In November, the College of St. Scholastica was generous enough to fly me to Duluth to teach poetry breakout sessions to the local high school students. Ryan Vine, who’s been organizing the event for the past thirteen years, was the kindest, most generous host I’ve ever had. It’s almost impossible not to recognize Ryan’s work as a professor, but also as an active poet in a thriving community of poets. His introductions at both the afternoon event and the evening event sent chills through the crowd about poetry’s growing importance in our current political climate. His passion and loyalty to the art stand as a testament to poetry’s power not only to encourage us to be human, but to demand it. In addition to being such a wonderful host (he drove me all over Duluth showing me the lake, the childhood home of Bob Dylan, and a number of other amazing sites…he even fed me homemade pancakes at his family dinner table the morning I flew back), his poems (which I have written about here: Ryan Vine’s Ward Poems), continue to impress and inspire me. The generosity of spirit I find in his work coincides with who Ryan is, which isn’t always the case with poets I’ve met after admiring their work for years. This trip reaffirmed my belief in poets as a larger community. Largely because Ryan introduced me to wonderfully talented and dedicated poets: Dore Kiesselbach, John T. McCormick, Kathleen Roberts, Ellie Schoenfeld (the current P.L. of Duluth!), and the 2016 Rose Warner Series keynote speaker, Danez Smith.
Because I was too lazy (read: too stupid) and missed Danez Smith’s reading at Florida A&M University last year, I was totally unprepared for the relentless nature of what my former teacher Brooks Haxton would refer to as a “tour de force.” Danez often recited poems from memory, but unlike most reading I’ve seen, even ones where the poet rattles off their poems from memory (I saw Chad Davidson do this at Texas Tech in the early 2000s), Danez’s poems are often most powerful directly from the spirit of their creator. To say Danez’s a master of tone and speed and pitch is an understatement. Danez’s poems offer a variation of subject matter, simultaneously deadly serious and funny approaches, an array of emotional vulnerabilities, and brilliantly elaborate rhetorical swings that highlight the complexity of racial and sexual tension in 21st-century American life.
I would normally just link to his poems, but I’m including a link to a youtube video because, as I mentioned earlier, his poems are best (for me) when I experience them. Otherwise I’ll just filter them through my reader-brain and can’t pick up on some of the tonal shifts, etc. Here’s Danez Smith performing, “Dinosaurs in the Hood“:
After Danez’s early performance (for local high school students), I met with two different groups of students, who were all floored by the power of Danez’s work and inspired to create their own. I had each group of students pair off, ran them through a short exquisite corpse exercise, and then we shared our poems at the end of each sessions. As always the students proved remarkably talented (way more talented than they initially expected, or declared), and fortunately the magic of the exquisite corpse appeared (as it usually does), and the students retraced the process of the poem to see how they responded both indirectly and directly to the lines/images/phrases that they couldn’t see in the process of the poem’s creation. I loved the chance to work with the students, to be in a space where we could explore the power and importance of poetry together.