Slam poetry in the classroom: A marriage of heaven and hell
It is January 10, 2011 and I am set to give three professional development sessions to public school teachers at two local high schools and a middle school. It is their first day back after Christmas vacation; they are not impressed. Tough crowds.
Though each presentation is different, and though I change my delivery as the day goes on and I get more comfortable and they less perturbed (camouflage is often a teacherʼs best ally – weʼre not learninʼ, weʼre just talkinʼ), there was much in each that was the same. What can I say? Even those of us who thrive off of transformation need some stability.
“I am here today,” I tell them, “to talk about poetry. I am a teacher at St. Thomas University, I am a father of three children, I am –” A piece of paper comes out of my notes and Iʼm off…
If you meet the Buddha be merciful, kill him
I am a bicycle, I am
a pair of black
canvas converse. I am two scoops
of raisins I am a long line of poetry with no punctuation or
stops. I am a thousand
years old, I am
newly born wrapped in red wine jazz. I am
a quarter note held
over, I am a hang
I am a tobacco yellowed & underlined
copy of Twilight of the Idols barely
hanging together at the spine & well loved. I am a chain
gang, I am a boulder cracked &
crumbling into pebbles, I am the first rimshot on
Be Sedated. I am the left overs
of an oil slick stuck in a sickly duckʼs feathers, I am
a fat CEO sucking back a Cuban
cigar, I am the ashes of the past
waiting for the strong winds of history. I am a blind man
cursing cinders & poverty, I am money rolled
in a wad that only looks like
a man. I am The Man, I am
a Dr. Seuss line, a
Dr. Dre rhyme, I am a yam
cooked on a bed of plantain, I am a plantation that remembers
all their names. I am a V8 engine, I am the starting
gun at the ʼ37 Olympics, I am a rock show & Arc
of the Covenant. I am Mt. Fucking Vesuvius just
about ready to reek of old books, I am risen from the dead.
I am the Bodhi tree that no one will let die.
I am a tooth, mistaken.
I am a shroud longing to be bits of thread.
I am water, escaping your clutch. I am
steam from the tea cup. I am
I read loudly and with bravado; I wave my arms and strut into the middle of the
crowd; I make pointed eye contact and I raise and lower my voice, as I have
learned to do both in the classroom and on the stage, in order that I might hold their attention, even if itʼs only because they have no idea whatʼs coming. Some smile, and even for those who donʼt I assume that Iʼve bought myself some street cred. Time to get to work.
“Poetry constantly surprises me. Poetry surprises me and students surprise me. Poetryʼs strength is not, emphatically, in its ability to express emotions, but in its ability to challenge the way people see the world and thus change opinions. You want to change the world?” I ask, “poetry is your weapon. Poetry pushes against the boundaries of language in order to redefine our identities and upset outmoded cultural norms. Poetry is the voice of dissatisfaction and dissent.
“Ogden Nash?” I ask, “does anyone know Ogden Nash?” I flip to the next slide.
“Poetry is not a specialized language, it does not have a hidden code (by nature, though it certainly can be designed that way, to the poemʼs failure), and poetry is not dependent upon ʻthe select fewʼ. Poetry uses language, often speaking in the vernacular, to reach beyond language.
“Three and a half words… is it a poem? If it is, is it any good? To you, what does it mean?” Even as teachers they are often afraid to volunteer answers when in student desks and so I say “Who is Adam?” There is another pause and I relinquish them of the responsibility to be ʻrightʼ or ʻsolve the riddleʼ: “you know, just like you I am sure, I have my mantras in class. One of my favourites is this one: I DO NOT HOLD THE MONOPOLY ON TRUTH IN THIS CLASS. I may have read this poem and thought about it more than you, but all this makes my opinion is old. Tell me your fresh opinions.”
“Adam is a boy in class.”
“Yea”, I say, “he could be a boy in class. Who else?”
“Heʼs a dog.”
“Adam is an animal, that fits doesnʼt it? Can anyone make a cultural connection here somewhere?”
“Adam, like ʻAdam and Eveʼ?”
“Thatʼs a neat idea! But while poetry is part of our education from our earliest years, it is also entirely unlike mathematics. Poetry can allow all of these answers to be right.
