Poetry Sundays with Stacia: To Love or Hate Spoken Word?

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Poetry.

Just say the word and you’ll elicit a kaleidoscope of reaction. While one person clasps her hands and swoons, another will roll his eyes so hard you think they’ll stick.

What draws people to poetry?

What makes others consider it downright revolting? How do we develop an appreciation for poetry? Why would we want to? We’ll be examining these questions and others every Sunday here at aliyasking.com, but first, let me draw you a map of my journey.

It was DC in 1997, just one year after Love Jones mainstreamed the black poetry scene. I’d grown weary of the finger-snapping, the… slow, drawling cadence of… open. mike. denizens… by the end of my freshman year of college.

Once a month, my girl Randi and I would hop on the green line and jump off at U Street to tip into a small black bistro called Mango’s and listen to work of older poets.

A girl in a two-foot-high headwrap with cowrie shells adorning her neck and wrists read about sex as a metaphor for black nationalism. A guy whose locs swung across his back like a pendulum delivered a poem about the beauty of the black queens in Southeast and Hyattsville.

The first few nights, it was magical. You could get drunk on that cadence, holding your breath for as long as a poet held a pause, remembering to breathe only after you felt lightheaded and sated.

It would be three months before I realized that many of these poems were practically interchangeable. Five months later I realized, y’know, if you’ve heard one poem about a beautiful black queen, you’ve heard ‘em all.

Within nine months, the love affair was over.

Spoken word was trite, corny and way too commercial.

I became a poetical cynic. Every time an advertiser decided to use spoken word to shill burgers or fabric softener or coffee, I’d roll my eyes long and hard. Whenever I saw a flier for a slam, I’d cringe. I avoided Def Poetry Jam altogether.

Whenever someone asked if I still did poetry, I was defiant: “nope, no way.”

Then, earlier this year, about two weeks into National Poetry Month, my heart grew three sizes in one day. It was sudden, unexpected, pleasant. I’d been reading people’s 30/30 contributions on Facebook and blogs and following the twitter feeds of some really lovely poets who were passionately arguing the merits of poetry written for page and poetry written for stage.

It occurred to me that I missed that passion. I wanted to reenter that conversation. I wanted to be the kind of poet who didn’t sound or look or gesticulate like anyone else, but who instead wrote electric, crackling work that made other cynics reconsider their retirement from the medium.

Lines began dancing in my head and, just like old times, I’d grab whatever was near and jot them down, building around them in scrawling, diagonal lines. I’d manically cross out what didn’t work, feel goosebumps rise whenever something did, and I was vibrant and beaming, made new.

Here’s everything I’d forgotten, in a nutshell. Poetry doesn’t have to be anything. There’s no style guide for it. No grammatical rules to belabor it. No sentence structure it needs to follow. No word count to confine it. A seventeen-syllable poem may be just as effective as a seven-stanza one. Poetry is an organism with its own paramecia. It moves of its own accord and without fail, it’ll move someone who reads it or hears it. Maybe not you and yours, but someone.

Leaving pretense aside, every poem is useful, even if it compares my skin to brown sugar or hip-hop to a curvaceous diva. Love it or don’t; it will survive. And I’ve learned to dig that about it.

In this new column, we’ll talk to poets about their craft and examine contemporary and classic poems by writers such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Suji Kwock Kim, and Major Jackson.

We also want to hear from you. Are you a spoken word artist? Send us your work, printed or video.  Submit a written poem or a video of you reading your work.

If you don’t mind sharing in a safe and supportive community willing to offer you feedback, email us at stacialbrown@gmail.com.

Be sure to join us next week, as we feature poet Tara Betts, whose latest work, Arc & Hue, will be released this Tuesday, September 1.

Until then, I leave you with a poem that’s trailed me like a private eye, since I first read it at twelve years old:

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow

— “Dreams,” Langston Hughes

Stacia L. Brown is an adjunct professor with a degree in fiction, rediscovering poetry after a long hiatus. You can read her hodgepodge of cross-genre writings here.

Dear readers: Are you a poet, past or present? Do you still love the craft? Who are your favorite poets and spoken word artists? What would you like too see happen here on Sundays? And most importantly, are you ready to share your work with us?

We’d love to hear from you.

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13 Responses to “Poetry Sundays with Stacia: To Love or Hate Spoken Word?”

