A former student, Tabitha Dial, now working toward a Ph.D., recently contacted me for help with her research into the role and function of spoken word for disadvantaged youth. I'm not a spoken word artist, in the strictest sense, though I have plenty of exposure to and experience with orality in literature, however one chooses to descibe this continuum of ancient arts. What follows are exceprts from the Q&A I did with Tabitha.
TD: If all the world’s a stage, then what? Who are you and who is everyone else?
CR: Merely players, each playing many parts over a lifetime. Bill S. said that. This analogy is elegant and complex, a perpetual motion machine of negative capability. Poetry we read or hear takes us to certain true places in the experiences of others, or if we author it, offers truths from our experience to them; either way we meet others in the middle of the stage and find their humanness is our own.
TD: Why does poetry, spoken word, help youth and the disadvantaged?
CR: Well, it helps many people, children to seniors, privileged to disadvantaged, because poetry runs some very deep channels of human wisdom. It affirms, finally, humanness, with all its shadows and light. It demonstrates how we’re different and the same all at once. There’s healing potential, so it can be very good for anyone struggling—and wiser people than me have noted that we are all struggling. Meanwhile, and specifically, young and disadvantaged people engaged with spoken word can find strength in solidarity with one another, and with people who are themselves actively transforming into better selves. Receiving affirmation and genuine appreciation from audiences can figure large in such lives, fueling choices toward growth, development, and self-actualization.
TD: How does spoken word help you?
CR: It helps me in the ways I mention directly above, and has for all my life. Also, I am fascinated by how ancient is this thing we call “spoken word,” joined to and sourcing all oral and written literary art and culture. It’s ancient and it’s current; it’s an unbroken practice inherent in all human history in all places. Language, practical and ritualized, is both a source and a vessel of human culture, and also its vehicle for exploration each new day. I think about these things when I witness a good performer using voice and body to generate poetry. As a writer and performer, I love performing from printed text for the unique alchemy of transforming it to spoken word. This is deeply good stuff to ponder and participate in, and it helps me in many ways, daily and substantively.
TD: What about the function of memory and the mind and spoken word among disadvantaged youth?
CR: I figure the mind is what the brain does. The brain, an organ in a biological matrix, is literally the core of us. Its function is described by various people as anything from electrical to spiritual, and you can argue all the flavors out of that and still not settle the debate. There are people far more qualified than me to speak of these things, as well as the neurology of memory. I have witnessed that it is typically psychologically empowering for a person to read, memorize, recite, or otherwise perform poetry. If a person has been beaten up, literally or figuratively, and has therefore a great need for identity, learning, affirmation, clarity, I believe spoken word—in context with other education and opportunity and support—can be part of a beneficial transformation. Other arts offer similar benefits. I’ve seen it work and have made a career as a teacher, helping foster such experiences for people.
TD: Are Denver’s needs for spoken word being met? How about the Front Range? The state?
CR: Cities don’t have needs, per se; people do. I’m not sure how to measure such things on the scale of city, region, or state, but I’d be pleased to see more people engaging with literary and performance culture across all these levels. Any time the need is met for someone, it’s a victory. More victories would be better. This work, and much that is related and foundational, goes on in classrooms all over the country, day in and day out. The workers in this field are called teachers. Our country is kicking the shit right out of them lately, particularly the ones who have the guts and commitment to work with disadvantaged youth, but they’ll show up anyway tomorrow and continue to do the work. I support all the teachers do in these efforts, and salute also visionaries like Denver’s own Catherine O’Neill Thorne at Art From Ashes, an example of someone giving so much to this challenge.
TD: What needs to be said that you haven’t yet said?
CR: When a person engages with poetry, language, performance, there’s a great chance they’ll be better for it. I personally feel spoken word works best when it leads to and becomes intersubjective with all literary art, to texts and the literatures of history, mythology, science, and other disciplines. Education is a huge part of building a person, and if spoken word connects a person to such opportunity, they can rise beautifully and permanently. Spoken word is part of a broad and interconnected set of practices that have tremendous value. I’m confident that as long as humans exist, these things will persist. So there’s work to be done. I love to see young people in training for that work, as they will replace those of us who presently carry the fire.