the mountaintops of British Columbia, told tales on NPR’s hot new true-life narrative storytelling show, Snap Judgment, and sold instant literature ranging from short fiction to wedding vows as a street vending freelance writer in New York City. She holds the distinct honor of winning the longest consecutive string of XXX Haiku Deathmatch Championships at Oakland’s own Tourettes Without Regrets. She ranked 4th at the 2011 Individual World Poetry Slam, and coaches teams and individuals (many to Finals or semifinals) since. Most recently Tatyana has begun guest lecturing in university classrooms (including the University of Indiana Bloomington, Duke University, and Yale University) on the subject of poetry slam as a contemporary American literary tradition specifically, and the rich, vibrant, vital nature of American oral tradition more generally. She also teaches workshops on poetry, storytelling, and the use of shock-value comedy as a tool to interrupt and dismantle systemic oppression.