“red is for the button you should never press”
by Daemond Arrindell
Teaching poetry to young people, for me, has always been about providing the students with tools, but not the tools you might immediately be thinking of–developing strong/stronger writers and a love for poetry have typically been secondary goals. Personally, my love for this art form did NOT have anything to do with school, and I grew up in New York City where you can’t walk a city block without bumping into an “artist.” The goal of utmost importance to me is presenting the students with a new tool for self-expression, another coping mechanism to aid them in making sense of, or deal with, the craziness that goes hand-in-hand with growing up.
When I first looked up the “web” definition of poetry years ago, I came across this:
“Poetry is an imaginative awareness of experience expressed through meaning, sound, and rhythmic language choices so as to evoke an emotional response.”
What is it that young people are known best for? Being emotional. So what art form is better matched for self-expression than one whose goal is to evoke an emotional response? Add to this that the act of writing is a wonderful tool to empower the creativity in others because at all times it is in the control of the writer: writers do not have to feel as exposed as they might in a group setting or in therapy. Once something has been said aloud it cannot be taken back. On the page, however, it can be put away, it can be shared, or it can be shaped into something new. The requirements for writing are minimal: a writing tool and a piece of paper. You don’t need a group or even a partner. The page doesn’t judge, the page doesn’t doubt, the page always takes whatever we’ve got to give.
Wordsworth defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings;”
Emily Dickinson said, “If I read a book and it makes my body so cold no fire ever can warm me, I know that is poetry;”
Dylan Thomas defined poetry this way: “Poetry is what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, what makes my toenails twinkle, what makes me want to do this or that or nothing.”
“Poetry is an orphan of silence. The words never quite equal the experience behind them.” – Charles Simic
“Writing a poem is like making an artifact. It is making something physical out of words.” -Galway Kinnell
I’ve worked as a counselor and youth worker and in crisis intervention for over ten years and one of the most important things to a young person is to be heard and understood. There is little more isolating in the world than feeling as if no one understands you or what you are going through. As such, a large part of the healing process stems from being listened to by someone, but then obviously part of the healing also comes from the sharing of the stories, the emotions, the pain.
Art is about bypassing the thinking/rational/literal/critical/judgmental side of our brain and saying what needs to be said–to address the things that don’t make sense and, through expression of the metaphorical and the imagination, to find the ways that they do make sense. So artistic expressions are paths to understanding. What is sympathy but empathy minus the understanding?
Music does a wonderful job of this. It can uplift, it can validate, and it can calm us (“music doth soothe the savage beast”). Bob Marley said it best, “one good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain.” It dulls the pain, but also can lull us to sleep or put us in a trance-like state. And if you take a look around at young people these days, it’s virtually impossible to find one whose ears aren’t surgically attached to their earbuds. And when a beat in a hip-hop song drops, the young people (and any of us who aren’t afraid to let ourselves be moved by its hypnotism) start nodding their heads. Nodding = agreeing = saying yes. Ask the young people about the lyrics and they’ll tell you what they love about the beat. But if we take away the beat and the music from a lot of mainstream songs, we are left with some very negative messages that I wonder how many young people would be singing along with or nodding their heads to if they just heard the words by themselves.
Typically my residencies begin with conversations about music. In my experience, music is like a gateway drug for writing poetry. Song lyrics say the things that we don’t know how to say ourselves and the melodies and beats have a way of dulling the pain. They soothe us. So I start a lot of the initial lessons focusing on music, especially hip-hop songs. Lyrics tend to use a great deal of repetition and as such get across some powerful messages. An example of this is the song “Bruise Brothers” by the Seattle hip-hop group Blue Scholars. The chorus follows:
The Blue Is For The Color Of The Collar Of My Mother
And My Father Plus The Scholars That We Be,
The Blue Is For The Nighttime Moon, Swingin’ Tune
Of Every Bluesman Singin’ What It’s Like To Not Be Free
The Blue Is For The Water And Sky
In The Middle Of The Fire I Burn To Find The Light In The Darkness
The Blue Is For The Color Of The Bruise We Use To Be Reminded
That The Body Isn’t Made To Be Timeless
The repetition creates a hypnotic effect. The students can’t help but nod their heads when they hear the lyrics and the beat together. The song itself references the meaning of the color blue to the group and what it represents within their lives. It speaks to hardship and pain and sacrifice and that beauty can exist within them simultaneously.
