7 p.m. July 29----
My interest in poetry was reborn earlier this year in part by the suicide of Nicholas Hughes, the son of writers Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Plath also checked out by putting her head in an oven.
When Nicholas was in his 20s, Hughes told him this: "The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt....And the only thing people regret is that they didn't live boldly enough, that they didn't invest enough heart, didn't love enough. Nothing else really counts at all."
That's poetry to live by.
Then I picked up an anthology of poems by St. Louis native Frederick Seidel, who writes in measured but wonderfully cockeyed steps.
Earlier this month, before the finals of the 12th Annual Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival.
at the Chicago Theater, I had middle school students from the Chicago writers group Nuestra Mezcla ("Our Mix") interview the Illinois All-Stars, a group of writers age 17-19 who emerged from Young Chicago Authors in Wicker Park,
The half-hour backstage session was riveting.
Listeners hung on to every word........
...... I stood in a corner and thought how these young students are carrying on Chicago's precise passion for the printed word. They are dealing from the shadows of Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, Nelson Algren, Gwendolyn Brooks, Marc Smith, Kevin Coval (who hosted Brave New Voices in Chicago) and others.
The Chicago Theater was nearly sold out for the finals. Poetry slam teams competed from Bay Area, Ca., Guam, Leeds, U.K. and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The team from Santa Fe, N.M. delivered a tender musical poem to their Native American roots. The team from Hawaii won the competition for the second year in a row.
I wondered if slam poetry is as regional as America's music.
"There's definitely things that everyone touches," answered Illinois All-Star poet Nathaniel Marshall. "Performance wise, New York, New Jersey, D.C., has a dramatic, choreographed style. Midwest teams can be more quiet and retrospective, which is also popular in the Northwest. The California teams are kind of a mix, a little louder, more like the East Coast. A lot of teams from the south, particulary New Orleans and Baton Rouge are very musical.
"Chicago has a reputation where we focus on the page."
Check out the end of the all-stars "Great Chicago Fire" (also featured in today's Chicago Sun-Times). Parts of the poem were sung, some original lyrics were direct quotes from Billie Holiday's ballad "Gloomy Sunday" and others are original lyrics extrapolated from the song. All-Stars coach Kristiana Rae Colon said the poem was born in June and has gone through at least six drafts:
....."Dying for the money we spent
in 1871 to rebuild you
Bullets rip through dollar bill thin chests
of our children
who we take
to the river
and let their graves overflow.
We couldn't save you
like we can't save our Second City sons from death.
We question why you never said goodbye
as you danced.
(Billie Holiday lines here:) Angels have no thoughts of ever returning you
Would they be angry if I thought of joining you?"
All-Star member Ashley Hart explained,"We sat down and did all of our page work and made sure everything made sense. We wanted to make sure everything was written beautifully before we got into any real choreography."
Nuestra Mezcla teacher Nicole Bruskewitz asked the all-stars, "What's the best thing a teacher has done to help you write? A prompt or anything?"
All-Star Gabrielle Kelenyi, 18, of Jefferson Park answered, "The reason I'm here is because my slam coach from high school told me to write in defense of something ridiculous. Out came my ode to (rapper) Lil' Wayne."
Everyone in the room laughed and cheered.
"Teachers can say inspirational things," Kelenyi continued. "When a teacher says I am a good writer, that means a lot to me."
Marshall added, "When I was in sixth grade we had vocabulary sessions. At the end of the week for extra credit she let us write raps using our vocabulary words: battle raps (or slams). We had battles in the class." The Nuestra Mezcla students oohed and ahhed in approval.
Poetry can loosen up language skills.
Just read some of my past blogs.
"Poetry forces you to create an architecture out of your language," said Tony Trigilio, Director/Creative Writing-Poetry at Columbia College in Chicago, which co-sponsored Brave New Voices. "But it also forces you to be an improviser. That combination is great for any mode of communication, but especially for poetry as an art form."