Thursday, April 12, 2018

Youth Quake—Young Poets Shake It Up

Young adults and teens are forgeing a lively new poetry scene.

Young people are writing—and even readingmore poetry than in decades.  This defies expectations and many prophesies of doom—including my own—following the virtual disappearance of verse from high school curricula and the supposed mindless devotion of kids to their phones and other devices.  Young folks were suspected of being barely capable of assembling a coherent thought or sentence and too busy exchanging selfies and sexting to create literature. 
It turned out that poetry was so counter cultural as to be irresistible for many bright kids and all of that texting was sharpening writing skills while liberating them from formalities and conventional restraints.  Hip-hop and rap fueled a poetry slam/oral performance scene.
Venues where young poets can share their work are no longer limited to their school literary magazines and passing around spiral notebooks.  There are several on-line platforms of greater or lesser selectivity now.  And those poetry slams are putting kids on stage and often in YouTube videos that can go as viral a pop song.
Most of this goes unnoticed by those who get their poetry fixes from traditional publishers, little literary magazines, and musty library volumes.  That would be me.  But I have stumbled across enough to be deeply impressed and often moved.
For this round-up I have included a couple of young poets recommended by Teen Vogue which has turned out to be one of he hippest and most politically aware publications for audiences of any ages.  Who would have suspected it? These are slightly older, just out of their teens, but have already notched considerable accomplishments. Other poets were selected by skimming lightly through some of those other platforms.  Often there is very little information about the authors.  But this almost random sample should impress you, too.

Ocean Vuong.
Ocean Vuong born in Saigon and was raised in Hartford, Connecticut.  A grad of Brooklyn College of the City University of New York (CUNY) he as already published two award winning chapbooks the collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds in 2016, winner of the 2018 T.S. Eliot Prize.  He has also garnered a Pushcart Prize and other honors.
Aubade With Burning City
South Vietnam, April 29, 1975: Armed Forces Radio played Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” as a code to begin Operation Frequent Wind, the ultimate evacuation of American civilians and Vietnamese refugees by helicopter during the fall of Saigon.

            Milkflower petals on the street
                                                     like pieces of a girl’s dress.

May your days be merry and bright ...

He fills a teacup with champagne, brings it to her lips.
            Open, he says.
                                        She opens.
                                                      Outside, a soldier spits out
            his cigarette as footsteps
                            fill the square like stones fallen from the sky. May all
                                         your Christmases be white as the traffic guard
            unstraps his holster.
                                        His hand running the hem
of her white dress.
                            His black eyes.
            Her black hair.
                            A single candle.
                                        Their shadows: two wicks.

A military truck speeds through the intersection, the sound of children
                                        shrieking inside. A bicycle hurled
            through a store window. When the dust rises, a black dog
                            lies in the road, panting. Its hind legs
                                                                                   crushed into the shine
                                                       of a white Christmas.

On the nightstand, a sprig of magnolia expands like a secret heard
                                                                      for the first time.

The treetops glisten and children listen, the chief of police
                                facedown in a pool of Coca-Cola.
                                             A palm-sized photo of his father soaking
                beside his left ear.

The song moving through the city like a widow.
                A white ...    A white ...    I’m dreaming of a curtain of snow

                                                          falling from her shoulders.

Snow crackling against the window. Snow shredded

                                           with gunfire. Red sky.
                              Snow on the tanks rolling over the city walls.
A helicopter lifting the living just out of reach.

            The city so white it is ready for ink.
                                                     The radio saying run run run.
Milkflower petals on a black dog
                            like pieces of a girl’s dress.

May your days be merry and bright. She is saying
            something neither of them can hear. The hotel rocks
                        beneath them. The bed a field of ice

Don’t worry, he says, as the first bomb brightens
                             their faces, my brothers have won the war
                                                                       and tomorrow ...    
                                             The lights go out.

I’m dreaming. I’m dreaming ...    
                                                            to hear sleigh bells in the snow ...    

In the square below: a nun, on fire,
                                            runs silently toward her god — 

          Open, he says.
                                                         She opens.

—Ocean Vuong

Not Betty and Veronica any more...