“Adam is the first son, but he is also every one of us and is, because he has fleas, an ANIMAL! What? Weʼre animals? Weʼre not some kind of divine being? Weʼre just dogs? And why is it that ʻAdam hadʼmʼ but Adam doesnʼt havʼm anymore?”
“Because heʼs dead?”
“Yea! BECAUSE HEʼS DEAD! Wait! You mean weʼre not immortal, that we donʼt bodily ascend into heaven? What?
“The poetʼs job is to challenge our belief systems by pushing against our accepted ideas. You donʼt have to agree with Nash; in fact, as a poet if heʼs worth his muster then he wouldnʼt really expect you to… not at first at least.
“However, in this one, short, three and a half word poem, he manages to effectively call into question the basic foundations of our Western religious tradition. Thatʼs pretty powerful.
“You see, the image of the beret totting, turtleneck wearing, cigarette smoking, goateed lounger beneath trees is nothing more than a modernist construction.
Poets have, realistically speaking, never been seen like this. In Platoʼs Republic, old Socrates is busy talking about the perfect society and when the part comes where he has to say what his first step would be is, he says: kill the poets. Stalin knew this too; that is, if you want to take full control of the way people think and how society works then you need to get rid of the artists because they inspire criticism, dissent, protest, and individual thought. Poets are dangerous.
“Billy Collins,” I rattle on, “poet laureate of the United States from 2001 – 2002 and co-founder of the North American poetry slam movement, is famous for his quote, “high schools are places where poetry goes to die.” This is not, however, the fault of the teachers, but of a culture that has nearly forgotten the power of the poetic voice. His poem, “Introduction to poetry”, outlines a fairly dominant attitude taken by students towards poetry. Letʼs check him out.”
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
“I know that you have all experienced this: I know I have. Throughout the year I implore my students with every fibre of my being to give me their opinion of the poetry, I beg them to tell me what they think, and while it often works, it is inevitably the case that the end of term comes and a student says to me ʻSo, Iʼve been thinking about doing something on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.ʼ Excellent, I say, thatʼll be really enjoyable Iʼm sure. ʻYea, only, uh…ʼ, they lean in and whisper, can you tell me what itʼs about?ʼ Aaargh! I die.
“I donʼt know when we decided that poetry was a spy or a terrorist with secret information, but I do know that the idea that poetry (or at least good poetry) only happens in big, fat, dusty textbooks is old, outmoded and wrong.”
I have their attention now. I have given them every reason to believe that poetry can be vital in a classroom of teenagers and the best part is yet to come, because they still have yet to accept that it can be both relevant and fairly straightforward. Maybe because poetry died for them in high school too. I flip to the next slide and
Banned from our damn so called country
No claim yaʼll know the name
Some got the rest of the planet
To feel us damn it
Substance over style
Thatʼs right we on exile
Them old heads from strong I the velt
No love good lookin out
But damn sure felt.
Chuck D and Public Enemy never fail to increase the density in a classroom.
“Here we see some of the players in the new world of poetry — the world of slam poetry and hip hop.” I speak of Big Poppa E, North American grand slammer; Lemon Andersen, New York spoken word master; Yellow Rage, a pair of Asian slam poets whose angry verse is focussed singularly on the sexualization of Asian women; and, of course, hiphop powerhouses Flavour Flav and Chuck D, the two frontmen of conscious rap institution Public Enemy.
“In my writing classes,” I continue, “I take out of my bag a microphone, a mile of cables, a laptop, a set of headphones, a pen and a notebook, and once I have all of that piled up on the desk I say ʻthese are the tools and weapons of personal expression in a world where we feel alienated, where we sense injustice, where we believe our voices need to be heard. The world is malleable, poetry carves new forms from old and stale systems of understanding.ʼ
“Reading, reciting, listening to and writing poetry in the classroom are all forms of student empowerment. Poetry provides a way for us to express our feelings, yes, but much more than that, as William Blake says, it gives us a vehicle by which we can rage against the beliefs and ideologies that seek to destroy our spirits. These, for certain, are ideas that our students understand very well: dissatisfaction with the way things are, a sense of alienation which they long to overcome, and a desire to feel empowered. Poetry, by its very nature, is capable all of those things, and the most powerful contemporary manifestation of that nature is none other than hiphop.
