We Are Poets

Well, I haven’t made it to the screening of this wonderful film today at the ICA – billed as ‘the final cinema showing of the release’, which I hope doesn’t mean of the film

It’s on sort of like in a minute. I wanted to write it up all last week, but I was largely in Moorfields, of course; and yesterday, but it was just impossible. Full-on day of Alzheimers emergency (all okay now, thanks).

I feel bad – I was going to review this film months ago. It’s a documentary tracking several members of Leeds Young Authors as they are picked to represent the group in a major international poetry slam in Washington DC, and as they write and learn to perform their material, and become a team, and go to Washington to the slam. It shows the slam, the coming together of similar groups of teenagers from all over America and beyond. We hear the poems of the other teams from all over, including a completely electrifying guy from Hawaii. It’s intensely joyous. Absolutely INSPIRING.

Truthfully, I was welled up through most of it, when I should have been taking notes, and came out pretty much unable to speak, so it wouldn’t have been a proper review… the kids, the kids! They’re just so great. I thought about the kids who didn’t get chosen to go. What did they do instead? And all the ones from all the teams all across America and the UK and all the other countries. For each boy or girl featured in this film there are millions more out there. And what about the kids who went the next year, and the next? Leeds Young authors is still going strong. That’s what I was thinking.

(But as you watch it, you grow to love these specific kids. They are wonderful.)

This documentary shares the creative process, the hard work, the context of their lives (I was very moved by the scene where their parents see them off in the car at the crack of dawn – so much hope and love there!); it depicts the simple importance of things that happen, and the ability that even a teenager has to make things happen; the strength, but also the perilousness of all this, the fragility of it.

We all know that talent and energy (while useful) are not what ultimately decides your fate. Even leaving out the obvious externals – opportunity, money, social contacts and support – you have to fight your way through emotional imperatives. Self-c0nfidence and a sort of iron hide are vital. You need tools. This film shows the emotional, family, social baggage some of these kids are carrying, and shows them learning to carry it on their own terms.

And the poetry!  You think, what a reservoir of brilliance we’re sitting on. Look:

How many grown up, ‘important’, ‘serious’ poets in the UK, with their books out from big important publishers, could muster this much energy, could throw so much colour and image and feeling into what they write, could memorise their poem like this, would perform it in the street?

This is about poetry, but also so much more. (This is where the idea of slashing arts funding reveals its stupidity.) Think what this guy can now go on to do. On a very quotidian level, we know he can work hard, remember things, give a presentation or a pitch.

I sat on a panel recently where ‘senior’ poets claimed to have no responsibility to anything besides their own inner workings and the poems they were writing. Their inner ‘cave of making’. The need for complete silence. Talking about slams and open mic events – the places where many people go to get their first start – one said, dismissively: ‘But bad poetry isn’t important, is it.’ I said: ‘Well it’s very important to the people who like it.’

Poetry is a social art form. What’s the point of it, without warmth and generosity, the sense of urgency, ‘or some other sign that people do not totally regret life’, as Frank O’Hara said? Poetry has a social function, and ‘We Are Poets’ shows us a small part of what this means. We Are Humans. Poems are for bringing the news of the ships, the grief of the king, stories from the next village, claiming our experience, the state of things. I can’t remember how it went exactly, but one line from the film is an American kid, ‘I don’t need to walk no tightrope, I know how tight rope can get’.

Without urgency, why compress the language down into these forms?

We judge the ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of a poem by its success in achieving this compression:

  • by the ability of the imagery and word choices to surprise us in a fruitful way
  • by its attention to the requirements and possibilities of the language
  • by its attention to sound, speaking, musicality
  • by its honesty and integrity
  • by its proportionality
  • etc

What we call ‘bad’ poetry is banal, full of cliché, clunky to speak, unrhythmical, or sometimes too rhythmical; it’s abstract, plodding; it tells you what to think; it has no linguistic structure, it’s like a blob. I’ve read my fair share of ‘bad’ unpublished poetry, and I can tell you two things.

  1. every bad poem is written by a real person, who may be an absolutely wonderful, vibrant, emotionally glowing individual
  2. the two poems on this thread deserve your attention and respect (and admiration).

Slam isn’t for everyone (I for example am a page poet, and I know it; I care about semi-colons). Teenagers talk (and write) about themselves, themselves, themselves, and their world is about a decade old. I did find, watching the film, that performance poems about your sense of personal power get a bit dulling after a while. I found myself wearying a litte of bad grammar, mixed metaphors, the way slam poetry always seems to be spoken so fast, and so LOUD. And so on. But you know what?

Who cares! The world bombards most kids. They’re in the trenches. They need their sense of power, they have to construct it themselves. They can’t get it by showing off how much they know about the Classics. They certainly aren’t getting it by being paid money and invited onto panels. Some get it in gangs. The kids in this film, and people young and old in a pub near you, are learning to build it – with their eyes, their hearts, and their language. They are exercising their right to occupy the world. And in some cases they are doing it with very good poems. I fail to see how yet another bittersweet slim-volume sonnet about an affluent middle-aged love affair, say, is more serious or interesting (though I’m certainly not saying it’s less so) than Joseph Buckley’s gorgeous poem at the top of this post.

The kids ARE poets. In technicolor.

I’m sure I’ve seen a trailer that featured the kids from Leeds, but now I can’t find it anywhere. You can read about them on the We Are Poets website. The producers are working hard to get this film a wider release into schools and youth clubs, and I think everyone who works with teenagers should see it. It validates everything we claim to value in education. Everyone interested in poetry should see it. My ex-fellow-panel-members should see it. And I hope Leeds University is showing it, especially as a couple of its subjects went on there. Mlle B is at Leeds now, and I want her to see it (she’s back for XMas, but writing an essay today). I’d love to be able to buy it on DVD…

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