Seventeen-year-old Ella Whiddett of Middlesex, England contributed this post to the British forum Young Writers.
The Spaceman
All his life, he dreamed of the stars.
He wanted to be amongst them;
Feel their effervescence deep in his bones
And the weightlessness of an entire universe.
The inevitable infinity appealed to his senses;
To be drifting in a place that has no bounds,
Only belts of crystal blue ice and clouds of pastel pink gas
And a silence that spoke to him.
The bursts of light, with their tails of fire, were his friends.
He bid them good morning by the first rays of moonlight
And good evening as dawn emerged from the Earth
But they occupied his thoughts every hour in-between.
He was not afraid of the dark,
Or the void that encircled it
For, as his great hero once so accurately put:
   I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.

Ella Whiddett
Teen Ink is a site that also publishes a monthly 48-page print magazine of the best recent submissions.  Here are examples of some of their most discussed recent verse.
American Dream
so this is where all the dreaming takes me
to a cold, empty reality
with sleep still in my eyes
shivering, confused, I must’ve overslept
now it’s time to wake up
one last yawn, then face the lies
I’m barefoot and the streets are rough
paved with broken glass
but that’s okay
’cause the land is flowing
with milk and honey
bread and butter
and justice
if you just keep on going ...
—Ivy S.  Loganville, Wisconsin
I used to believe that babies
were created from stars

when my mother’s belly ballooned
in the night air,

and I felt the pulsing
echoes of light

beneath my fingertips pressed
against her belly, imagining

that I was gazing through a windowpane
into another dimension.

My mother carries the ghosts
of two children in her arms,

and the lullaby haunts me
while I sleep,

dreaming of two angels
running barefoot across the heavens.

I would give them oxygen
from my lungs if I could hear

their two heartbeats next to mine,
something to hold onto when

my legs are trembling
beneath me.

Biology tells me about
chromosomal abnormalities,

but to me it seems more like
two stars collapsed into themselves,

millions of particles of light
exploded before I was born,

supernovas burning in the darkness.
Yet I’m still feeling the emptiness

where constellations should’ve been,
cradling me in their arms

—adriananoelle, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina


He said my hair was like the sun, 
And my freckles were like people, 
picking my blueberry eyes to eat. 
But just like all fruit,
It must be fresh, crisp, and produce tangy juices, 
To satisfy your hunger.
If i don’t live up to this, 
You’ll spit me out in a harsh, intense away about.
You won’t listen to my heart if it’s not your pace, 
and you’ll find a new piece if fruit. 

kaylaMatthews, Memphis, Tennessee

The College Union Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) tournament may be the Superbowl of youth poetry slams, but there are scores of local and regional events of high school and college students and urban youth in addition to slam nights at coffee houses an bars.


So much of the vigor of young poets comes out at poetry slams.  The performance, the intensity and personality of the performers is inseparable from the words.  Which makes it tough to represent in printed form.  Most of it is never transcribed no mater how many YouTube hits a performance might generate.  But for better or worse, this is a print medium even if electronically presented.  I urge you to surf the web, or better yet attend a live slam for the whole experience.  In the meanwhile, here is a great slam piece that was transcribed.  Like many slam pieces it was collaborative both in writing and performance.  Huong Le and Lilly Penick were both 17-year-old juniors who attended Gulf High School in New Port Richey, Florida in 2016 when the created this piece, ironically originally a creative writing assignment.  The teacher may not have gotten what he/she bargained for.

Education Shmedumacation
I’m so glad I live in America where I have a “free” education,
Although I’m sure that’s all I have to be grateful for when it comes to this system.
As a topic majorly discussed by the politicians of our great country, the land of the free,
Education is clearly a priority in our nation and nations elsewhere as well.
And because this subject is valued so highly by our society
I stand here today to tell you how much it sucks.
Oh, excuse my language, I mean, how much it displeases me to my core, my common core.

Now I ain’t saying we shouldn’t be edumacated
But I’m not sure I want to be educated under these corrupt conditions.
Somewhere between coming out of my mother’s birth canal and learning how to ride a bike,
My life was signed away to thirteen years of required education.
Required education full of standardized testing, useless lessons, and careless staff.

