From the Mouths of Poets
- Poetry, as a literary form, is a relatively recent idea, yet weaving stories and thoughts in a concise structure that uses rhythm and sometimes rhyme is as old as time. Today spoken word is a popular, more democratic way for poets to get their work and words out.
- When the pandemic put a halt to groups performing together, dancers from American Ballet Theatre’s teen training program found a way.
The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School is the associated training program of the American Ballet Theatre, one of the world’s leading classical ballet companies. Founded in 2004, the school is named in honor of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a former board member of the ABT.
The JKO School follows a specific graded curriculum, divided by age. A children’s division instructs kids aged 3 to 12. The pre-professional division trains students from age 12 to 17. ABT Studio company prepares a select group of 17- to 21-year-olds for a career in professional ballet. Admission for most ages is by audition only.
The training curriculum combines elements from French, Russian, and Italian styles of training. It encompasses classical ballet technique, pointe, partnering, character, modern technique, variations, and pilates, and includes a wellness program focusing on dancers’ health. Graduates of JKO School have joined ABT, the National Ballet of Canada, and The Royal Ballet, among other premiere dance companies.
- Stage & Screen
Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores the inner lives of great, creative people. I’m Jim Cotter, and on this episode, “From the Mouths of Poets.”
Poetry as a literary form is a relatively recent idea, yet verbalizing stories and thoughts in a concise form that uses rhythm and sometimes rhyme is as old as time. Today, spoken word poetry is a popular, more democratic way for poets to get their work, and their words into the world. And the walls between traditional literary poetry, that’s usually only read, and slam, which is usually only heard, are slowly vanishing.
And, when the pandemic put a halt to groups performing together, dancers from American Ballet Theatre’s teen training program found a way to create, and perform new work.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
(Excerpt from Aleysha Wise’s “Things I Tell Myself About Myself”):
Things I tell myself about my skin: I like it this way.
Remember that time I questioned why God molded me out of tar and sky? Me neither. Remember that time I met that girl who thought bleach would lighten all the burdens off her back?
Most of us were probably first exposed to poetry on the page in a classroom. But over the past few decades, spoken word poetry has grown in popularity, bringing verse from page to stage. Today, performance poetry takes place in over 1,000 cities, large and small around the world. And YouTube gives anyone with a camera and an internet connection the potential for a global audience. But this isn’t just an evolution of written poetry for the digital age. It’s really a return to the fundamentals of poetry, the intense expression of ideas and emotions.
Shihan Van Clief: Once they see poetry and experience it, they’re like, “Oh, I didn’t know poetry could be this.” And it’s like, “yeah, ’cause you had the wrong introduction.”
Alyesha Wise: It’s an amazing art form. And it comes down to every detail—to line breaks, to how you look at somebody in your eyes, to the specific word that you decided to use at that moment.
Tracy K. Smith: We feel poetry all the time. You know, we feel it in music. We feel it, sometimes, in language. Yeah, we have an instinct.
Van Clief: But to me, poetry is a live phenomenon. It’s something you really need to see to experience fully.
(Excerpt from Shihan Van Clief’s “Family”):
So I remained an only child
In a house of cards that I’m waiting to be crushed by
Or paper-cut to a slow death with.
The fear of living in a house of cards is knowing the right gust of wind
can paper-cut you to death.
Shihan Van Clief has been writing and performing poems for three decades. He’s one of the founders of Da Poetry Lounge, the largest and longest-running open mic in the United States.
Van Clief: So you introduce people to poetry, most of the time in middle school, seventh, eighth, ninth grade, you know they read Shakespeare or Walt Whitman. And so when you start reading, and you don’t care about what you’re reading, you read it in a disinterested voice. And so it doesn’t make you want to know anything else about it. Because I think Shakespeare is dope, I think Walt Whitman was dope, I think they’re all dope. But there’s something from this to this that you get when you see it live.
Van Clief: So, spoken word allows young people to get in touch with their story and who they are, a lot earlier than some other traditional means, really.
Alyesha Wise is the co-founder of the Spoken Literature Art Movement and the former head coach of Da Poetry Lounge’s Slam team. Like many people, her love for spoken word began when she was young.
