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Spreading the Word
Poetry and the Survival of Community in America
By Ross Talarico
Duke University Press Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
It's a cold February night in Rochester, New York; you can feel the snow crisp under your feet as another cold spell blows in from the wintry Midwest. I've just come from the North Street Recreation Center where I met with a sixteen-year-old black youth named Troy Come. He was there to finish a poem he had been working on for the previous three weeks or so. Roses surround the emptiness I discover ... he reads to me, matter-of-factly, as if completely unaware of the line's immediate image and lyric.
He had walked the ten blocks or so over to the recreation center excited by a couple of new lines he had jotted down earlier in the day in a study hall at his high school. I drove him home and made my way here, across the city a bit to a dead-end street called Parkside Drive. It is just five blocks from the street where I grew up thirty years earlier.
Alex answers as he said he would. It is already past nine o'clock, a little later than I'd like it to be. His sister, Yolanda, is sleeping on the couch, and Alex turns the sound down on the TV. His mother, Alex explains, is already upstairs, getting ready for bed. Like many black mothers in the neighborhood, she alone is responsible for Alex and Yolanda, for making a living, keeping a house, and making sure the family avoids the troubles so abundant in the poor tough areas surrounding them. She is doing an excellent job.
Alex and I go into the kitchen, me with my notebook under my arm, Alex with versions of his poem on the table—along with an old Smith Corona typewriter his mother set up so we could type the finished product. I glance at his poem, read the lines—I stumble over the hundreds of rocks I in the way of my wishes ... —and am pleased that he seems to have put all his images together. He reads the final version through with a beautiful, soft voice that reflects the touch of his fingers upon the notebook paper. We agree it's right, finished—and Alex starts to type it on the typewriter.
But he makes mistakes in the first two lines—and I watch him painfully brush on the white-out and try again. I'm impatient because it's late, I'm tired and I want to go home. "Let me type it," I say to Alex, and he understands and we change seats with one another ...
Two months earlier I had received a call from a program director at the public library asking if I was working with any young people from the inner city who might want to enter the annual junior literary awards contest. The woman explained that they usually solicited only through the city's high schools, but that she had seen some of the poetry that came out of our recreation programs in features appearing both in the newspaper and on television. She sent me a few applications and I asked a few of the older teenagers if they wanted to prepare some poems and enter the competition. When several said they'd give it a try, we began a process that reminded me how desperately lacking were the channels of communication within a city. Ironically—and more importantly, significantly—my enlightenment centered around the creation and sharing of a piece of literature.
I have always defined poetry a little differently than those around me. As a young poet in America in the sixties and seventies, it was impressed upon me by educators, poets, and especially administrative overseers of undergraduate and graduate writing programs that poetry was a "special" activity produced by "special" people. I was informed—with a strange sense of pride, I should add—that no one read it, no one bought it, and hardly anyone except a few other poets appreciated it in any real sense. This assessment, to my bewilderment, seemed to please most of the poets I knew (especially if they were employed by a university), because it gave them their own private terrain. It also insulated them from public scrutiny: if the common reader did not like, understand, or appreciate a poem, it wasn't the poet's fault, it was the ignorance of the audience that was to blame.
Once I attended a conference where a poet and poetry critic from a well-known Southern poetry journal gave a talk about the impact of a critic upon a poet's readers. I can't remember his point, really, but he spoke with such gravity one might have gotten the impression that one word in his critical column might leave a poet scarred and reeling in a room of remaindered books. Of course the audience that day—as with most poetry conferences—was filled with people who worship editors and critics of poetry magazines, those who want to make that "literary contact," those who want to become part of the "special" club.
I was sitting with Michael Braziller, a publisher from New York City with whom I had given a talk the previous evening as a part of the conference. The more important the critic made himself sound, the more Braziller and I looked at each other. He, as a publisher of quality literature, and myself as a writer of poetry, had earlier expressed our concerns about how few books were sold and how few literary magazines read. But listening to this critic, you'd never guess it.
Finally, we took out our pens and scribbled some figures on the backs of our programs. We tried to determine how many people in America might read both the critical column in the guy's poetry journal and the book of poetry he might be criticizing in that review. We came up with a figure: about fifty people.