You would think that shoving information in your brain for
Nine months a year for thirteen years straight would be pretty useful —
I still don’t know how to do my taxes or how insurance works.
But that doesn’t really matter, right?
At least I know that the product rule for derivatives is vu’ + uv’
And that the Enlightenment philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau was a gigolo.

Despite learning these obscure facts,
Teachers still have limited freedom to teach in their desired manner.
They are bound by quarterly evaluations and Marzano’s models,
A process full of half-assed rubrics and mandatory lesson goals.
“What are you learning in class today?”
Oh, you know, just the basics of SS.912.A.2.1.

As the school year progresses, my motivation eerily resembles a negative exponential function.
I have been self-diagnosed with early onset senioritis with a cure that has yet to be discovered.
Administrators are too busy cracking down on tank tops and spaghetti straps to care,
Pursuit for academic success is going ignored everyday, but that doesn’t really matter, right?
I have watched substitute teachers come and go each year I’m in school
And I have yet to come across one that truly cherishes my education.
Temporary or not, I at least deserve a substitute that has had a proper background check.
Substance abuse, racial discrimination, you name it. I’ve had a sub that’s done it.

As students, we are told relentlessly how we should learn to take an initiative
And yet it seems near impossible to get any project approved,
Because apparently it’s too hard to hand us all the papers we need at once.
Yes, please, give me each paper of this 107-page document individually for the next two weeks.
Oh, I was supposed to sign on these pages I’ve never received?
Sorry, the bureaucracy of this school seems primarily communistic.

This barbaric system doesn’t just stop at the high school level.
You want to apply to a college you have a 4% chance of getting into?
That’ll be four meals, a diamond encrusted sock, and an eye.
And if someone accidentally hit the accept button on your application,
Tuition will cost you your dead grandmother’s far left gold molar.

It is now 12:52, the night before this poem is due,
And I have the urge to stab myself in the pancreas with a wooden spork.
My brain has been effectively pulverized into something reminiscent of mashed potatoes.
Mashed potatoes flaked with pleiotropic qualities, integrals, and a really hot John D. Rockefeller.
Hot-because-it’s-now-1AM not hot-because-I-want-to-bear-your-children.

So as you can see, there are just a few teeny weeny, itsy bitsy, miniscule flaws
Regarding the current state of our public educational system.
But because I am just a marionette in this terribly organized, mediocre, backyard carnival show,
What I say about the system that’s supposed to work for me doesn’t really matter, right?
Huong Le and Lilly Penick

Fatimah Asghar.

Finally, one last pick from the Teen Vogue recommendations.   Fatimah Asghar lives and works now in Illinois where she is a teaching artist at Young Chicago Authors.  But she has already had an international career. In 2011 she created a spoken word poetry group in Bosnia and Herzegovina called REFLEKS while on a Fulbright Fellowship studying theater in post-genocidal countries. She is a member of the Dark Noise Collective, a 2017 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship recipient and a Kundiman Fellow. Her chapbook After came out in 2015. She is the writer and co-creator of Brown Girls, an Emmy-nominated web series that highlights friendships between women of color. Her debut book of poems, If They Come For Us, will be published by One World/ Random House this summer.

For Jonylah Watkins, Who Was Shot 5 Times While Her Father Was Changing Her Diaper
When the bullets came,
gentle as a tickle
Her eyes, half the size
of her face, a wide open moon.
The surprised ‘o’ of her barely
lips, soft as an eggshell.
Then, the smallest of sound:
a maybe hiccup of her still
new laugh.
A baby is broken today, spilled
over the sides of her father’s car
like a runny yolk. Chicago, opens
its mouth to catch the blood, then closes
it: snap. Silence. A baby is broken
today and there is a funeral to be had.
My students, all the ones I love, are at school.
Or in their father’s cars, or walking
on a sidewalk. My nephew, not yet born,
sleeps quietly in my sister’s stomach.
Today the world is more full of babies
than usual. I see them everywhere.
In strollers, in coffee shops- their toes,
the size of my nail bits, curling and uncurling.
Their fat dimpled fists. I watch their fathers
place a broad hand on their pudgy backs
laughing over scones. They lift their babies,
these tiny kings and queens, high into
the air and smell the cotton.

—Fatimah Asghar

No comments:

Post a Comment