Tuesday, August 13, 2013

I'm Obsessed with Poetry Jams

I have an intense love of poetry jams. Spoken word poetry is all about mixing theater with the art of wordplay and those are things I adore. I have never forgotten the first time I saw spoken word poetry. I was fourteen and watching SNL. Usually after that, I tolerated Midnight at the Apollo, because I knew that once that was over, I was gonna get to watch Mystery Science Theater 3000, which was my favorite thing ever. But this night, between the R&B songs and comedians on Midnight at the Apollo, there was a young, white guy. I don't remember his name but I remember him; white t-shirt, scrawny body, carrying nothing to the stage but a piece of paper. And he began to speak and what came out was a bombastic, brilliant, funny poem about himself and the world around him. The audience (mostly black folks who raised some serious eyebrows at him when he took he stage) stood up and cheered and hollered and let him know that he was a bad-ass writer and performer.

I became obsessed. I pulled back my frizzy hair and sat down to write my first spoken word poem. It was about being biracial and it was called, "The Other" because when I took tests at school, I always had to check the other box, for my race and it always bothered me, being not enough of any one thing. I wrote it. I was so proud of it and it was terrible. If I have learned one thing over the years, it's that I'm a prose girl all the way. Pentameter scatters before me. Rhythm and cadence disappear.  But back then, I performed them with zeal. I was a biracial Eminem, all broad hand gestures and pseudo-urban affectation. My town didn't even have paved roads but I wrote like I was Tupac in the ghetto.

I gave up poetry when I discovered how much better I was at prose, but my love of theatrical poetry continues. Thanks to YouTube, I spend a lot of time having communion with writers. People like Taylor Mali Sarah Kaye make my heart happy and poetry jams fill me with child-like joy.Watching spoken word is like going to church. My sad little heathen heart loves having someone standing at the pulpit, up on the stage, making broad hand gestures and preaching  about love and sexuality and faith and technology. I have always connected to my fellow human through words and in this way, it becomes a kind of communion, a supping of the wine. They give the body and the blood and I consume in order to share their humanity. 

I want to share with you this little gem that I found on YouTube. This young man is Marshall Davis Jones. His piece of brilliant but it's a little too theatrical. I think if he toned it down a bit at the end, it would shine even more.  But here it is, beautifully imperfect and so full of wordplay and pathos and... truthiness that I needed to share it with you.

I am aware of the irony of posting this on my blog, but... I'm doing it anyway.

Get outside sometime. Enjoy the sunshine, the moon shine (or the moonshine), the hustle and bustle of your fellow people and remember that touch is best experienced with someone or something that can touch you back.

When the outside gets to be blinding and all the touching gets to be too much, check out some more fantastic spoken word poetry. 

 This is one of my all time favorites. Note to Self by Ebony Stewart. When I love the way love, I love on purpose.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

IWSG: Let Yourself Be Terrible

1st Wednesday of the month is Insecure Writers Support Group. Wherein I post about the difficulties and joys of writing.

This is an embarrassing post.

I was a very smart kid. I had a high IQ and they put me in the gifted program in school. I never had to work hard to be smarter than other kids, so I didn't bother working hard. I was a mental sloth. But a time came when I wasn't precocious anymore and by then, most of my peers had bypassed me because they had been paying attention and working hard and I had been coasting along with a big vocabulary and a poor work ethic.

It turned out that you can absolutely get by in this world with very little knowledge of things like grammar, punctuation, science and algebra. I have been to plenty of job interviews and never once have I had to solve a quadratic equation to get hired.Take that, seventh grade math teacher!

What I lacked in knowledge, I made up for by trying to be charming. Charm does a pretty good job of masking ignorance at a job interview or a party, but on the written page, charm is useless. My ignorance gave me away every time.

When I wrote the first draft of my work-in-progress in 2009, it was awful. Despite being an avid reader, I knew next to nothing about writing dialogue. All my previous stories were first person and in the head of the main character with no dialogue at all. I didn't know when to use commas, what an adjective was or even basic things like when to make a paragraph break. I'm actually still not sure when to use a semi-colon. My manuscripts tenses shifted with the wind and my main character drifted from first person to third with startling frequency. It was largely unreadable.

But I was proud of my ugly baby and too ignorant to know how bad it was. I gave the first couple of chapters to my friend and fellow blogger Jeannie. A week later, she brought it back to me with a wild look in her eyes and said, "I can't read this, it's making me nuts. You have to put paragraph breaks in it."

I knew so little about the craft of writing that I couldn't figure out where the breaks should go, so I went into the file and chose random places to hit enter. Yup. I had always been a very good report writer but I couldn't put together the concept of paragraph breaks in a story being the same as it is in an essay. When I got back my next draft from Jeannie, she was as patient as one could be when dealing with someone with so little basic knowledge.

Four years, several grammar books and one awesome writing group later, I am a much better writer then I was. I still struggle with adverb-itis and misuse of semi-colons but I can write dialogue like it's no ones business and I'm learning to edit myself in a constructive way.

 Last week, I wrote a new chapter and I shared it with my hubs. After reading it, he told me that it was the by far, the best thing I've written and that it's amazing how much I've improved. It was the best compliment ever. I am still warm and glow-y from it.

Why did I tell you all this? To tell you that it's okay to be a dumb-ass artistically. It's okay to not know how to do it and to do it anyway. Because the thing that will make you less of a dumb-ass, is practice. It's persistence. And it's a good friend who will patiently explain what the difference between tense and perspective. Thanks for that Jeannie.

We all want to be perfect writers and we want to sell novels and be validated. But you won't get good if you wait until you know it all. You won't miraculously become a Hemingay or an Austen by sitting on your ass. You've got to work. You've got to let yourself suck. Make bad choices, poor plot structure, one dimensional characters, boring sex scenes. Do it all. Be brave and foolish. Name a character something ludicrous. Change your tense halfway through the story. Have muddy themes. Don't be afraid to be terrible, because if you let yourself be terrible, while striving to be better, someday someone will tell you how awesome you have become.

Go write the best shit you know how to write. And then learn to write better. Perfection is unattainable. Learning to be less terrible is a lot closer to your grasp.