Best Worst Year: Episode 34 (Or, Definitions)

You’ve grown up your entire life next to the train tracks. Same stretch of a mile and a half steel and lumber, running parallel to your life. All those mornings. All those nights. It’s a stretch of romantic ghost-dreaming which belongs to the monochrome world of Charlie Chaplin and celluloid generations twice, thrice, four times removed from your iPhone. The insistent clank and rattle hides a dead language. You know you should know it but yet its meaning is just out of reach. Late at night, when stillness is a temporary grace to teenage years, its refrain calls.

Maybe it wasn’t train tracks. Maybe it was the interstate. Maybe it was a nearby airport, planes passing by overhead. Maybe it was the hardwood court and the air above the rim. Maybe it was television and fire escapes in the summer. Each have their own dialect but speak with a common voice. Those of us who knew to listen for the poetry heard our voice somewhere in the chorus of noise and mechanical resonance. Life and connection–a destination carrying hearts above the flood of confusion and youth. If you were smart, or in my case lucky, you found something solid and real which you held onto as the rising waters threatened to pull you under. Maybe it was a hand from higher ground. Maybe it was the ironclad truth which comes from having wide eyes and open hearts. You hold on. You pull yourself out of the water. You make it, hopefully with the fire intact. You’ll need it to fuel the days ahead so far against the horizon you mistake streetlights for stars and fickle smiles for true love.

Whatever those poems were or whatever it was which kept us from drowning in the undertow, I heard its echo last week. Echo is a misnomer, because what I heard was not the faint decay from an original source but a roar which amplifies and rings in my ears with the bracing clarity of church bells on Sundays and twice as holy. It was my first experience at Brave New Voices and even now I don’t know if I can even fully articulate what I saw.

What I saw was forty eight teams from around the world come together not to slam, not necessarily to be heard, but to listen. A collective bardic yalp. A safe space to be. Hundreds of young hearts opened with a kinetic hope for change and understanding. The best damn dance party this side of a mid-seventies Parliament show. The poetry was as fresh as the voices speaking their truth. I think it’d be easy to dismiss the work, site unseen (unheard), but the complexity and craft these kids–ages 15 through 19–put on display over the three days were as evocative and sophisticated as anything I’ve seen come across my desk in my brief time as an higher education fancy pants or managing editor. John Ashbery said “We must travel in the direction of our fear,” and poetry is the heart’s compass–pointing due north into the core of conflict and truth. Meaning is a lifelong draw of breath and release. Think about the fresh discoveries of youth. Were you so aware of the scars forming–moreover–did you notice the hurt and wounded around you? I didn’t. I was barely breathing beyond a shallow asthmatic wheeze.

When three teens from Capetown, South Africa stand on a stage and perform a poem they cannot legally perform in their country, the hurt beyond your own hands is contrasted in stark relief. It was an eye opener for those, like the team from Tunkhannock, PA (the group I was there with serving as a poetry chaperone/mascot), whose reality does not include this degree of state-mandated silence from its citizens. Those poets were three of the bravest voices I have ever had the pleasure of hearing. I can’t get them out of my head.

When total strangers extended arms to comfort poets whose performance left them in the throes of a catharthis rich with ache, you realized how just the act of being present at Brave New Voice was changing the tapestry of our interwoven lives. We are sons and daughters of a thread–a narrative which knows its needle has been dipped in the blood of those who are silent only in the caesura of half-dreamt forget. Brave New Voices are a real family, and that’s not hype.

I can’t even begin to list the performances which reached out of a darkened corner of the stage to pull the crowd up in a collective higher ground–like New York’s shifting trio of transformative verse or Asheville, North Carolina’s poet who personified a keyboard’s blind witness to suicide. Or Leeds England with their hilarious poem about Definitions. Or Washington D.C. Or Denver. Or Albuquerque. Or Hampton Roads…

What I can speak to is Tunkhannock, PA’s Breaking Ground Poets. The five poets who represented this small town outside of Scranton made an impression at their BNV debut with poems as powerful on the page as on the stage. Coaches and judges came up to me, the students, and coach Katie Wisnosky and were consistent in praising the originality and craft of the students’ poetry. Like any poetry slam, the best written piece may not translate into the highest score, but if BNV is about anything it’s about listening to the poem (to co-op the Windy City’s jeer to judges). For once, the score truly didn’t matter. It was about the shared experience of listening to one another.

Sarah, Kerri, Angelo, Kyle, and Rachel reminded me why I started performing and hosting opens at places like Barnes and Noble fourteen years ago. I remember sitting on my porch with friends and local poets talking about how cool it would be to see a poetry scene grow and develop in a place like Northeastern PA–that whether the towns knew it or not, there were hundreds of poems waiting for pages and pens waited patiently to be made flesh by those looking for answers beyond their backyard. The community of writers was here all the while, waiting to take root in anthracite hearts and broken bottles. In small town ennui and the desperation of town limits. And here I am fourteen years later, sitting in a black box theatre on the University of Chicago’s campus listening to a girl from Tunkhannock tell us how “white sheets are freedom” and “people like us take oxygen for granted.” When she came off stage, we embraced and cried. I was so proud of her. How her voice was a reflection of the strength which comes from our capacity to be vulnerable in public. It’s easy to say you’re sad or angry or hurt or lost, but to be so honest about the depth of those emotions and your complicity in that hurt is space we rarely own up to in the mirror, let alone on a stage. That poem is the tremble in a flickering flame of loss I hope to one day be able to so honestly articulate.

It cannot go without saying that the students from Tunkhannock would not have the courage to speak their truth without Katie Wisnosky. One of the biggest takeaways from this past weekend is just how dedicated Katie is in helping these students find the core of their voices. These students aren’t a canvas through which Katie as cast her own love of poetry; these students are strong and strident throats screaming from a small town darkness given fortitude by Katie’s belief in her charges. I have only met a handful of people who care as passionately about providing a safe place for youth voices to grow and learn as Katie does. Moreover, she does not pay this dedication lip service. Just in the last year, Katie has brought Jon Sands, Lauren Zuniga, and Andrea Gibson to NEPA. This fall, Buddy Wakefield is coming to town. IN TEN DAYS, Anis Mojgani will be in Scranton. It is easy to say you are an advocate for poetry. Over the last fourteen years I’ve heard a lot of talk. Big plans. Big promises. And when push came to shove, big plans became quiet excuses. Like the saying goes, you know who your true friends are when you have to move or need a ride to the airport. You know who are the true arts advocates when they not only roll their sleeves up for the heavy lifting but bring coffee. I won’t even begin to go on about the hours, sacrifice, dedication that it takes…yadda yadda when it comes to Katie and BGP. Just come out and listen to her students. They stand on her shoulders and we are all the stronger for it.

So as this episode of Best Worst Year becomes Emerson, Lake, and Palmer in length, I will end with this: Go to Brave New Voices YouTube Channel and listen. Go to Scranton on August 25 and listen to Breaking Ground Poets with Anis Mojgani. Stay up late. Open your window. Listen for the train. Listen for the highway. Listen for the summer sky. Listen to the voices and ask yourself who stands on your shoulders?

_________________________

Jim Warner is the Managing Editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public Radio Program at Benedictine University and the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared in various journals including The North American Review, PANK Magazine, and Drunken Boat. Jim received his MFA at Wilkes University. His latest work: A Passage for Trumpet will be available later this year from Unlimited. All the proceeds from his chapbook will be donated to the Breaking Ground Poets.

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