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A quicky with Thomas Sayers Ellis
Now that I’ve got your dirty, dirty attention, I’d like to post a quick comment about last week’s Poetry Out Loud competition in Washington D.C. which I judged with several other people, including poet Thomas Sayers Ellis and some guy who runs the Shakespearean Theater. If saying “some guy” reads a little harsh, then please know I didn’t mean for it to come off harsh. I meant for it to come off hateful. I’m pretty sure he is responsible for knocking out the 3 best poets of the night because they didn’t tick their T’s and role their R’s properly enough. Booo to you sir judge, boo to you! Can’t you leave the 1500s for 5 seconds and enjoy a good modern tongue, as lackadaisical to your ears as that is!? Ok, ok I take back “hateful”. It was his first time judging one of these things and I know that can be daunting. Let’s stick with “harsh”. I meant for it to be harsh, sir! And still boo to you sir one more fortnight ‘n shit!
It’s May 1st so I don’t have the luxury of writing this story in full (sad this month of incredible writing from everyone has come to it’s end), so this will have To Be Continued, which will hopefully force the Foundation here to invite me back. Do it!! Or else you won’t get to hear about Thomas and I and the White House and Rosario Dawson’s infuriatingly long legs!!
In short: The experience of a recitation competition was intriguing and at times incredibly moving, but overall it was ironically unpoetic. (Except for the impromptu performance of a poem during dinner by last year’s champion, the incredible Amber Rose Johnson. Wow. You could hear the carrots landing in my stomach it was so quiet while she spoke.) The judging itself had an austere attitude, breaking down the actual scoring of each young poet into 5 categories that included things like “annunciation and language” and “dramatic technique”. I really could have just gone with the last one, “overall performance”. We were instructed not to talk to our fellow judges. Not to “influence” each other’s judging. At one point I passed my new homie Thomas Sayers Ellis a piece of paper with a word written on it (The word was… an acronym for To Be Continued!!) to describe my feelings on the night. Promptly two women who worked for the event came up to us separately and wanted to give us a “reminder” that this was to be “independently judged without influencing each other’s decisions”. Clearly she must have read the note:
“DEAR THOMAS- DON’T VOTE FOR THE BROWNING KID. I DON’T LIKE THE WAY HE TIED HIS TIE. LOVE, THE JUDGE BEHIND YOU”
I kindly thanked the ladies for insulting our intelligence and continued watching the competition.
For the final round, the 9 competitors were narrowed down to 3. Now before I go any further, let me just say that all of the 9 kids have soul. All of them performed their guts out. All of them poured all of themselves into somebody else’s poem, then poured the poem back into themselves like a martini shaker, over and over again. All of them KILLED IT. But not one of the young poets with the most punk, the most unique voice or interesting cadence– not one of them made it into the top 3 (see my first paragraph of this post). It was upsetting.
After the winner had won, Thomas and I hopped in a cab To Be Continued!! We had some drinks with To Be Continued!! And talked to actress Rosario Dawson about Fracking and To Be Continued!! We drank fancy free champagne at The New Yorker Party and scratched our heads over the events of the evening. (Ugh! I just gave up two of my To Be Continueds!) Neither Thomas nor I could figure out how we really felt about the whole experience. Why so much emphasis on perfection? Since when has there been perfection in poetry? Isn’t poetry about our very imperfections as human beings?
In closing, I would like to encourage the NEA and the Poetry Foundation to broaden their approach to their Poetry Out Loud competition. To encourage uniqueness over perfection. To give their staff Valium before the show (JK, Steve Young! But perhaps at least half an Advil?) Help encourage future judges not to knock off points when a kid stutters the word Soweto. That stutter was intentional and spontaneous and from the heart, in the way that all poems are intentional, spontaneous and from the heart, in the way the very existence of Art is from the heart. If Poetry Out Loud could change up some of their structure, put less emphasis on emphasis and add some magicians to the show (a girl can dream!), this would be one hell of a TO BE CONTINUED…