Wise: Homecoming happened. It was the homecoming pageant in high school. And I entered it and I decided to write a poem called “Homecoming”. And I don’t know why, I was just like, “You know what? I’m feeling different about my life now. I think I’m gonna switch things up.” I said, “I’m gonna write a poem about that.” About, you know, changing my life and being a better person. And I wrote that poem. And I cried up there, you know after the poem was done. Some of my family members were in the audience and that was the beginning. I wasn’t perfect, right after that poem. But that was the beginning of a new me.
(Excerpt from Alyesha Wise’s “A Story of My Love Affair With Prince”):
Tell me my voice is an ocean of violence.
I wanna know what it feels like to bloom, to have the stage salute you.
Tell me, Or don’t tell me at all.
Remain a secret I yearn to break
A vinyl leaning against my living room wall.
Besides, I will grow old
And you will always look the exact age you’ve looked since 1958.
My name is Wise, I am an owl.
Your name is Prince, You are a dove.
Perhaps, We can just hang out on the weekends.
Spoken word poetry didn’t originate in one place or time in history. Humans have used rhythmic, poetic utterances for thousands of years all over the world. Across Africa, tribes used performance poetry for education, entertainment, and ceremonial purposes. The Greeks had a sort of spoken word competition in their ancient Olympic games. In Arabic, the word “Koran” means “recitation.” It’s based on the belief that the holy text was revealed by an angel who recited it years before it was ultimately written down. The modern interest in written poetry that we read, rather than recite or hear, is relatively new.
Javon Johnson: Poetry predates the printed text. That’s just it, right? And that tells us a lot, right? This idea that people have been speaking poems, i.e spoken word, for quite a long time.
Javon Johnson is a poet and director of African-American and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. His book, Killing Poetry: Blackness and the Making of Slam and Spoken Word Communities, examines the relationship of contemporary spoken word poetry to written and academic poetic institutions.
Johnson: We build our schools, our publishing houses. We build awards for each other. We build our own structures that if…that has the possibility to be the things that we want them to be.
(Excerpt from Javon Johnson’s “Letter to My Unborn Daughter”):
You should know that daddy only knows two options.
He knows go hard or go home.
He knows two hundred miles per hour or burnt rubber stop.
He knows nothing in between.
You will soon learn that your daddy also loves this way.
You’ll have a hard time understanding how anyone in this world could ever call me mean.
“Not my daddy,” you’ll say. “He’s the kindest man in the world.”
Nowhere is the relationship between poetry and power clearer than in the United States. Around the turn of the 20th century, singing poets emerged in the U.S., traveling and trading poems for food and lodging. But the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s is one of the key inflection points in U.S. oral poetry tradition. Writers and thinkers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston planted the seeds of jazz-infused cadences, oral performance, and socially conscious subject matter that grew to be the foundation of modern spoken word. Like most artistic evolutions, that history grew out of necessity. For the generations of African-Americans building lives after slavery, poetry and broader artistic expression became a means of survival.
Johnson: In a moment when Black people were newly free, newly emancipated, and the country was asking, “What do we do with, the so-called, ‘Negro problem?’” Right? Art becomes a way to answer that, to push back, to say, “There is not a Negro problem. There’s a U.S problem.” But also to say that “We’re fine if we’re given access to,” but also on some level, “we can prove to you that we can do just as many creative things, we can prove to you that we are just as human.”
(Excerpt from Javon Johnson’s “Letter to My Unborn Daughter”):
Learn how to scream ‘No!’ and mean it,
Be as loud as the day you were fucking born and mean it.
I cannot wait to sing your first song to you.
If art is a way to prove power and worth in a society, spoken word communities have evolved to try to democratize that ability. While literary poetry became a hierarchical, guarded, academic pursuit, oral poetry became a decentralized response. A tool for the disenfranchised to express themselves on a level playing field. That’s why one of the core tenets of spoken word is that writers perform their own poems. Authenticity is essential.