“Kids only have a problem with poetry until they realize that their iPod is full of it. Really, and I will argue this to the ends of the earth, the only difference between lyrics and poetry is delivery. And if you donʼt believe me, then you can take it up with one Mr. Leonard Cohen.
“Hiphop is not a musical style exclusively, but is a culture, complete with all of the history, linguistic nuances, shard values, and internal struggles of any culture. A little history lesson then is definitely in order before we get right into it. And while weʼre at it, Iʼd like everyone to listen to this history in terms of its metaphorical relationship to the development of youth in general — youʼll find some striking similarities that may very well help us understand both with more clarity and sympathy.
“Hiphop begins in the early 1970ʼs in the Bronx. The most northern of New Yorkʼs five boroughs, the Bronx was essentially created by city planner Robert Mosesʼ Cross-Bronx Expressway (1948 – 1972) — a super-structure highway that, for all intents and purposes, cut off the Bronx from the rest of New York, effectively ostracizing the multicultural working poor both financially and culturally from the larger centre. And what did Robert Moses have to say about this architectural monstrosity? “Those who can, build.”
“Youth, that time in a personʼs life when oneʼs dreams are far outstripped by oneʼs material ends to achieve them — sound familiar?
“As history proves again and again, however, it takes more than architecture to destroy something as adaptable as culture, and the Bronx changed within its new physical environment. The four elements of the hiphop culture that developed during the tumultuous early 1970ʼs are bboying/ bgirling (breakdancing), graffiti art, MCing (rapping), and DJing (record spinning and scratching). It doesnʼt require the semiotics of Roland Barthes to establish how this collection of elements points to a restructuring of oneʼs environment physically, kinesthetically, physically, orally, and historically. Taken individually, these members effectively reshaped the visual, acoustic and bodily sensorium of their world; that is, they combatted the ghetto mentality directly, forcefully and personally.
“Letʼs start with the DJ, the turntablist, who is essentially the academic of the culture – thus the reason why so many of them adopt the moniker ʻDr.ʼ: Dr. Dre, Dr. Doom, Dr. Prozak, Dr. Lehl. As the academics, they draw together the sources from the past (as we might do in quoting Foucault or bell hooks in a paper) and have them speak to the present as both a reminder of where weʼve been and as an anchor to the musical, cultural past. They stand, therefore, in the poetics of hiphop culture, in direct defiance to a larger culture that seeks to either kill or nullify their own by ensuring that the stories and the poets live on in the minds of the younger generations.
“Music, along with its sister arts, transfers the stories of a people. Through rhythm, meter, rhyme, vernacular, cadence and all the rest, music gives history texture and facilitates memory. But remember, this is the working poor weʼre talking about, and in the late 60ʼs and early 70ʼs instruments in the Bronx were rare and money to buy them was equally scarce, and so the creation of music fell on the shoulders of those with the records. It is a well-documented phenomenon that small corner record shops became the early flash points in the development of hiphop and as urban youth would sit around listening to the DJ spin their history, the poet was born in the form of the young MC who would boldly, often in free form rhymes, weave the stories of alienation, injustice, poverty, and racism into the threads and fabric of the soul, R&B and funk music of the DJ. As the poetry was being performed, the bboys and bgirls worked the reconstructed melodies and beats into physical form. This unique form of dancing, which because of how it works with the breaking of beats became known as breakdancing, sprang entirely from the imagination of the youth; that is, it had no connection to the waltz, the cha cha, the fox trot, the twist or any of the popular dances of the day. The dancing, like the lyrics and the music, was a product of a specific time and place and responded directly to the environment in which the youth were living. Similarly, graffiti art, with its array of colours, seemingly magical inversion of letters, and competitive edge, not only gave the youth an outlet for their artistic desires, but allowed them the means to beautify their own rundown, impoverished neighbourhoods. Really, where is graffiti most often seen? Alleyways, underpasses, subway stations, abandoned buildings, trainyards — all the ugly places, all the places that reinforce the idea that you are worthless, that no one cares, that your struggles donʼt matter.
