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Thursday, June 21, 2007
Words, Words, Words
This post comes from a video Dr. Coyote shared with me, by a teacher named Taylor Mali and a slam poem called What Teachers Make. I happen to like his poem The Impotence of Proofreading more just for sheer comedic value, but both are worth looking at.

I'm a poetry nerd. I was in middle school, in high school, and I still am today. It started when I was a kid and my Dad would read to me. Oh, I would get the normal Dr. Seuss and Berenstain Bears books as a kid, to be sure, but my favorite of all was T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. We had this great illustrated copy with pirate cats galore. By the time I went to school I could recite the whole book verbatim. It didn't end there. My parents gave me book after book of poetry........and I read. When I got into middle school, my teachers encouraged me to start writing poetry......and I wrote. By the time I got into high school it was a verifiable obsession. I joined the literary journal and got published galore.

Now my high school was very much the Southern White Catholic School. I was the middle class kid amidst the rich white southern aristocracy (with the exception of my close friends), and so my education was full of dead-white-guys. For my poetry education, that meant that I'd studied my Shakespeare, my Psalms, my Eliot, my Whitman, my Rilke.......and on and on with the obligatory Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance crowd thrown in. A nice solid education......but far from well rounded in regards to the depth of what was hiding among the world's different cultures.....what my own country had hiding was out where I couldn't see.

My love affair with spoken word poetry/slam poetry/poetry not written by dead-white-guys began with a trip to what the New York Times calls "Wordstock." The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival is a biennial festival of the power of poetry. It brings musicians, poets, and storytellers together for a four day experience that will stun you. My senior year of high school, the AP English department offered a trip and so off I went. I had never seen so much poetry in my life. Toni Blackman introduced me to slam poetry, Coleman Barks introduced me to Rumi, Gwendolyn Brooks, Mark Doty, Billy Collins, Stanley Kunitz, Edward Hirsch......I never knew anything like this stuff existed and here I was in the midst of the people who created it, and they were telling me to write, to read, to lend my voice to the art. At that festival I read my poetry in front of anyone who would listen, poets and groupies alike, even though it scared the bejeezus out of me. I learned a lot about courage and staying true to yourself during those four days, and I discovered a lot of different poetry that I'm still in love with today.

So what's the deal with being a musician and not a poet (although I still do write from time to time)? The two arts share common threads. Poetry and music require openness, self-examination, and a willingness to express ideas and emotions that don't fit into nice sentences with appropriate grammar, sentence structure, and vocabulary. They have cadence and meter, and are first and foremost about sounds in the world and less about the stuff written on the page. You tweak it, try and fix it, make it perfect, and when you finally let it out into the world, it's the imperfections that sometimes say more than anything else.

"We should not underestimate the capacity for tenderness that poetry opens for us."
--Edward Hirsch


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