I woke this morning and discovered something extraordinary – not discovered, but was reminded of something extraordinary.
“Million’s Poet” is an Arab reality show that combines Def Poetry Jam with the prizes and glamour of a game show. Here, poet’s recite traditional Arab poetry and compete to win various prizes, along with the audience’s approval and admiration.
You can read more about it here.
There is power in reality television – I said it. There. And the article above does a rather good job explaining how reality television has promoted a new understanding of culture and possibility in the Arab world. Read it.
But this conversation leads me away from the stigma of reality television, of Jersey Shore, the Bachelorette, Real Housewives, and Cops. It takes me to a classroom in Denver. It takes me to something which I believe is fundamental to the art of writing – something which I force myself to believe, reciting like a mantra it within every scribble and rejected first chapter.
There is something brilliant in the ability to be left unscripted, to speak and act beyond the scenes. And to celebrate that chaos, the random moments of human inspiration – whether or not these moments are deemed worthy of viewership – that’s another story.
Writing demands that I believe that my individual experiences, the lens through which I view the world matters. My perspective matters. And my language, the stories I share, the memories that I hold, mean something beyond myself. In sharing these stories, these words, these experiences, I evoke not only my own power as an individual, I also evoke and celebrate our humanity – the ability to see, to hear, to share in one another’s language and to connect through our diversity.
I utilized the concept of poetry, specifically, slam poetry in remedial literature and composition classes for nontraditional students in order to teach and celebrate these possibilities. The majority of my students were between the ages of 40 and 50. Most had served in different sections of the military throughout their lives. Most had dropped out of highschool and since their service, had worked odd jobs in various fields to make ends meet. By twists of fate (and the collapse of the economy) they found themselves in my classroom. 11 weeks to explore, memorize, and internalize 200 years of literary history and English grammar and composition. The art of communication, the translation of thought into word into action.
The most difficult task? Convincing each of my students that the world of the written word was more than busy-work, that words held meaning, and that their ability to write was a gift, a powerful tool that granted them the ability to raise their voices and utlimately, be heard.
This is difficult. It is difficult to remember how powerful a single voice can be. It’s difficult to celebrate our power when that power is guised in textbooks and excel spreadsheets. It is difficult to accept one voice when it is so difficult to hear, drowned out by countless media and political campaigns.
This is where poetry, specifically slam poetry, came into play. To teach composition effectively, you must first convince an individual that his or her thoughts and ideas matter. This is difficult. This can seem nearly impossible. The next step is to convince an individual that, not only do his/her ideas matter, but that by writing those ideas down, by sharing those ideas and thoughts, he or she can impact the world around them.
It’s hard to teach. It’s difficult to believe. But it is true. Language is power. It provide us with the opportunity to redefine our reality, to explore it, question it, and even re-imagine it from within our own experiences. The art of poetics celebrates the diversity of the human experience. It evokes our infinite histories and unites our past and our future within the present moment. All it requires is a voice.
As a class, we watched countless performances, individuals daring their voices against that of a darkened auditorium. All the contestants speak their truths, use their images, evoke their past and in the process, realize their power and their potential.
There is something beautiful and dangerous in the mere prospect of being heard.
To write well we must first dare ourselves to break the sentence, to challenge the forces, voices, and powers around us. We must question, explore, and utlimately, declare an alternative point of view.
One of my students proudly declared, “I’m not trying to give you anything special. I’m not trying to entertain you. I was trying to pass this class. But now, I’m just trying to let you know what the world looks like to me.”
There is power in our poetics; the diversity of our experiences builds within our words and creates unity, beauty, truth. There is no one possibility – infinite. Grammar and effective sentence structures come later. The first step is to believe that our words matter, that they will be heard, and ultimately, that they will lead to something beyond themselves.
I strive to never lose sight of how rare a thing it is to be heard – how unique and how natural it is to connect with our humanity through language. To the Million’s Poets and my students in Denver, thank you for reminding me.