“Hiphop reminds us that we are the creators of culture, not the victim or the recipient of it – this is the kind of talk that youth understand. The youth know exactly what it feels like to be misunderstood and alienated, to be searching for a sense of self in a world of turmoil, to not have the power to change things through the conventional means and yet to desire change and a voice and a means of expression regardless. Hiphop is more than a fad – it is a means to an end, it is the seat of empowerment.”
ʻEmpowermentʼ, as I was assured afterwards, is a big deal when it comes to youth; the problem, however, is how to take it from being an idea to an outcome.
“This is Lemon Andersen,” I say, flipping to what promises to be the most provocative and important slide of the presentation. It is an image of a white male in his mid- to late twenties with a backwards baseball cap on and his hand held high in the air, as though he holds the torch of the Statue of Liberty. At the bottom is a link to a video of his entitled ʻWhere Iʼm fromʼ.
“Mos Def Poetry Jam? Anybody heard of it?” One or two hands. “It was a seven season live poetry show on HBO hosted by none other than Mos Def – one of the original, ʻsecond waveʼ, early 80ʼs poet/rappers. Through his connections and the vision of HBO, spoken word poetry was given a popular forum unlike anything that had been seen to date; and now itʼs all available through our friendly neighbourhood YouTube.”
Yo, where Iʼm from,
Where Iʼm from is known as the borough of royalty
The infinite party rocker
The home of Big Poppa, ʼ92 door knockers
We stick our middle finger up in the air
For that little bitch named John Rocker
See, Iʼm from the county of kings
Where every day we know we fortunate
If we see another morning
We take our nieces, our nephews
Put ʻem under our wing
Send them out in that world hopinʼ they keep that grass green
The county of kings
Hometown to the best fighters who ever stepped in the ring
We are still the land of the angriest blacks, puerto ricans
Baggiest Phat Farmers, craziest baby mamas
Fire escapes, bootleg cdʼs and tapes
We will always have the worst crooked cops
We will always have the best weed spots
The county of kings
New school like Bloods and Crypts
But we old school like the Savage Skulls and Ching-a-lings
The crazy girls in black pearls
Shit we go way back like He-Man underwears
BBDʼs and Leeʼs
Bums call peabody
ʻCause if you ever go to the county of kings
Your ass better pass by Flatbush
And pick me up a vegetable patty with coco bread
And all the brown fried chicken wings
I want yʼall to tip the eight year old kid outside
Dancing Uptown shaking it up ʻcause thatʼs the way he makes his living
See the county of kings is not the house
Itʼs the home where I rest
So when I yell out for Brooklyn, New York City
I want to hear always Funky fresh, fresh, fresh, fresh
This is not about the murders, the convicts,
The three time loser, the first time felon or the skit bidder
This is not about the COʼs, the wardens, the commissary
The Crips, the Bloods, the Kings
Or how much time you got on the phone homie
This is not about the DA, or the Legal Aid, fuck them
After they done railroading your ass up north
They go to lunch together anyway
This poem is as priceless as a carton of cigarettes
And a brand new pair of creased greens
This is a toast to freedom
Just ʻcause youʼre locked up donʼt mean you canʼt be free
Matter of fact, the first day of your bid the options are available
The doorʼs wide open
You could be Muslim, and sing a song to raise the sun
You could be five percent and understand
That the mathematics behind the language of kemetics is that it is the original
tongue of man
My brother, you could be a Christian
And go from being Catholic to being confused
To knowing the only way is to fear God
And you got nothing to lose, everything to gain
Can I get a witness?
