Haley Leopold, a Language Arts teacher at Springhouse Community School, recently posted a question on the Floyd Group’s Facebook page. She was looking for someone to talk to her class about spoken word, poetry readings and slams, someone who knows something about writing the kind of poetry that asks ‘Who am I’ and ‘Who am I becoming?’
As a writer who co-hosted a monthly Spoken Word night at the Café Del Sol (now Dogtown Roadhouse) for seven years, as someone who once won $100 in a poetry slam competition at the London Pub in Blacksburg, as someone who frequently writes poetry about family roots and the inner life, and as someone who has called writing poetry “taking my psyche’s blood pressure,” I knew Haley was talking to me.
So we set up a time, and I told my story to about 15 attentive students. I met a poet in the ‘60s, while working in a hip boutique in Boston, who took me to my first café poetry reading, I told them. It would be many years later before I found the confidence to share my work publicly, but that initial beatnik experience planted a seed.
I told the class about writing poetry as a teenager in my bedroom and reading those poems – inspired by the Bob Dylans and Joni Mitchells of my time – aloud to my sister. “If you think you don’t like poetry, you probably just haven’t found the right poet yet,” I said. “When you do and you resonate with them, it’s usually because you are both writing from the same tradition. Those are the poets that have the most to teach you.”
We projected a video clip of me reading “My Grandmother’s Brouge” at a Spoken World night on St. Patrick’s Day in 2007 and, in part, with an Irish accent (listen HERE). “My Grandmother came to America to be a servant … and then have 11 children for the Catholic Church / “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” Another clip was me reading at a Floyd County Moonshine library event from a podium HERE.
Some of the questions the students asked me included, how do I write when I’m not inspired, what is my practice, what’s it like to write about the hard stuff, what’s the difference between a short story and a poem and how old was I when I first performed?
I can’t really remember the first time I read poetry in public, but I knew I was never going to be able to memorize poems, like some of the best spoken word poets do, so I never thought of my public readings as “performances.” Maybe I first read at the Pine Tavern Open Mic in the early ‘90s, or at the Lake Arts Eden Festival (LEAF) in Black Mountain NC, where I participated in an open mic and was impressed by a talented spoken word poet who shared my last name: Redman.
I wrote a poem after meeting that spoken word poet and read it at a Poetry Slam class, taught by Virginia Tech’s creative writing teacher/renowned poet Nikki Giovanni. Then I read it to Haley’s class. A Black woman named Redman won the poetry slam / When I told her my name was Redman she said, “The people who owned us were Redmans from Virginia” / “Not my kin,” I quickly answered / even though I now live in Virginia / I come from a 2nd generation Irish Catholic, dyslexic, alcoholic line / There were no landowners or masters in South Boston in the 1800’s / not Irish ones anyway / unless you wanted to be king of your stoop …
Have the discipline to take notes whenever a phrase or an idea comes, listen for the authority of the muse, I told the class. You can always work on writing but having a voice is more important. Write like you talk. Some students seemed particularly interested in the progression of how I conquered a public speaking phobia enough to be able read in public.
I introduced them to George Ella Lyon’s poem, Where I’m From from the book Where I’m from, Where Poems come from. They used the template provided in the book to create their own poems. Some read them aloud. … I am from fresh baked lasagna / singing in the car / from Alagna and Cole / I’m from the fighting and crying / from grow up good and don’t do drugs … I’m from Floyd / a country town / but I’m not so country / I’m from tuna noodle casserole / presents under the tree / from the death of my father / I burn a candle on his day … read thirteen-year-old Blake (photo #1).
HERE is my Where I’m From poem ____Our World Tuesday