No, this is not a dance club or live music performance. The establishment is the famed Nuyorican Poet’s Café and the event is the bi-weekly poetry slam. Throughout the evening, a group of 3 or 4 poets performs 3 different original spoken word pieces. They are given scores by randomly selected audience members (and booed or cheered accordingly by the crowd). At the end of the night, the highest-scoring poet walks away with “enough cash for a Metro card and a beef patty” - $15. The poets aren’t there for the money. They are there to share their words with a crowd that is thirsty for poetry – thirsty for wordplay, political commentary, love, righteous indignation, curses, rhymes, rhythm, tears and laughter.
Until I moved to New York, I had a vague idea of what live poetry was like – I had watched enough TED Talks and diligently studied my Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni and Langston Hughes. I had learned how to write poetry (there are no rules!), like really write meaningful poetry, by my 12th grade writing teacher, who is, to this day, the single most influential teacher who’s guidance I have ever been fortunate enough to study under. She would rail into me for ending that last sentence with a preposition.
So, I knew what poetry was, and I had had plenty of exposure to “great” poetry. But it was never my chosen medium when it came to expressing myself using words. I could get indignant or clever or romantic in pages upon pages of pages of prose, and I never had any desire or felt any necessity to delve into more poetic writing. By study, I am a journalist. I observe the world around me, I ask questions, and then write about it in as straightforward a style as possible. That’s what a journalist does. That’s what I studied and what I trained myself to do: Facts, quotes, maybe analysis, and never anything fluffy or opinionated.
Perhaps it’s something in the water – but once I moved to New York and continued to write my life in my journal, my words became much more poetic. I started taking in more and more poetry – reading it, listening to it, watching it performed live. All of a sudden, I could not get enough.
Midway through my year as a JV, someone read to me something that perfectly summed up my life’s philosophy as a writer and a journalist, in the form of a poem by Mary Oliver:
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it
Well, obviously, I thought. How else do you live life? But then I realized, maybe I hadn’t gotten it quite right. Maybe stories are sometimes best told as poems. After a few Friday nights spent at Nuyorican, I can’t imagine the stories told there in any other form. An essay can never convey emotions in the same way a poem can – especially not one spoken aloud.
I started to compose my journal entries in stanzas and lines rather than sentences and paragraphs. I found myself pouring more time into poetry than “serious” writing, and I found my poetry becoming more serious. I used to shy away from poetry because I would think to myself, I am not currently heartbroken, or suffering some great oppression, or at the moment in love, therefore I have nothing about which to write a poem (note the preposition intentionally not at the end of the sentence…?). Recently, I have come to realize that poetry is about life, not anything more or less, and I have more and more of that every day.
Recently, as a community night, my housemates and I wrote 8-word poems to sum up our experiences this year. While some of them struggled to write one or two, I found the blank page in front of me was not big enough to fit all the little 8-word bursts of life that my pen had created. There was a lot of love involved, but they were not romantic poems. They were my life.
As Robin Williams so prolifically said in Dead Poet’s Society “We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.” I firmly believe that to be true.
To quote a fellow Brooklynite/poet: O me, o life!
8-Word Poems re: JVC 2013-2014, Brooklyn, NY
ruined for life
they told us
we would have
i’ll ask you
about the food