How did you get started with poetry slams and do you still participate in them? What is the importance of performance poetry—more specifically, slam poetry?
For more detailed info—including a blow-by-blow account of my discovery of slam and the poetic “wild west” that was Chicago in the late ‘80s—you might want to take a look at an essay I wrote for “Blueprints.” Here’s the short version:
In 1987, I believe, there was an event called Neutral Turf, sponsored by Guild Books, one of Chicago’s legendary (but, alas, now departed) bookstores. The event was designed to heal supposed rifts in the poetry community by bringing together “academic” poets (as always, loosely defined), street poets, students, etc. etc. It took place for five hours over the course of a winter afternoon—in a blues club, which is signature Chicago. At the time, I was a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, and a fellow writer had been assigned to write a story about the event. The story fell through, but we went away, fully intending to get mildly inebriated and “laugh at the poets.” I still harbored the notion that poetry was forever relegated to dusty bookshelves.
Neutral Turf definitely changed my mind. Every one of those five hours was infused with an almost brutal energy. I considered myself someone who was impassioned about writing, so I should have been driven to write in as many ways as possible—but here was this vibrant creative community that I knew nothing about, right in my home town. I listened to some of the most committed and energized work I’d ever heard—the language was immediate and accessible, the flow was rhythmic and the topics of the poems were things we all talked about. No dusty bookshelves in sight. What cinched the deal was the presence of Gwendolyn Brooks, right in the front row, where she sat during the entire event—listening intently, encouraging the younger readers.
Talking to some of the poets and audience members, I discovered that open mics were springing up all over the city, and that writers were already daring the boundaries. If I was impassioned about writing, I knew that I owed it to myself to find out all I could about the poetry scene in my city. So I followed a long-time rule of mine (if you’re looking for the power source, follow the person clutching the clipboard)—and that led me to Michael Warr, one of the city’s brilliant literary event organizers (and a stalwart of Guild Books). We became steadfast friends and creative collaborators. It was Michael who took me to the Green Mill for the first time, where I discovered the slam.
I discovered an intense competitiveness I didn’t know I possessed, and was deeply entrenched in the slam community, both regionally and nationally, for almost 10 years. I don’t compete anymore. In fact, I often talk about how difficult it is to peel off the “slam” label once you’ve moved on. Strangely enough, however, as I write this, I’m 35,000 feet up, winging my way to the Windy City to help celebrate the slam’s 25th (!) anniversary.
The importance of the slam? Immeasurable. It changed the way the entire world (and that’s not overstating it) thinks of poetry. It sparked necessary debate. It spilled into the schools and introduced poetry that was alive to kids who knew nothing but Robert Frost’s stroll in the woods. The slam changed the face of both performance AND literature.
But I feel like I have to stop here and draw a line between “slam poetry” and “performance poetry.” The slam began as a tricky little device, a trendy little something to plump up the poetry audience. While “performance poetry” works well in slam, the two terms have long been used interchangeably, which is incorrect.
What did your time, training and experience in journalism bring to your poetry?
Journalism taught me to look for stories in everything, and then to search for the unexpected entry point into those stories. When you sit down to write a poem, odds are that 8,481 people are sitting down with the exact same idea. Journalism taught me to root for a signature, for a detail or details that would make my poem different.
How long after Hurricane Katrina did you start working on the poems that would become Blood Dazzler? With all the words and images that were born from Katrina, was there an aspect of the events that followed the storm that you felt like the media and the public was missing?
I didn’t set out to write a book about Katrina. The story that pushed me to write was the one about the 34 nursing home residents in St. Bernard Parish who were left behind to die. That was the one poem I planned to write about Katrina, and that poem began in the midst of the chaos, as soon as I heard the story. As for what the public/media was missing: It was breath, the insistent and stubborn beating of the hearts of real people. Katrina was tragedy stacked upon tragedy, and it didn’t take long for the names and faces of the people to become less important than what was or wasn’t being done to them. That first poem I set out to write sought to turn the clock back a minute or two, give each of those 34 people a little bit of their breath back—at least enough to say “I was here. I was.”
How did the idea of transforming Dazzler into a dance/theater collaboration come about? What was the hardest part of that transformation, and how do you feel about the end product?
I was doing at reading at the Kentucky Women’s Writing Conference in Lexington. Also on the bill was the renowned dance troupe Urban Bush Women—one of their principle choreographers, Paloma McGregor, heard me read “34,” the poem I just mentioned. I had just begun adding it to my readings. About two weeks later, she tracked me down in New York, saying that the words of the poem kept returning to her and that she “saw movement.” She asked if I minded sending her a copy so she could try her hand at choreographing a piece. That piece became “34 Prayers,” which was performed throughout New York and in DC, where it was reviewed in the Washington Post. It was absolutely breathtaking. When I decided to write more poems (still not intending to write a book), I told Paloma and we sat down to look at the whole process. Her insanely talented sister Patricia had just graduated from Yale Drama with a degree in directing, so we naturally began to think theater. It took about three years for us to reach the point where we had a full production to debut at the Harlem Stage.
