I have been frequenting the Twin Cities open mic scene since 1997 and I have had the opportunity to hear some great work by both local and national poets, theater artists and musicians over the years. Some of it, in my opinion, could even be labeled as ground breaking. I think it was around 2000 when I started to hear a more formulaic poetry form at open mics and slams. I would hear this familiar formula when I traveled out of town to other states and here at home, in Minneapolis and St. Paul. At first, I dismissed it as a trend among new poets but then saw the formula spread to the work of more seasoned poets.
To be more specific, I started to hear the singular theme of ‘anger’ as the dominant topic in many poets’ work. I admit it even became a theme of my work for a moment. Of course, there is nothing wrong with angry poetry. That’s not the issue. The problem is – why is everyone writing angry poetry? Is it because that’s what’s hip? Is it because there is passion in anger and it’s easier to express than the delirious bliss of happiness? Perhaps…or perhaps it’s something else.
I have worked with thousands of students over the years and in all this time I have never had a student deliver poetry or writing that resembled my personal work. I have always been amazed at each student’s ability to create their own form of written expression. And young students tend to be the most creative because they have not yet been introduced to the influence of other poets.
I walk into classrooms with a bag full of ideas and no firm direction as to where we might go. It is always determined by the climate in the classroom and students to lead the work in the direction that suits them. I give a guide and starting point but I cannot force them to go down the path. I cannot make them write the way I want them to write. As a teacher, I encourage them to find their own genuine voice and that voice may change from day to day. The themes may vary from moment to moment; the mood may change at every line. This is where I found freedom as a young person. I was not good with rules and regulations. Poetry was a place where I could do whatever I wanted and I could actually make my own rules if I chose to. It’s only natural that this is how I work with my students.
Last year I got the chance to sit with some students outside of their regular class and I thought I’d ask them about the people who have helped them with their poetry. I was disappointed to find out that these particular students were actually told that their poetry wasn’t angry enough…and that they needed to make people mad or make people cry.
I talked to some of my peers about this and I was furious. Why would a poet who is teaching young people tell them anything like this? Then I jumped to many conclusions:
2. They shouldn’t be teaching poetry if they are not allowing the student’s voice to come through
3. They want to “create” poets who sound just like them because we poets come to narcissism naturally
4. They’re preparing them for slams so they are giving them the formula to base their work around
But these are all assumptions. Maybe none of them are correct. I’m still trying to decipher what is going on, but I can’t help but to think that there is some kind of corruption behind the whole thing. Yes, I’m being dramatic.
Maybe this seems unimportant and you’re wondering why I even care. Poets have mimicked each other for centuries. It’s nothing new. But the truth is, with the commercial viability that spoken word has right now it creates more poets (just like hip hop) which in turn creates more cookie cutter artists, more of the ‘same old same old poetry’, a lack or variation in the poetry, and more people jumping on the bandwagon because it’s the “in” thing to do. And I personally, need some inspiration.
I don’t want to hear the same poem coming out of three different poets’ mouths. I don’t want to only hear angry poetry.
I don’t want to hear people who sound like they had the same teacher (to the point where I can actually tell you who their teacher was). I want the genuine voice of the poet to come through, and while some people might think that you can’t determine whether someone’s voice is genuine or not, I firmly disagree. It’s all in the poetry. Listen carefully.