You could be a Nazi and hate all of the above
But we donʼt get much of those ʻround here
Plus the Israelitesʼll set that ass straight
But you got to believe in something
You got to believe in something
Or you will be a rhythmless void
So hereʼs a toast to my God
And all of yʼall who played a yard
May your word be born and may you find
That the Lord may not come when you call
But heʼs always on time
While they watch lemon, I watch them. By times they giggle, sometimes they
squirm (ʻOh, he just said “fuck them”, I canʼt use that in MY classʼ), sometimes they
smile and nod with approval, other times they fold their arms, asking themselves
what theyʼre doing here. Iʼm sure their own classes are much the same. But Lemon, like Public Enemy or Yellow Rage, never fails to raise eyebrows and draw attention – and in that is both the power and the proof of poetry. ʻIf youʼre not getting any negative reaction to your artʼ, once said blood artist and winner of the Order of Canada Istvan Kantor, ʻthen youʼre not doing anything very interesting are you?ʼ
“There are a number of interesting and important things Iʼd like to bring up about Lemonʼs piece. First is his physicality. When Lemon comes out and says ʻwhere Iʼm fromʼ his stance exudes masculinity, he is someone else, he is a street hustler, he is an actor. He is being machismo, but listen to what comes out of his mouth: ʻThe home of Big Poppaʼ. We remember Big Poppa E from a few slides ago, right? Well, in addition to potentially being North Americaʼs most well known slam poet, he is also an extremely outspoken homosexual – and here is Lemon, ever so physically present, putting him right at the beginning of the piece.
“What is Lemonʼs piece about?”
ʻDiversityʼ many said. ʻOptimismʼ was popular too. ʻFinding and knowing your place.ʼ ʻSpeaking to the people.ʼ
“You are, of course, all correct. Lemon is trying, through his words and his body to create an image of Kings, of Brooklyn, as diverse, multi-racial, open, family and community oriented, together. In many ways he is harkening back to the motto of the borough — In unity there is strength. But seriously, how many of us held this opinion before?” Heads shake, folks mutter ʻnoʼ, ʻnot meʼ. “We see Kings, most often I think, as a place of fear, racial tension and crime. Perhaps more upscale than the Bronx, but definitely far from being Manhattan or Queens, Brooklyn is seen by many as still being a ghetto, and so a place of violence and abject poverty. But Lemon makes a powerful case for the openness and acceptance of Kings: racially, religiously and socio-economically. ʻYou could be a Muslim and sing a song for the sun…/ You could be a Christian/ and go from being Catholic to being confused…/ You could be a Nazi and hate all of the above/ But we donʼt get much of those ʻround here/ Plus the Israelitesʼll set that ass straight.ʼ
“In place of tension, Lemon posits acceptance; and in place of dominant cultures he offers cross-pollination. Did you catch the part where he says ʻʻCause if you ever go to the county of kings/ Your ass better pass by Flatbush/ And pick me up a vegetable patty with coco bread/ And all the brown fried chicken wingsʼ? What was he talking about? We donʼt know, but the audience did — did you hear them when he said that? So, I had to find out. Flatbush is a neighbourhood of Kings where the food is legendary. And what nationality do you think the cuisine is? Caribbean? Indian? Jamaican? Brazilian? Nope, Dutch. Yup, blonde hair, blue eyed, Dutch.
“Thereʼs even more in this than just the issues of diversity and belonging as ideas though: Lemonʼs use of the vernacular, juxtaposed against his layers of metaphor and implicit significance, is so effective because heʼs not talking about his culture but through his culture. It is not enough to ask kids ʻto write about what they knowʼ, they have to write from what they know, through their own language. And if that means saying ʻfuckʼ every now and then, then so be it. Censoring language, we have to remember, is denying culture and while that does not preclude our desire to have our students use different words, it does reinforce the notion that we need to listen first and speak after we have thought about what weʼre really trying to say.
“Lemonʼs use of vernacular language creates a sense of shared experience, roots him in his own (semiotic) context, and encourages the curious reader/ listener to find out more about where heʼs from.
“I am that curious; so my sixteen year old son and I went to work on uncovering every reference he makes — from the Baggiest Phat Farmers (locally owned and operated jeans manufacturer and outlet) to the Savage Skull and Ching-a-Lings (1970ʼs street gangs). What we discovered what that by referencing and crossreferencing objects, ideas, places and people Lemon demonstrably reinforced the image of Kings as a diverse but integrated community. Vernacular language draws people together (ʻCan I get a witness?ʼ ʻAiiiright!ʼ), bonds the community in solidarity (ʻI want yʼall to tip the eight year old kid outside/ Dancing Uptown shaking it up ʻcause thatʼs the way he makes his livingʼ), and embodies common values in humour (ʻYou could be five percent and understand/ That the mathematics behind the language of kemetics is that it is the original tongue of man/ My brotherʼ). Empowerment is about both personal expression and deep senses of belonging in our attempts to change the world for the better. The use of physicality, the proposition of changing attitudes, and the steady employment of the vernacular in order to give voice to the marginalized are some of the cornerstones of an engaged, vital, spoken word poetry.
