Best Worst Year: Episode 6 (or: People Get Ready)

So I started off the day crying in the shower–wait, come back! I know…it sounds bad–like Belle and Sebastian bad…like “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” bad (if you haven’t seen Roger and Me, do it and understand)…like Bridge to Terabithia bad…but hang with me. I’m listening to a rerun of Jesse Thorn’s killer podcast, Bullseye and he was closing with a personal anecdote about the Curtis Mayfield-penned song, “People Get Ready.” There was a turn of a phrase, half-heard, that stopped me dead still. It’s just the phrase, “faith if you join others in doing what’s right, the world will change around you.” Out of context, maybe it lacks the power it had over me–whatever. It’s a little bit of crooked smile optimism but it also articulates my Saturday night so well, I was full-on Tobias Funke in the shower.Saturday night I had the pleasure of emceeing a teen poetry group slam for Breaking Ground Poets in that loveable city of cities, Scranton, PA. Over the arc of the night, I was consistently met with passion, humour, and powerful performances by a handful of students who are not only joining together to share their art, but are courageous enough to meet the world with an open heart. .Remember when poetry was cool in high school? When you wrote between the margins of notebooks and social studies and were surrounded by classmates who treated you like a rock star, or better yet, like someone with something to say? No? Me neither. But here, in Northeast Pennsylvania, in the middle of coal mines and kegs in cornfields, a real group of students are pushing one another to create, share, and be bold. Sometimes bold is shocking, sometimes shocking is choc-full-o-sex, and sometimes that sex doesn’t know a cow is female for the simile to work but that freedom to take those initial steps into that space between hall lockers and open mics is a freedom not many have had the nerve to take, let alone step into that space of the stage–equally lit by a spotlight and crosshairs.

And I know there are a lot of you out there reading this saying “Damnit! Slam poetry has been doing this for twenty plus years!” …and you’re right. It has. So has rock n’ roll. So has hip hop. So has punk. So has metal… and poetry has been doing it for far longer than any of these…but when these words and actions finally reach out into the tributaries of the larger main streams, its full power is realized. Sometimes it takes twenty years–have you been to NEPA?

The small town, suburban teen is unlucky. The burnt offerings of social media and mindless television has made it harder to find the self. Too far away from big cities to sneak down midweek–(maybe a weekend escape at best), you are at the mercy of the retail culture of your town: a Starbucks, a Wal-Mart/Target, a Barnes and Noble, a Hot Topic, a Denny’s, and maybe if you’re lucky an indie comic book/record/book store. If you’re unlucky: a Super WalMart. There’s just enough filler and binding glue to keep you penned in–a comfortable cage. The carrot of college and weekends with suburban “party favors” can keep the appetite for change and growth low. Days grind along like a barista making a chocolate chip and peanut butter fudge mcchoketodeath frappachinoheartattack. And next thing you know Ol’ Jed’s a millionaire… and the next thing you know you’re 32, still ending up at Denny’s after midnight on a Saturday, wondering where everyone else has gone. If you’re lucky, you’re as unaware as Wooderson (from Dazed and Confused). If you’re not, you’re just flat out fucked. Kyle Kinane isn’t funny to you, and all your Pearl Jam t-shirts are two sizes too small…

Poetry changes luck like Joe Strummer changes lives.

What stirs the drink (Mr. October Reggie Jackson style) for the high school poet, is a community outside the school, and a few key instigators within the school who are sharp enough to tell the poet the world is bigger than study halls and gym lockers. It’s the ability to be validated, not understood mind you, validated that makes all the difference. A good teacher initially validates the art a student makes–I don’t think they seek to interpret it or value it in any other way other than stressing the merits of its creation. Granted, validation is the first step. You cannot expect a student to hear anything else BEFORE their work is validated. Validation is trust. It’s understanding the desire to be heard and understood. It’s not the act of understanding, it’s the act of listening.

I think many of us are too quick to relegate the student poem to the been-there/done-thatness of our own lives. We know this feeling, or at least, we knew it way back when before GI Joe had swivel arm battle grip and Michael Bay didn’t full-on reduce Transformers into a steaming pile of CGI dogshit. The problem is that we take our dumpster full of emotional baggage and try to load it into the overhead compartment of the student’s poem. It’s kind of like boarding an airplane in Manila–you see people with boxes held together with string, suitcases duct taped shut, bags with unknown liquids and smells all being crammed into a bin right above you while some middle aged Pinoy monotonously bangs against your armrest in a steady hip thrust you hope is tied to his optimism at fitting his package above you (His suitcase! Not… mind outta the gutter, people!).

We are not meeting the poem’s world with an open heart. We are meeting it with a heart which has spent the better part of three decades enjoying KFC Famous Bowls, deep fried Oreos, and the occasional McRib sandwich (when available).

Where’s the community there? Where’s the capacity for change? Where is the student poem in that space?

Katie Watkins Wisnoski gets it. She’s the teacher who lit the lamp for most of the Breaking Ground Poets on Saturday night…and it shows. A simple validation moves many of these students closer to a larger world and greater truth some of us may never get to experience. The amazing thing to me is that these students have worked so hard a building a community together that they don’t even understand how truly brave they are to the outside observer. I heard poetry Saturday night which stopped me dead, delivered with such raw honesty and conviction it served to remind me what it is that I do when I take to the page or the stage. I feel fortunate that my heart is open enough to meet the world on its own terms, even if that may be the world pouring from the hearts of high school students. We are never too young to swing a heavy honest hammer and we are never too old to be struck wise with truth and wisdom.

Jim Warner is the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared in The North American Review, PANK Magazine, Word Riot, and other journals. Jim received his MFA at Wilkes University and is a huge fan of both Breaking Ground Poets and the Bullseye Podcast. Follow Jim out of suburban Hell on Twitter: @whoismisterjim.

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