Have you said your something yet?
At a conference last month, I conducted a writing workshop for foster kids. That’s not quite as simple as it sounds.
Some had witnessed the murder of their parents. Others had been emotionally or physically abused for most of their young lives, or had been forced to watch their mothers or fathers succumb the ravages of drugs. One young girl had been abandoned matter-of-factly by her overwhelmed mother: “She just drove me to this place in town I’d never been too before, and she pulled the car over and she said ‘Get out.’”
I tried to get them to write about something else, I really did. I didn’t feel equipped to help them confront their traumas—many were already working with people trained to do just that. So I came in with the shockingly naïve idea of treating them like any other kids.
But that’s not who they were.
Soon it became evident that their pain, no matter what form it took, simmered at the core of their lives. No matter how I tried to steer them toward light, they had plenty left to say about darkness. “Write about a time when you couldn’t stop laughing” sparked a poem that began, “One day I’ll dream about a time when I can’t stop laughing.” The most memorable smell was the stark smokiness of a father’s shirt as he entered a child’s bedroom, removing his belt for the nightly beating. The most memorable sound was a sister’s racking sobs as she was roped to a chair as punishment for not finishing her dinner. One girl’s most memorable sound was the first sentence she remembers her mother speaking: “I don’t want her.” The same girl told of eventually being raped so brutally that her vaginal wall was torn.
The words “vaginal wall” appeared in a poem written by a 12-year-old girl. The phrase was there, unflinching and accurate, just one phrase in the litanies of terse medical and psychological terms that help these children explain the hurt behind their names. When she read that poem aloud, two other girls in the room rose wordlessly and came to stand on either side of her. When the tears came, they moved their shoulders close so that she could cry into them.
I haven’t been able to forget those kids, tied so inextricably to their terrifying pasts, or that singular moment when a young girl crawled into her poem for fleeting solace.
In this space, we’ve been talking about the good and awful things about poetry readings, whether or not they’re worth our time. Kenneth says no. Kwame says yes. I say hell yes.
I start with that image of a pudgy, freckle-faced child stuttering out the words “vaginal wall.” She can’t think of a more lyrical way to say what she’s saying. I start with classrooms of 6th and 7th-graders, their poems peppered with pilfered rap lyrics, expletives and double negatives. Then I see them years later, spitting the later version of their lives into a hot mic, hoping someone in the dark recesses of audience will think, if not say aloud, “Damn, me too.”
I guess I don’t think about the words as much as I do the courage it takes to stand and say them. Granted, this is a bit of a topic stretch. Sometimes when we’re talking about readings, we’re talking about the superstars, their pockets stuffed with accolades and grant money, mechanically reheating their “greatest hits”; sometimes we’re talking dull, self-centered droners who couldn’t talk a cockroach away from a bright light; sometimes we’re talking about testosterone-fueled braggarts bellowing odes to their omnipotent genitalia, minorities pissed off about being minorities and bombastic babblers who never understand why people use one word when fifty will work just as well.
But I think that the first time every single poet stood up in front of a room to read, he or she stood up with the express intention of saying something, shouting out something about who they were, what they’d lost, what they needed. Some got distracted by celebrity, blinded by the limelight. Others lost their nerve. Panicking, many buried their something to say under mountains of adjectives or trapped it in measured lines of stilted rhyme.
What intrigues me about a microphone with a poet behind it—any microphone, any poet—is that you never know how close they are to saying the something that originally led them to stand and speak out loud. Granted, some poets are too far gone, and will never get back to that moment. But the person heading to the mic right now may be just one poem away from calling out, saying irrevocably, I am.
When he or she does, you want to be there. You’ll want to move closer, maybe offer a shoulder.
Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Incendiary Art (2017); Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), which won the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets; Blood Dazzler (2008), a chronicle...