As many of you know, April is National Poetry Month, which means most Americans pay no more attention to poetry than they regularly do. But last week at Newport High School, where I teach English and journalism, we basked in the power of poetry and wrapped up the third annual NHS Poetry Slam at a packed Friday Lunch Jam, our weekly open mic event on campus.
Out in the parking lot, I awarded the vaunted Whitman Cup (an ancient former bowling trophy I rescued from a dumpster and refurbished) to the victorious team, Cloud 9, and sprayed them with nectar from the poetry gods, meaning I shook up the sparkling cider and let it flow. I took a little taste from the cup, too, as I always do when I conclude this mad event, which I pretty much anticipate the whole year.
Christy and Asher won the MVP, the accolade for Most Valuable Poet, and thereby earned a bound reporter's notebook. They also don't have to take my super ball-busting Senior Honors English final.
We began on a Tuesday with 11 teams (four to a team) and stuffed my room with over 125 students each day during second period (the room's fire code capacity is 54). Frankly, after each round, it reeked not unlike a boy's locker room after a basketball practice, but so what. As I told one girl who complained, "That's what poetry should smell like."
Some of the teachers were really cool about bringing their students to the show. Others, well, not so cool. How you can't give up one period out of 150 or so throughout the year to allow students to watch their peers perform poetry during National Poetry Month because you have to prepare students for bullshit tests evaluated in a galaxy far, far away is utterly unfathomable to me. Shakespeare, Byron, and Walt are rolling in their graves for sure.
What performances! What throwdowns! The best of my teaching career. (See all of the Slam here.)
Sure, I grew tired of vapid pop culture references and white boys rapping, most of it self-referential and usually not all that clever, but the audience didn't seem to mind. And the point is: The kids got up there under the lights and gave a little honest and neurotic account of themselves for the rest of the world to see, feel, smell, enjoy, and perhaps relate to.
If only modern American poetry could do a little more of that, it might matter again.
And speaking of honest, neurotic accounts of one's self, here's the poem I wrote to open the Slam.
Moldy Peaches Roll Away the Stone
At dawn I drive to school in the Ken Kesey rain.
Rock is dead, deader than Elvis having a fatal heart attack on his upholstered toilet in Graceland while eating a ham sandwich and 72 different kinds of tranquillizers.
Now that's Dead.
And Rock will never rise again, not for this jaded middle aged man
with too many gray hairs,
too many memories of
three dollar covers
and afternoons of reading liner notes before listening to the album.
Oh look, on the seat next to me...
a mix CD from one of the fresh freckled faced Monster swilling kids at school.
Nice kid, but soooooo sad that he doesn't know the truth. He still thinks the tooth fairy is coming around with a college fund and Santa's going to bring him a hipster girlfriend.
Hey, you believe in democracy too?
Forget it kid. Rock died a million times but really went under three thousand feet of concrete guarded by corporate dragons when American Idol came along.
"Hey, Mr. Love," when you hear this new band...
Sure kid, some faceless, nameless, rockless, indiefied group of low-fi losers using a phone app to record and find their metaphors.
But he was such an eager little tyke, and made me a present of his music, kind of like a missionary giving away Bibles to penguins on a melting glacier.
I'll give it one listen.
Track one... boring.
Track two... snoozer
Track three... coma
But then... some savage feedback and three chords from hell and a jaded twenty-something's asshole... New York City's like a Graveyard...
by the Moldy Peaches.
I turn it up.
No more rain.
I feel angry.
I want to raise hell.
Roll away the stone.