  1. Poetry Sundays with Stacia. « stacia l. brown Says:

    […] out the inaugural article right here! Hope you like it! If you’d got suggestions or would like to be featured, please be sure to […]

  2. mr. nichols Says:

    what’s good stacia? as a poet and a fan of your work, i’m really looking forward to this new feature. i grew up writing poetry but my journey parallels yours and after i self-published my book in 06, i too became a “poetical cynic” and walked away. i haven’t yet found the inspiration to pick up the pen again, but perhaps Poetry Sundays with Stacia will be that catalyst. my favorite poet of all time is Saul Williams —> “[he] makes me want to burn my notebook.” peace.

  3. slb Says:

    mr. nichols: that’s right; i remember that about you (saul as your favorite poet). i still haven’t gotten around to reading or listening to anything of his post-S(square root symbol)he. but i’ll give him another whirl. he’s kind of a big deal.

    i didn’t know you’d self-published a book in ’06. are there any poems from it that you’d like to share? email me.

  4. Rakia Says:

    Stacia and Aliya — nice to see you ladies join forces. I’ll make this a part on my Sunday routine.

    I agree with you 100% about spoken word saturating the market in a slightly grotesque way. For example, there’s a commercial out now with recording artist Dwele at keyboard and some actor-dude doing spoken word at the mic. It’s an ad for McDonald’s “McCafe.” Everything about this scene is just WRONG I tell you.

    Looking forward to next Sunday.

  5. Kenesha Says:

    I, too was a spoken word poet and grew dissatisfied with the same cadences. I think my tipping point was a spoken word event hosted in DC and a white woman did a poem in the famous spoken word cadence. I felt like we were being made fun of, though I’m sure this wasn’t her intention. I do love a lot of written poetry Nikki Giovanni, Saul Williams (* he signed my poetry book), Langston Huges, etc. My favorite poem is Countee Cullen’s “What is Africa to Me”, the message still resonates today, maybe especially today.

  6. shani-o Says:

    Hey Stacia! You know, aside from classroom exercises, I’ve never really written poetry. My favorite poem, with lines that echo in my head almost daily, is “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock.”

    But my favorite poet is the earthy and in-love-with-life Walt Whitman.

    I never really got into spoken word, but I think it can be…pleasant.

  7. clove Says:

    I love this! definitely a big poetry buff. that’s how I started out writing. I’ll be checking for this

  8. slb Says:

    rakia: thanks for reading. i’m with you abt that mccafe thing, but i’ve heard a lot of people defend it as a way for Dwele to get exposure. i guess i can’t argue with that, but that doesn’t mean i don’t try. lol

    kenesha: i find your anecdote really interesting. i’d never “owned” the “famous spoken word” cadence as an african american/people of color construct, but now that you mention it, i realize people of color are/have been/were its primary proponents (that style of reading is pretty much on its way out, if not already passe, no?).

    do you still read/perform your work? if so, how has your cadence varied?

  9. Kenesha Says:

    I don’t perform anymore, I stopped in 2002. I haven’t written in almost as long. I stopped using the cadence in about 01 and I think I’ve found “my” poetry voice now, but the last poetry related thing I did was read Nikki Giovanni’s “Love Poems” book and weep on the floor of my son’s room (he was gone). That was about 3-4 mths. ago LOL! Hopefully poetry Sundays will get me inspired again.

  10. nichole Says:

    excellent!
    i’ve just started a professional writing program and my concentration is poetry. i look forward to reading this column and hope to be able to contribute.

  11. naturallyalise1 Says:

    I am very excited abou thtis column being I am a poet, blogger, and spoken word artist myself!

  12. slb Says:

    naturallyalise1: we appreciate your enthusiasm! also: i received your email; i haven’t forgotten about you.

  13. jon k mckenzie Says:

    weather it was true to me or all a dream i cant sit still i want to scream. the life i live is extreme at best i know she loves me i passed the test. for those of you who have done wrong taken lives and lingered on i want to tell you bold and true i will see you hi to booo! its not my job to be a duke the sight of death it makes me puke. but when my job on earth is done the real dog will have his fun. i dont want to think about her now is she happy is she down? if walking with me is to much to ask i ask of god to bring her back. loved by many loved by all the queen of love will stand so tall. when god chooses to take my soul i will see forever i shall see the truth. untill this day i know for sure her heart is with me i am the cure.

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