“So we need to talk about ways that this can be done, and I just have two or three ideas that will probably get you going. These things donʼt take much; Iʼve done them all and they all brings things out in the young poets that you might never uncover otherwise.
“The first one is the ʻI amʼ poem. The piece that I read at the beginning of this presentation was written during a workshop session with my students. The power of writing a poem like this is that after they say ʻI am fifteen, I am a girl, and I am angry at my parentsʼ everything else is metaphor. In this case, then, poetry educates by encouraging multiple and abstract meanings of oneʼs self. This is a simple exercise that inspires discussion and creates many works that people are sometimes happy to read out loud.
“But students donʼt like to read out loud — and they really dislike reading things theyʼve written out loud. One way to get around (and eventually to) this is to have them read other peopleʼs poems — to read to themselves, decide what it should sound like, and then read it aloud. Then, afterwards, you fire up YouTube and listen to the poets themselves read their own works. Inevitably the students are far more impressed with their own readings, especially if you choose pieces by William Carlos Williams, T.S Eliott and Margaret Atwood — all of whom are great poets and absolutely atrocious readers. Building on this, you then have them read each otherʼs poems out loud. What often happens is that the poet is not at all happy with how their poem has been read. In the conversation that follows, when they discuss what it was ʻsupposedʼ to sound like, the poet learns much about how their word choices often dictate meaning and how important control over vocabulary and line breaks are. The sense of ownership and empowerment that results is remarkable as they realize that they want to be understood and that if they work on it they can be understood.
“Bell hooks says in her book Teaching to Transgress that she realized at a certain point in her teaching career that she would not ask her students to do or say anything that she wouldnʼt do, that that is the way to create a safe and open learning environment. With that in mind, as teachers we need to write and perform our poetry too; we need to feel vulnerable, we need to know the feeling of being embarrassed, we need to stand and deliver with our students.
“Finally I suggest that you take the whole project to the next level by starting coffee houses that the students can perform at. These arenʼt so nerve racking because the students are reading to people who will also be getting up to read. This environment, best set after hours, not only makes students comfortable, but gives them the sense of ownership, that they have a place where they can be poets and not worry about outside judgement. For the more daring, stage unannounced ʻpoetry bombsʼ — readings in public places , like hallways or cafeterias or washrooms, where no one expects the poetry to happen. These are great for increasing the poetsʼ collective sense of belonging and, of course, feeds right into their desire to be rebellious.
“Whew. I think thatʼs it. Thanks.”
As a practicing teacher, I am sometimes able to recognize what a good class looks and feels like. Sometimes discussion is lively and everyone leaves with fresh ideas in their heads, a certain euphoria all around, at other times you hold attention, pushing the boundaries of what folks thought to be true. Sometimes classes are just fun; other times angry debate convinces you that while it may not have been fun in the strictest sense, things were said that needed to be said. In these professional development sessions it was the nodding of heads and the conversations afterwards, including by email the following week, that ensured me that they went pretty good. Of course there were a couple of fuddy duddies who werenʼt having any of it, but you canʼt judge yourself by those who werenʼt going to like it from the outset and I was, in any case, also told that I had succeeded in changing a couple of minds.
Whatʼs really important though isnʼt how well I did or didnʼt do with the teachers — itʼs what happens when they get into the classroom with the students and get them reading, writing, and performing poetry. Even if out of the hundred or so teachers there are only five who try this with their classes and only ten of their students really enjoy themselves and feel the power of spoken word poetry, then I will be able to say that I have been successful.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
To feel empowered, to overcome their sense of alienation, to be vocal about the injustices they see and experience, to know that their opinion counts, to speak out, to know that they are capable of changing the world – these are the promises of poetry written, spoken and performed. And thatʼs all that counts.