I have never been able to write poetry. Not good poetry, anyway. Give me 70,000 plus words to write and I’m happy. Give me 700 words for a flash fiction piece and I grit my teeth and write because the publisher pays me (and sends me glowing notes about how wonderful my stories are – never underestimate the power of a good “thank you” I probably would have stopped this torture long ago without those notes.) I won’t even attempt poetry. It’s beyond me. I don’t know how to put a set of near naked words on a page in a meaningful, emotion evoking fashion. A great poet can pull tears from a stone.
Chicago’s public schools are a bastion of young, enthusiastic, and all-around great poets.
I know. I recently judged a “Louder Than A Bomb” poetry slam from Young Chicago Authors. Those young people walking up to a microphone and sharing their creations were mesmerizing. One thing became obvious. Today’s young people have a lot on their minds.
And on their phones.
The majority of the students read their poems from their phone screens. I am not anti-technology, but I did notice one universal phenomena. Those who read from their screens never looked at the audience. Now, I realize public speaking is scary. I am terrified every time I stand in front of an audience, even though I speak on literacy and reading, my favorite topics. Even when I ask to speak, my stomach shakes. But I know I need to look at my audience, establish connections, help them hear the words that I speak. These kids urged us to “listen to the words” but they stared at screens. Maybe it was that public speaking anxiety. Or maybe because reading from the screen is different from reading from paper.
Three of the poets had their words written out on paper. And all three interspersed their reading with glances at the audience. Some included hand movements, and facial gestures. I think paper, especially hand-written, allows our eyes to scan and pull in bigger chunks than a screen does. I know I don’t have to stare at my notes when I bring them in paper, but I often get lost trying to find my place again with a speak on a computer screen. (Hence I use big headings and lost of white space to help me find my place again after I’ve spent time looking at my audience.)
Just my opinion, but something was lost with those who read from the screen, vs those with paper. This was emphasized by the one guy who had his poem memorized. Yes, he was older and more experienced. He also enabled the audience to “listen to the words” with our eyes as well as our ears. He enacted several portions of his poem, drawing us in deep. It was a great demonstration of why poetry is more a verbal and visual art than prose could ever be.
One last interesting phenomena I noted. I know people often say we should not bring race into things. But just this once, I will. There were poems about religion, family, significant others and abuse, weight. Several of the young African American students presented poems about social justice issues.
We had five judges scoring the poems. Which judge gave what score was supposed to be a secret. But the way we were seated left me able to see the scores of one other judge, the only other Black judge. So I noticed that when the social justice poems came up, when the students were talking about their fears of being people of color in this white world, the difference in the scores were quite noticeable. The first time I was surprised when the scores were read aloud. The second time, I wondered if we had all heard the same poem. The third time, I expected the score discrepancy.
Sometimes, we don’t hear the same words. Or maybe, the same words don’t convey the same impact, or level of pain. We could all deal with the poem about Christmas or missing a parent or problems with our significant others. The spread between scores was minimal. But not when the poem was about the injustice in the justice system as seen from the POV of a POC. Once the poem was about something as personal as race, “something so simple as the color of our skin holds so much power,” as one student said. The scores ranged widely, and because of my position, I didn’t have to guess which judges didn’t feel the passion and gave the low scores.
I absolutely do not think this was any kind of attempt by the white judges to downgrade the pain the black poets revealed in their poets. I think it was more about what they don’t see, and maybe can’t really feel. If they did not feel the emotional gut wrench from the words that I did, then its understandable they saw no reason to give it high marks.
That’s a dilemma we writers of color have to deal with. Be it judges at a poetry slam, or editors and agents making decisions on our manuscripts, or reviewers looking over our books. When the time comes to speak our truth, we have to wonder: will the audience even hear the words we are saying?