If my somewhat hazy memory serves me right, back in the day when I was an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence
College, we had cheerleaders for one event and one event only: the poetry slam. Granted, these weren’t your ordinary cheerleaders, looking more like the anarchist cheerleaders in the video for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” than those at your average college football game, but I still think that this shows the raucous enthusiasm the student body showed for, of all things, poetry. I know that there is a great deal of debate about the place of slam poetry in the literary world, and a great deal of denigration of its worth. I also know that the atmosphere during SLC’s poetry slams, especially invitationals including our rivals from NYU and Bard College, was electric, and that the feeling of being in an auditorium packed with people cheering and whistling for poets was nothing less than amazing. (I also know how many people, myself included, harbored huge crushes for the NYU student who would be crowned champion, based upon his shy, self-effacing, and flat-out hilarious poems which ranged from losing a fire truck in a sandbox to how his problems with women began on the playground when a girl kicked sand in his face.)
I’ve been thinking a great deal about how to re-create that atmosphere, or, at least, how one gets a group of people as excited about poetry as they might be about a basketball game (or, at Sarah Lawrence, about a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show). It seems to me that if not everyone, then nearly everyone writes poetry. It also seems to me that most people, though they write it, or have, at least, written it, are also completely and totally terrified of poetry. I often feel as though somehow we’ve ended up with this tremdendous split, a schism between what poetry means to people in their private lives and what it means in their public lives. Poetry so often seems to be relegated to two diametrically opposed realms: the private journal or notebook whose pages are bursting with poetry the author feels somehow ashamed to show anyone, and the public classroom, in which poetry is, to borrow T.S. Eliot’s words, “formulated, sprawling on a pin.” Perhaps the classroom is the cause of the schism; perhaps, after years of formulating and pinning poems, those who spend time writing privately don’t feel that their poems will hold up, or see the act of creating a poem as somehow drastically and dramatically other than the act of reading a poem, or having a poem read. Perhaps they see themselves as set up not for a celebration of honest and intense personal expression, but to be “pinned and wriggling on a wall.” In the classroom, we so often look at a piece as an artifact rather than art, ignoring the sheer fact of process, the hundreds of crossed-out and crumpled papers which preceded the poem now preserved in an anthology or textbook, and the thousands of poems that preceded that one — the sometimes-brutal fact that poetry is process, poetry is work, and very hard work. Perhaps these private writers fear that their work will, before it is ready, before they have worked to the point of a Prufrock, be examined microscopically for errors and psychologically for slips; perhaps these writers choose to hide before they must see the moment of their greatness — the beautiful moment, the upwelling of emotion and the wrenching need for expression which called the poem into being — flicker, and, in short, be afraid.
Lately, my thoughts have swirled around this dilemma, and the idea of bridging this gap by finding ways to celebrate not just poetry but also the work of poetry, to make the process less intimidating and create an atmosphere in which writers of every level can feel a kind of solidarity, a happiness in the fact that they’re all working together, and working together to do something which is, after all, pretty darn important: creating art, which can help unify us by helping us to understand not just each others’ experiences but our own. I’ve been looking at public poetry events, and been thrilled with what I’ve seen. Here in Lexington, the Alltech Fortnight Festival, which runs during the two weeks which will next year be the time of the World Equestion Games (only 356 days to go, as the count-down in downtown Lexington reminds me), features not only such amazing acts as The Decembrists (why, why must you play on a Tuesday night, sweet Decembrists?!), but also Marc Smith, founder of the International Poetry Slam movement. I’ve also been fascinated by the Gumball Poetry project, beautifully described by Mike Chasar on his Poetry & Popular Culture blog — Rachel Dacus‘ contribution is also particularly stunning. The day I can get my hands on a gumball machine for Georgetown College will be a happy, happy day — if you have any suggestions for places to find cheap gumball machines, please let me know!
Until I can find a gumball machine to fill with poetry, I’ve started another project on Georgetown College‘s campus in the hopes of getting students interested in both reading and writing poetry: the Pawling Poetry Project, or P Cubed. I have a class of eight wonderful writers in poetry workshop this semester, and the Poetry Project started as a way to celebrate their very strong work outside of the classroom. I also wanted to celebrate the fact that poetry is work, and work which needs a supportive community to improve and to thrive. And so, with the help of my amazing department chair, who gave us space in the hallways and a brand spanking new bulletin board (which is the fanciest bulletin board I’ve seen in a while), the Poetry Project began. It’s an interactive poetry exhibit of sorts, and each week I post not only my students’ (and my) responses to an exercise, but also the exercises themselves; students are encouraged to stop and read, and take an exercise, and post their own response, anonymously or otherwise.
It’s a small start, I realize, but it’s a start, nonetheless — and even if one student passes by and reads the poems, and takes an exercise, and starts thinking that maybe, just maybe, they can free their poems from their journals, it’s worth it.