I wanted to put my hand up and offer our estimate to this gentleman in the midst of his talk—he seemed so burdened, so filled with the agonizing responsibility of making or breaking the elaborate careers of our young poets in America. I wanted to put his mind at ease. But I didn't have the heart.
As I said, I've always defined poetry a little differently than those around me. There may be, of course, an elite who own art or who fund the time to contemplate it, but the experience of art belongs to many, because at the moment of that experience what's revealed in everyone is the core of commonality. It is the center of our beings that is awakened by awareness, however brief or whatever the resources we can consciously relate to such awareness.
Beautiful language touches that core. Phrases that remind us of the depth and melody of our voices, images that remind us of our abilities to envision—that magic moment when words and breath merge with the silence of whatever background a man or woman stands against as a part of the world reveals itself for the first time. And it is not a moment reserved for a special few. It is the Grand Access of our modest existence.
In March I received a call from the public library. It was the director who had invited my kids in the street poetry program to enter the junior literary awards contest. She had some good news. One of our kids won one of the three poetry awards—the 0/1/7 kid from the entire city proper to win a writing award. It was a poem by a teenager in one of our poetry/basketball programs at one of our recreation centers (the kids write for an hour and then have exclusive use of the basketball court for another hour). I remember the night I collected the final revisions to type up and send in to meet the library deadline: Germone didn't have his, though he said he'd worked on the revisions. He told me he'd left it on top of the refrigerator at his house, and his grandmother had thrown it away by mistake. I brought him over to an empty room off the gym, gave him some paper and a pencil and told him to write down whatever he could remember of it. Here's what Germone Wright put down that night:
On the corner of Seward and Jefferson
I met a bum who just might be
At least he looked like the
man I once knew.
At that moment memories came
to my mind.
I began daydreaming of the times
he'd take me to the park.
We'd go swimming,
and then play tag until I was
all worn out ...
Suddenly I was back on Jefferson Avenue
and all I saw was the darker shadow
There were junkies and dope dealers
just standing around, all centered
on the same thing, some dealers, some users.
Then I thought to myself,
which did my father do? He'd left
so sudden I couldn't follow him.
He left when I was eight
and now I'm eighteen.
As I looked up at the sky
I saw only half the moon, looking so dim.
It looked like a lightbulb about to blow.
As I looked down
the ground seemed broken up too,
cracks in the streets, glass all over.
As I looked up once more
to look around,
I could not see my father,
and I thought, there he goes again,
never telling me where he's going.
At the heart of an artistic expression is the need for an individual to seek harmony with his or her environment. Germone's poem serves this notion well. It is about a boy trying to find the human understanding that can connect the environments he describes—that of the soothing past, that of the depressing present of the street corner, and of course the appearance and disappearance of the man who may or may not be the father missing in his life; and, subsequently, the larger void, the need for and lack of male role models in the inner-city environment. The poem leaves us with a sorrow evoked from a predicament, common to all of us. It is, after all, the loss of integration with our environment that creates not only a need, a predicament, or a conflict, but, more importantly, the evocation of an emotion—and that emotion creates the urge for, if nothing else, a means for expression.
But just as there is a harmony within ourselves in the creation of art, there is another harmony, a nurturing relationship between ourselves that is often lacking in our lives. In the last quarter of a century in this country, specialization has provided the sleek efficiency required of technology and profit-making, but it has compromised a sense of perspective, the ability to see not only the whole picture of our society but the relationship between one kind of experience and another. Too often, History remains a stranger to Ethics, Education remains a stranger to Recreation, Politics a stranger to Art, and subsequently Humanity a stranger to Science. Moreover, we become blind to our own social requirements—to discover ways to relate to each other, to open ourselves up, to relate to each other outside a particular vocation, to find the core of commonality that creates understanding and tolerance.
The experience of the poetry contest is a small example of how an art project can bring together several elements of a community. The library was looking to broaden its exposure to the literary experience. Our community center staff was looking for a way to combine recreation with language skills for the betterment of the neighborhood. When I arranged during school hours to come and work with the kids to complete their poetry project during school time, the teachers were elated to have someone from the community concerned about the same tasks in language development. And of course the parents were a little bewildered but appreciative that a city government was actually paying a writer to work with their kids—in the centers, the schools, and their homes—in a language arts program. The fact that our program provided the only award winner from the city proper was simply icing on the cake, though it suggested, in my mind, a kind of equality of imagination and utterance that perhaps did not exist in other subject areas for some of these kids.