Wise: And that’s one of the great things about spoken word is the vulnerability, is the connection. Even if somebody doesn’t connect to your exact story, they feel it in some kind of way. The look somebody gives you after a poem is done and they’re… They go, “Wow, thank you.” And we’re from like opposite sides of the city, or country, or world. And they’re like, “Thank you. I get it.” It’s like we’re all connected in some way.
Today, spoken word is a close cousin to one of the most widespread, most popular musical styles in the world: hip hop. The two art forms have a common ancestry. In the late 1960s, a group of Black writers, musicians, and activists formed The Last Poets and began releasing albums blending musical, poetic, and political stylings. In the early 70s, one of The Last Poets’ contemporaries, poet and jazz musician Gil Scott-Heron, recorded “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. A track that likewise mixed jazz, blues, spoken word, and activism.
Both Scott-Heron and The Last Poets are credited as the godfathers of hip hop and rap. A lot of early hip hop has much in common with spoken word. But the main difference is that hip hop focuses more on rhythm and rhyme.
Wise: Hip hop, you know how it’s gonna sound the next line. You know how the rhyme scheme is set up, for the most part. In poetry it’s like, especially in spoken word, you can pretty much do what you want with the flow. You can start rhyming, then all of a sudden, you can switch it up and not rhyme anymore.
Van Clief: With hip hop and poetry, I think they all come down to story. When they’re told… When they’re done right, it’s story, it’s a dope story. And, you know, rap just basically… Not basically, rap comes from the word from rhapsodize, which means someone who’s good with words. So I think it’s clear where that is. You know what I mean? Wording is important, so.
Wise: You don’t have to be a fan of hip hop to write spoken word. Most of my favorite spoken word artists grasp onto hip hop and are fans of hip hop. The wordplay that they choose, the way they move up there… You see how I just moved my head? It’s something that happens. It… There’s such a parallel between the two art forms.
But as the poet and rapper Sugar Tongue Slim, or STS, would put it, it’s difficult to be both at the same time.
STS: I tell people all the time, “Just because you do poetry, don’t mean you can rap. And just ’cause you rap, don’t mean you do poetry.” It’s just two different worlds. It’s like, you know, with the beat constraining you as a rapper, and then you having to use couplets all the time. Poetry, you’re free. You can go wherever. If you wanna obey the margins, you can. But most people don’t. And so, you know, it allows you to do more. But to understand how to do each of ’em perfectly, you have to really focus in on it. Like, when I’m focusing on rapping, like, if I’m working on an album or something, then don’t bother me about poetry ’cause I need to stay rap. But if I write poetry, then everything’s gonna change. Like, my whole mood is gonna change.
(Excerpt from STS x RDJ2 ‘s “Dice Game”):
Shooting at the stars, almost hit Mars
Tag the sun on the side, tryna see the Lord
Gimme 2, 3 a 12 and I’m gonna see hell
7 or 11 and I might just reach heaven
But if I could work it 9 to 5, or 4 to 10
But then I bet straight money, don’t go in for the win
Because spoken word is so much about a very personal expression of personal experiences, it’s odd that one of the most popular forms of spoken word, slam poetry, is judged and scored; it’s a competition. Well, that competitiveness is also what keeps it open and democratic.
Johnson: Slam is an oral poetry competition judged by five random people selected in the audience using Olympic style scoring from 0.0 to 10.0, encouraging decimals so as to discourage ties. Those five judges after hearing a poem will throw up their score, you drop the high and the low, you add up the three, thus your score from 0.0 to 30.0.
Van Clief: The people decide what is, and what isn’t, in regards to the art form, right? ‘Cause they support what they support. There are certain people who will be supported, others who don’t. And so that kind of becomes the… How it maintains its relevancy as the audience, kind of, does what it does.
Slam began in 1980 in Chicago when Marc Smith, a construction worker, decided to spice up poetry readings he was hosting by matching up poets against one another, like a fight. Since then the form has spread around the world. But the competitive framing still tends to reward the authenticity that’s foundational to spoken word.