The progression then follows with a spoken word piece that engages the same tactic (repetition). In this case, a poem by Anis Mojgani, “Shake the Dust.” The words “this is for…” and “shake the dust” are repeated often in the poem. In a song, the repetition may be more about creating balance and rhythm, whereas in a poem repetition tends to be done to express different meanings with the same words. “Shake the Dust” means don’t let yourself be stagnant, take advantage of the world before you. “This is for” names various groups of people who the poem is in the name of, essentially saying that no matter what group you belong to, you always have the ability to grow and change.
The ability of spoken word poems to hit hard in places we didn’t know were there is astounding. In my own experiences with hardship this year, music was what soothed me at the beginning, but it was spoken word poems that spoke the words I didn’t have yet. Here are a few examples of lines from poems that I have taught with:
Derrick Brown “church of the broken axe handle”
we are the horror in the lord’s love poem
sing out your death rattle constant
sing out your questions with the force and mess of a dynamite stew
listen for an echo inside you
Buddy Wakefield “pretend”
pretend you live for a living.
pretend inside your skin you’ve got a friend who’s willing to give you everything you’ve ever wanted in exchange for all you’ve ever been.
Brian Ellis “letter from my voice”
Dear Brian Stephen Ellis, stop being afraid of the world,
Sincerely, your voice
The Suicide Kings “exit wounds”
…because dignity is the only thing that no one can give you but anyone can take away.
Anis Mojgani “here am I”
will it make me something?
will I be something?
am I something?
and the answer comes – already am, always was, and I still have time to be.
how we are hungry for the word to rise up from our dark belly, past the throat and teeth, one word to change or not change the world. it doesn’t matter which so long as our failures are spectacular.
Jack McCarthy ” substances”
…soon the only thing that will be left is poetry.
and maybe that’s how it was supposed to be
arcade of substances that seemed to ease the pain
but all you’re playing is whack a mole, you bop it here it pops up there
’til suddenly you stumble on the substance of your destiny
and understand at last that all the pain you ever gave the slip, was pain of not doing this.
It is poems like these that speak with passion and pain and realism that the students relate to. And in many cases they’ve never seen anyone let themselves, especially men, be so vulnerable, expressing emotions other than just anger so openly, for all to see. Talking about things that many of them have seen or experienced (addiction – instead of drugs, heartbreak/love – instead of sex, hurt and sadness -instead of vengeance and anger).
At this point the students have typically begun to open their minds more to the possibility of words. And it is here that we move forward into them finding their own words.
I believe firmly that a piece of writing is never finished until it’s been shared aloud. Which then makes it spoken word poetry. The spoken word is the beginning of a conversation. It starts with a sharing of ones truth and vulnerability in the rawest way possible. So yes, the act of writing poetry is a release, but if one then SHARES those feelings out loud, the release is even greater. Because it takes bravery and courage to step forward and be honest. It is a risk. One that might result in some pain and yet, the benefits of it are so powerful. John Stuart Mill said that, ”a pupil from whom nothing is ever demanded which he cannot do, never does all he can.”
Using the framework of repetition and tapping into the subconscious a bit, I instruct the students to:
1. Pick a color they love or a color they hate
2. Make a list of everything that they associate with that color (blue: blues music, sadness, sky, water, bruises, blue collar, etc.)
3. Using repetition (blue is…, blue is for…, my life is blue, etc.) they will write a poem describing how their life IS or IS LIKE the color
This exercise always seems to be a wakeup call for the kids that results in them expunging things that they hadn’t quite intended to. And no matter how quiet the group had been previously, the writing that they create from this prompt always ends up getting shared in large doses.
“Red is for the first grade nosebleeds, the warmth that flows slick as a blade of ice.”
“Red is the symbol of the west, red is for the button you should never press, for the blood we hold the dearest, no love, too little too late to say that you’re sorry, how you kicked me when I was down, this is bad for your health.”
“Black is for the stereotypes, the goth, the emo, the antisocial, the quiet,
black is for the ones that were hung, for the color of my mother’s lungs
black is for the hardships, the pain, my life, for standing out while trying to hide”
“Orange is an outspoken word that doesn’t hear and can’t be heard.”
“Black is the color of night, where the monsters hide, what I see when I close my eyes, black is all around closing me into a tight corner, black is the monster I become.”