on teaching poetry

Some Thoughts on Teaching Poetry to Spoken Word Artists

First, I must tell you, I don't teach for a living. I am one of those writers whom many of you would consider as holding a day job, when in fact, my day job in public health I consider my career. It's beneficial to the work of writing to have a life and perspective mostly outside of academic circles.

Second, I am interested in emerging API and especially Filipino American poets and readers of poetry, in having conversations with them, inspiring and encouraging them along the way. I am interested in their stories of being thwarted by poetry (not getting Shakespeare in high school, and being made to feel stupid because of this), and finding a way to come to poetry.

In the capacity of visiting artist or lecturer, my interactions with students are brief and jam-packed. I meet many emerging writers of color who consider themselves spoken word artists. I read their poetry, and I see them perform. In conversation, they tell me about word choice, about struggling to contain and convey political messages, utilizing metaphor, irony, striking the appropriate tone. They consider whether it's important for the poem appear on the page the way it sounds when they perform it. In other words, they articulate to me their poetics. So I tell them they are poets. Some respond with visible unease. I tell them poetry and spoken word are the same thing. They respond, "Really?" As if they have never heard this before: Spoken word is poetry.

Think about it: before reading and writing were widely practiced in any society, communities converged as tellers or listeners of talkstory, which served as both entertainment and education. Sestina and villanelle come from oral tradition; epic poems were once recited to listeners from memory. This is spoken word; it is not a new thing. These are not radical or complicated ideas that I am articulating here. Encountering resistance by spoken word artists to what I have just articulated here, I have taught poetic forms with strict rhyme and meter constraints, and which arise from non-Western, non-European oral traditions. These forms include ghazal, the Malay pantun (ancestor of the modern pantoum), the Philippine tanaga and balagtasan. In balagtasan, for example, the composition of the verse is as important as the composition of the political argument, which is as important as the extravagant and convincing delivery of the verse and the argument. Similar to poetry slam, the winner is decided by the audience. This is a good opportunity for an emerging poet to learn how to balance between considering the page and the stage.

I don't know where the belief that spoken word is not poetry was bom, how it has been cultivated and propagated, but I do know that spoken word artists have been othered as the fictitious line has been drawn between them and the poets. When talking to students, I don't have the time to linger on where this cleaving began. Instead, let me refer to Juan Felipe Herrera's 2005 lecture, "A Natural History of Chicano Literature":

Your friends, and your associates, and the people around you, and the environment that you live in, and the speakers around you...and the communicators around you, are the poetry makers. If your mother tells you stories, she is a poetry maker. If your father says stories, he is a poetry maker. If your grandma tells you stories, she is a poetry maker. And that's who forms our poetics.1

This is a fairly self-explanatory statement that I try my best to impart to them. Poetry is not meant to be locked up in inaccessible spaces. Poetry is about paying attention, not just to the stories all around us, but also and especially to how these stories are being told.


NOTE

1 Juan Felipe Herrera. "A Natural History of Chicano Literature." September 19, 2005. Online video clip. UCTV. Accessed on April 1, 2009.


Reprinted from Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook, edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson, by permission of the University of Iowa Press. Copyright © 2010 by Barbara Jane Reyes.