What Difficult Things Sound Like

by Daemond Arrindell, Washington Middle School and Garfield High School

I’m a big fan of the work of Patricia Smith. An incredibly accomplished poet both on the page and on the stage, Patricia is especially well-known for her persona poems, where she takes on the voice of someone else and brings them to life through her own imagination. Two of her most famous are “Undertaker” and “Skinhead.” Both of these poems voice characters who are dealing with/facing violence in some capacity, whether it be the aftermath of violence or being violent oneself. Both poems give a powerful snapshot through the lens of a person whose voice is rarely heard. Teenagers are rarely heard from on serious matters such as violence, and many of them face it every day. When how they are affected by the violence they see or hear about is not voiced, an opportunity for healthy self-expression is lost.

In a book on poetry slam, I read about how Patricia stumbled into doing persona work with students of hers. She had a lesson planned out and no matter what she attempted she couldn’t drag her students’ attention away from a shooting that had happened in their neighborhood the night before. Patricia rolled with it beautifully. You have to meet the students where they are at if you want them to start reaching for higher levels. So Patricia asked them for their opinions on the subject at hand:

“How do you think the bullet felt?”
“What does the guy who has to clean up the blood from the crime scene have to say about the shooting?”
“What did the gun say when it was aimed at the boy?”

Suddenly, the students were faced with a way of expressing some of the more complex and intense emotions on the matter, and they had lots to say.

I have an exercise I love to do with my students called “Reverse Group Poem” that takes part of a statement such as “Poetry sounds like…” and requires the kids to finish the statement with whatever they see fit. I randomly call on them and everything they say is put on the board, and I do mean EVERYTHING. Silly, nonsensical as well as dramatic and serious. Including the “ummmm”s, the “can you come back to me”s and the giggles. All on the board. At the end the responses are read aloud in random or reverse order and somehow, without fail, a poem is created from their musings. Often we will come back to this exercise throughout a residency as a way to address a subject or topic (ex: Respect looks like… Abandonment feels like…Joy tastes like…) always focused more on description than definition. For whatever reason, violence and death had been coming up within the students writing in different capacities. I took a nod from Patricia and decided to meet the kids where they were at.

The prompt was really simple – “Death sounds like…” I had the students write for 15 minutes. And as morbid as the topic may seem at first glance, it was enlightening to read the results….

Death sounds like mumbles and prayers
an emergency room flooded with peopleeyes filled with worry and sorrow
suddenly you hear footsteps
Death sounds like
“May I have the family of “******” please?
Sounds like deep breaths and sweaty palms
it feels like the weight of the world balancing on your one heart
Death sounds like questions
-J.

Death sounds like the misty hallows night that calls malevolent creatures
Hearing it lowly whistling
as it strides across the dark plane leaving ice behind
Death sounds like a melody that comes as it pleases
like a flute being played to snatch your soul
-K.

Death sounds like a moment of silence, a bad dream, jail food
a long scary hall with no lights that never end
death sounds like the world coming to an end
like no emotions whatsoever
illnesses with no cure
death sounds like the screeching of chalkboards
buildings crumbling
black cats and bad luck
-M.

Death sounds like bullets flying and ripping through my torso
like young african american youth struggling to survive
on this place called earth where we have to be strong to survive
death sounds like a rapid heartbeat and doctors yelling “Leave the room”
death sounds like a shell once you put it to your ear
you feel free and tha’ts the only thing you can hear
-D.

Death sounds like a black box being closed
hard feet walking on autumn leaves
a door closing
never to be opened
tears falling
landing on soft green grass

Death sounds like
when the phone clicks
instead of a dial tone there is silence
something like wedding bells gone wrong

Death sounds like
long processions of cop cars
like the last page of a book being turned
-L.

And while they had lots to say in response to the idea of Death, there were also some pretty passionate responses speaking to the value of life:

Irreplaceable
If death were to ttry to take my spot
I would tell him that I’m irreplaceable
Wonderful
One of a kind
That taking my life would be
Unreasonable
Pointless
A stupid decision
So Mr.Guythatsgoingtokillme,
Tell me a good reason why.
-M

My Life here is mine
mine to live
I have a dream to pursue
a heart to give, a smile to shine and brighten the world
time to spear, a generation to creat
an idea to give
a soul to cleanse
a god to thank
no it’s not my time
my bucket list to complete
what I have to say now?
Not now buddy.
Ill see you in 8 decades

–D.

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