The final product, the poem—an artistic expression—was shared and enjoyed by every participant along the way. Certainly this was a small but incidental moment rather than some grand design, but it illuminated a process essential to a population that understands its needs, whether it be the poetry of a single voice, or the harmony of a thousand voices within a concerned community.
WORKSHOP: A GAME OF CARDS
Make a list of five familiar objects on one notecard. Any object you see everyday," I explain to the dozen or so kids in a room off the gym at a city recreation center—window, telephone, doorknob, mirror, flag, pillow, etc. A couple of minutes later I have them pick up the second notecard I passed out. On this one, I instruct them, five verbs, ordinary action words, physical or mental, that express what you do everyday—sleep, breathe, study, remember, identify, sing, write ... When someone writes eat, talk, and walk, I make my first objection and tell them that verbs can be interesting—like chew and swallow, or even digest instead of eat. I suggest whisper or yell instead of talk, or even yawn, going on to describe it as a silent scream we all experience.
Already the pencils are making their way across the notecards, and for any writer, not just these youngsters, that is the first step. There is, after all, a universal misconception regarding the "art" of writing. Most people think that writers get great ideas and then set out to write them down. Oh, don't we wish it were so! My distinction between a "writer" and a "nonwriter" is easy: writers write, nonwriters don't! The primary object of the writing teacher is to get students to feel comfortable writing, even if they do not know for the moment what they are writing about. It is essential, it seems to me, that they experience the interplay between the word on the page, however spontaneous, and whatever words or ideas begin flashing in the mind. In this case, with these kids, I've cheated a little.
Even before I handed out two notecards to each youth, I had them write at the top of the worksheet, the blank sheet of paper I gave them, two aphorisms: Vows begin when hope dies (Leonardo da Vinci), and The beautiful remains so in ugly surroundings (Malcolm de Chazal). I discussed each one in terms the kids could relate to—"How many of you promised your mother you would stay out of trouble?" And "What if you stole a Picasso from the art museum and hung it over there in the window of Old Man Marvin's grocery store next to the wall of graffiti?" Then, passing out the notecards, I told them to forget the quotes but keep them in the back of their minds.
The writing process is the bridge between curiosity and discovery, between ignorance and awareness—between a physical rendering of one's surroundings and a realization of self. I don't tell these kids that. I make it a little easier connection. In a word game designed to initiate playfulness, spontaneity, and imagination, I ask them to write a poem (no rhymes, no preaching, no clichés) in ten minutes that makes a connection between three of the words on the object list and three on the verb list. "Let each connection suggest something physical to you, and go on to describe what's happening further, surprising yourself as you write. For example, if your words are window and sleep, perhaps the window is sleeping, and if so, the glass begins to darken, and when it does, you no longer see the fence and the basketball court out there but a mountaintop and a glacier. And don't forget to introduce yourself into the setting of your poem—you are a part of the image you create. Write first," I add, "think later." And then, just before they are about to begin, I remind them of the aphorisms. Make a vow, I encourage them, and remember how hopeless you may be if you do. The pencils begin scratching across the paper. The poetry has begun. On one sheet I read: the mirror whispers my name. On another: the road keeps singing. I do not tell them we'll be looking for one good line, or two, to be used in the next word game. I just tell them to fill up the page and dream.
Zachary Towns is eleven years old. He became a part of our writing group on Friday nights at the North Street Recreation Center to get some time on the basketball court. But after a couple of weeks, he enjoyed the poetry workshops (the prerequisite to basketball on those nights) at least as much as the ball time. He and his brother Jerry show up every Friday night, eager to write. Once I had to track them down in order to get a parent or guardian's signature on a permission slip to go for a field trip to a museum. Their mother gave me a funny look at the door of their inner-city house, later telling me she thought I might have been a policeman or social worker. She had heard of "Ross," and had seen her boys' poetry on the typed handouts I distribute on Friday nights. But apparently Zack and Jerry's demeanor as they mentioned me led her to believe I was just a young kid hanging around the recreation center. The concept of a serious poet engaging youngsters in the creative process is strange to everyone.
Excerpted from Spreading the Word by Ross Talarico. Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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