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 email@example.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.