Johnson: The one thing slam seemingly asks for is a perceived truth. And I use “perceived truth” because it doesn’t have to be truthful by any definition. It just has to appear truthful, right? That’s a really important thing; that slam wants a truth, right? Whatever the truth is, how… You know, it’s like, “Ah, that’s that person’s story? Who am I to argue against that?” And I think that’s important, right?
Wise: For the most part, with my more vulnerable poems, they’ve done very well, especially when I was true to myself. When I went up there really, you know, not thinking about the performance per se, but thinking about, “I need to get this out.” What I always remind myself, “Be honest on stage, because people see that.” And I’m not always happy when horribly written poems do well, but I do understand why an audience connects to that because they’re like, “Whoa, look at her, getting free up there.”
(Excerpt from Shihan Van Clief’s “Family”):
She wants to let me know
What’s going to happen when she passes.
And I don’t wanna think about the future,
But I anticipate its destruction.
See, in all my years on this planet,
I’ve never witnessed someone in a box lowered into the ground and then dedicated to the sky. So when I die, I wanna be cremated,
Burning up all of my imperfections,
And then have someone sprinkle what’s leftover,
Over someplace I’ve never been to
In hopes of inspiring someone, I will never know anything about.
Some people are uncomfortable with the competitive environment of slam. The literary critic Harold Bloom went so far as to call it, “The death of art.” But for the poets investing their time, energy, and passion into their work, slams and the broader spoken word ecosystem that has taken root around the world, are the opposite of that.
Van Clief: So we started Da Poetry Lounge for us to hear each other, and to support each other, and to get us through what we were going through. I think that Lounge is important because the consistency of what Lounge is and what it represents, gives people the feeling that even if they disappear and they leave, they can come back and know it’s still there.
Smith: Many of us are coming to the conclusion that it is… Or that there’s a large place, a place large enough to contain all of these different impulses. When I was a student, like 25 years ago, there was a big divide between academic poetry and performance poetry. Now there are so many poets who do both, that that anxiety, I think, is diminished greatly.
Johnson: So much of, like, early poets were trying to get into this sort of poetry literary world to prove our merit, to prove our value, to prove our worth. We too are real writers, not just people who rant on a stage. And I said to myself, “Why are we doing that? Why are we trying to prove our worth to those structures?” What I’ve found to be most valuable and most brilliant about slam and spoken word poets, which is the radical potential, does not lie in our abilities to prove our worth or our merit to these sort of frustrating structures. The radical potential is really in our ability to build new structures altogether.
Wise: Yeah, I think this artform still has a long way to go. I do. I agree with that. But at the same time, I believe that it’s in a very special place right now. It’s definitely changing the world.
(Excerpt from Aleysha Wise’s “Things I Tell Myself About Myself”):
I am not here for the non-believers.
I am not here for those who cringe
When they see me seeing all of myself.
This bodily prayer is strictly between my sight and the sun
And all the good folk
Who answered the presence of this church
With no other words on their tongue
When the pandemic forced the world into lockdown, there was collective shock, soon followed by what looked a lot like the five stages of grief, as defined in the 1960s by the Swiss psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Some moved quickly through this process. Others got stuck along the way. Those who found acceptance quickly, and could, began adapting the way they lived. Others, for whom human contact was essential to their work, struggled. If working alone from home was already your norm, this was less disruptive. But as the summer came to an end, some orchestras, theatre companies, and at least one ambitious group of young ballet dancers in New York City began finding ways to rediscover their bliss.
Charles: I guess, I was training to here and then ended up there.
Shui and Mei: It was a fun experience and I know that we are very grateful and, like, had a lot of fun doing it.
Sasha: This could be something that we could do instead, and keep ballet alive in our hearts.
Caroline: Well, I thought we would just, like, maybe perform it on the stage, or, like, in a studio. And I had no idea, like, it’d become this big.
These are members of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis ballet school, JKO. Co-founded by the late first lady, it’s the incubator, the pre-professional division of American Ballet Theatre, one of the world’s foremost dance companies. Many of its more recent graduates not only danced with ABT, but in many other prestigious companies around the globe. The work these future ballet stars created began backstage at the Metropolitan Opera House, ABT’s home stage.
