Last week we held our annual Literary Festival at school. We had an amazing line-up (including Harold Ramis; 2-time Newberry winner, Gary Schmidt; the rock band, The Handsome Family; and sports writer, Melissa Isaacson). But we always make sure to invite at least one performance poet and, without fail, this performer is the overwhelming fan favorite with our students. This year that performance poet was Regie Gibson and it came as no surprise that Regie’s performance swept everyone off their feet.
Regie is an old friend who has visited my students many times over the past 10 years or so (he lives in the Boston area, but used to live in Chicago). So, I know how magical my students find his performances. But what is the magic behind a spoken word performance?
Partly, my students responded to a new voice – and an actual, real-life, present day writer. They also responded to the poem’s topics: “we be young, virile/sweatin’ passions/ya gotta experience to understand.” One student said she had never heard a writer talk about “the things that really matter to us.” Another said Gibson was “talking to us and not at us.” The same student, by the way, had giggled when I first suggested he might want to hear a poet read. “You mean read to us, like in kindergarten?” he said.
He was inadvertently on to something. Personal writing, and personal connections through writing, disappears the older students get. Writing about lower school classrooms, educational theorist Courtney Cazden calls this connection “sharing time,” and says lower schools may “still be the only time when recounting events from personal, family, and social life … is considered appropriate in school.” This must be one reason why poets-in-the-schools projects are always so well received. It is a legitimate sharing time.
After Regie’s last performance, a student name Jon, whom I had never met, asked if we could start a slam team at our school. Jon’s in a metal band and couldn’t believe spoken word poetry (without high amp guitars) could be such a profound way to connect with an audience. With over 4,000 students in our school, you wouldn’t think it’d be hard to recruit young poets. But with so many competing activities and with so little exposure to poetry ‘that really matters to [young people]” it hasn’t always been easy. But at our first meeting after Lit fest we have 4 prospects, including Jon. I’ll offer an update later.
John S. O'Connor's poems have appeared in places such as Poetry East and RHINO. He has written two books on teaching: This Time It's Personal: Teaching Academic Writing through Creative Nonfiction (2011) and Wordplaygrounds: Reading, Writing, and Performing Poetry in the English Classroom (2004). He earned his BA and MAT from the University of Chicago and his PhD from...