The hardest part was maintaining a true collaboration. When a writer encounters another artist with a stark technical skill, the wide-eyed tendency is to hand over your work and say, “Please. Go make magic.” Paloma, Patricia and I worked very hard to keep me involved in all stages of the process, from the selection of the dancers to talking to each of them about the creative motivation behind each poem. I didn’t feel like “the writer,” I felt like a vital part of the team.
The end result: I wish every writer could see their words suddenly take on heat and pulse. Each moment was exactly what I dreamed for my poems. Katrina was personified by the great Rhea Patterson, who actually took time off from a role in “Wicked” on Broadway to dance in “Dazzler” for what amounted to bus fare. The dancers, many of them UBW veterans, worked tirelessly because they believed so wholeheartedly in the project. It was one of the most gratifying experiences of my career.
Do you feel there is still more to be said and written about Katrina’s aftermath? What needs to be said and who does it need to be said to?
Of course. Katrina was not a storm. It was not a regional event or a freak of nature. It was a jolting reminder of just what our country is capable of. It was a tragedy like so many others, with poor people at its heart. And it’s not a story that just “some people” should hear. We should never stop talking about it, and we should never stop listening.
In offering workshops around the country, what particular places do you find to be “fertile ground” for poetry? Are there specific cities, or even facilities where you’ve been surprised by the openness to and the need for poetry?
There’s need for poetry everywhere, as long as I keep in mind that there are different ways of introducing the concept. There’s still that “dusty bookshelf” mentality in a lot of places, and not everyone knows what poetry can do for them. It’s not just a recreational exercise, it’s a way to process your days, to move your own life forward. And getting that message across to farmhands in Nebraska is much different from relaying it to 5th graders in the South Bronx. There’s just no one-size-fits-all. The hardest work is finding that entry point, deciding what’s going to excite the audience I’m in front of RIGHT NOW. I don’t want them to be dazzled by my words, I want them to run home, pick up a pen and paper and say out loud “I can do that.” That’s the moment that can change their lives, and getting them to that moment is a huge responsibility.
When teaching people poetry, what is the one thing you hope they will all learn from you?
That EVERYONE is a storyteller and EVERYONE has stories worth telling. I run into kids all the time who don’t feel their voices are legitimate because they’ve been told time and time again that they aren’t . Our lives are a patchwork of unique tales, and you can create poetry unlike anyone else if you tap into the truth of those tales. The truth, however, is not always pleasant. I want them to learn to confront the entirety of their stories, and to write them without flinching.
What are the mistakes people make when writing a poem? What are the mistakes made when reading a poem?
Mistakes when writing: Abandoning their own voice in order to make what they’re writing “sound “ like a poem—usually forced and formal, herewith and forsooth. Also forcing a poem into a structure—if you’re using a word you wouldn’t use if you didn’t HAVE to (for rhyme’s sake, for instance), you’re not controlling the poem, the poem is controlling you.
Mistakes when reading: If you don’t read a poem aloud, you’re not reading a poem. Period.
What impact has the current political and economic environment of the country had on your poetry? What do you think the impact has been on poetry in America in general?
That’s a pretty difficult question, since I tend to internalize so much. It’s hard to say “A led to B and B to C” when I look at this country. Every moment of every day I’m being pushed toward a poem. I think the need to write becomes more urgent in order to counter the chaos. The current environment is designed to make our voices smaller. So we have to scream. These times (I sound like an ol’ lady right there) remind me how much power poetry wields. It can help us find a safe, slow place in our heads, a place to rest. It can light a blaze in our chests, force us to act. It can whisper “You are,” which is sometimes the most important words you need to hear.
Describe your proudest moment as a writer.
I was teaching at a high school in Paterson, NJ. , and it had not been a good day. The students were surly, unresponsive, almost combative. It was clear that they couldn’t see poetry as having anything to do with their lives. The class highlight was a glaring group of boys in the back seats, who loudly and profanely protested my presence. As I was leaving, pretty defeated, one of those boys ran up to me in the parking lot. He looked left and right, to make sure no one was watching, then he pushed a sweaty folded-up piece of paper into my hand and almost tripped and fell running away. It was his work, work he was both proud and ashamed of, and it was one of the most beautiful poems I ever read.
What are you currently working on?
I just finished a new manuscript, Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, which is coming out from Coffee House next spring. The poems are mostly about my parents’ migration from the south to the north, and the experience of being a “first generation up north” kid in Chicago. I’m excited about being in both Best American Essays and Best American Poetry for 2011. I’m working on getting Dazzler back on stage, which means that I’ve got quite a bit to learn about fundraising. I’m editing an anthology of erotic poetry and co-editing an anthology of contemporary jazz poetry. My next major project is a crime novel collaboration, alternating voices with my husband Bruce DeSilva, who just won an Edgar Award for his first book, Rogue Island.