Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Summer of Poetry Immersion by Daemond Arrindell

This was the summer of poetry immersion. I was involved in soooooo many venues for writing, performing, critiquing the art of writing and performance poetry you might say I had it on overload. You might say I became a living breathing metaphor, a freestyle waiting to happen, an edit in progress.

This summer I co-coached the Seattle National Youth Slam team and the adult National Slam team, co-facilitated a poetry and theater residency at Echo Glen Children's Center AND wrote three brand new poems for a show called "Up, When I Grow", a beautiful collaboration of music, poetry, and film.

This past spring I joined my dear friend and poet Denise Jolly in taking on the mantle of co-executive directors of Youth Speaks Seattle - the Pacific Northwest's premier youth spoken word program. YSS is well known for having some of the most amazing young poets and performers out there. These are young people who tackle the topics of identity, racism, sexism, gender, abuse and violence and many others on the page and then bravely take it to the stage. Here are links to give you a taste of the brilliance that emanates from these young people:

Dujie from Chris Wiggles on Vimeo.

Henry: Names from Chris Wiggles on Vimeo.

Dakota 2009 Grand Slam from Chris Wiggles on Vimeo.

ClaireJF (Invisible Man) from Chris Wiggles on Vimeo.

And while the level of talent is obviously immense, so were the challenges. We had one member of the team residing out of the area, crazy schedules, my co-coach and I were juggling the transitioning of an entire organization which had been run in very specific ways in the past - change, even when positive, is always a difficult thing. And somehow, we managed to make it work, through heavy and confrontational conversations, through hardship, through honesty. The work culminated in a trip for the team and coaches and a few mentors to the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam festival.

If you've ever been to summer camp and LOVED it - did NOT want to go home at the end of it, then you have a tiny idea of what BNV is. Imagine HUNDREDS of young people who are passionate about their art form from across the country and the globe. There were youth from Guam, India, England, the Caribbean and ALL of them eager to share their words and hear the words of their peers. I could spend days trying to recap and take account of all that took place at BNV, so instead I will say this: the brilliant youth we brought with us to this festival were changed by it. Each of them will remember their experience for the rest of their lives. Not just in regards to their writing and performance but in regards to the possibility for young people to make a positive impact on the world around them. Beautiful.

At Echo Glen, we had but 5-6 workshops to take a group of young people who had been incarcerated, many for violent crimes, and get them to write poetry and put on a show. Total, we had about 18 young people. And i have to admit, getting "buy-in" was NOT easy. Because honestly, what difference is poetry going to make to a 16 or 17 year old locked behind bars? Well, to quote Robin Williams' Mr. Keating from "Dead Poets Society":

"We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. ...you are here - that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?"

We provided these young people with an opportunity to speak their OWN truths about themselves - who they've been, who they are and who they want to be. They held themselves accountable, talked about the future in terms of things that they wanted to own but also in terms of what actions would get them there and what could get in the way. The final result was a script of their own words, an invitation into their world, to see them from a different view point than just a bunch of kids in orange jumpsuits who make really bad decisions. The final result was a work of art, was something none of them had ever done before and it was moving, honest and hopeful.

With the adult national slam team, I had the honor of working with an all-women team - Seattle's first. Tara Hardy, member of MANY Seattle Slam teams, a verbal powerhouse and founder of the Bent Writing Institute; Maya Hersh, alumnus of the youth poetry scene and member of last year's Seattle team, Rocky Bernstein, alumni of Youth Speaks Seattle, the rookie of the team, singer and vocal virtuoso; and Karen Finneyfrock, novelist, former slammaster, media darling and an incredibly versatile writer. This team was a powerhouse of grace and ... and I could seriously gush about this team til the cows come home. I know for a fact that I learned so much more from them than vice versa. The way that they took care of each other and grew in such a short period of time was so heartwarming. Especially because the team took on the goal of crafting numerous group pieces - something Seattle has never really done before.

Crafting group poems is not an easy feat and there are numerous ways to go about it: take an existing poem and divide up the lines amongst the poets, write a poem together, take sections of existing poems and weave them together or take an existing poem and bring in some background singing and/or sound effects to enhance the words/storytelling.

What was amazing to watch and participate in was the Seattle team engaging in ALL of these forms. In the end, there were five multi-voice poems. And there was something very significant about watching a team of four women take the stage each time it happened. A hush would fall over the crowd, as if they knew they were in for something different and special. Beyond that, The National Poetry Slam this year was a ton of fun. It seemed to lack the drama that sometimes gets in the way of the good stuff. The good stuff being the greater community of spoken word artists coming together for a week of art, competition and camaraderie. It's the Brave New Voices for adults - summer camp for poets. And we love it every year.

My summer came to a close with the show I performed in called Up, When I Grow - multi-genre, multi-voice collaborative show that wasn't quite theater and wasn't quite a poetry show. I DO know that our audiences raved about it and many said they had never seen anything like it, as well as this was one of the best shows I've seen in a long time.

All of the work in the show was original. Eight artists in total, two singer-songwriters and six poets, all writing and performing about the craziness of growing up. Strangely enough, every single one of the cast members had a moment over the summer feeling like what they were working on was crap and not worth anything. I guess facing our childhoods was borne to bring up insecurities and fears.

But in the last rehearsals it came clear that all of the work that was being brought was original, timely, poignant and VERY well crafted.

In the end, I performed two solos and a duet. The solos addressed my desire to be the first black Jacques Cousteau AND my initial experiences with the "N" word. The duet faced fatherhood and the meaning of fathers when growing up.

In the end, I received tons of affirmations and applause; 'wows', 'im so proud of you's, and my favorite "you need to be doing this more".

Which brings me back to the quote from Dead Poets Society - while I love teaching and coaching and facilitating to help others find their own words and truths, the most amazing gift poetry has given me is my own words, my own voice. I have been reminded of the need for me to contribute my OWN verse to the great and powerful play, which will go on no matter what. What will I choose to contribute? Keep your eyes and ears posted and you'll be sure to find out.

Daemond Arrindell will be teaching Spoken Word and Performance Poetry at Freehold beginning October 9th. For more information, go to Spoken Word.. To check out a sample of Daemond's class plus other Freehold acting classes, come to our Open House on October 8, 6:00 - 8:00.

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