I asked my timely versus timeless question and the wonderful, generous, talented Patricia Smith wrote back.

“Timelessness is woefully overrated. Timeless poems should be appropriately noted, revered, analyzed, celebrated and tucked back into their slots on a seldom dusted bookshelf in clear view of the six or seven people who read them constantly.

I've been in the trenches--that is to say that I've recently encountered a class of surly and suspicious seventh-graders; an open mic audience that only wanted to hear poems about were hips and slavery; and a college class that couldn't (or didn't want to) comprehend the concept of the civil rights movement until I pointed out a mention in a rap lyric.

If the reading and listening community for poetry is going to grow, members of that community have got to stop pointing backwards. Granted, there's some pretty damned good work in that direction--and those of us who are already "consumed" by the genre are always going to draw upon those poems that teach the great lessons.

But our society is designed to snap every person firmly in the center of his or her own stubbornly egocentric universe. So a whole new crop of potentials, poets and audience, want to see those great lessons connected to something they can see, touch, cry for, dance to or gossip about. I've met more and more people who can't feel without a focus. And that focus needs to be rooted in a time and situation they recognize.

So 'timely' it is.”

Thanks, Patricia, for answering my question! For speaking up right away and lending your voice to my thinking. I see connections between what you wrote to me and the other things you’ve written on Harriet. Isn’t part of the pleasure of Slam Poetry the way in which the poem is happening and happening now? And, is it my imagination or does timeliness win a whole lot more slams than timelessness ( I found, in my short career as a slam poetry that mentioning oral sex helped a lot too)? Seriously, I think that Slam and other forms of spoken word are critical in reminding us of the voice in poetry. Not “the VOICE” but a human voice, the spokenness of all poetry (even when some poetry is (whisper, whisper) barely audible). I think this has to do with TIME because I think that part of what’s important in poetry is the feeling that someone, a real person, was really alive at a certain moment in time. In performance it’s easy to convince someone of this—you’re standing right there!—but poets have ways of doing this on the page, also, without the audience there in person. Maybe the moments in a poem that are particularly timely are like little slam moments or maybe a little slap—a connection between the reader and writer/speaker.

I hope, Patricia, you get your whole mouth back soon—all of it. You need it and we need it, need you!

Originally Published: April 18th, 2011

Poet and educator Rachel Zucker was born in New York and grew up in Greenwich Village, the daughter of novelist Benjamin Zucker and storyteller Diane Wolkstein. She earned her BA at Yale University and her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.   Zucker’s expansive yet lyrical poems interrogate and deftly...