Sasha: Around two years ago now, my friend, Audrey Molly, who’s also in this ballet, and I were just playing around and it was the year that Misty Copeland was performing Firebird. And then Charles would always play the piano in between our classes. And he saw us doing it. He’s like, “Oh, I wanna create music for that.” I’m like, “Okay, go do that.” And then he comes back two weeks later, with, like, a 20-minute long piece of music. At the beginning, we were all saying, “Charles, this is a joke. Come on, this is never gonna be a real ballet. We’re just kids. We can’t do it. And especially now, I mean, we can’t even go outside and ballet’s canceled.” And he really was like, “No, no. We can do this and we can make something.”
Charles: I asked people what characters they wanted to be. And then I took all of those characters and made a story. And then I sent it to Ava. And I told her what each character was doing in each song. And she choreographed the dances for each song. And then she sent it to the dancers who were doing it. Since we couldn’t rehearse in a studio, we rehearsed on Zoom.
Sasha: We decided that now we could use Zoom and different technologies to meet. So this is something that just completely evolved and something we’ve all been looking forward to every week.
Ava: So we have Zoom rehearsals and I have to run them, to show people the choreography and teach them the steps.
Charles: So the main characters are; The Waterbird. Then she has, like, a rival, and that’s Ava, the choreographer. And she’s called The Evil Duck and she, kind of, rules all the ducks in the story. Then there’s The Fairy. And The Fairy and The Queen Swan are sisters in real life.
Shui: Hi, my name is Shui-Ling.
Mei: And hi, my name is Mei-Ling.
Shui: But I go by Shui.
Mei: And I go by Mei.
Shui: And I’m The Queen Swan.
Mei: And I’m The Fairy Queen.
Shui: And my name means water.
Mei: And my name means beauty
Charles: So The Fairy turns Bird into The Waterbird and that’s how she gets the name. So the bird gets trapped by The Evil Duck. The Evil Duck kidnaps her, in the story, and then two raccoons find her. But they can’t rescue her by themselves so they go get me, who’s The Eagle, and I’m, kind of, like, the king of the land, I guess. So I have all the keys and all of, like, the knowledge. Then we go rescue The Waterbird.
But they could only make so much progress on Zoom. That’s when they decided to call in the grownups.
Charles: My grandma has put so much into this farm to make it beautiful. And like, why not use it?
Grandma Helen Chapman’s farm in Frenchtown, New Jersey, is a farm in name only. The animals here are her pets, family members, breakfast companions, rather than items on the menu.
Helen Chapman: This is Racket, and he fell madly in love with Leona. And my son-in-law is named Neil and his nickname is Cecil. So this is Neil and that’s Cecil.
And then, two dancers from ABT’s main company came forward to help. Luis Ribagorda, a member of ABT’s corps and a seasoned filmmaker, and principal, Sarah Lane.
Sarah Lane: They came from a really pure place in these kids’ hearts and their talent is just incredible, really. So those two things put together, I think it makes something really special.
Luis Ribagorda: And I remember the first time they talked to me about it, I was just so impressed by the amount of work and what they’ve created. I feel like most professional ballet companies, they haven’t even attempted to do something like this. I mean, it’s very difficult to create a full ballet. And for children to do something like that, I was so inspired.
Lane: I think that we can all learn from children. They see the world so simply, and we tend to make things more complicated than they really are. We want more, more, more all the time. And sometimes just to be grateful for what you have, and to fill your life with more of that simplicity, love, and gratefulness, I think we would all be better off.
Caroline: I think that just whatever you put your mind to, you can do. And just because we’re kids… Like Charles and Ava choreographing and composing the ballet, they were still able to do it just as well as any adults would. So, just anyone can do anything that they put their mind to. And they can make it as big as they dreamed of.
Charles: I guess when people have time, they can do amazing things. And if they care about a project, if they’re inspired by a project and, like, they can do it. We just put all of our minds together and made something really cool.
Today, this group of young dancers are showing the rest of the ballet world, and maybe all of us, that it’s possible not merely to overcome, but to boldly move from isolation to acceptance and in the process to find joy in dreaming, in creating, and being.